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

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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

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