Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


A conversation with Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg on Creativity, Neuroscience, and Technological Innovation


Dear Elkhonon, a plea­sure to have you with us. Let’s get out the gate by dis­cussing how are new ideas born — for exam­ple, how exact­ly did you first think about writ­ing your new book, Cre­ativ­i­ty: The Human Brain in the Age of Inno­va­tion?

Orig­i­nal­ly, I set out to write a book about how the brain deals with nov­el­ty — a long-stand­ing focus of my own research. But the more I thought about it, the more the sub­ject of cre­ativ­i­ty was com­ing up, so I decid­ed to tack­le nov­el­ty and cre­ativ­i­ty at the same time.

Do we need yet anoth­er book on Cre­ativ­i­ty?

We absolute­ly do. Cre­ativ­i­ty is not just an indi­vid­ual feat; it is embed­ded into a cul­ture which either fos­ter, sti­fles, or shapes it in a vari­ety of ways. And it is nev­er a strict­ly soli­tary process, since even the most cre­ative mind draws on the pre­vi­ous­ly accu­mu­lat­ed knowl­edge. So, in order to tru­ly under­stand cre­ativ­i­ty, we must inte­grate neu­ro­sci­en­tif­ic and cul­tur­al per­spec­tives into a coher­ent nar­ra­tive. To my knowl­edge, this has not been done before, and this is what my book aims to accom­plish.

I am par­tic­u­lar­ly fas­ci­nat­ed by the dynam­ic rela­tion­ship between over- and under­ac­ti­va­tion of pre­frontal cor­tex areas in the cre­ative process and dis­cuss it exten­sive­ly in the book. This is one of the most intrigu­ing and pos­si­bly most con­se­quen­tial aspects of the brain machin­ery of cre­ativ­i­ty.

What have we learned about the brain mech­a­nisms of cre­ativ­i­ty over the last five to ten years?

We have learned a lot: that cre­ativ­i­ty is not a mono­lith­ic trait; that is con­sists of many mov­ing parts and may take many paths even with­in the same are­na of human endeav­or; that it is not linked to any sin­gle brain struc­ture or to a sin­gle gene or even a small group of genes.

How do you define Cre­ativ­i­ty, and what can Neu­ro­science con­tribute to its under­stand­ing?

Cre­ativ­i­ty is often defined as the abil­i­ty to come up with con­tent which is both nov­el and salient. This, of course, is a very loose def­i­n­i­tion, lack­ing in pre­ci­sion. I guess, we need more cre­ativ­i­ty to under­stand and define cre­ativ­i­ty. One could argue that such a def­i­n­i­tion must be for­mu­lat­ed before the brain mech­a­nisms of cre­ativ­i­ty can be stud­ied, but in real­i­ty the rela­tion­ship is more cir­cu­lar: since under­stand­ing the mech­a­nisms would help us define the con­struct, and vice ver­sa.

What are the evo­lu­tion­ary roots of creativity…and are humans bet­ter at it?

To under­stand its evo­lu­tion­ary roots, we are bet­ter off start­ing by exam­in­ing the evo­lu­tion­ary roots of its build­ing blocks – like cog­ni­tive nov­el­ty. By doing that, we dis­cov­er that cer­tain fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples of neur­al orga­ni­za­tion have been con­served across species for mil­lions of years. Are humans bet­ter at cre­ativ­i­ty? This is a mat­ter of opin­ion and def­i­n­i­tions. Oth­er species have been able to adapt and sur­vive on this plan­et for much longer than our own species has exist­ed so far. One can argue that their adap­tive abil­i­ty is “cre­ativ­i­ty” of sorts.

How do biol­o­gy and cul­ture inter­act to enable (or inhib­it) cre­ativ­i­ty?

Let me quote Isaac New­ton, who famous­ly said: “If I have seen fur­ther it is by stand­ing on the shoul­ders of Giants.” This cap­tures the essence of the neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gy and cul­ture inter­ac­tion. The neu­ro­bi­o­log­i­cal attrib­ut­es of an indi­vid­ual mind, or a team of minds, dri­ve them toward a sci­en­tif­ic, artis­tic, or tech­no­log­i­cal break­through; but it is the cul­ture that pro­vides the con­cep­tu­al and knowl­edge base which serves as the point of depar­ture.

How does accel­er­at­ing tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion affect our brains and our future?

This is an excep­tion­al­ly impor­tant ques­tion, not suf­fi­cient­ly addressed in the exist­ing lit­er­a­ture and addressed exten­sive­ly in my book. The rate of expo­sure to tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion today is unpar­al­leled in human his­to­ry, and the rate is like­ly to keep increas­ing. This means that every mem­ber of our soci­ety has to absorb nov­el­ty all the time, whether one likes it or not. This accel­er­at­ed rate of expo­sure to nov­el­ty makes life incon­ve­nient in that we can no longer coast on “men­tal autopi­lots”, but it is prob­a­bly good for our brains and may con­tribute to a health­i­er brain aging in impor­tant ways.

Giv­en that, how should our edu­ca­tion sys­tems evolve to bet­ter equip young minds to thrive in that new con­text and not be over­whelmed by it?

I am not suf­fi­cient­ly cre­ative to solve this conun­drum, but the grow­ing inter­est in instill­ing foun­da­tion­al con­cepts and habits of crit­i­cal think­ing is encour­ag­ing.

What areas of cre­ativ­i­ty research are you most intrigued by?

Cre­ativ­i­ty and AI is one, and cross-cul­tur­al cre­ativ­i­ty research is the oth­er. In fact, we are launch­ing a project on artis­tic cre­ativ­i­ty in South-East Asia.

Please tell us more about that project. 

While work­ing on the book, I real­ized that the bulk of cre­ativ­i­ty research has been con­duct­ed in the West, and very lit­tle in non-West­ern cul­tur­al envi­ron­ments. But, as I argue in the book, the West does not hold monop­oly on cre­ativ­i­ty, and to under­stand how neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gy and cul­ture inter­act to enable the cre­ative process one must study this rela­tion­ship in mul­ti­ple cul­tures. So I approached sev­er­al col­leagues and togeth­er we decid­ed to study the mech­a­nisms of artis­tic cre­ativ­i­ty on the Indone­sian islands of Java and Bali, both renowned for an excep­tion­al con­cen­tra­tion of mul­ti­ple forms of artis­tic expres­sion and where I have trav­eled exten­sive­ly. In the book I talk about some of our expe­ri­ences and impres­sions so far, but the col­lab­o­ra­tion is ongo­ing; it involves sci­en­tists at Gad­jah Mada Uni­ver­si­ty of Yogyakar­ta, Udayana Uni­ver­si­ty of Bali, and major Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ties.

Thanks. You men­tioned your oth­er major inter­est is about cre­ativ­i­ty and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence (AI). Can AI devices and robots be cre­ative? 

If we define a cre­ative prod­uct as being both nov­el and salient, then the author­ship of the prod­uct shouldn’t mat­ter. So the answer is, Yes.

A decage ago you wrote a great book titled The Wis­dom Para­dox: How Your Mind Can Grow Stronger As Your Brain Grows Old­er. Is there also a Cre­ativ­i­ty Para­dox?

Per­haps, of a dif­fer­ent kind. It is pos­si­ble that the minds rec­og­nized as the most cre­ative in human his­to­ry –Leonar­do, New­ton, Ein­stein, and so on– may not have been the most cre­ative minds after all. Soci­etal appro­ba­tion is a nec­es­sary dri­ving force pro­pelling indi­vid­ual cre­ativ­i­ty and also its lim­it­ing fac­tor. There may have been some cre­ative minds who were so far ahead of their time that they were not appre­ci­at­ed, and instead were for­got­ten before soci­ety could catch up. I found this thought so poignant that I ded­i­cat­ed the book “to the anony­mous cre­ative minds who were so far ahead of their times that nobody noticed.”

The New Book

Cre­ativ­i­ty: The Human Brain in the Age of Inno­va­tion, by Dr. Elkhonon Gold­berg

  • Descrip­tion: What is the nature of human cre­ativ­i­ty? What are the brain process­es behind its mys­tique? What are the evo­lu­tion­ary roots of cre­ativ­i­ty? How does cul­ture help shape indi­vid­ual cre­ativ­i­ty? Cre­ativ­i­ty: The Human Brain in the Age of Inno­va­tion by Elkhonon Gold­berg is arguably the first ever book to address these and oth­er ques­tions in a way that is both rig­or­ous and engag­ing, demys­ti­fy­ing human cre­ativ­i­ty for the gen­er­al pub­lic. The syn­the­sis of neu­ro­science and the human­i­ties is a unique fea­ture of the book, mak­ing it of inter­est to an unusu­al­ly broad range of read­er­ship. Draw­ing on a num­ber of cut­ting-edge dis­cov­er­ies from brain research as well as on his own insights as a neu­ro­sci­en­tist and neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist, Gold­berg inte­grates them with a wide-rang­ing dis­cus­sion of his­to­ry, cul­ture, and evo­lu­tion to arrive at an orig­i­nal, com­pelling, and at times provoca­tive under­stand­ing of the nature of human cre­ativ­i­ty. To make his argu­ment, Gold­berg dis­cuss­es the ori­gins of lan­guage, the nature of sev­er­al neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­or­ders, ani­mal cog­ni­tion, vir­tu­al real­i­ty, and even arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence. In the process, he takes the read­er to dif­fer­ent times and places, from antiq­ui­ty to the future, and from West­ern Europe to South-East Asia. He makes bold pre­dic­tions about the future direc­tions of cre­ativ­i­ty and inno­va­tion in soci­ety, their mul­ti­ple bio­log­i­cal and cul­tur­al roots and expres­sions, about how they will shape soci­ety for gen­er­a­tions to come, and even how they will change the ways the human brain devel­ops and ages.

The Book in Context

Leave a Reply...

Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Reply

Categories: Author Speaks Series, Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

About SharpBrains

As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

Search in our archives

Follow us and Engage via…

RSS Feed

Watch All Recordings Now (40+ Speakers, 12+ Hours)