The Idea

Machine

Researchers theorize about what might be going on inside our brains when we think creatively

April 08, 2007|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,Sun reporter

You could stare for years at The Creation of Adam, and never notice it. But once someone points out the metaphor in Michelangelo's masterpiece, it's hard to interpret it any other way.

Focus on the purple cloak swirling around the deity and his host of angels (as a medical student named F.L. Meshberger did in 1990, in an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association). Notice, especially, how the fabric gathers and tucks. Doesn't it resemble a side view of the human brain, attached to its flexible column of spinal cord?

Now, consider what the "brain" encloses: the Supreme Being, maker of heaven and earth, day and night, winter and summer, seas and stars and spinning planets. And, consider what is happening in the painting: God is about to infuse humanity with a spark of his divine essence.

Could there possibly be a better expression of the awesome potential of human creativity?

"The brain is a metaphor-making machine," says Michael Salcman, a Baltimore neurosurgeon.

"It routinely expresses the concrete in terms of the figurative. Robert Frost once said, `Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another.' That is what artists and scientists do all the time. The ability to compare one thing to the next is inherent in the way the brain is structured."

Humanity long has been fascinated by the sources and causes of the creative impulse, traditionally associating it with the supernatural. Michelangelo, for instance, was known as "Il Divino" -- "the Divine One."

But it has only been in the past half-century that a new discipline, neuroscience, was developed to study the brain. And it wasn't until the 1990s that technical advances made it possible to map brain functions while the subjects are awake and performing specific mental tasks -- an immense boon for researchers.

As a result, scientists are just beginning to probe fundamental questions about creativity, from what happens during a brainstorm, to the oft-debated link between genius and insanity.

Salcman isn't doing independent research. But by drawing on experiments conducted by others, and adding a few ideas of his own, he has come up with a plausible mathematical explanation as to what might be going on in our brains when we think creatively, whether we're devising a prize-winning recipe or diagnosing the source of a troubling rattle in a car motor.

Before proceeding further, it's important to state that Salcman's theories are just that -- a hypothesis, not fact. But it's not just anyone who's doing the guessing.

The 60-year-old Salcman is former chairman of neurosurgery at the University of Maryland Medical Center, and is past president of the prestigious Congress of Neurological Surgeons. He also is a poet and avid collector of modern art, and has been thinking for his entire career about brains and how they form ideas. Since 1979, Salcman has published his hypotheses on the creative process in such medical journals as Neurosurgery and the Journal of Neurophysiology.

For Salcman, when we say that we're thinking creatively, what we really mean is that we're solving a problem, whether the question is aesthetic, scientific, pragmatic or interpersonal.

The mechanism for the problem-solving process, he thinks, lies in the almost unfathomable number of neurons, or nerve cells, in our brains -- and the even greater number of connections between these cells.

Think of neurons as the building blocks of the brain. Their main job is to communicate critical data to one another: Look! Over there! What color is it? What shape? How fast is it moving? Etc.

Neurons "talk" to one another by sending electrical impulses across minute gaps between cells called synapses, and this incessant chatter among neurons, the constant give-and-take, is the basis of thought itself.

The argument for the superiority of the human brain to those of animals boils down to simple numbers: Human skulls are crammed with more neurons than are the craniums of other species, so we can process more information more quickly, and at a higher level of complexity.

The human brain contains roughly a trillion neurons, and each neuron has 10,000 synapses -- which means that each man, woman and child has roughly 10 quadrillion connections (or 10¹^6) in a 14-ounce organ roughly the size and color of a cauliflower. "The number of connections in the human brain approaches the numbers of stars in the universe," Salcman says. "Both systems are about equally complex."

In comparison, an ant's brain has roughly 10,000 neurons, while a frog's has about one million.

Every beginning biology student knows that the brain is divided into two hemispheres, and that specific areas in each hemisphere perform different functions.

So, for instance, the occipital lobes generally are used for vision; the temporal lobes for hearing; the parietal lobes for spatial perception, while the frontal lobes are allocated oversight functions, such as abstract thinking and some types of memory.

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