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Tribute To Guitarist Pat Martino - Scan/Edit 03 07MRI of brain (image courtesy of Dr. Robert Zatorre/McGill University)

Few features of humanity are more fascinating than creativity; and few fields right now are more fascinating than neuroscience. Rex Jung puts the two together.

He spends half of his time working with people living with brain illness or injury. In this role, he says, he’s something like an “existential neuropsychologist.” And what he learns there informs the other half of his working life, in the laboratory applying the newest technologies of brain imaging to the interplay between creativity, intelligence, and personality.

What I like about this interview is the humanity Rex Jung brings to his science. This is a quality of all the scientists we bring on this program, I suppose — whether it’s James Gates on supersymmetry, Jean Berko Gleason on linguistics, or Mario Livio on astrophysics. I’m fascinated by the richness of this exchange between humanity and science when you simply shine a light on it. Rex Jung, for example, got interested in studying brains as a volunteer for the Special Olympics. He came to love and revere the participants with supposedly “imperfect” brains.

Rex JungRex Jung first made a mark in the field of deciphering the brain networks involved in intelligence. But he was always aware that there is something more than intelligence involved in lives of beauty and integrity and vigor.

Now he’s working on the emerging frontier of the study of creativity — and how it is different from, as well as related to, intelligence. He and his colleagues have notably helped identify a phenomenon they’ve called “transient hypofrontality.” That’s a daunting name for an experience many of us will recognize. Simply put, Rex Jung says that intelligence works like a “superhighway,” with massive numbers of connections being made between the different parts of the brain with speed and directness. When we become more creative, our powerful, organizing frontal lobes downregulate a bit. The creative brain is a “meandering” brain. The superhighways give way to “side roads and dirt roads,” making possible the new and unexpected connections we associate with artistry, discovery, and humor.

One of the most helpful things about this conversation is the commonsense way Rex Jung describes the implications of his research. He says to take those famous stories we have of moments of great creative discovery — like Archimedes wallowing in his bath when he had his eureka moment — and be attentive to how we all prime our brains to be less directed, more creative. Some of us take a bath, some take a walk, some take a drink.

This cutting-edge research is a resounding affirmation of something we know we need in the 21st century but struggle to create: downtime. It’s a call to make this possible for our children too. Again, I think we all know this. For science to demonstrate it as a necessary precondition for creativity is bracing and helpful.

I appreciate the way this research validates the creativity of the everyday: of humor, of relationships, of social as well as personal, scientific, or artistic innovation. Rex Jung is also part of an emerging discipline called “positive neuroscience” — studying what the brain does well and, by implication I think, how what we are learning about our brains can be of benefit to our common life. He even believes that while there is loss in an aging brain — the phase many of our baby boomer brains have now entered — there is also a potential for heightened creativity in that very slowing down.

There are intriguing echoes between this research and neuroscientist Richard Davidson’s discoveries at the University of Wisconsin about how it is possible through behaviors — and with practice — to keep changing our brains across the lifespan. After listening to Rex Jung, I’ve become more aware of how I sometimes get myself into agonizing moments, when I need to be creative (on deadline, of course) but haven’t made the space for my frontal lobes to downregulate and let it happen.

I like feeling more in touch with my frontal lobes. I also like the way Rex Jung questions whether there is a necessary connection between creativity and difficult personalities (e.g. Steve Jobs). From my vantage point, I also feel we may be on the cusp of realizing new creative potentials in ourselves — again, in the everyday. I’ll let my brain meander here awhile to consider that. Talk about having your cake and eating it too; I get to delight in the purposefulness of meandering.


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8 Comments

I was grateful that he didn't shy away from the vital role of criticism and judgment in creative processes (as many in the new "positive" psychologies do), anyone who has had the privilege of being in a good art crit and or an apprenticeship knows the value of being told the truth of how one's work is, or is not, moving in a good direction, and that creative progress is not the same as finding the lowest/easiest point of common agreement. The way out of the echo chamber is almost always a hard one on the ego.

Does  that apply to downtime sleeping? I have tons of dreams, and I recall many in detail.  NIght before last I dreamed a possible painting, name and all.

The meandering brain. I like that. I'm a writer and I often feel that my best work arises from the tension between my need to both impose order and entertain chaos . . . using other terms, that would be the tension between my linear brain and my meandering brain. Both are needed.

this is so true..you do have to slow down to be creative...take time to reflect..to toss things around in your mind, to visualize

The corridors of the Old Bell Labs, like the hallways of MIT can be described as a cauldron for new ideas.  Scientists from varied backgrounds intermingle as the walk down the hallways and exchange ideas.  Our society should pay more attention to this creative environment. 

This story is a breath of fresh air- a reminder that rationalism has even influenced how we "create" - a subversive cultural shift which has subtly insisted that creativity must be systemized. As someone with that brain wired to search among all areas of itself to find creative expression.

I value the power of meandering and creativity in education and as a teacher I have found some of the most meaningful discussions and discoveries happen when we encourage this in our students. Unfortunately, current restraints with testing etc. are DIScouraging this approach...

As a person living with MS, a creativity coach, meditator and artist in multiple streams of creative expression (oooh, did you see that MS-multiple sclerosis and MS-multiple streams...perfect example of what Rex was talking about!)...I LOVED this interview Krista. I am endlessly fascinated by the brain in general and of course the creative process. Thank you so much for sharing this fantastic interview with us. And yes, what a compassionate and truly kind human being Rex is. Thank you, thank you, thank you!