June 24, 2014

Scientists study brains of writers, attempt to make creativity boring


Proof that the doctors aren’t just making up names of things in the brain. (via Wikimedia)

In what can be only described as an attempt by the scientific community to strip writers of their sexy, mysterious qualities, a group of German researchers studied the neurological activity behind creativity. Using an fMRI scanner—the same technology used to observe how the brain reacted to reading poetry and prose—the team, lead by Dr. Martin Lotze, monitored the minds of writers as they performed various tasks.

To establish a baseline, they had their subjects, novice writers, simply copy a section of words. Then, they were given the beginning of a short story and told to continue it in their own words. After a short period of brainstorming, they had a little more than two minutes to pen their addition.

Here’s what they found, as reported by Carl Zimmer for The New York Times:

Some regions of the brain became active only during the creative process, but not while copying, the researchers found. During the brainstorming sessions, some vision-processing regions of volunteers became active. It’s possible that they were, in effect, seeing the scenes they wanted to write.
Other regions became active when the volunteers started jotting down their stories. Dr. Lotze suspects that one of them, the hippocampus, was retrieving factual information that the volunteers could use.

One region near the front of the brain, known to be crucial for holding several pieces of information in mind at once, became active as well. Juggling several characters and plot lines may put special demands on it.

Of course, the brains of novice writers aren’t really what the doctor was interested in. After conducting the first tests, the team travelled to a different university with a well-regarded creative writing program in order to get contrasting results.

Even before the two groups began the act of composing, their brains were operating on different planes. While the novices activated their vision centers during their preparation, the better-practiced writers were accessing the language centers of their brains.

The doctors speculated that this could be because the more experienced writers are narrating in their head while the novices are visualizing a scene. It seems to me like those are things that he could have just, you know, asked the writers about. But I don’t have a doctorate in anything, so take that with a grain of salt.

However, once they put the pen to paper, a perhaps more notable difference appeared:

When the two groups started to write, another set of differences emerged. Deep inside the brains of expert writers, a region called the caudate nucleus became active. In the novices, the caudate nucleus was quiet.

The caudate nucleus is a familiar part of the brain for scientists like Dr. Lotze who study expertise. It plays an essential role in the skill that comes with practice, including activities like board games.

If there’s one thing that the arts and sciences have in common, though, it’s the ability of prominent members to openly criticize one another’s work. In this case, Dr. Steve Pinker, a psychologist at the University of Harvard. He questioned both the methods and the conclusion, suggesting that the processes observed could be inherent to writing in general instead of creativity.

A better comparison would have been between writing a fictional story and writing an essay about some factual information.

Even the best-designed scanning experiments might miss signs of creativity, Dr. Pinker warned. The very nature of creativity can make it different from one person to the next, and so it can be hard to see what different writers have in common. Dr. Pinker speculated that Marcel Proust might have activated the taste-perceiving regions of his brain when he recalled the flavor of a cookie. But another writer might rely more on sounds to evoke a time and place.

Infighting aside, this is an interesting development in the study of creativity. Regardless, I’m sure writers hope will prove just how much smarter they are than the scientists testing them. How much of a development, though, remains unclear. As Dr. Pinker said, “Creativity is a perversely difficult thing to study.”