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article imageOp-Ed: New study — To be creative, shut down cognitive functions?

By Paul Wallis     Mar 16, 2013 in Science
Sydney - A study by University of Pennsylvania has found that the mind becomes creative when the prefrontal cortex, the “irrelevance filter”, is bypassed. Creative people may find this irritating but it’s an interesting picture of mental functions.
Science Daily:
…researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have shown that inhibiting this filter can boost performance for tasks in which unfiltered, creative thoughts present an advantage.
The methodology isn’t new. It involved finding different uses for familiar things like baseball bats and rolling pins. That’s actually a very good example of how the filter works- You know what these things are supposed to do, but to be creative with them, you have to go beyond your knowledge.
In this task, participants are shown pictures of everyday objects and are asked to quickly come up with uses for them that are out of the ordinary, such as using a baseball bat as a rolling pin. Participants see a sequence of 60 objects, one every nine seconds, and the researchers measure how long it takes for them to come up with a valid response, or if they are unable to do so before the next picture appears.
The researchers hypothesized that high levels of cognitive control would be a detriment to coming up with these kinds of uncommon uses.
There are a few possible qualifiers here:
Simply being unimaginative would be an obstacle.
People who are normally not creative would be at a disadvantage.
Those with slow associative logic wouldn’t do well at a speed of 1/9 seconds.
Degree of articulation of uses in 1/9 second would be slow.
A sense of humor could derail the responses although giving “valid” responses- Baseball bat/form of transport, for example.
Now a slightly annoying part of the study:
"The real takeaway," Thompson-Schill (Sharon Thompson-Schill, the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology and director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience) said, "is that when you give people a task for which they do not know the goal -- such as showing them an object and asking, 'What else can you do with this thing' -- anything that they would normally do to filter out irrelevant information about the object will hurt their ability to do the task."
Experiments to test such hypotheses have been aided by new ways of non-invasively manipulating neurons in specific areas of the brain, inducing a variety of temporary changes in perception and performance.
Matter of opinion here- In practice, improvisation, which is the use of atypical elements to do something different, requires a mix of cognitive abilities and creative problem-solving. The cognitive functions provide the references for the “how factor”, and the creative perspectives are the problem solvers.
Can’t say I’m too crazy about “manipulating neurons to change perception and performance”. (See Science Daily article for how this is done.) The ability to function is dependent on a much larger intellectual system than a neuron or so. Altering perception can mean a lot of things, and performance is likely to vary according to individual specifics. Attaching that to the processes responsible for the arts, engineering and science is a large leap of faith in a few too many vague directions for my tastes.
Now the meat in the argument
While the pedestrian form of cognitive intelligence “That’s a door” type of mental function is perhaps a long way from Van Gogh, I have to say that on face value the idea that cognition and creativity are opposing forces is in my view quite wrong. Cognition enhances creativity as much as it imposes a shopping list of knowledge.
I did a blog called Creativity- The ultimate survival skill in which I tried to define the role of creativity in human survival. The development of creativity in the prehistoric environment obviously wasn’t simple or easy. Apes became creative artists and tool-users in the process.
From this, I not-particularly-brilliantly (but hopefully clearly) deduce a symbiosis between creative skills and human survival. The observed fact is that the two functions have to work together. If you see a baseball bat as a baseball bat, you drag along with your thinking your knowledge of baseball, how the bat is used, what you’re supposed to do with it, and how to get its best value in the game. Your cognition makes it easier to use because you have that information available.
If you see a baseball bat as anything else, like a tool, an aesthetic object, a weapon, or some other form of use, you are bringing it in to the creative field, but in what context? Creativity as often as not has a working context. In this field cognition also has a role, creating new knowledge.
Another issue, ironically, is behavioural. The theory of manipulating behaviours has been around for quite a while. Originally, it was a horror/sci-fi theory, and was extrapolated into crank psychology for a while as a Svengali-esque version of “mind control”. The pseudoscience (hate that expression because it’s used by so many browbeaters, but in this case it’s a proven description) was that you could “control” something as complex as the human brain hardwiring with simple jolts of electricity. The effect was usually vegetative. The disoriented idiot was being “controlled”.
In my view, the whole idea of manipulating brain functions still has the stench of that hack theme of mind control. Why do you want to be able to control minds at all? What sort of environment makes you want to be able to control minds anyway? Whose problem is that? The original idea came from a range of long-since discredited brainwashing methods. It’s a hack idea. Produce some proven psychiatric benefits and fixes for anything that goes wrong, before you call it science.
The U. Penn. researchers are doing something quite different, but there are a hell of a lot of caveats in this field. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re quite likely to get a result you don’t understand.
In terms of creativity, there’s another massive roadblock to this approach. If you don’t have the type of logic able to manage a creative process, you’re not going to be very creative in fact, even if you’re prolific in doing things you wouldn’t normally do in practice.
Added to which you need to understand what creativity is, before you start tinkering with it. Creativity is not a simple process. Some might say that producing the Sistine Chapel ceiling art required more than a few volts of inspiration. Others might say that what’s called “creative” aka “a dash of color”, that infinite insult to art, isn’t really very creative.
If I’m right, and creativity is a basic survival skill, mucking around with a core skill isn’t doing anyone any favors. Every human being on Earth “makes” something during their lifetime for some use other than its normal use. Playing around with that ability has very little to recommend it, except for the ability to improve this extremely unimaginative/ ultra-dumb society.
The study is interesting, a good illustrator of a dichotomy and synthesis of brain functions and has value as a tool for analysis of creative deficiencies, even at this early stage. Let’s not, however, jump mindlessly to any view that creative taps can or should be turned on or off. The role of creativity in daily life is much underestimated, the functions of creativity are critical, and the parameters of being creative in any situation are huge.
Every single thing in your home is the result of some creative engineering or other operation. Every human thought is a synthesis of perspectives with creative applications. This is not a subject to be trivialized on the basis of tinkering-on- principle. Think, consider findings and- Be creative. Also define what you’re trying to achieve. There’s more than enough reasons to be very careful what you wish for- About 7 billion or so.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Creativity, creativity as a survival skill, neural stimulation, University of Pennsylvania, Sharon ThompsonSchill