The Creative Brain: A book review by Bob Morris

Creative BrainThe Creative Brain: The Science of Genius
Nancy C. Andreasen
Plume/Penguin Group (2006)

How at least some humans “have managed to wrestle [themselves] out of dark caves and into a world ablaze with creative genius”

As Nancy Andreasen explains in the first chapter, “This book has been bubbling and churning in my brain for nearly thirty years, and I am grateful that I have finally found time to write it…[and now] I’ll be at your side as we embark on a wonderful exploratory adventure: examining what the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen once called ‘the spark of the divine fire.’ Our mission is especially exciting and novel because we are not just exploring the nature of creativity, but also the neuroscience of creativity, a difficult mission that few have as yet attempted…I wanted to write about how extremely gifted people have created things that have made our lives, our society, and our civilization richer and more beautiful.” She succeeds admirably in this book, a brilliant achievement.

Heaven knows, there is no shortage of especially creative people to discuss and Andreasen selected several dozen. However different they may be in most respects, what do they share in common? “We have learned that highly creative people have particular personality and cognitive traits, such as openness to experience, curiosity, and a tolerance of ambiguity. We have learned that they often get their ideas as flashes of insight, through moments of inspiration, or by going into a state at the edge of chaos [a state of mind that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi characterizes as “flow”], where ideas float, soar, collide, and connect.”

These are among the dozens of passages that caught my eye, also listed to suggest the scope of Andreasen’s coverage:

o Coleridge’s Dream of Xanadu (19-28)
o The Creative Person (28-32)
o The Creative Process (Pages 32-45)
0 The Human Brain as a Self-organizing System (61-63)
o What Is Human Thought, and Unconscious Thought: The Edge of the Mind’s Precipice (63-66)
o The Neural Basis of Extraordinary Creativity (74-75)
o The Role of Nurture: Cradles of Creativity (109-114)
o What Kind of an Environment Nurtures Creativity? (127-132))
o Nature versus Nurture: What Creates the Creative Brain? (142)
o What Is Brain Plasticity? and, Plasticity and the Creative Brain (146-158)
o Ordinary Creativity and Extraordinary Creativity (159-160)
o Mental Exercises for Adults (160-168)
o “Tips for Teaching Tots” (168-178)

Note: The material in this last passage about how to stimulate and nourish children’s brains will be of special interest and value to parents, grandparents, and their other family members as well as to school staff members, classroom teachers, coaches, and members of the clergy who have direct and frequent contact with children.

o Creating the Brain: Quo Vadimus? (178-181)

Before concluding her book, Andreasen identifies a number of imperatives, best viewed as challenges to which she has carefully prepared her reader to respond. For example, “We must learn more about critical periods in brain development and use this information in our educational programs, and in our family education if public education fails us…Over the coming years, we shall learn more and more about the creating brain…about how it thinks, learns, and spontaneously self-organizes. As this knowledge evolves, it is imperative that we use it to find more ways to nurture the creative nature that we all share.”

That is our great challenge…and unique privilege.

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