The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius (2005, Dana Press), by Nancy C. Andreasen, is a slender book geared to the lay reader. Andreasen’s style is breezy and conversational; if she teaches her classes at the University of Iowa in the same voice, I’d guess she’s a popular prof. What the book lacks is an explanation of the neuroscience behind genius-level creativity promised in the subtitle. If you are hoping to see how the brain chemistry of brilliant artists differs from ours, or to marvel at brain scans of inventors at work, you’ll be disappointed. That’s not Andreasen’s fault – that kind of work simply doesn’t exist yet. That doesn’t mean the book isn’t a good primer on the creative brain, though. Andreasen has actually done some of the early and best work in the area of creativity and psychology; her research focused on the interesting relationship between creativity and mental illness.
That relationship is one of the interesting areas explored by The Creating Brain. Research by both Andreasen and others shows that there IS a correlation between creativity and various types of mental illness, both in the creative individual and in family members. Not all creative people demonstrate symptoms or have a family history of mental illness, but both characteristics are more likely for creative individuals. In the author’s study of accomplished writers, 43% showed indications of some kind of bipolar disorder, vs. only 10% of the individuals in a control group. Fully 80% of the writers had a history of a mood disorder, vs 30% of the control subjects. She concludes that some aspects of mental illness, when weakly present, might boost creativity. Delusions, for example, are most often misperceptions or misinterpretation of external information. While full-blown delusional behavior is clearly not good for creativity or any other productive result, novel interpretations and perceptions of the world can lead to creative breakthroughs.
Andreasen spends some time on the creative process as described by brilliant historical figures. Many describe it as a sort of altered state of consciousness where thoughts and insight come in a rush that is quite different from a normal reasoning process. She also steps lightly into the nature vs. nurture debate, concluding that both are important but pointing out that “nature” doesn’t always mean heredity. Some highly creative individuals exhibit such behavior at an early age and without any particular environmental variables which explain it, but their parents often have no apparent history of extreme creativity. Sometimes, it seems, the genes just come together in the right way to produce a creative prodigy.
Andreasen spends a chapter on creativity and brain plasticity, dubbing it “Building Better Brains”. She describes research that shows brains can be changed by training and use, and then suggests some activities both for adults wanting to improve their brains and for parents seeking to give babies and young children a boost. These are interesting and logical, but whether they will turn anyone into a Leonardo da Vinci, or even an effective copywriter, has yet to be demonstrated.
Despite the lack of hard neuroscienctific research data on creativity, there’s quite a bit of interesting information in this book for those interested in how creativity happens, and why some individuals are much more creative than others. If you want to understand creativity better, or are responsible for fostering creativity in your work environment, invest a few hours in The Creating Brain.