Tuesday, October 6, 2015

What Is Creativity? - 21

I'm still working through Dr. Davidson's book, Now You See It, (See "What is Creativity? - 19"), which has reminded me of mirror neurons.

This subset of neurons was first discovered in the brain during studies of eye-hand coordination. Specific neurons fire when a person picks up a piece of food and eats it. AND some neurons fire in exactly the same pattern when one person watches another pick up and eat a piece of food.

Mirror neurons are found in other areas of the brain as well. fMRIs of musicians listening to music record, not only neurological firings related to motor activity, but also those related to sound. The brain of a pianist listening to a Chopin etude will simulate in many ways her brain when she is actually playing the sonata.

An author's brain activity when she writes the scene in which a father dies may stimulate similar firings in the brains of her readers. In Empire Falls Richard Russo gave me such an exact picture of the town that I "saw" each store and house exactly where the director of the televised version of Russo's book "saw" them. Except for the junkyard—that was in the wrong place.

Mirror neurons have also been found in the somatosensory areas of the brain associated with empathy. An acquaintance recently told me that she and her husband had separated a few months ago. Why wasn't I surprised? She had never complained about him, I'd never seen them together and felt discord. I had no visual or verbal cues at all. And yet, during the three years I'd known her, I had sensed that she was no longer married.

I've always loved the word recreation, not as it's usually pronounced, with its usual meaning of what we do when we're not working. What I love is re-creation, the sense that when I'm seeing great art, reading a great book, or watching great actors, I am being re-created. But I'd not realized before that I'm being physically re-created, that neural pathways in my brain are being created or strengthened.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

What Is Creativity? - 20

"The brain is built for aesthetics. We are built to try to find structure, we are built to try to find meaning."

"You can think of creativity as directed exploration, with an aesthetic twist."

Both of these quotes are by Michael Shadlen, a professor of neuroscience at Columbia University Medical College, a neurologist, and a leading researcher in the field of cognition. ("Quartets on the Cortex: Neuroscience at Play," Columbia, Spring/Summer 2015, p. 26)

Each creative act begins with exploration of an idea, a search for a solution to some problem. We are building on past expectations, past beliefs, past habits, past muscle training, and a network of neural connections already in place. At some point (in my experience about midway during the exploration), we become aware that we're in new territory, making new neural connections, finding new meanings. That's the aesthetic twist.

In music, I've labeled that twist a frisson, a little shiver of delight, because it's unexpected. In medicine, the twist is called an ERP, an "event-related potential." An EEG recording brain activity will pick up a listener's response to a change in expected syntax, or a change in expected rhythm. If the rhythm has been duple—dum-da-dum-da—and suddenly goes to triple—dum-da-da-dum-da-da—the EEG will record an ERP in the brain.

What the EEG can't record is the meaning each individual listener will attach to that change in the brain. At a book launch party a few weeks ago, an audience member commented that each of the poems that had been read seemed to have an underlying dark twist at the end. The poet was so clearly discomfited by the comment that another audience member came to her rescue with, "I'm Welsh and my wife is Irish, so we expect darkness in our poetry," and then changed the subject with a question. Same poems, different meanings.  

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

What is Creativity - 19

“. . . not only is attention [what we select from available sensory input] learned behavior, but it is shaped by what we value, and values are a key part of cultural transmission, one generation to another. The absorption of those values into our habitual behavior is also biological. We change brain pathways, and we make neural efficiencies when we learn.”

This is a quote from Cathy N. Davidson's Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn, a book that I had read about 5 years ago and was on its way to a donation pile. I'm not sure why I decided to skim it before it left the house. It's become a different book since I last read it. Because I've been writing and thinking about creativity for a couple of years, my attention was drawn to different sentences, different conclusions.

Many decades ago, during one of my conversations about the nature of art with Ken Kaplowitz, a professor at The College of New Jersey (, he convinced me that different people viewing the same scene, or having the same experience, would focus on—pay attention to—different aspects of that scene or experience. I was so convinced that I wrote an award-winning short story, "The Boys in the Photograph," in which two characters see one of Ken's actual photographs quite differently.

Ken and I were discussing psychological differences. Professor Davidson is writing about cultural differences in attention. Perhaps going back centuries. In one experiment, mothers were supposed to give their young children toys. American mothers used twice as many nouns. ("See the car. See its wheels.") Japanese mothers used far more verbs ("I give you the car. Now give it to me. Thank you.") and were emphasizing relationships and interactions.

And, of course, the Japanese and American children were creating different neural pathways, different psychologies.

What does attention have to do with creativity? That's where creativity begins, doesn't it? With what we pay attention to.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

What Is Creativity? - 18

I had one of those "Duh!" moments this week. As in, why hadn't I recognized this before?

For more than 35 years, I've known, and taught, that each of our voices is unique. Because each of our bodies - the resonance chambers that our voices bounce around in - is unique.

And I've taught that no two persons will interpret a song or poem in the same way, because our memories, our life experiences, are unique to us. That theory was put to the test when two students wanted to perform Schumann's song cycle, "Frauenliebe und -leben," at the same performance class. 8 songs? Sung twice? Nice theory, but I had no idea how the audience would respond. I needn't have worried. Not only were the interpretations of the lyrics very different, but even the music sounded different. The audience was intrigued by the experience, not bored.

Why then, had I not recognized that each of our brains is unique? That the neurons and their networks have branched, grown, become stronger (or the reverse) because of our experiences?

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

What is Creativity? - 17

"We're All Artists Now: How creative self-expression became yet another thing to sell." That's the name of a long article (pp. 1and 4) by Laura M. Holson in the 9/6/15 Sunday Review section of The New York Times. Creativity stores are popping up, workshops where one can paint a wine glass while sipping its soon-to-be contents. Lots of Zentangle and coloring books are being published this year, a couple of them Top 10 best sellers, sales fueled, according to the Times, by our desires for self-help and happiness.

Coloring books. How is a coloring book—filling in someone else's drawing—in any way an expression of self? Haven't we been told for years that creative people "color outside the lines?" How is it art? Maybe it's the nostalgia of picking up crayons again after we had long ago graduated to pencils and pens that is so attractive.

But where's the excitement of discovery that is always present when we're being creative?

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

What is Creativity - 16

I wrote a few weeks ago about reading as a creative act. By implication I'd written something similar about the audience for the David Hare play.

I've been wondering recently whether creativity is necessarily a shared activity. Or, perhaps, another way of bonding.

One of my short stories won an award in the 2012 Porter Fleming Literary Competition. The judge commented that we tend to idealize our pretty small towns, without acknowledging the tragedies that lay underneath. That she understood what I was saying in that story meant more than the money I received. I'm a reader for prose submitted to Minerva Rising for its next edition. One of the submissions is so gorgeous I want to know the author. After the journal is in print, I intend to find her. I want to see if she's giving workshops anywhere that I could attend. I'm not alone - I've connected with someone else as a writer, and as a reader.

Okay, but what about creativity that isn't related to the arts? I and a friend, now deceased, became closer as we discovered how similar we were in many ways. We still used the same cookbook published in the 50s; we both cooked from scratch, except for the same muffin mix. We each had what we called a "grapefruit knife," acquired decades before when detergent boxes often included a prize (like the prizes in a box of Cracker Jack). No better tool for peeling or segmenting citrus, or for melons, than that knife. What a great invention. I still use my knife several times a week, never without remembering my friend. I somehow came into possession of a fork that I never use without a recognition of both its practical design and its connection to some unknown ancestor in the 19th century.

We know how necessary bonding is to an infant's physical and emotional well-being. How desirable parental bonding and social bonding are for the health of children and communities. Is the creative drive a way of bonding beyond the community? Beyond time?

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Perfection Rant

I have ranted about perfectionism before, but I recently experienced a problem with it that I hadn't thought about before.

I coach a song, a theatrical scene, or a speech in 4 stages:

The body, where we learn the best use of the vocal mechanism. For songs, that stage also includes the pitches, rhythms, and harmonies. 

The mind, where we pay attention to the words, the sentence structure, all the literary aspects of the piece.

The emotions, where we apply our own interpretation of the meaning of the piece.

Finally, all the aspects of performance - involving the audience, use of gesture, body movement, etc.

We had reached the third stage with a Gluck song. I was emotionally drawn into it, completely involved as an audience member, when the singer stopped, then repeated the last phrase he'd sung. For the 1st time in more than 30 years of teaching, I let out an expletive. "What the f . . . are you doing?"  

"I didn't like that last run," he said. "I can do it better."

When I told someone later about this incident, he said, "The effect was like someone answering their phone halfway through intercourse."

Exactly. The singer interrupted a creative, emotional experience with self-criticism that belonged way back in stage one. That's where we work on the mechanics, using all the knowledge we've acquired, working out the kinks, getting as close to perfect as we can. It's work that is meant to be self-centered.

But our emotions are responses to something other than self. In this case, to the emotional meaning of the song, to memories, to audience, to the creative impulse. 

Nothing excites me more than a beginning student who says, during stage three, "I lost myself."