Creativity and the Everyday Brain
Rex Jung is an Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. He's a Distinguished Senior Advisor to the Positive Neuroscience Project, based at the University of Pennsylvania.
August 20, 2015
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: Few features of humanity are more fascinating than creativity, and few fields are more dynamic now than neuroscience. Rex Jung is a neuropsychologist who puts the two together. He’s working on a cutting edge of science, and getting a new view of the creativity of the everyday as of the genius. He and his colleagues unsettle long-held beliefs about who is creative and who is not. They’re seeing practical, often common-sense truths about how we prime our brains to unlock what is novel and useful.
Rex Jung has notably helped describe something called transient hypofrontality. In layman’s terms, it’s now possible to see the difference between intelligence and creativity in the brain. We can watch the brain calm its powerful organizing frontal lobes and become more meandering, less directed, in order to make creative connections. And Rex Jung gives himself over to a meandering conversation with us, on new connections we might make between creativity and family life, creativity and aging, creativity and purpose.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
REX JUNG: This work with creativity is important because I think it is a uniquely human characteristic that provides meaning in one’s life — whether it’s spiritual, personal, familial — it really hits all those buttons.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
MS. TIPPETT: Rex Jung is an assistant research professor in the department of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico. I spoke with him in 2012. He spends about half his time counseling people rebuilding their lives with brain illness or injury. In this role, he says, he’s a kind of “existential neuropsychologist.” And this informs the other half of his life, in the laboratory.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s hard for me to think of a subject more interesting than human creativity and I wonder…
DR. JUNG: [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, that’s me. I mean, I’ve always been interested in this and I just wonder where do you see the roots or do you see the roots of this interest of yours that’s really come to define your life’s work? Did you start being interested in creativity as a subject or in yourself early in your life?
DR. JUNG: Well, it’s a long story. I didn’t come to this field by any straight path, and I didn’t come to this subject by a straight path either, so I came to study the neurosciences through volunteering for Special Olympics and understanding how different brains work through how they don’t work. And I wanted to do that sort of work and, to do that, you had to be a neuropsychologist or neurologist or a neurosurgeon or something like that. So I chose neuropsychology.
When I got into neuropsychology and started doing research, I got interested in intelligence and I studied that for a number of years. Over time, it came to my awareness that intellectual capacity of the brain doesn’t tell the whole story, that there’s other human capacities, particularly human capacities, that are of interest, particularly creative capacity, and that this might be something different than intelligence and uniquely different to human brains.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, and so that volunteering you did with Special Olympics, was that when you were still, say, in high school or before you went to college? Or was this when you were older?
DR. JUNG: It was in my lost years, so my undergraduate degree [laughs] is in finance [laughs].
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] OK. See, that’s an important piece of this story.
DR. JUNG: Yes. So, as I said, it’s a long story. So I worked in the business world and became, I don’t know, disenchanted or bored or something like that and started volunteering for Special Olympics with friends of mine, coaching basketball and volleyball and track. You know, over time, I quit my job and started working in the sheltered workshop for adults with mental retardation, so that really started moving me in the direction of looking at brains front and center. There is really something very profoundly important and interesting going on there that I wanted to explore further.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, and that touched on this idea of intelligence, but as you’re saying, wasn’t at all encompassed by the way we usually talk about intelligence or our brains.
DR. JUNG: Yeah. It was intelligence and oftentimes it’s absence, the way we look at it in psychometric properties, and yet there was a lot going on there, a lot of creativity, a lot of personality, a lot of — I remember in particular working with Alonzo Clemons, who’s pretty well-known in the autistic savant community. And he’s an artist and he does these beautiful sculptures of animals. He suffered a traumatic brain injury early in life and it’s left him mentally retarded and, you know, socially retarded. And yet, he was able to produce these profoundly creative three-dimensional representations of cattle and horses and giraffes. It’s just amazing, the creative capacity that he had in his brain. So, again, that was one of the seeds that got me interested in the interplay between intelligence and creativity.
MS. TIPPETT: So at this point, what is your working definition of creativity? It may be interesting, too, to hear how that definition has evolved. Like where did you start and what nuance has been added over time?
DR. JUNG: Well, I’m pretty humble about this because I’m a newcomer to the field. So I’m an expert in intelligence, but I’m a carpetbagger to creativity [laughs]. So I’ve adopted the definition that I found when I got here, and the definition of creativity is something both novel and useful. And I like that dynamic interplay of novelty and usefulness. If something is just novel, it could be useless. It could be the word salad of a patient with schizophrenia. That’s novel, but it’s not particularly useful within a given context and utility — mere utility is not enough. It has to be something new. It has to be useful. It has to be also within a social context so that novelty and usefulness might be in play, but within a given social context, it might not be recognized at that time. Van Gogh is a good example, where his novel and useful paintings were novel and useful, but not within the social context within which he was at that time. If we found ourselves in possession of a Van Gogh at this point, we would be quite happy, but at that time, it was mostly for his brother.
MS. TIPPETT: So what have you learned? What do you see that’s been surprising and new?
DR. JUNG: I guess the most surprising thing and the most gratifying thing is that one of our hypotheses was supported. Usually, when we make hypotheses — or when I make hypotheses anyway — it’s almost 180 degrees opposite of what I hypothesized [laughs]. So the fact that creativity is something different than intelligence is gratifying in that we’re finding different brain networks than we found to be involved with intelligence, and the way in which the brain networks are engaged is surprising.
With intelligence, the back part of the brain and the front part of the brain are integrated in a way that allows intelligence to work well. And the story with intelligence is more is better. Greater cortical thickness, more neurons, higher connectivity between those neurons, and more biochemicals subserving those neurons was almost invariably better for intelligence.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
DR. JUNG: With creativity, the story was more subtle and different. In particular regions of the brain, particularly the frontal lobes, less was better. There’s a down regulation of the frontal lobes that appeared to foster creative cognition the way we were measuring it, and I can get into that as well but…
MS. TIPPETT: So when that goes down, what is shutting down that the brain is normally doing if it’s lit up there?
DR. JUNG: It’s not shutting down as much, but it’s allowing a freer interplay of different networks in the brain so that the ideas literally can link together more readily. So with intelligence, there’s you know, the analogy I’ve used is there’s this superhighway in the brain that allows you to get from Point A to Point B. With creativity, it’s a slower, more meandering process where you want to take the side roads and even the dirt roads to get there, to put the ideas together. So the down regulation of frontal lobes, in particular, is important to allow those ideas to link together in unexpected ways.
MS. TIPPETT: Is that — there’s this term “transient hypofrontality.” Is that a description?
DR. JUNG: That is, yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: A formal description of what you just said?
DR. JUNG: [laughs] And I’d like to give credit to Arne Dietrich who’s a collaborator and friend of mine from American University in Beirut who coined this term. But, yeah, the transient hypofrontality is what appears to be happening and both of those terms are important. It’s transient. [laughs] It’s not permanent hypofrontality.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. You meander for a while and then you go back to being direct?
DR. JUNG: Yeah, because you need your frontal lobes later to push ideas forward in hypothesis tests and whatnot. But this transient hypofrontality appears to be conducive for extrapolating out and analogizing and looking at metaphor and whatnot to pull different concepts that you have in your toolbox together.
[music: “Send And Receive” by Tycho]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today, “Creativity and the Everyday Brain” — with neuropsychologist and creativity researcher, Rex Jung.
[music: “Send And Receive” by Tycho]
MS. TIPPETT: So there are a number of core qualities or indicators of creativity that are part of your studies. It was really interesting to me that one of them is humor. That’s one of the primary expressions of creativity that you see.
DR. JUNG: I think so. I think the expression of humor is a creative act. And you know, it’s novel, it’s useful, it fits the definition that’s socially relevant, and it’s unexpected, which is another definition of creativity and that’s the definition of humor is that you’re going in a certain direction and it kind of takes a turn of phrase or turn of events that makes something humorous. So we straight up measure humor in our studies as one of the variables of interest.
MS. TIPPETT: You’re right, we’ve had — I mean, I grew up in the era where everybody got tested for IQ, and then it kind of went away because no one really knew what to do with it or whether that was responsible or what it really measured, what it mattered. And still, our kind of cultural vocabulary about intelligence doesn’t necessarily include something like humor, but the minute you say that, you say that that is an expression of creativity, it’s just obvious.
DR. JUNG: I think it’s obvious. And certainly when we measured it, it was correlating with our other measures of creativity. It was not correlating with our measures of intelligence. So, you know, this overlap between it and things that look like, sound like the duck that is creativity made sense. And you said something about intelligence that I want to correct. I mean, there is some cultural baggage with intelligence. The fact that —
MS. TIPPETT: The IQ, you mean?
DR. JUNG: Yeah, an IQ test. I mean, it’s been around for 100 years, it’s measured incredibly accurately, and it has really profound predictive capabilities for things like educational success, work success, even longevity. So, there’s something very important going on with intelligence so we can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, to use a tired old cliche. However, it’s not enough. So I think when you were speaking of being tested as a child, as I probably was, on intelligence tests and they didn’t know what to do with it, I think it probably reflects the fact that intelligence tests are very good at predicting, you know, academic success and what you’ll do in school and whatnot. But then beyond that, when you get into life [laughs] writ large, it gets more complicated. I work with very intelligent people everyday of my life — I don’t work with a lot of creative people so there’s something else going on.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, you also — I think in your work and in your writing, when you’re out there speaking, you are also correcting some other assumptions that are out there. One thing I’ve heard you talk about that really surprised me was that this idea that we’ve somehow gotten about the left brain, right brain — that if you’re a left-brain person, you’re logical and, if you’re a right-brain person, you’re imaginative, and you’re probably stuck on that side of things. You’ve said that that’s just not true.
DR. JUNG: Well, it’s demonstrably not true. And it’s just so easy to fall into these what we call “folk psychologies,” these easy kind of metaphors for science. They have a grain of truth in them. All of them do, but it falls apart when you look at more closely. So with left brain, right brain, for example, there is a series of studies by a neuroscientist, Gazzaniga, and a neurosurgeon, Sperry, who were doing corpus callosotomies, and that’s going to take some explanation.
So the corpus callosum is a bundle of wires that connect the two hemispheres basically, white-matter myelinated axons that connect the two — right brain and left brain — to one another and they communicate back and forth. In people with epilepsy, they decided to sever the corpus callosum so that the seizures couldn’t progress from one hemisphere to the other. This would stop it in its track. There’s no way for the electrical firestorm to propagate from one hemisphere to the other.
So in severing the corpus callosum, the left hemisphere from the right, they discovered that the left hemisphere, as you say, was more logical and linear and language was often located in the left hemisphere, and the right was more synthetic and visual spatial. This got taken up in the popular press as the right brain was more creative. And, you know, in our neuroscientific studies, you’ll often find correlates in the right hemisphere that are related to creative cognition, divergent thinking or personality variables, but that doesn’t mean that creativity somehow resides in your right brain. It takes lots of parts of your brain working in tandem to do creative things. If you didn’t have your left hemisphere, I guarantee you wouldn’t be creative.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, right, well especially that useful part…
DR. JUNG: [laughs] Exactly.
MS. TIPPETT: …that’s innovative and useful, and novel and useful. Another — so I was actually stunned and very excited about a New Yorker article that also said that this idea that we have about brainstorming as the best way to elicit creativity from a group of people and all the ground rules that go with that, about no questions, no judgment, that in fact has now been proven not to be true, but that it’s never held up scientifically. And I just want to ask you about that because you’ve studied creativity.
DR. JUNG: No, no. I do, and I get asked about that a lot. Well, what about brainstorming? It’s like brainstorming is the worst thing you can do [laughs]. The main reason why is because of this process of trying out strange new ideas versus when you put people together in a room, almost invariably they will try to conform socially. So you will get creative ideas, but you won’t get as creative when people are trying to please each other than when they’re trying to push the envelope. And so the studies invariably show that the quality of the creative ideas that people put out individually are invariably higher in quality than those done in a group format. So another myth bites the dust. And again, I mean, there’s always what about the writers of “Saturday Night Live” or something like that? They work in group formats. Yeah, but it’s different. I mean, they’re — where you have collaboration like that, there’s often an element of antagonism involved and critical interplay as opposed to cooperativeness.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. So could we — could we state that with positive affect and say relationship? [laughs]
DR. JUNG: Yes. [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: Which includes enough knowledge to be constructively antagonistic.
DR. JUNG: Yes, constructively antagonistic.
[music: “Wall Me Do” by Carl Stone]
MS. TIPPETT: It seems to me also, and this is a subtle point, but this feels important also, that the contrast to brainstorming where creativity can be demonstrated, there is still interaction. It’s a funny thing because, with brainstorming, you have rooms full of lots of people and they’re all spewing forth ideas, but they’re not interacting. That article talked about some building at MIT where there were just all kinds of informal interactions and conversations that happened all the time, as you say, with people who got to know each other over time, so they could be asking interesting questions of each other. I just found it very comforting because it struck home. It felt like, yes, yes, that is how it works when it works.
DR. JUNG: It is, and it’s more serendipitous. So you have Noam Chomsky at MIT rubbing shoulders with physicists and coming up with his…
MS. TIPPETT: …kind of by accident, right? Just ’cause he happened to be in that building.
DR. JUNG: By accident, exactly. Because he’s interacting with chemists and physicists and mathematicians by happenstance, he’s able to think differently about his ideas. And that’s one of the things about creativity, you know, getting what we call “stovepiped”. Having too narrow of a field of view really stifles creativity. So being able to broaden the horizons in that magical building at MIT, the name of which I can’t remember…
MS. TIPPETT: …I wrote it down. It’s Building 20.
DR. JUNG: Building 20. OK, we’ll call it Building 20 at MIT, that magical building where you could have this exchange of ideas and people running into each other and it’s kind of cold and dingy and people didn’t really want to be there.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, it was not the perfect environment.
DR. JUNG: No. It’s not this great, you know, Googleplex, where [laughs] you have ping-pong tables and it’s all perfectly designed to foster creativity supposedly. It’s kind of a dingy old building, it sounded like to me, where people were relegated when they didn’t have real office space for them and they were forced to think outside of their comfort zone. That’s kind of what I think is going on in the frontal lobes in this transient hypofrontality, where you’re getting outside of your comfort zone — where your brain has worn ruts in the road — and traveling other paths.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Walking down the hallway to get a glass of water and stopping someplace you didn’t expect to stop to think about a certain thing.
DR. JUNG: Hey, yeah. Look at this person that I ran into. And an idea is merged with another idea and it’s novel, it’s useful, it’s relevant. So I think that’s how it works in the physical space, and that’s a nice analogy for how I think it’s working in brain space.
MS. TIPPETT: I want to ask you about another one of these ideas, and this is, again, as a parent. Now this is one I’ve never seen industries built on, but it’s something that’s, to me, proven true in life, that there’s a connection between boredom and creativity, or between not having things given to you to do and then, you know, I think I’ve felt that with my children. When they actually are bored, it may be a really good thing for them ultimately because they have to come up with something. But then recently, I also interviewed a humorist, a very creative, brilliant person named Kevin Kling, who also just talked about, you know, being a child and how, back then, he did not have a schedule [laughs] and how much time he and his brother had just hanging around with nothing to do and actually how much came out of that.
DR. JUNG: I think, yeah, I talk to people about my childhood and how recess was the most important class of the day. [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
DR. JUNG: Where you — there’s the knowledge acquisition portion and then there’s the place where you have to let the ideas flow. If you’re always in knowledge acquisition mode, which is important, you have to put ideas in your head in order to put them together in novel and useful ways. But if you’re constantly in knowledge acquisition mode, there’s not that quiet time to put it together. This gets to another important creative trick, I guess, if you will, but almost invariably you hear, how do you induce transient hypofrontality? How can you do that? Some people’s brains, as we reported in our studies, are more set up that way.
You hear lots of stories of, you know, in history from Archimedes’ bath, where he discovered density by immersing himself in a bath and looking at displacement, he figured out he could measure how much gold is in a crown or something like that and cried, “Eureka!” But this warm bath or the long walk of Beethoven or Kekulé awakening from a dream and imagining a snake swallowing its own tail and thinking of a benzene ring. All of these have in common this hypofrontal state, whether it’s induced by a warm bath, walk, meditation, exercise, yoga.
MS. TIPPETT: There’s free space in there. There’s what we might call “downtime”.
DR. JUNG: There is downtime where your brain is not engaged in ongoing cognitive activity. Even exercise is a way to do that where, you know, you’re just working your body, but you’re not working your cognitive resources, and it induces this work space for you to meander around and put ideas together. And everyone knows the trick that works for them, the shower in the place or the yoga class or some people drink [laughs]. It’s a lot of ways to get there, but a lot of people know — creative people, in particular — know what trick works for them to get away. And for your children, to get back to your question, that’s an important space to cultivate, that recess from knowledge acquisition. You have to have the raw materials in place to put together, but you also have to have the time to put them together.
[music: “Sunny’s Song” by The Benevento Russo Duo]
MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this conversation with Rex Jung through our website, onbeing.org. There you’ll also find a link to the studies on brainstorming behind that article that Rex Jung and I just discussed. I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[music: “Sunny’s Song” by The Benevento Russo Duo]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today: “Creativity and the Everyday Brain.” I’m with Rex Jung, a neuropsychologist. He’s an expert on the brain networks involved in intelligence, and he’s now turned his attention to creativity. He works with the basic scientific definition, long though not uniformly held, of creativity as giving rise to something that is both “novel and useful.” Rex Jung and his colleagues are gaining a whole new view of the differences and the interactions between intelligence, creativity, and personality.
MS. TIPPETT: I wonder, are you familiar with the term that Einstein used of “spiritual genius?”
DR. JUNG: I’m vaguely familiar with it.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. The context of the remark that he made was his dismay with scientists in the early 20th century who were creating weapons of mass destruction when he had this beautiful view of science as something that transcended national boundaries and conflicts. And then chemists and physicists were creating these weapons. And he was very admiring of Gandhi, for example, who was his contemporary and he — his examples were Gandhi, Jesus, Moses, Buddha, St. Francis of Assisi — and he would say that the dignity and security and joy of humanity depended as much on these kinds of what he called geniuses in the art of living as it did on purveyors of objective knowledge. I’m just curious about, you know, what that phrase “spiritual genius” — how that strikes you. And where does that fit into this view you have of the notion of creativity and genius?
DR. JUNG: That’s a very complicated question. I think that typically invoking Einstein, well, with regard to scientific knowledge in general, there is an interplay between what we know, what we uncover, and dangers that can emerge from the knowledge that we gain, you know, for example, the nuclear bomb. This knowledge led to some knowledge that destroyed life. You know, now we’re tinkering around with the brain and we’re tinkering with the machine that allows us to be uniquely human. And now we’re starting to face some questions about what if we could make ourselves more intelligent?
Well, students are now taking cognitive-enhancing drugs like Ritalin and Modafinil. And what if we could electrically stimulate the brain? We’re starting to look at the ways — the other way that the brain communicates instead of chemically, electrically. And we can manipulate the brain electrically to change behavior. What if we could understand if someone was lying by putting them into an fMRI scanner? There’s ethicists and there’s neuroethicists working on this question. And I have belonged — I think I let it lapse — to the Neuroethical Society. But it’s very important questions. I don’t think we have the genius to address these very well, as Einstein alluded to.
MS. TIPPETT: Or you know, this is a variation on that question. Earlier on, you talked about your work with Special Olympics and how those experiences with people with mental disabilities — well, just changed your way of thinking about what it means to be human and also influenced your entry into science. One of the people I’ve interviewed is Jean Vanier. Are you familiar with him? He started the L’Arche Movement, which is a global movement of communities centered around people with mental disabilities, especially Down syndrome. I think, if Einstein had known him, he might have said there’s a spiritual genius. But even if you put that language to one side, I think that’s a form of creativity — there’s socially useful, novel and useful, creativity.
DR. JUNG: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, that fits your definition, but it’s not immediately what comes to mind. We think of artists, we think of scientists.
DR. JUNG: It’s not, but I totally agree that that is a form of creativity and a very valuable form of creativity and perhaps something that we’re moving towards in our increasingly complex society. It’s not just going to be a product. It’s not just going to be an artifact, like a painting or a dance number. It’s going to be moving groups of people together and motivating groups of people in certain ways, and that’s a creative endeavor in this L’Arche Movement that you’re talking about. This is a kind of social networking or mob casting or whatever the term is where people are really able to move together in a creative way — and that sounds like a new creative endeavor that we should start to recognize.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. I mean, people think differently and live differently as a result of this.
DR. JUNG: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: And unfortunately, it’s often true that people who are very intelligent and also very powerful might in fact be kind of stifling influences. You know, in fact, get loosed from a moral or creative or human center.
DR. JUNG: Yeah, and we have to, again, we can’t devolve to easy metaphors.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
DR. JUNG: I mean, there are highly intelligent people that are highly creative. That is true. And, I mean, you can look in the history and Da Vinci and Michelangelo and Marie Curie and Albert Einstein. I mean, these people are obviously at the pinnacle of creativity and the pinnacle of intelligence, but you also have people that are of lower levels of intelligence who are highly creative. Personality, I think, is an incredibly important and fascinating variable. And you can have people with high intelligence, high creativity, and yet just not working. They might not have the moral capacity to push their ideas forward. They might be evil. They might just be miserable people. I’m really fascinated currently with Steve Jobs. People are talking to me a lot about him because he…
MS. TIPPETT: …certainly a genius.
DR. JUNG: Certainly, yeah. Arguably a genius, a college dropout. I think he’s just a high school graduate, very intelligent, very creative, but really hard to get along with, miserable. So what’s going on there? Was that conducive to the creativity of those around him? What was going on with his personality? Did that allow him to succeed? Is that characteristic of creative people? Creative people oftentimes, I mean, the myth is that they’re magical people and that they’re adept in all aspects. But oftentimes, creative people are somewhat miserable and hard to get along with.
MS. TIPPETT: Right and depressed and…
DR. JUNG: Well, be careful now, we don’t want to devolve into another neuro-mythology.
MS. TIPPETT: OK, sorry, sorry. [laughs] But I mean there’s a lot of famous creative people across history who are also famously unhappy and it’s almost like that’s part of their creative process.
DR. JUNG: Yes. It can be and we don’t know, I mean it’s a chicken and egg question, you’ve got all these new useful ideas that the world doesn’t want to hear about. The world kind of likes the way they’ve been doing things. So does that make you miserable or is it the fact that you’re so obstinate and persistent in pushing that Sisyphean rock up the hill that makes you miserable? So there’s a lot to explore there and I would like to spend some time digging into these personality variables. There has to be something positive there that keeps people motivated but the downside is that sometimes it seems that highly creative people can be miserable.
MS. TIPPETT: So another way, another word that keeps coming to mind when I hear you is, you know, what is the connection between creativity and purpose?
DR. JUNG: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: When you talk about positive affect is one of the words that’s there in descriptions of your work. Does that get at some of this? When I hear that, my mind also goes to virtue, whether you understand that in any kind of religious way or not.
DR. JUNG: I think I do. I mean, I’m kind of a closet — you know, I attend Episcopalian services with my wife, who’s Episcopalian, but I’m kind of a closet deist, [laughs] so …
MS. TIPPETT: Not anymore [laughs]. Now it’s out in the open.
DR. JUNG: But, so I really do try to understand, and I’ve described myself as an existential neuropsychologist. When I treat patients, I really try to figure out with them how to find meaning in their life. So these are patients that have suffered brain injuries and usually they’re not going back to that great brain that they had before their traumatic brain injury, before their tumor, before the diagnosis with multiple sclerosis. So it’s often — the task is to start a new chapter in this book that is their life. And that’s a very existential question to really figure out how to find meaning in one’s life. And I research about half the time and I do clinical work about half the time. And my patients really bring meaning to my research work and my research work, I think, brings relevance to my patients.
And this work with creativity, I think, is important because I think it is a uniquely human characteristic that provides meaning in one’s life and that provides value and ultimately meaning, whether it’s spiritual, personal, familial. It really hits all those buttons, regardless of which one you want to hit. I think it’s an important capacity that, again, if my hypotheses are correct and as our brains start to unravel as we age, it’s something that could only be increasing in terms of our capacity to engage in as we age, as opposed to trying to hold onto this intelligence which will be slipping away.
MS. TIPPETT: You could think of making meaning out of whatever the raw materials of your life is really the creative work of the everyday and of a lifetime.
DR. JUNG: Yeah, it is, and being, you know, kind of deistically oriented, I think this is it. So what we leave here as the residue of our life and our creative works is it. So, if we’re able to leave some sort of residue of our life behind, our creative works is an important part of that. So I put great stock in creativity for that reason on a personal basis, if not for a spiritual basis.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, I wanted to ask you about — we’ve just wandered into this, you know, what you can measure and what you can’t. Because even when you talk about that residue, it’s often the relationships you leave behind, right? The love you leave behind or the lives you’ve helped form. That too is a successful relationship. It takes every bit as much creativity as intelligence, maybe more.
DR. JUNG: I’ll say [laughs].
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
DR. JUNG: Yeah, and it is a creative work and you’re constantly, hopefully, not just doing the same thing over and over, but trying new things, trying different things, hoping that they’re useful. And it’s an interactive exchange between two people at the most basic level, between members of a family at a broader level and between members of a community at the broadest level. You know, this community is created that leaves a residue behind that is incredibly meaningful forever potentially.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, right.
DR. JUNG: That is as close to immortality as you’re going to get.
[music: “Thin Air” by Michael Brook]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett with On Being. Today: “Creativity and the Everyday Brain” — I’m with neuropsychologist and creativity researcher, Rex Jung.
[music: “Thin Air” by Michael Brook]
MS. TIPPETT: I want to come back to something you said a minute ago that was so intriguing about your sense of aging. So tell me again. So you think we lose some capacities. We certainly lose capacities. What do we lose and what can we gain?
DR. JUNG: Well, it’s pretty well known from neuroanatomists that our brains are myelinating. The wires that connect up different regions of our brain are myelinating as we develop. And that peaks in our frontal lobes in our early 40s, and that thereafter it starts to unwind and de-myelinate, gradually starting at the front of the brain and working to the back of the brain.
MS. TIPPETT: When you say “de-myelinate,” what does that mean?
DR. JUNG: The insulation around the wires. So if you think of the myelin as the insulation around the wires that keeps the electrical current from leaking to other wires, you know, it’s the same thing as the blue stuff around your Internet wire. It keeps the signal going down the wire instead of leaking from side to side. So the myelin allows the electrical signal to transmit faster and more efficiently. So that myelin completes its developmental trajectory up in our mid 40s and then thereafter reverses. And so, I think that we might be able to take advantage of that. Everyone — I don’t know how old you are, but I’m 47, so I’m on that downward trajectory.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m a little older than you.
DR. JUNG: So on that downward trajectory, and I work with a lot of patients who are worried about their cognitive decline in their 50s and 60s and want to have that brain of their 20s and 30s. And that is frankly unrealistic. Our memory is going to start getting spottier. We’re not going to have that word quickly at the tip of our tongue. And that’s just the way of the world and that’s the way our brain winds down before we die. However, this capacity of our brain as it changes can be co-opted for creative capacity.
If transient hypofrontality is true, this is more conducive to that hypofrontal state. And there’s lots of apocryphal stories about older people and, you know, they’re retired and that may be the reason, but older people picking up a paintbrush, picking up a musical instrument and being creative, undertaking volunteer activities and getting more engaged in doing things. My mother started quilting in her 60s and is now winning prizes at quilt shows. I mean, she is enjoying herself immensely in her early 70s. This is something that makes sense in terms of the time she has, the abilities she has, and the way her brain is winding down as she ages.
MS. TIPPETT: So is this another way to think about wisdom? We observe, not everyone, but that many people become wise, which you say is another creative capacity. Can you see wisdom in the brain? I know it’s hard to even define.
DR. JUNG: Yeah. I don’t know anything about wisdom [laughs] is the easiest answer. However, I think wisdom is probably the accumulation of this knowledge base and this back and forth between the frontal lobes and transient hypofrontality and lots of disappointments and successes and compromises and the fact that you’ve solved lots of problems in your life successfully.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. JUNG: Some people are less wise because they get stuck in the rut, I suspect, and they keep banging that same drum. The people who are wise, I think, have taken the creative challenge of life and solved it well.
MS. TIPPETT: I do want to ask you what the relevance for your work and even for your life is. Richard Davidson is somebody I’ve also interviewed who’s contributed to our understanding of neuroplasticity that our brain can change across our life spans. Of course, he did that by studying the brains of meditating Tibetan Buddhist monks. But I find that to be so encouraging, that idea.
DR. JUNG: [laughs] Everyone does, yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, and you’ve just given a more concrete example of how our brains change, in this instant, something that’s been lost. But as you’re saying, it’s a dynamic process. But I suspect you get asked this question a lot. So how, if we assume that we can cultivate qualities like creativity or creativity with purpose, how would you go about doing that or how do you think about these things as you go through your life?
DR. JUNG: Well, I think there are some strategies to cultivating creativity. In thinking about Dr. Davidson’s work in neuroplasticity, you need to get some stuff in your head, some raw materials, in order to be with which to be creative. So that 10,000-hour thing Malcolm Gladwell talks about…
MS. TIPPETT: …you have to practice, right? You have to practice.
DR. JUNG: You practice, practice, practice. That 10,000-hour thing is probably right, not 10 years. But it takes a lot of time to change the structure of your brain and there are several studies out there now. You know, the famous juggling study where they have novices who don’t know how to juggle. They image them, then they juggle for three months, they image them again and they see that literally a portion of their brain, a small chunk, but a portion of their brain is beefed up like a muscle in service of that concerted thing that they’re doing with their brain. And that is the thing. The important thing is they’re doing a very new thing in a concerted way. And their brain says, hey, if we’re going to be doing this thing in the environment over and over and over, I’m going to build tissue to do that so that we can do it easier and more efficiently. So if you’re going to be creative, pick one thing, get a lot of experience in that one thing, and do it over and over and over.
That playfulness is a second aspect where you can have down time basically and play with ideas, whether that’s the long walk or the recess or whatever we talked about. This downtime is incredibly important to allow that raw material to come together in novel and useful ways as transient hypofrontality. This persistence is — perseverance is incredibly important because, once you find a good idea, pushing it forward into the world is going to be difficult and a lot of rejection is usually the matter of course for people who are creative. And then research. We haven’t touched upon this, but research almost invariably shows that highly creative people put out lots and lots of ideas. It’s very rare that…
MS. TIPPETT: …and they’re not all brilliant, right?
DR. JUNG: And they’re not all brilliant. You have a lot of failures and it’s not the one-hit wonders that win the day. It’s thousands and thousands of ideas. Picasso put out, you know, 20,000 individual pieces of art, and I can guarantee you they’re not all good [laughs].
MS. TIPPETT: No matter how much they would all sell for today.
DR. JUNG: Exactly. So we’d love to have one, but they’re not all — he’s trying lots of different ideas. And so those four things are pretty good strategies based on pretty solid neuroscience exploiting this neuroplasticity that you talk about.
MS. TIPPETT: And, just asking you personally, I’ve seen you somewhere mention a son, that you have a son, how does this science you’ve done, how does that flow into for example your life as a parent and how you think about raising children in the world. What would you maybe do differently that you wouldn’t have known before?
DR. JUNG: I guess that’s another element of why I’m interested in creativity. My son is — well, both my children are very intelligent — my son is very artistic. And so I’m looking at him not as a scientist but I’m looking at him as a father and going, he’s really intelligent but he’s got this different thing going on in his brain [laughs] where he just loves to draw and loves to do these different things with his brain that I don’t fully understand, I would like to know what’s going on in his brain. And I’m still trying to understand that process about how the artist’s brain works. As a parent, I think letting children explore that space is enormously important.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. My last question: you were on a panel on the World Science Festival on “Beautiful Minds.” I just wanted to ask you because of the life you live and the work you do, you know what, what does that phrase conjure up for you? What is a beautiful mind?
DR. JUNG: A beautiful mind is one that comes to my lab to be studied [laughs]. No, they were talking about genius, but a beautiful mind, I have to go back to the Special Olympics days and some of the minds of the individuals that I met. And this sounds really trite, but those people, some of those individuals, will stay with me for the rest of my life. It had a profoundly influential impact on the course of my life, and the beauty and nature of those broken minds was very important to my understanding of this thing that we talked about, positive neuroscience. There’s something very positive in the brains and minds of these individuals that are seen as disabled. And that really — you know, while we were talking about genius on that panel, I always go back to the touchstone of my early transformation, if you will, [laughs] when I decided to take this path in life. So that’s a beautiful mind to me.
[music: “Sixtyniner” by Boards of Canada]
MS. TIPPETT: Rex Jung is an Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. He’s a Distinguished Senior Advisor to the Positive Neuroscience Project, based at the University of Pennsylvania.
[music: “Sixtyniner” by Boards of Canada]
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[music: “Nomadic Art” by Live Footage]
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