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.  

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