Neurobiology, Creativity, Madness, and Their Vicissitudes

First published in NAAP News (Winter 2012 issue):

by Inna Rozentsvit

If a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the Muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane compositions never reach perfection, but are utterly eclipsed by the performances of the inspired madman. ~ Plato

The phenomenon of creativity has always puzzled humanity. Historically, reactions to creativity have run through a wide gamut of emotions (everything from envy to awe) and behaviors (from witch-hunts to naming cities, universities, and even generations after a creative soul). People of various social, economic, educational, and professional backgrounds have tried to find the ingredients that make a person creative. What do we know about this so far?
Looking through the literature published in the mental health field, we’ll find a lot of associations between creativity and “madness.” And it is true that creative “madness” has become a norm, an attribute of many great creative minds. Just to recall a few are Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allen Poe, Lord Byron, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, and Vincent Van Gogh. Lord Byron once said, “We of the craft are all crazy.” Creative “madness” is very much cherished by many creative minds themselves, as it is adored and romanticized by the rest of us. When “under the influence” of creativity of another, we sometimes feel “mad” ourselves. Just listen to Robert Schumann, read Virginia Woolf, or watch Charlie Sheen! Although psychoanalysts are puzzled and fascinated by creative minds, many creative minds try to stay away from psychoanalysts, and for one simple reason: they do not want to be “normal,” lose their creativity, and become “dull and boring.” Can they really lose creativity? What can neuroscience tell us about it and about creativity in general?

First, we need to define creativity, to eliminate confusion of tongues. Scientists dedicated to the field of creativity define it as production of something novel/original/unexpected, and which is useful/adaptive/appropriate (for the task) (Feist, 1998); and it is “grounded in ordinary mental processes” (Boden, 1998; Dietrich, 2004; Ward et al., 1999; Weisberg, 1993). In recent years, some groups of neuroscientists (Kaufman et al., 2011) looked into de-constructing the creativity puzzle by evaluating the creativity of “non-human animals.” They insist that there is a 3-level model of creativity for all. The first level represents recognition of novelty (as a cognitive ability, based on hippocampal functions) and novelty seeking (based on dopamine system’s function). The second level is called observational learning, which includes a wide range of activities ranging from imitation to the “cultural transmission of creative behavior.” This level depends on cerebellar and cortical functions. The third level is the innovative behavior, which relies on the pre-frontal cortex and/or a balance between the right and left hemispheres (and not right hemispheric preference as it was assumed in the past). Kaufman et al. (2001) proposed an interesting view of the levels of creativity process as a spectrum rather than a hierarchy. This means that mastering each level is not necessary to achieve creativity.

With the help of new imaging techniques (like Positron Emission Tomography (PET), Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT), and functional MRI (fMRI)), neuroscientists have finally abandoned the theory of “brain centers” for a newer model of neural circuitry and relays. They determined that the prefrontal cortex is the main relay for creative thinking, and not a “seat for creativity,” as it was suggested in the pre-functional imaging era (Camfield, 2005). Neuroscientists utilize other modes of investigation, like electroencephalography (EEG) and evaluation of personality traits (e.g., “Openness to Experience” scales), as well as looking into patterns of heightened visual creativity (or at-new appearance of creativity) in people diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia (FTD) (Camfield, 2005).

Advances of cognitive neuroscience led to discoveries that novelty is generated through (1) deliberate or (2) spontaneous modes of thought, which involve (3) emotional and/or (4) cognitive types of information. Combinations of (1) or (2) modes of thought with (3) or (4) types of information produce four basic types of creativity: 1) deliberate mode-cognitive structures (relies on knowledge and “nimble” prefrontal cortex); 2) deliberate-emotional (instigated by “frontal attention network,” but using memory stored in emotional structures, like amygdala, cingulate cortex, and other, more complex structures); 3) spontaneous mode-cognitive structures (often produces the “Eureka” experience, originating from insights from associative unconscious thinking, and involves basal ganglia); and 4) spontaneous-emotional (produces epiphany/revelations/religious experiences) (see Dietrich, 2004).

It is suggested that there are no “pure” types, and in most people, creativity represents a mix of the four. In the meantime, it seems that insights gained during psychotherapy session are best represented by the deliberate mode-emotional structures type. We can postulate that insights based on deliberate mode of operation in relation to structures of basic emotions (e.g., amygdala) are limited, and probably represent our psychic defenses. In the meantime, there is no limitation of deliberate direction of neural processing from prefrontal cortex to more complex (social) emotions. This involves taking in consideration personal and societal values, and possibly represents the super-ego mechanisms of neural processing.

The spontaneous mode-cognitive structures type of creativity presented itself when Newton watched an apple fall and discovered gravity. It presented itself when Einstein imagined himself on a ray of light and came up with the theory of relativity. This type of creativity is known to drive “thinking outside of the box” and “creative thinking,” which itself is utilized for impasse situations by “relaxing the constrains,” whereupon one would remove the problem from the conscious process to allow the subconscious and unconscious neural processes to drive the solutions to consciousness as “pop-up” ideas (Dietrich, 2004).

Of course, all of us can imagine the spontaneous mode-emotional structures type of creativity as being represented in the arts and literature; e.g., in William Blake’s: “Tiger, tiger, burning bright…,” or Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” or Maurizio Cattelan’s contemporary art images shown recently at the Guggenheim Museum. When emotional structures are activated, they bring to consciousness signals (memories) that were impressive to our body in the past. This in turn activates the need for creative expression, which is not domain-specific, and does not require any specific knowledge, though it might require skills (painting, music-writing, etc.). It seems that people who utilize mostly this type of creativity feel this connection to “madness” (or emotional imbalance), which brings them (or not) to a psychotherapeutic situation. Mild-to-severe psychopathology (depression, bipolar disorders, addictions, personality disorders) is observed in 25-31% of composers, 30-38% of painters, and 30-35% of writers, in comparison with 7-10% of controls (Andreassen, 2006; Jamison, 1993; and Post, 1994). “Creative rush” known to people with this type of creativity display symptoms similar to hypomanic state: hyperactivity, hyper-ideation, loose associations, hyper-concentration, pressured speech, etc. (Everitt & Robbins, 2005; Tobena, 2006). This is understandable because we know today that the creative drive is fueled through the dopaminergic system (as are hypomanic states), and it can be related to abnormalities in the temporal area (anatomically). Inversely, creative blocks are related to low dopamine drive and/or dysfunction in the frontal lobe (Flaherty, 2005). Further investigation of this type of creativity (spontaneous mode-emotional structures) will possibly bring us closer to understanding early object relations, which are also based on spontaneous circuitry (like Bion’s linking) involving basic emotional memories and our bodily and psychic reactions to them. Although neuroscientists make significant advances in building the “database” for creatologists, transdisciplinary explorations (including psychoanalysis) are required, including psychoanalysis, to complete the task.