January 30, 2014

Your Brain on Neuroscience

In Silicon Valley's geek culture, creativity is currency.Curtis White

“We (the undivided divinity operating within us) have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and durable in time; but in its architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false.”

—Jorge Luis Borges

Freed at last from the limits imposed by religion, science has extended its ambitions beyond the debunking of Christian dogma. It has now turned its attention to another old competitor, the secular world of the humanities and the arts. This second front in the American culture war has its roots in the decades just after the Enlightenment era, especially in the quickly matured world of post-Enlightenment scientism led by “Darwin’s bulldog,” Thomas H. Huxley. It was Huxley who first sought to describe human mental characteristics, including emotions and social organization, as neurological aspects of evolution.

The recent works I will look at all contend in one way or another that now that science has finished with the last vestiges of religious thought and answered its last objection to the scientific worldview (“why is there something rather than nothing?”), they are free to investigate the artists and all of their delusions about human consciousness and the human capacity for creativity. After all, science contends, art has its own gospel of revelation—the quasi-spiritual experience of “inspiration”—and its own messiah: the genius.

Steven Pinker claims in his widely cited book How the Mind Works that the mind is a “biologically selected neural computer.” He writes:

I want to convince you that our minds are not animated by some godly vapor or single wonder principle. The mind, like the Apollo spacecraft, is designed to solve many engineering problems, and thus is packed with high-tech systems each contrived to overcome its own obstacles.

And this is just prelude to his later conclusion that art is a “biologically frivolous and vain” activity interested only in critical obscurantism, social status, and the tickling of the brain’s dopamine reward system (like cheesecake).

The idea that creativity is a problem for scientists, not poets, is frequently made in the New York Times “Science Times.” There we find the (often droll) attempt to mechanize consciousness and creativity by laying out its relation to areas of the brain and to chemicals, especially neurotransmitters. Of particular interest at the moment is the neuroscience of creativity. Some scientists now claim to know what parts of the brain are responsible for it, and, using fMRI technology, they can even show it to us in the very act of creation, the brain in genius mode, all lit up like a conch shell with a little Christmas light inside.

The problem is that they haven’t said a word about the most ordinary aspect of their work: what is creativity? Or, at least, how are they using the word? So:

“What are you researching?”

“Creativity.”

“What do you mean by creativity?”

“You know, creativity. We’ve found the part of the brain that is its origin.”

“Yeah, but what do you mean by creativity?”

“Like, you know, coming up with the answers to crossword puzzles.”

For example, in the December 7, 2010 issue of the New York Times, the featured science articles focused on “creative problem-solving.” Puzzles, one article explained, are about “more than mere intellect” (we don’t get a definition of “intellect” either). According to Marcel Danesi, professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto, “It’s imagination, it’s inference, it’s guessing, and much of it happens subconsciously.”

Such a claim should require a little unpacking. The study of creativity takes place near the intellect and in something called the imagination? And imagination functions in something called the subconscious? And buzzing around on the periphery of all this is a housefly called guessing? Such an account is as much like neo-Platonism as it is empiricism. The only reason we are open to such claims is because we don’t think to ask what these words mean, because the words are so familiar we assume that we already know what they mean. “Oh, sure, creativity, the imagination, the subconscious, go on.” Frankly, we the people have no clue what these words mean, not with any precision, and neither do the scientists.

Now, it’s one thing to say that these terms are a loose-fitting and very provisional organization of words, a heuristic cluster of notions intended to help us discern the outlines and force fields of this we-know-not-what that we call creativity. There are very real philosophic and social stakes in that discussion. But it is a very different thing to say that “creativity” is nested in among other parts of the brain and in the interaction in the brain of neurons and chemicals.

The real purport of such research is the following message, offered with a straight face and the driest possible wit, and wordlessly consumed by the general public: “The problem of creativity will find its truth in the scientific method. We can say this because everything finds its truth in the scientific method. We have not quite got it all down, but please rest assured that with patience and a lot of money we will solve this mystery. In the meantime, enjoy these pictures of luminous brain parts."

Deprived of its cynical bonhomie, neuroscience’s assumption that there is no need to justify—beyond the prettiness of it all—its claim that the brain is a machine is like the reasoning of an ancient army to a city it has overwhelmed: “Sure, we’ve broken every common law of decency, but we are vindicated by the Right of Conquest. As for the idea that you have a grievance, that’s quite impossible because, this may come as a nasty shock to you, but ‘you’ don’t exist anymore.” As I discussed earlier, for science the perspectives offered by philosophy, poetry, art, and certainly any kind of spirituality don’t exist. For science, the idea that nature, humans, and even formerly intimate things like creativity are all mechanical goes without saying. So, if you would-be philosophers or artists have a problem with scientists treading on your turf, or with their use of undefined terms and breathtaking lapses in logic, you’re out of luck. In fact, in most popular presentations, science is reluctant to acknowledge that the humanities ever existed, except as an embarrassment. They are no more than the residue of some long-defeated enemy: the ignorant past.

And yet, the claims by neuroscience to have the best possible explanation for that thing we call creativity has demonstrated enormous popular appeal in a series of popular books and presentations, some of which have been best sellers. Notable among these works is Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works (2012). According to Lehrer, the consensus among neurophysicists is that creativity is not something that comes to us from the outside (from Muses or from a magical “Eureka!” factory). As Lehrer expresses it:

[T]he material source of the imagination: the three pounds of flesh inside the skull . . . for the first time, we can see the cauldron itself, that massive network of electrical cells that allow individuals to form new connections between old ideas. We can take snapshots of thoughts in brain scanners and measure the excitement of neurons as they get closer to a solution. The imagination can seem like a trick of matter—new ideas emerging from thin air—but we are beginning to understand how the trick works.

This is recognizably the sort of popular science journalism over which the media goes doe-eyed with admiration. So deferential are these organs to such claims that it is as if no other credible points of view existed, or that the only other points of view, like religious faith, have already been so completely discredited that they don’t need to be mentioned. So riveting are the most recent technical advances in science that skepticism is unneeded and mostly unwelcome.

Nonetheless, there are problems, and Lehrer’s book is full of them. First, the language of Lehrer’s basic description of what he and neuroscience are claiming is riddled with unsupportable, even unfathomable, claims. The claim at the heart of the book is that creativity is “that massive network of electrical cells that allow individuals to form new connections between old ideas.” In short, creativity is rewiring. Now, it is obviously true that human brains created integrated circuitry and they created the wonder of microchips, but Lehrer and, from what I can see, most others in neuroscience and in the Artificial Intelligence community feel comfortable in reversing the relationship and claiming that, actually, the human brain is simply a reflection of the super-complex electrical circuits it has created. Unfortunately, it seems never to occur to these good people that the brain-as-computer is only a metaphor.

Metaphor in place, Lehrer is free to state things that would be laughable out of the context of his book. Lehrer states that scientists can “take snapshots of thoughts in brain scanners.” They can? Snapshots of thoughts? What kind of thought can have its picture taken? Sure, as Lehrer says next, you can capture images of the “excitement of neurons,” put them in the family photo album if you want, but that is not a thought, at least not when I’m thinking.

Lehrer himself exposes the problem with supposing that brain scans provided by fMRI reveal the origin of creative thinking. He writes of Mark Beeman’s research into higher brain function at the National Institutes of Health:

Beeman was now ready to start looking for the neural source of insight. He began by having people solve the puzzles while inside an fMRI machine, a brain scanner that monitors changes in blood flow as a rough correlate [my emphasis] for changes in neural activity.

A correlate. Not a “snapshot” of the thing-itself surprised in deshabille, just a correlate. But a correlate of what? That’s the hard question that Lehrer simply ignores. Is it correlated with another unseen part of the three pounds of flesh?, to something spiritual?, or to something that is simply unknown or unknowable? The fMRI provides a ghostly trace, not the Thing wriggling on the end of a pin. Lehrer wants to assume as fact that the mechanical origin of insight (“squirts of acetylcholine,” as he says later of the inventions of dream) has been found and that all the old mythologies—which, at least, had the modesty of knowing themselves as metaphors, as correlates—are dead to us. But the truth is that neuroscience is wonderful in the way that the Hubble telescope is wonderful. Its investigations into the structure and organization of the brain are fascinating, but it no more tells us of the origins of consciousness (or creativity) than the Hubble tells us of the origins of Being.

I wonder if that’s what Lehrer felt as he created his book: a squirt of chemical here, a little quiver in the old ASTG (anterior superior temporal gyrus), a flicker of electricity between the moving parts, and, voilá, a happy shower of gamma rays. Is that what he was thinking when he pulled himself back from his work, celebratory IPA in hand? Or was there a moment in which Lehrer suspected that the very performance of his book was an argument against its conclusions? Did he never ask, “Can this expression of my will, my production, my book, be a mere chemical squirt?” It is profoundly saddening, even more saddening than his journalistic sins, that he never once paused in order to encourage his reader to ask such a question.

*          *          *

Lehrer emphasizes that creative brain function is not just reserved for artists and “creative types,” even though he frequently mentions artists like Beethoven, Bob Dylan, and the poet W. H. Auden. Creativity is a shared human capacity. (No argument there.) But, like so many other books in recent years (in particular, Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life [2002]), Lehrer’s best examples tend to come from creativity as it works within corporations, whether Procter & Gamble, 3M, or Pixar. As a Fresh Air segment on NPR put it, Imagine (with its egregiously inappropriate association with the John Lennon song) is about “Fostering Creativity in the Workplace.” Lehrer begins his book by describing the process that led to the creation of the Swiffer mop at Procter & Gamble. Procter & Gamble accomplished their product coup, the revolutionizing of the mop, by outsourcing its creative needs to creativity specialists, the “envisioneers” at Continuum Innovations, a design firm in Boston and LA. Continuum CEO Harry West said of the Swiffer project, “They told us to think crazy.” They did, and they came up with “one of the most effective floor cleaners ever invented.”

This is not satire. No one is laughing about the absurdity of a notion of “creativity” that links Bob Dylan to Swiffer mops. We are truly meant to be excited about the liberation of creativity in the workplace, and we are certainly meant to be excited that leading the way is the ever-enlarging world of neuroscience that has set aside old illusions about the Muses and put in their place the softly glowing illumination of the human brain firmly held in its creative harness. One gets the feeling that for Lehrer the work of these neuroscientists is itself an example, maybe the supreme example, of discovery and creativity.

The logic of this science would seem to be this: because brain scanners can measure the “excitement of neurons” in the same parts of the brain for both artists and mop inventors, the activities of artists and mop inventors are the same so far as science is concerned. Best yet, science offers the possibility of learning how to engage and train these creative areas of the brain. In the “workplace” of the future, we’ll all be geniuses. The cutting-edge, high-def stereo system will be playing “Maggie’s Farm” at just the volume that neuroscience has determined to be maximally conducive to bubbling invention. The techno-hip will be circulating in the commons, freed from their cubicles at last, ideas flowing from them like colorful robes. Thus the ideal corporate ambience, where it need never be doubted that the neuroscience, the rock ’n’ roll, and the mops of the future will find a warm home.

But there’s something missing in Lehrer’s triumphant account. The polite way of identifying this something missing would be to say “social context.” The more agonistic way would be to say that for the last two centuries artists have hated mop inventors. Beethoven, one of Lehrer’s favorite examples of human creativity, seemed to hate just about everyone, and wrote his music against them, against his father, against Haydn, against “innkeepers, cobblers, and tailors,” and against the philistine nobility that paid his wages. In short, Lehrer either has never heard of or simply dismisses the role of social alienation as a driving force for what he blandly calls creativity.

Lehrer has nothing at all to say about the obvious fact that most historical change in the arts, the movement of art movements, has been social in character and not simply change for creativity’s sake, just for the pleasure of setting the old neurons buzzing, let alone for the sake of boosting a corporation’s bottom line. To read Lehrer’s version of things one would think that creativity happens simply because our brains have fun finding “solutions” and when they do find solutions they get all lit up like an Xbox action game. (Actually, it’s worse than that: according to Lehrer’s logic, the lighting up of neurons is the solution.) I’m sure that at Continuum Innovations, as at the hipper Silicon Valley ventures, the employees have dreadlocks and pierced tongues and tats and company-provided skateboards and cruiser bikes for lunch breaks. This fake bohemian geek culture acknowledges the essentially dissident character of art even while betraying it.

But the corporate types, the suits, are under no illusions about the bohemian substance of its “creatives.” Lehrer approvingly quotes Dan Wieden, founder of the advertisement agency Wieden + Kennedy:

“You need those weird fucks. You need people who won’t make the same boring, predictable mistakes as the rest of us. And then, when those weirdos learn how things work and become a little less weird, then you need a new class of weird fucks. Of course, you also need some people who know what they’re doing. But if you’re in the creative business, then you have to be willing to tolerate a certain level of, you know, weirdness.”

Of course, it’s not all about weirdos in the workplace. Lehrer devotes a chapter (“Bob Dylan’s Brain”) to music. Lehrer is particularly interested in the moment in which the folkie Dylan reinvented himself as the rock ’n’ roll Dylan. How did this transformation happen? Lehrer writes:

The question, of course, is how these insights happen. What allows someone to transform a mental block into a breakthrough? And why does the answer appear when it’s least expected? This is the mystery of Bob Dylan, and the only way to understand the mystery is to venture inside the brain, to break open the black box of the imagination.

The moment in question is the creation of the song “Like a Rolling Stone,” the hit single from Dylan’s album Highway 61 Revisited. According to Lehrer’s version of the story, Dylan was bored with what he’d been doing, trapped between his own public image as the writer of protest songs and the lame platitudes of Top 40 music. So, he retreated to Woodstock and began to let his unconscious do the work, from which emerged “Like a Rolling Stone.” Lehrer writes, “The story of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ is a story of creative insight. The song was invented in the moment, then hurled into the world.” The song would “revolutionize rock ’n’ roll.”

I have a simple question for Lehrer: So what? Why is it good to revolutionize rock ’n’ roll? Who cares? For Lehrer it’s just another instance of the human capacity for “insight.” It is also, as with the Swiffer mop, another example of “success”; the song leads to the creation of more songs by other artists, like Jimi Hendrix, that are popular and make everyone a lot of money. Why, people become famous!

The creation of the song is not about the history of rock, and not about the brain’s need for insight, and certainly not about being successful like the proud people at Continuum Innovations. Well, what should we say, then? Without discounting the deeply pleasurable and ineffable je ne sais quoi of Dylan’s musical self-invention, for me the song is “about” its formal freedom, its raw difference from pop and folk music. It is also about the thrilling invention of a self, this new Dylan, who can walk away from the wreck of the culture of that moment, taking his “fans” with him. In short, as Friedrich Schiller put it in 1795, Dylan’s song “models freedom.” Dylan proposes, “Hey, this is what freedom feels like to me. This is what being alive feels like to me. What do you think?” The song is a proposition, a seduction, and its triumph is that it was such a wildly successful seduction. In other words, Dylan’s music (especially, for me, “Visions of Johanna” and “Desolation Row”) argues, “Can you return to being in the world in the way you were in the world before you heard this song?”

For those, like Lehrer, who do return to the world, Dylan’s judgment is this: “Your sin is your lifelessness.”

All of the “real thing” rock bands of the last forty years asked this same question. The Dead asked it, the Ramones asked it, XTC and the Pixies asked it, Radiohead asked it, and the Elephant Six bands of Athens, GA, continue to ask it (especially Kevin Barnes of Of Montreal). The answer to the question is not necessarily a yes or a no. More than anything else, the question’s purpose is to create yearning: the recognition of our own dissatisfaction with things as they stand and the creation of the possibility of a future happiness. Because now we know, thanks to this music, something about what that happiness might feel like.

As Morse Peckham writes in The Romantic Virtuoso:

One of the most common themes of German Romanticism is . . . yearning. To the question, Yearning for what? We have already encountered the answer: yearning for a condition of existence that transcends the present one, more specifically yearning for a culture that transcends the failures of the culture then available.

But, for Lehrer, Dylan is just another famous example of a “creative problem solver” no different from Milton Glaser, creator of the insipid “I ♥ NY” logo. He throws out the social, ethical, and aesthetic dimension of art for a few full-color brain scans and the instruction: go to work.

Curtis White is interviewed in the Spring 2014 issue of Tricycle, available online now. If you enjoyed this article, please consider subscribing.


Curtis White is the author of the novels Memories of My Father Watching TV and Requiem. A widely acclaimed essayist, he has had work appear in Harper’s, Context, Lapham’s Quarterly, Orion, and Playboy. This essay is an excerpt from his most recent book, The Science Delusion, courtesy of Melville House.

Further reading: "A Gray Matter: Another look at Buddhism and neuroscience" | "'Neuroscience Under Attack' in the New York Times" | "Neuroscience Fiction in the New Yorker" | "The Scientific Buddha: Why do we ask that Buddhism be compatible with science?"

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
mahakala's picture

“And I imagine... with great pleasure... all the horrible stirrings of the nonmanifested to bring forth the scream which creates the universe. Maybe one day I'll see you trembling, and you'll go into convulsion and grow larger and smaller until your mouth opens and the world will come from your mouth, escaping through the window like a river, and it will flood the city. And then we'll begin to live. ”

― Alejandro Jodorowsky

margand1@telus.net's picture

and what now do we make of Dylan doing car ads during the half time show of the super bowl,,,,youre gonna serve somebody

Dominic Gomez's picture

Dylan doing car ads? Everything changes. Nothing remains the same.

Dominic Gomez's picture

"The 'problem' of creativity"? To believe that creativity is a problem is...problematic.