Mind games: Where does creativity come from?
Mind games: Where does creativity come from?
A groundbreaking new study, conducted at Beilinson Hospital, examines what goes on in the minds of artists, in an attempt to decipher one of the most elusive features of the brain: creativity
Wrapped in a green floral hospital gown, I slide into the menacing MRI machine. The headphones on my ears muffle the loud drumming of the machine. Special glasses are placed on my eyes, which replace the metal frame of my regular glasses and do not endanger me inside the terrible magnet that surrounds my head. I have a distress button. This is the first phase of the experiment I joined, and now my brain is being scanned while resting. After a quarter of an hour of mechanical noise, an instruction is played through headphones: "Now we will show you an image for 30 seconds, and then you will be asked to reproduce it on the page."
The image shown is an illustration of a fairly skinny frog. Above its head hangs a kind of lamp, and in front of it - at least that's what my imagination tells me - is a stick with a tiny child at the end. According to my interpretation the frog is supposed to swallow the child, but I am still not required to interpret but only to copy.
Suddenly I'm stressed - not necessarily because of the tube in which I'm imprisoned, but because of the feeling that I'm being tested. How to remember the details? According to the angle of the drawing? The outlines? The story I tell myself? The pressure is so great that as soon as I am asked to recreate the image, its details fade from memory: I remember the frog's mischievous smile, but I have no idea where its legs turned, which a moment ago seemed funny to me. I don't even remember what was funny about them. I remember the lamp very well, it reminded me of an IKEA lamp, but the boy... was there really a boy there? I decided to draw something abstract at the end of the stick. I finish, put the pencil down and wait for the next round. The complexity of memory and its illusions are becoming more and more obscure to me.
The experiment in which I am participating is the first study of its kind, and is trying to locate the source of creativity in the brain by scanning the brains of plastic artists. This fascinating study was born not for artistic reasons but out of a desire to understand a well-known phenomenon among Parkinson's patients: "Some of them develop, alongside the disease, a creative motivation, sometimes almost compulsive," explains Dr. Jonathan Reiner (42), a neurologist at Beilinson Hospital, a specialist in movement disorders and also an artist himself. "Patients who have never painted, sculpted or written poetry, begin to create obsessively, and at the same time report a symptomatic benefit." To understand this phenomenon, and how it is created in the minds of patients, Reiner and Dr. Irit Shapira-Lichter (47 ), a neuroscientist and director of fMRI at Beilinson, decided to try to find the source of creativity in the brains of healthy people.
Their search was conducted using fMRI (functional brain magnetic resonance imaging), a technology that provides a glimpse into brain activity. "When an area of the brain is active, it needs oxygen, and to compensate for this, the active area receives an excess of oxygen-saturated blood, and the proportion between oxygenated and non-oxygenated blood in the area changes," explains Shapira-Lichter. "Since the magnetic properties of the two are different, a measurable signal is created and it can be deduced which area was active."
This technology is effective in mapping relatively simple functions, such as the activation of a certain organ in the body, but creativity is a much more complex and elusive function, and to locate it in the brain requires, well, creativity. "In order to isolate creativity, we were required to compare two processes that are as similar as possible, except for the thing we want to investigate," explains Shapira-Lichter. Similar principles guided a study published in 2013 by Dr. Charles Limb, an American neuroscientist and surgeon. Limb, an amateur musician, recruited jazz pianists for his research. He played them a blues piece he composed himself, then put them in the imaging machine with a small keyboard. The first time they were asked to play the melody he had composed as is, and the second time they were invited to go wild with free-style improvisation. Limb discovered that during the improvisation there was a decrease in the activity of the areas of the brain associated with monitoring and controlling behavior, and an increase in the activity of another area, which is usually associated with self-expression.
The research compiled by Reiner and Shapira-Lichter is reminiscent of Limb's in its objectives and method of execution. "We compare memory with creativity: between an image that the subjects are asked to remember and copy, and another image that will serve as inspiration for their own creation," explains Reiner. The researchers present the subjects with a drawing block containing images from different mediums — drawing, photography and illustration. Some of them are intended for copying, others are intended for inspiration, and in between are blank pages. The subjects have 30 seconds to look at the image, memorize it or plan their own drawing, then they are asked to reproduce the image from memory on the blank page, or draw something inspired by it in three minutes.
The field of visual arts was especially challenging and has hardly been explored in the past, "among other things because the scanner in which the experiment takes place is a restrictive and claustrophobic environment in which it is difficult to create a creative atmosphere," explains Reiner. To face this challenge, they made sure to recruit only artists: "Since the environment is restrictive and disturbing, we wanted people who have daily access to a creative space and whose brains are already wired this way."
To allow the subjects to create inside the imaging device, they created a miniature easel that rests on the subjects' knees, with a drawing pad and pencils on it. The drawing is done slightly outside the scanner, and so that the subjects can see it, they put a device on their head with mirrors that reflect it.
When the brain is quiet, the mind is free to run wild
I am wearing this device now, and moving to the creative phase of the experiment, where I am presented with a new image: a kind of table with a bowl of red liquid on it and a fork next to it. The appearance of the bowl reminds me of an eye, the fork turns into a knife in my head, and suddenly I remember a scene from "An Andalusian Dog", the surrealist film by Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel. And so, inspired by this unique mix that flashed in my creative mind, I drew a new image with a table, an eye and the point of a knife stuck in it.
Is it easier than the copying process? In my opinion, both are difficult, but in a different way: one requires the rapid use of recollection tactics, and the other mobilizes a collective pool of images and recollections, knowledge, feelings and inventiveness, which come together to create something new. Even in the creative process I feel pressure: Am I good enough? Creative enough? How can I, who deals in my work mainly with moving images, compete with skilled painters?
The images I was asked to remember - cats looking at an aquarium with goldfish in it, a room whose diagonal windows shed light on a shelf with vases of flowers, and so on - I memorize through the general lines that produce the image, and the movement that takes place within. In contrast, in the paintings I created following inspiration, I often find myself recalling quotes from the works of female artists. A photo of two women looking at the camera tiredly reminds me of a series of works by Michal Heiman, "What's on your mind?" Following her I create an image of a naked woman, her nipples, womb and mouth are black holes. A photograph of a woman lifting her head up and exhaling smoke reminds me of a photograph by Man Ray, "Ingres's Violin", where a naked woman turns her back to the viewer, two "sound holes" of a stringed instrument are drawn on her back, and the hollow of her spine is prominent. Following him, I draw a woman whose bare back is turned towards the viewer, and whose bones look like a chain. The room where I placed her merges with her body, and it looks as if both it and she are going up in flames.
It is difficult to accurately describe the order of things that led me to a new painting out of inspiration. According to the data accumulated in Reiner and Shapira-Lichter's research, the key moment in the creative process is the one that occurs before the action itself. In a study by the American neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen, who examined the way ideas are born, almost all subjects said that the "eureka" moments came after a long "incubation". Andreasen concluded that the ideas were born in a state known as REST (an acronym for "Random, Episodic, and Silent Thought")—a state quite different from the time pressure exerted on me in the foreign MRI space, which no doubt affected the way my brain worked. Perhaps this is why my intuition directed me to images from art history. In this sense, I acted as artificial intelligence acts, which creates something new based on existing knowledge from its databases.
At the end of the experiment Shapira-Lichter, Reiner and I huddle around my paintings and examine them. The researchers focus on my search for references in the history of art, from which I set out to create something new. I tell them that during the tasks I felt an effort to mobilize different areas of the brain: for example, the adoption of the short-term memory for the task of searching and copying in the semantic memory, where, I imagined, the collective image pool is located. It turns out that the other subjects also described tangible differences in the ways in which the brain approaches the various tasks of reconstruction and creation.
I reveal to the researchers the harsh self-criticism that I tried to repress in order to allow myself creative freedom. I also point out the importance of gender in the interpretation of the images: in my free works, for example, I included several figures of women who have experienced trauma.
"Creativity is not born in a single site, but emerges from interactions"
The key question in the research, Shapira-Lichter explains, is how relevant neural networks connect to each other during creative activity, compared to a memory task. So far, the research findings support and expand those of previous studies in the field of creativity: the creative process does not take place in a single site of the brain, but rather emerges from a network of complex interactions between several areas.
"We found a central area in the network of creativity that serves as the 'father', a kind of core that manages all kinds of processes in the brain," explains Shapira-Lichter. "When subjects planned a work and did not memorize an image, the communication of that area with a whole collection of areas - in the creative network and also in brain areas related to the importance of things, or attention - was much more active."
She and Reiner focused especially on the interrelationship between two seemingly opposite processes. One process occurs in the "default network", a neural network that involves several brain regions and operates mainly when the brain is free from tasks and at rest. This network is related to various internal processes, including emotion and autobiographical memory, and allows ideas to emerge and develop, and is therefore essential to the creative process. The second process takes place in the "administrative network", which is responsible for judgment and review.
The two networks have opposite roles: "One causes the brain to go wild, and the other brings it back to earth," explains Shapira-Lichter. The dialogue between them raises a crucial question regarding the creative process: does the judgement system interfere in the process without interruption, or does a moment come when it states that "that's it, we need to make a decision"? I could swear I felt this dialogue happening in real time inside my head.
The study of activity in these networks is a developing field, Reiner explains. "When we understand it well, we can ask questions such as how we create, activate and cultivate creativity, and if it promotes other cognitive areas. In regard to the clinical world of Parkinson's patients, we can ask if the activation of these networks will allow the patients to have a different, easier course of the disease, and if this has health benefits."
"There is already a preliminary thought about a connection between creativity and memory," adds Shapira-Lichter. "Creativity, like recall, is based on the use of information collected and accumulated in the brain, while in both of these functions there is a process of searching the private knowledge base, retrieving relevant information and evaluating it. The big difference is that in memory we strive for an accurate reconstruction of the past - although today we understand that human memory is far from being precise, and that there is also a creative element in it. On the other hand, creativity strives for the opposite: to produce from the existing something new.
"If we better understand the brain mechanisms that are common to these two abilities, and the mechanisms that differentiate them, we can harness them to help each other. Studies by Prof. Dan Schachter from Harvard and others have shown that a research intervention that increased the characteristics of memory improved, in the short term, the cognitive creativity of healthy people. Perhaps we can develop tools in the opposite direction - to use the capacity for creativity, which is not impaired with age, to help people preserve and perhaps even restore functions such as memory and other cognitive abilities, which are impaired both in old age and in a variety of medical conditions. We can say that, just as we once did not imagine that a pill would solve attention and concentration disorders, maybe we can invent a pill that will make us more creative, and even make it possible to improve memory."
"Even if AI produces a similar product, the process is very different from creativity"
What is creativity anyway, which is seen as a unique human trait? This question has been preoccupying mankind for centuries. When I wandered through a series of sources, I received varied answers, which mainly touched on the ability to combine research and knowledge, learning from failures, unconscious thinking, randomness, intuition, merging ideas, changing the rules of the game, and breaking boundaries through which new insights can be reached.
"The dry neuropsychological definition of creativity is the ability to create something of value out of nothing," says Reiner. Mathematician Marcus du Sotoy notes in his book "The Creativity Code" that the definitions proposed for this elusive concept refer to three characteristics: something new, surprising, and valuable.
In recent years, the study of creativity has also come up in relation to artificial intelligence (AI). Today, many of the AI systems apparently demonstrate characteristics of creativity, including research as a central motif, learning from mistakes and changing the rules of the game. Software such as DALL-E 2 which creates images and ChatGPT which produces texts (both by OpenAI) produce a new product from existing materials. Last September, an artwork produced by AI software called Midjourney won first place in an American painting competition. On the other hand, such programs do not "think", do not "understand" what they have created and have no desire to create. As du Sotoy writes, "We are far from creating software with consciousness."
Will studies like these be used in the future to build a creative mechanism in machines?
"I'm not sure that artificial intelligence produces creativity in the sense that humans do, even if the final product is similar," says Shapira-Lichter. "I tend to think that the product is achieved in a different way, because learning and information processing are different. Even if we manage to understand how the human brain produces the creative process, I doubt if it will be the same or very similar to how artificial intelligence works."
So human creativity is not imitable?
"This is a big, philosophical question. Even in simpler brain processes, which we understand better, there is still a gap between understanding and ability. The understanding of how the human brain activates motor skills has led in the last 20 years to the production of devices for paralyzed people. But even in such a mechanism, which is relatively understandable to us, there is a gap between ability and understanding. Creativity is much more complex - and like anything more complex, it is not exactly one entity. That is why we are first trying to understand how it works. Until you do not understand something, you will not be able to fix it."