Radio Cade

What Makes You Think You’re Creative?

January 27, 2021 Rex Jung Season 3 Episode 22
Radio Cade
What Makes You Think You’re Creative?
Show Notes Transcript

Where does creativity live in the brain, and why does it matter?  We talk to Rex Jung, a clinical professor of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico, a research scientist at the Mind Research Network, and a practicing clinical neuropsychologist in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Jung talks about how standard measurements of creativity correlate with the structure of the brain, and how the brain can “rewire” itself to take on challenging or unfamiliar tasks. This is especially important in our early years, but still effective as we grow older.


Intro:

Inventors and their inventions. Welcome to Radio Cade the podcast from the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention in Gainesville, Florida, the museum is named after James Robert Cade, who invented Gatorade in 1965. My name is Richard Miles. We'll introduce you to inventors and the things that motivate them, we'll learn about their personal stories, how their inventions work and how their ideas get from the laboratory to the marketplace.

Richard Miles:

Where does creativity live in the brain and why does it matter? Welcome to Radio Cade. I'm your host Richard Miles today, I'm talking to Rex Jung, a clinical professor of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico, a research scientist at the Mind Research Network and a practicing clinical neuropsychologist in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Dr. Jung studies, both brain disease and what the brain does well, a field of research known as positive neuroscience. Welcome to Radio Cade , Rex .

Rex Jung:

Thanks for having me.

Richard Miles:

So you have done a lot of fascinating research and a lot of very interesting areas, including traumatic brain injury, lupus, schizophrenia, intelligence, and creativity. So Rex, we can either make this the first of 18 episodes on your work, or we can pick one. So I say, let's talk about creativity if that's okay with you.

Rex Jung:

Sounds good.

Richard Miles:

So I took a look at some of your recent research on creativity. And one thing that jumped out to me as a layman, I don't have any special expertise in the background was your use of tests to determine baseline levels of creativity. I noticed that you mentioned something called the creative achievement questionnaire, and you also use something called a musical creativity questionnaire. So we can start with what your working definition of creativity is, which I assume these things measure these tests measure, and then tell us, how were those tests developed? How do you know they're accurate? And then how do they differ from other tests that have been around for instance, to test on divergent thinking?

Rex Jung:

So at the onset, I should say that as a neuropsychologist, I'm very keenly aware of test reliability and validity. And the tests in creative cognition are universally somewhat crappy. That's not a technical term, but it is a term that kind of captures the fact that we've only been trying to capture this construct in the last 50, 70 years, and only really aggressively trying to study this in the last 10 or 15. So we inherited measures that came to us from the past and the creative achievement questionnaire, as you mentioned, first is perhaps one of the better of these that it just measures your achievements in 10 different domains. It was a test created by Dr. Carson at Harvard, I believe and it really quantifies or attempts to quantify creative cognition across things from most generally in the sciences and the arts more specifically in things like inventions versus culinary arts. So it really quantifies things across those domains to answer a different part of your question. The definition is not one of mine of creativity, but one inherited from Dr. Stein in the 1950s who defined creativity as the production of something novel and useful. And that dichotomy is really interesting looking at novelty on the one hand utility on the other. And there arises from that brain mechanisms that could tap novelty versus utility. And finally you're mentioned of divergent thinking is one of the measures of novelty generation that has been used since the 1950s. And that is okay, but not the only measure I'm hopeful as we move forward in this field, that we can develop better metrics and measures of creative cognition.

Richard Miles:

Well, that helps a lot Rex and creativity on one hand, it's very popular in that people like to talk about creativity in terms of musicians and artists and what makes them tick. But it seems like there are also a lot of fairly common misconceptions about how creativity actually works in the brain like, Oh, well, creative people, they're using their right brain and it's uncreative people using their left brain and that sort of stuff. How definitively does the research show that those conceptions misconceptions are either serious or inaccurate or flat out wrong? The way it works in the brain for most people sort of a black box, right? They just think something happens in there . Some of us are creative, some are not. What does the research show in terms of how it actually is working neurologically?

Rex Jung:

I'll correct a misconception that just arose in your description of that. Some of us are creative and some of us are not. I think, in my research and did my hypothesizing about creativity. It is clear to me and research our research and other research supports this, that creativity is a type of problem solving. And so everyone has to have that at some level. It's either more or less of it. And if creativity is a type of problem solving for very low incident problems, it is valuable in the fact that we are able to think outside the box and come up with something novel and useful, that would address problem. That is less prevalent in our day-to-day life. I like to think about creativity as being somewhat dichotomous, but overlapping with a construct of intelligence where it's also a type of problem solving, but it's problem solving for things that happen on a more regular basis, as opposed to once in a hundred years with a hundred year flood, for example, what am I going to do? My house is going to be underwater. I need to figure out something really novel and useful to get out of this particular. So there are a number of what we call neuro mythologies about creativity. And you mentioned one of them that creativity resides in the right brain or right hemisphere. This arises from work with neurosurgeon theory, I believe, and a neuroscientist who looked at patients that had epilepsy and they separate the corpus callosum, which is the central connecting structures between the left and right hemisphere. And they discovered that the left and right brains function somewhat differently. The left is more logical and linear and reading and math tend to be localized in that have a hemisphere. And then the right hemisphere is more synthetic and adaptive and some artistic capabilities might reside more over there. So that is where this neural mythology of left brain right brain or right brain locus of creativity emerged from our research has found that, and others have found that it takes nearly your whole brain to be effectively creative. And it doesn't reside in one hemisphere or one lobe of the brain, but it's an integration of different parts of the brain that are critical to creative success. Another myth is that you have to be extremely intelligent to be creative. A genius, Einstein and Newton, Picasso, and Michael Jordan are particular examples of genius in their particular domains. But as I tried to dispel the myth that you somewhat articulated earlier, everyone has creative capacity. It's, it's a matter of more or less than how you use it, what domain you use it, but creativity in my conceptualization is a critical problem solving capacity. Another myth is that you have to be kind of crazy to be creative, that there has to be some sort of neuro pathology in order to express creativity. And , and we have every number of examples of the mad genius from Vincent van Gogh to John Nash, who won the Nobel prize in economics. The movie A Beautiful Mind was formed after there is an equal number and greater number of the averse that no hint of neuropathology is associated with the creativity of Michelangelo or Edison. So these neuro myths prevail because we continue to view creativity as somehow elusive and a capacity that is given to us from the gods when actually it is a critical component of everyday thinking.

Richard Miles:

So a lot of progress has been made generally in the field of neuroscience, particularly since the development of the functional MRI. What in particular strikes you say from the last couple of years in the field of creativity in neuroscience, that you're excited about, that points to deeper or higher levels of understanding of how creativity operates in the brain, this sort of stuff that hasn't made it yet into the popularized science articles.

Rex Jung:

I'm most excited, perhaps about this studies of interplay between intelligence and creativity. There have been issues in neuro-psychology and one coming out in the journal of intelligence, which explore the interplay or overlap between intelligence and creativity, because my hypothesis is centered around these both being problem solving capacities. It's important to understand where there's overlap and where there is different . So I'm most excited about neuropsychological and neuroimaging studies, which look at brain networks that underlie intelligent problem solving as opposed to, or in addition to brain networks that are involved in creative problem solving. And I think that will really give us some insight into whether these problem solving capacities are rather similar. If one is hierarchically located above the other, like intelligence is very important and creativity comes from intelligence, or if they're rather disparate or different from each other. I think that is exciting research.

Richard Miles:

I'm guessing that a lot of people are looking at research or your type of research that you're doing and seeing, does this have useful implication for, for instance, educators in particular at the preschool and primary school levels, or what are your preliminary conclusions or findings in terms of, are there ways that kids learn that perhaps should be changed with an eye towards enhancing their ability to learn more creatively or be more creative?

Rex Jung:

I do have some preliminary ideas about this. It is very hard to translate neuroscientific research to actual life, but I think that there are some preliminary indications that there are things that we might consider doing differently. One thing that I usually recommend is adequate time for downtime that lets your brain meander or cogitate or think about ideas in a very non-linear way. And so the best example I have for this is for my own life where I think one of the most valuable classes for me in elementary school was recess. And so recess, what is it just play or is there something else going on? And I think there's something very important going on where people are taking the knowledge that they've learned in the classroom in their life and being more playful with it and more nonlinear with it. And so that downtime, I think is incredibly important. I know caring stories from the students and teachers, our pre COVID educational paradigm was centered around a lot of homework and a lot of knowledge acquisition, which is an important aspect of creativity and intelligence and learning, but not the only one. There has to be time to put ideas together in novel and useful ways that requires a different approach and requires a more relaxed approach than is provided by just drilling towards knowledge, acquisition and testing.

Richard Miles:

So may be an example of actually where popular consumption gets it , right. When you think about these stories of the Eureka, you know, Archimedes in the bathtub where after a period of relaxation, or like you said, the mind wandering and meandering, they hit upon, or the circuits come together and they have this insight, but obviously based on knowledge, they already possessed, right? Most of the people have these insights are happen to be experts in the field.

Rex Jung:

Yeah, you have to have some thing in your brain to put together in a novel and useful way. So there is a knowledge acquisition part that is critically important to gather the raw materials necessary to be creative. But then Archimedes is perhaps the best example of sitting in the bathtub and figuring out how you would measure the amount of gold and a crown and water dispersion and Eureka. I have it where you have figured out a way to measure something in a very non-intuitive way. And so that downtime, and oftentimes people describe this arising from taking a bath or a long walk or run or doing something that is very non-cognitive where ideas are jumbling around and merging in unique ways and even sleep where they can come up with an idea that otherwise would have been elusive.

Richard Miles:

So one problem I face is that my wife has all of her creative ideas, right I'm about to go to sleep. And she wants to tell me about them. And then we've learned how to solve that problem. I say, no, tell me in the morning, because I can't deal with your creative idea right now.

Rex Jung:

It's interesting because she is telling you those ideas right before she falls asleep. When her mind is in a very relaxed state, when the day's tasks are behind her, frankly, a perfect time to explore those. But perhaps she should explore those on her own because there's no one size fits all.

Richard Miles:

Yeah. The unfair thing is she can tell me the idea and fall asleep and I solved the problem in my head and I can't fall asleep.

Rex Jung:

Yeah. You'll take up that idea and really start working it and then not be able to go to sleep. So, and that's an important thing to consider too, is that there are different creative styles and some people really want to offload if you will, those creative ideas before she falls asleep, but then other people really want to work them and form them and look at them from different angles. And that's a creative process too, is to really be deliberative about that creative process. And there's a major theories that talk about spontaneous versus more deliberate creativity. And it sounds like you and your wife are matched well and that you have complimentary styles, but she should perhaps write those down and then you can start working on them in the morning.

Richard Miles:

Well , I was going to say that most of my creative thoughts used to happen when I'd go running and an idea would pop in my head, but it just occurred to me that for the last year or so, I listened to podcasts instead while I run and I actually don't have as many creative ideas. Right. Cause my mind is distracted listening to the story or two people talk.

Rex Jung:

It's working on information. Yeah. And on your internal process.

Richard Miles:

So Rex , one thing I think you can probably say about Americans in general is that there's this tremendous thirst for anything related to self-improvement and self-health so in the realm of creativity, sometimes h ere versions of this, particularly people my age mid to late fifties, I know you can rewire your brain. You can teach yourself new things, you stave off dementia and so on. And again, I'm not asking you to speculate too much, but is there anything in your findings that provide ammunition for those who say, Hey, we can all rewire our brains, become Picasso, or is it more i n the direction of, sorry about a year or two old and s et i n your age. So just keep playing golf and watching reruns. Is there any way for those later in life, let's say m iddle-aged and beyond, do they still have a significant ability to increase their level of creativity?

Rex Jung:

Yeah. So I think neither of those things are true in their extreme. You can neither massively rewire your brain to be something that it has not developed to be over decades, nor is it hopeless on the other side of the spectrum. But I think some middle ground is probably appropriate. I mean, we know that the brain is incredibly plastic when we are infants and learning things and acquiring new information and forming neural networks that underlie language, visual process as motor processing that decreases over the lifespan and it decreases in known way is the capacity to change your brain by changing your mind. And while you can modulate your brain function through concerted effort, that becomes harder over time. So if you are making a decision to make a major change in your life in your fifties and you and I sound like we're the same age, although you're quite a bit less gray than I, I would say it's going to take a bit more effort and a concerted effort to do that. And that while the fantasy or hype about neuro-plasticity would imply that we can completely change our brain by doing this different thing. That's probably more a factor of one to 3% change in terms of cognitive capacity. So I would encourage people at any age. And I think as our brains change in our fifties and up there is more of an opportunity to make more disparate connections than we would when we were younger. And we had many more tasks in front of us. You were talking about listening to podcasts on your runs and yeah, that changes your run from a free-wheeling kind of associative process to a knowledge acquisition process. And it's going to be significantly harder to do that creative thing when you are consuming the creative product of other people and learning. So it's important to do both learning and creative expression simultaneously, but that has to be balanced. And in older people like you and me , I think that's really critical to set aside time to do nothing or do less or not acquire knowledge anymore . But extrapolate that be my best advice.

Richard Miles:

I've read a couple of good articles in the popular press . I'm sure you've probably seen them too. Hypothesizing the connection between boredom and creativity and particularly in young kids, right? When your bored is where you think of perhaps a fantasy game, or you tell a story to yourself or make up a story because you just want occupy your mind. But if your mind is occupied, as you said, with a TV show or a video game or whatnot, you're probably less likely to find the need to create something in your own head .

Rex Jung:

Yeah. Boredom is kind of the bane of our modern existence. People talk about it as a bad thing, but it actually is an important aspect of our lives that force us, or invite us to use our brains in ways that can transcend our current experience. We can imagine. I mean, I can go anywhere in my mind's eye from countries that I visited in the past to traveling to different planets in the galaxy. I can imagine just about anything and boredom invites us to use our imaginative ability to create different realities and create different ideas that might not have existed before.

Richard Miles:

So I guess I have to be careful how far I take this example because then of course people go, well, I'm not gonna listen to your podcast because then you're going to distract me from thinking great thoughts . So we've got to keep this within reason.

Rex Jung:

Well, it's a both thing. Like I said, I listened to the podcast to acquire knowledge, but then find some recess time to do your own thing and to put those ideas that you've acquired together in novel and useful ways. And I think that is the correct balance as far as the literature would suggest.

Richard Miles:

So Rex, I like to ask all my guests a little bit about themselves and their background. And you're originally from Boulder, Colorado, your mother was a technical writer. Your dad was a hospital administrator. So first question, what was it like to grow up in Boulder? I've only been once or maybe twice. And what was your first clue that you'd be spending your career studying the brain?

Rex Jung:

Well, that's a big question, but I loved growing up in Boulder. Boulder was a fantastic rich environment of very diverse kind of experiences from Buddhism and the Naropa Institute high-tech centers of engineering and NCAR is their National Center for Atmospheric Research. I mean just a real smorgasbord, if you will, of opportunities to see different ways that one might want to spend one's intellectual life. Unfortunately, I chose as my undergraduate degree. Well , I don't know if it's unfortunate. It's hard to say I'd studied finance business and got a degree and went into the business world and was not super happy about the intellectual opportunities for me in the world that I had chosen. So I quit that job started volunteering for Special Olympics with friends of mine, and really became interested in bringing structure and function in brains that work well and brains that work differently and really started to pursue the path of, well , you know, what's going on in these brains and what is happening to create an individual who is intellectually disabled, but has incredible artistic capabilities. And I'm not talking about the art that your children produce that you put up on the refrigerator, but Alonzo Clemons, who is an autistic savant, creating just massively, technically detailed representations of animals that will sell for thousands and thousands of dollars. These brains are fascinating in their variability. And I wanted to go into studies and a career that looked at that. And that's kind of what brought me here all these many years later,

Richard Miles:

Growing up in Colorado, where you outdoorsy, were you a ski bum? Did you do a lot of hiking or how has that sort of influenced you?

Rex Jung:

I wasn't in anything bum, but I really enjoy camping and going out on my own and camping on the continental divide in Colorado and did a lot of that. So a lot of time to think I would bring, I have this somewhat embarrassing book , uh , memory of bringing Dante's Inferno to read while I was camping on the continental divide. And then this lightning storm almost killed me and I thought I was going to go straight to hell. So , uh , I mean really a lot of time to be by myself, to look at the stars to revel in natural beauty of Colorado. I skied, I hiked, I ran , I did all of the things, but I wasn't a bum of any of those. I wasn't an expert in really any of those, but I just really loved growing up in Colorado and a very fun memories. Now that I've brought to New Mexico, a lot of natural beauty here, fewer people, I'm an outdoors guy, I guess, at my root .

Richard Miles:

Yeah. One thing we always tell foreign friends for visitors, you really have not experienced the United States unless you've had a chance to drive out West long distances for long periods of time. And then you really appreciate the profound nature of our country in terms of physical beauty and so on.

Rex Jung:

I totally agree. And most people who visit us from foreign countries spend time in LA or New York, or maybe Florida at Disney World, but there's a vast opportunity to explore something on a more meandering route through the middle parts of the country. And the West is certainly got a big place in my heart.

Richard Miles:

So Rex final question that will allow you to be a little bit philosophical here, a lot philosophical if you'd like, but being a pioneer researcher sounds really cool to most people, but by definition people in your field or people like you are studying things that haven't been studied very much and reaching conclusions that may seriously undermine conventional wisdom. So you're at the age, as you said, where you start getting asked for advice by younger researchers or students or so on, and who may be in the process of picking a career or picking a field, what do you say about that subject or that potential obstacle? That there are a lot of fields now, which they're going to probably encounter particularly research fields and kind of resistance or criticism of some sort. How do you prepare them for that? That it's not just all pulling down awards and citations and accolades. Some of it can be serious resistance or criticism.

Rex Jung:

It's a very good point. And I can't say that my journey has been peaches and cream throughout the way. I mean, I was told by my graduate advisor, I was studying intelligence at the time that that would destroy my career. I should stop that immediately and pick something more conventional. Otherwise I would not be a successful researcher. I'm glad I didn't take that advice. It's good advice. There's two paths that I've seen in being a successful researcher. One is a very deliberate and somewhat obsessive path of just hammering out the details of a concept that has been discovered previously. This is called normal science. And I think a lot of good work comes out of that. And it depends on your personality style. If you're a very conscientious and somewhat agreeable person, you will do very well in writing grant. After grant, after grant, that gets rejected until the one gets accepted and you can do very good work in that area, but you have to be extremely conscientious and extremely agreeable because it is a field that rewards conformity. There's another path. And I think it's the path that I've chosen. I may be deluding myself, but it is a path where you really identify what you feel passionate about and what you feel excited about studying. And these are more paradigm shifting ideas or revolutionary ideas from the Thomas Kuhn nomenclature. And it can be very rewarding, but it's a less successful path. You will always have to fight against opposition and granting and funding agencies that are not willing to take risks. But if you have excitement and passionate about your work and less conscientiousness and agreeable is frankly, you can succeed. And I think I've had some measure of success in my career that has been rather unconventional. You should always have in your back pocket studying something conventionally . And you talked about my studies in traumatic brain injury and lupus and schizophrenia, but there should be some passionate involvement with these issues that allow you to go back and forth between your true passion and something that keeps you funded. So I think those are the two major paths for researchers. Neither of them are right or wrong. Both of them involve incredible amounts of work, but one involves something that you really get excited to wake up every day and do. And the other involves being extremely persistent over long periods of time.

Richard Miles:

So your secret is to be unpleasant and annoying.

Rex Jung:

I'm sticking with that. Your words, not mine.

Richard Miles:

I'm sorry. I , I, that was a cheap shot. No, I was going to say Rex. So the way you described it, we interview a lot inventors and entrepreneurs on the show. And when we ask them, like, why did you stick with this idea or this business? And a lot of times they say a version of, you know, if I didn't believe in it, it would be too hard at a certain point in their journey. They could objectively say or have said to them, this isn't worth it. And so the number of said across different types of fields that, you know, it's just resilience. It's the ability to just hang in there and keep going is what explains my success. Now they're all a bunch of other factors, obviously that contribute, but at that's refusal to give up, but not be delusional about it, right?

Rex Jung:

I started to have a trickle of success. And then I had a stream of success. And then I had a flood of success by identifying this area that hadn't been explored before creative neuroscience and really starting to work the problem. And I felt really passionate about it and no NIH funding out there for that. There's very little NSF funding. I found the Templeton Foundation, which was willing to fund this crazy idea that I had, and it yielded dozens of publications and other grants. And now a new generation is taking the mantle and really starting to explore the limits of creativity, neuroscience. And I couldn't be more pleased with my stubbornness.

Richard Miles:

Well, and it really points to the importance of seed funding, right? Again, you see similar parallels in the business world. If one person can manage to make significant progress, then they themselves might not reap all the rewards or the riches, but they have taken the knowledge or taken the research to another level so that other people can then capitalize on that. We had one of our inventors say, you know, the most important thing about a patent is not that you're going to be able to cash in the patent and get rich, but you have added to the body of knowledge. So you've made things in a sense, easier for people coming after you because you've solved a piece of the puzzle and they can now use your research to maybe go on and carry that down the road. And once they put it like that, I go, yeah , that makes total sense. Because most researchers who get patents, don't get rich.

Rex Jung:

I have a patent, I'm not rich.

Richard Miles:

There you go. But yet they know that they have solidly advanced their field of knowledge and that other people can use this in a constructive way, may use in a constructive way.

Rex Jung:

It couldn't be better said you really are carving out an idea space that you know, that you can't solve yourself. And that will rely on others to take up the mantle . And I'm very happy in this field and both intelligence and creativity, that a number of people will become excited about this area of research and find it to be productive in terms of their grant applications and scholarly activity. And it's enormously rewarding to know that I and other people was a part in starting this process.

Richard Miles:

Well, Rex , it's a great note to end on. And as I said, this is actually just part one of an 18 part series in the lifetimes of Rex Jung, really enjoyed having on the show. I hope we can have you back at some point, I learned a lot and I hope this was fun for you.

Rex Jung:

It was great. Thank you for the opportunity. I really enjoy talking to you in this audience is particularly important with entrepreneurs and idea generators. I think it's a perfect opportunity. Thanks.

Richard Miles:

Thank you.

Outro:

Radio Cade is produced by the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention located in Gainesville Florida. Richard Miles is the podcast host and Ellie Thom coordinates inventor interviews, podcasts are recorded at Heartwood Soundstage and edited and mixed by Bob McPeak. The radio Cade theme song was produced and performed by Tracy Collins and features violinist Jacob Lawson.