August 20, 2015
Rex Jung —
Creativity and the Everyday Brain

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, exploring the differences and interplay between intelligence and creativity. He and his colleagues unsettle long-held beliefs about who is creative and who is not. And they're seeing practical, often common-sense connections between creativity and family life, aging, and purpose.

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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.

Pertinent Posts

When the crush of a beige cubicle and endless meetings deaden creative impulses, a newborn baby girl prompts an explosion of creativity — and the celebratory, enthusiastic person the author's dream job had taken away.

Selected Readings

The Brainstorming Myth

Read The New Yorker article on brainstorming that Rex Jung and Krista discussed in the show, which includes discussion of MIT's Building 20 — and scholarship on brainstorming curated for further reading:
» Groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth
» The Liberating Role of Conflict in Group Creativity: A Cross Cultural Study
» Influence and Persuasion in Small Groups

About the Image

"Inside Out" is an image of an MRI brain slice digitally tattooed onto a picture of the photographer.

Photo by Simon Drouin

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Funding provided in part by the John Templeton Foundation.

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If you liked this story, Fresh Air did a show this week on a nearly identical topic. Dave Davies interviewed Jonah Lehrer on his new book Imagine, and touches on many of the same issues that Krista did with Rex Jung. I happened to listen to the podcasts back-to-back and it was a little freaky, not realizing beforehand that the topics were the same.

Good one.

Because our brain stores information based on invariant patterns and is this prediction machine. This is based on the work of Jeff Hawkens. It seems to me that creativity is about the mis-storing based on invariant patterns. I often find some of the most creative people also have ADD or what I call inattention. Which seems to me prevents this Stove Piping that Rex Jung is describing.

I am challenged by the anti-brainstorming notion. I wonder about how it is executed and facilitated. Often I find the best way to generate the best ideas is to have a group take time on their own to ideate before they share the ideas. When they share it, I find it generates even more ideas once they begin to hear others thoughts.

I am a serial entrepreneur and help elevate leaders become stronger leaders thru executive coaching.

Brainstorming as we know it is hardly the best way to generate new ideas. A lot of challenges in the process, including:

1) lack of preparation of the participants in a brainstorming session hinder the flow of creative ideas;
2) introverts and extroverts have different ways to approach a problem/opportunity and, hence, a potential solution or idea. Extroverts usually take over most of the "air time", while introverts, regardless of the quality of the ideas they might have in their minds, stay in the back of the room afraid of participating because of this frightening scenario and
3) ideas are a comprehensive construct that is the result of our experiences, stories, other previous ideas, failures, successes, learning and wisdom. When we subject all of those sources of idea-creation information to the limitations of a "brainstorming" session, most likely whatever is on top of our memories and consciousness is what will come up.

We need to have the time to dig deep in our conscious minds, to then have the opportunity to share those thoughts with others and produce even better and greater ideas.

This process is part of a concept that I am creating called "The Evolving Mindset".

Could it be that the condition of "transient hypo-frontality" is the portal designed through which God can communicate with us? The path for "clear small voice"? "Be still, and know"?

I have not listened to the show yet, but wanted to respond to your posting. I am fascinated by the topic. I started writing, creatively, 6 years ago. And little by little learning to trust myself to yield into something greater. I am very close to God, but it seems more intimate than God, even though I belief a piece of God is within. There seems some lovely hugeness that wishes to dance its own language into poetry, prose poetry, or prose. And to do it with me. As I have learned to co create, trust it, integrate it, my writing is amazing. (Not the kind of writing I am doing in this moment. People clap and gasp when I read it. I have had 10 of my poems published in a women's quarterly and another 5 accepted for another quarterly. (The only ones I have submitted) . I find this ride quite extraordinary here in my 78th year. I wonder if the aging brain that surrenders to less functioning then yields more easily to this creative force... all in caps. And that is the Greater Self of me, who I am behind the personal, personality self, the little one I am writing to you.

Of late I find myself wondering what civilization -- presumably a construct driven by intelligence and creativity -- is "for." The question behind that is "what drives creativity and intelligence -- and what are they for?" Your celebration and exploration of these two qualities opens that discussion for me. Thank you for going well beyond the "pop ideology" that the everyday mind usually deploys in response to creativity and intelligence -- the rhetoric that values "thinking outside the box" only as a route to business advantage, and lionizes Einstein because of the atom bomb, but sees him as a kind of alien whose brain must be kept in a jar for study. Cultural ambivalence toward intelligence and creativity is an index of their potential to gift and to disrupt. Too often the ambivalence hardens into suspicion and hostility.

Your discussion with Dr. Jung opens a deeper window into these qualities as distinct-but-inseparable aspects of mind. Perhaps they exist, first and foremost, to be themselves and to build a Gestalt that supports their continued survival. In exchange, perhaps as a kind of symbiosis, they offer some compensation for mortality by enriching the experience of life for all who can accept them as natural and human. For those who cherish intelligence and creativity, the main challenge is to make benign and constructive contact that nurtures them for as long as possible.

I teach art to children with Cerebral palsy at HMS school.and Sculpture to blind and legally blind students at Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is great to hear what we do in creative process can make some physical change in the brain.When he explained practicing repetitious juggling made change in the brain, made me think repeating to paint or make sculpture can give permanent positive physical effect in children's brain. I know brain can store so much, I have 92 years old blind student who is colorist in her sculpture. She uses color paper and paste to color her sculpture. She has not seen color since she was 8 years old.She has vivid memory of farm life from before she lost her sight. In her case creating is her reason to live. I would love to see MRI image of her brain when she thinks of color.and invent ideas for new sculpture.

Regarding the discussion about the source of MIT's Building 20's creativity: my father David L. Bobroff, a physicist, worked in Building 20 for a number of years right after WW II. His explanation for its creativity was in part that the building had been thrown up so quickly during the war that its scientists were allowed to do whatever they needed to the building itself. The building was no architectural gem. So if physicists wanted to try an experiment that required, say, wires running from a lab on one floor to somewhere on another floor, they were welcome to rig it up however they wanted to, drilling holes through ceilings and walls or whatever - because everyone expected that scientific experimentation would create exciting progress for human beings. So it was partly that freedom for scientists and engineers to remake their environment experimentally that was key - something like kids' dream of being free to play messily and creatively together.

I do also remember the wonderful friendships my father had with his international colleagues, who used to come to our house on weekends. He was happier during those years, I think, than any time I knew him afterward.

So fun hearing of your father's joy and happiness! And how sad that his life let go of that and let it "run away".

I truly appreciate the On Being segment and Krista's bringing to listeners information about the news, thinking and people who speak to the humanistic side of living which promotes infintessimly more important dialog than the typical news we are forced to absorb. The interview with Rex Jung introduced to me ideas about how my brain works in creative mode, but that I have not known how to express. And, Krista's voice is as melifluous as her marvelous ability to connect to listeners - I so enjoy her interviews.

Homosexuality and creativity in the arts seem to coincide so often, I wonder if they share a neuro-anatomical basis? Consider the links below on art, music and their apparent synchronicity with same-sex orientation. While it might be easy to attribute the creativity of gay persons with social pressures and sensibilities driven by tensions within identity, I wonder if a clue to understanding homosexuality could be found in Dr Jung's research into the brain and the creative process?

Thanks to this episode with Rex Jung, as well as several other public radio shows I listen to (including RadioLab and Soundcheck) I got ideas for this personal essay I wrote on the brain, memory, and my mom, who recently died of brain lymphoma.

The Blue-Eyed Man in a Suit

I've written quite a bit about my mom over the last year. Other pieces I'm proud of include these:

Mom, 1938-2011

Eating Sushi at Stoplights (published in Crate Literary Magazine)

And the eulogy I read at her funeral:

Thank you for your show. I enjoy it very much and it gives me a lot to think about in my life.

David Olimpio

Brain plays an vital role in every step of our life. All the creative things should be done only by brain.

It's too bad that Rex Jung doesn't know any assertive people, or any people that thrive in a brainstorming environment. I still consider it the best possible dynamic group process for generating new ideas, and have been involved in using it successfully many many times.


It's too bad that Rex Jung doesn't know any assertive people, or any people that thrive in a brainstorming environment. I still consider it the best possible dynamic group process for generating new ideas, and have been involved in using it successfully many many times.

The assertives do indeed "thrive" in the brain-storming environ, but generally, top-notch ideas aren't produced. You end up with the "best" of the "so-so" ideas bandied.

The elusive but coruscating, "ground breaking" idea will come from the silent loner of the group. Why? He/she's been thinking and pondering while the assertives are busy being assertive.

Try this: after the brain-storming session has convened, sit down and over a cup of coffee have a tete-a-tete with the reticent guy or gal for the really "great leap forward" idea.

The assertives do indeed "thrive" in the brain-storming environ, but generally, top-notch ideas aren't produced. You end up with the "best" of the "so-so" ideas bandied.

The elusive but coruscating, "ground breaking" idea will come from the silent loner of the group. Why? He/she's been thinking and pondering while the assertives are busy being assertive.

Try this: after the brain-storming session has convened, sit down and over a cup of coffee have a tete-a-tete with the reticent guy or gal for the really "great leap forward" idea.

I really enjoyed listening the Rex Jung's perspective and insight regarding intelligence and creativity. I hold his opinion in high regard because he has looked at both sides in great depth. Being in neuroscience teaches how the brain works and functions while being involved in events such as the "Special Olympics" adds a whole different element.

I think that no matter what level of intelligence we are at, creativity is the factor that makes life enjoyable and purposeful. Jung stated, "it is human characteristics that provides meaning in life" and I couldn't agree more. My sister works in a nursing home and her daily goal is to make the residents' day better. She has found that by simply playing a game, doing an activity or even talking about life events changes the moods and outlook of those she comes in contact with. There is so much "intelligence" that still exists within the patients in every nursing home, but when they are no longer allowed to exercise "creativity" all is lost.

steve jobs developed more his ornery side for the purpose of a creative vision because he had to. he worked not with a paint brush or writing instrument but thru thousands of people who were inclined to wanting to remain in their comfort zones, that he had to challenge for results. those who understood that were those who were his best employees who understood this dynamic.

What a great way to start my Sunday morning. Just caught the end of this interview on VPR and was really moved by what Jung had to say. This was one of the best interviews I've ever heard, in part because of the quality of the conversation and in part because of what I'm personally struggling with right now. I was so impressed with Krista's questions and Rex's perspective, insight and wisdom - he is truly wise. I especially loved his description of a beautiful mind and the impact his experience with Special Olympics athletes had on him. I can't wait to pursue this topic further and explore Jung's work I also feel very lucky to have happened upon "On Being" and plan to make that part of my routine.

I am writing this as I listen now to your interview with Dr. Jung on creativity. It is very interesting. Brain development is always of interest to me, especially in the area if dyspraxia.
I would like to request your assistance in ridding our society of the use of the "R" word to describe persons who face daily challenges with intellectual/ development disabilities (IDD). As the mother of a son who faces life with IDD it is hard for me to hear the "R" word used as a description. My son does face life with intellectual disabilities but is physically very capable and in some ways creative as he deals with life. He is a long distance runner in Special Olympics, even serving as a torch runner and cauldron lighter for the National Games in Lincoln, NE in 2010. He has by no means reached his full potential intellectually but thanks to his continued training programs at the age of 28, he is working hard to get there. I have no doubt that his brain continues to develop.

THANK YOU for the morning on Creativity - I LOVE YOUR SHOW! I listen almost every week - and always garner jewels...thank you for helping me to grow in such delicious ways!

Listening to your talk with Rex Jung allows me to clearly see once again how mesmerized we are by science and the accumulation of facts, and how it somehow winds up being taken as the form of knowledge par excellence. Our subjectivity about it is endlessly reinforced, making us believe that science truly has all the answers, or that there is very little which we can't figure out scientifically, given time. We are in a such a deep materialistic trance that we can't seem to snap out of it, and perhaps this kind of hard-wiring, as a seeming result of this over-emphasis, is very difficult to undo. Rejecting this outward focus, many have been turning more inwardly - via meditative practices, more spiritually oriented exercises and body work like yoga and chigung, and doing self-inquiry via advaita satsangs - and are thus consciously moving away from this paradigm. Hopefully this activity by more recent generations represents a more selective trend towards an expanded sense of reality, and an even more noble gesture of what our evolution is producing… if we allow it to unfold.

It would be of interest to have you interview Even Alexander, a neurosurgeon, who has a different conclusion on continuation of consciousness after brain death, in opposition to the neuroscientist you had on your program tonight. Alexander wrote a book, after his own NDE, called Proof of Heaven.

Creative, novel and useful is the best way to describe your show. Your playlist is a nice addendum.

You talk and the statement that the brain structure changes reminded me of Jiddu Krishnamurti. I quote him here:

" Insight is not a matter of memory, of knowledge and time, which are all thought. So I would say insight is the total absence of the whole movement of thought as time and remembrance. So there is direct perception. It is as though I have been going North for the last ten thousand years, and my brain is accustomed to going North, and somebody comes along and says, that will lead you nowhere, go East. When I turn round and go East the brain cells have changed. Because I have an insight that the North leads nowhere.
I will put it differently. The whole movement of thought, which is limited, is acting throughout the world now. It is the most important action, we are driven by thought. But thought will not solve any of our problems, except the technological ones. If I see that, I have stopped going North. I think that with the ending of a certain direction, the ending of a movement that has been going on for thousands of years, there is at that moment an insight that brings about a change, a mutation, in the brain cell."

Questioning Krishnamurti, p 165

Trent Gilliss's picture

Thank you for this, Sujata. I'm going to find a good way to share this with our audiences elsewhere.

In my teens, I received a brain injury that twisted and tore my corpus callosum. I think Sujata's point of view best illustrates the creative process. It's the openness that breathes inspiration into the spirit. Not struggling and controlling outcomes like a downhill skier controlling his momentum and direction (to create novel connections) --which is something brainstorming secretly tries to stumble into.

I thought this show was interesting, but I think you might get a richer, more broader perspective on creativity and the brain by interviewing Iain McGilchrist, whose book "The Master and the Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World" puts recent brain science in literary, philosophical, and cultural historical perspective. He knows what Jung knows and lots more, and with McGilchrist one encounters a creative élan and synthetic imagination that one does not find so much in this show's interviewee.

As a composer, I too am fascinated by the creative process. Krista, I thoroughly enjoyed your interview w Rex Jung. Toward the end of the podcast he stated that the personal residue we leave with this planet and community are "as close to immortality as your going to get." May I suggest he check out the book "Proof of Heaven," recently published by one of his neuroscience colleagues, Dr. Eben Alexander. Dr. Alexander's account of his "death" experience might cause Dr. Jung to reconsider his take on immortality. Krista, thanks for the fabulous, insightful work you do!!

Awesome site!

I'm a professional musician with a strong interest in neuroscience, so many of Krista Tippett's shows are right up my alley, since she obviously digs this subject area. Regarding Steve Jobs and his personality… It is clear that most leader types (and this includes "stars" in the world of entertainment, music, art, etc.) have immense egos. The huge ego is a necessity for the leader to be a leader, if you know what I mean. The strong ego often comes along with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which many, many of these people have in spades. (I have certainly seen this among many musician colleagues over the years.) If you have studied this disorder you know that the person is basically a "bulldozer". It is unfortunate, but as I said, it sort of comes with the territory!

I would like to be in direct contact with Dr. Jung to share ideas. I am a public intellectual who is thinking deeply and independently about the mind for non-scientists as a unique animate autonomous machine broadly analogous to a computer. I am 96 yeas young with a very creative mind. I introduced computer law to the world in 1960, which includes various legal ramifications of the use of computers. I now would like to introduce the law of the modernly perceived mind as such a machine, to consider relevant legal ramifications of the updated perception. I hope that I am striking a responsive chord with you..

Ideas have been, and can be, the solution of almost every human problem. As an artists-I'm obsessed with following this research. Thank you for putting it out there!

Because I have a dear friend who has help introduce me to your site, I once again have used my beautiful mind to investigate more of what I am. Thank you so much! May you be mindfully well. I look forward to watching some of your videos and many more.

I listened to ‘creativity and the everyday brain’, an interview with Rex Jung. One of the first things he discussed was that intelligence is not linked to creativity. Someone can be very intelligent and have little creativity, while another can be extremely creative yet not very intelligent. This made me think of a youtube video about Derek Paravicini, a man that is mentally retarded and blind that has extreme musical talent and can play whatever he hears on the piano. Rex explains that with intelligence, the more brain mass and connectivity we have, the more intelligent we will be. However, the less connectivity and brain activity is what creates creativity. Much of the creative process is found in the frontal lobe, so the myth about the left brain (logic) and right brain (imagination) is not necessarily true. Both sides of the brain are necessary for creative thinking. Humor is a large indication of creativity. Many of the same mental process for creativity are used for humor.

Rex explains that creativity is both novel and useful. Art, music, dance, and other creative activities are seen as great things in our world. Yet we have to shut down our intellectual thinking in order to be creative, but this doesn’t mean our creativity is useless. Most of the times we are making our brain concentrate on specific things, like when we study for a test. However for creativity, we actually let our mind wonder, the less we are trying to achieve a specific goal the more creative we will be. Thinking about my own life I see how this is true. I play guitar, and often while trying to make songs I have an idea in my head of how it should sound. The song never sounds good in the end. When I am super bored and just pick up the guitar for something to do I find myself playing a ‘new song’ that is ten times better than anything I have tried to write. When I stop thinking about what I’m playing and just play what pop into my head is when I come up with my best musical creation. This has to do with this creative process that Rex is talking about, the less activity in our brain, the more creativity we show.

Great pictures...

A huge Thank You to Dr. Jung and Krista Tippett. As a graduate student in Clinical Psychology, I found this conversation as insightful and exciting as any I've heard on OnBeing before. It's my new favorite.

I would be particularly interested in hearing Dr. Jung's thoughts on the supposed relationship between creativity, hypofrontality, and neuroticism, an idea that he humorously labeled "neuro-mythology" in this conversation. The belief that creativity and misery go hand-in-hand seems common both in- and outside of scientific circles.

In fact, that chronic hypofrontality (emphasis on "chronic") may be a correlate of anxiety and depression is not a new idea in clinical research. If transient hypofrontality (emphasis on "transient") is a correlate of creativity, perhaps further research will reveal that hypofrontality mediates the relationship between creativity and neuroticism, thereby giving credibility to the common notion that with genius comes misery.

Again, thanks for sharing this wonderful talk. Best of luck to Dr. Jung in his line of research!

I am an artist and know many many creative artists. Just from an observational point of view (knowing artists for over 50 years now)creativity and suffering - often physical suffering - go hand in hand. Not always, but often. I don't know if they/we are neurotic but many do have neurological "issues". I myself suffered from trigeminal neuralgia for 7 years before a successful brain surgery. I have nerve issues/pain in a new and different way now. For people who have suffered huge traumas like pain, family, violence etc. doing art and just letting themselves simply get taken into their drawing (for example) is hugely healing. Works for very little kids, prisoners, vets, and in grief too.

I've been studying/filming people under deep hypnosis for the past 6 years. Subjects are chosen for their belief that they can't be hypnotized, or that they're skeptical about an afterlife or past lives in general. I've worked with a number of hypnotherapists trained by Michael Newton, but in a nutshell, each therapists asks roughly the same questions over a four to six hour period. The results are remarkable in their consistency. (I've got a doc and a book called "flipside" which details the process. I've also corroborated the results with the case work of Dr. Helen Wambach, who did the same kind of studies in the 1960s. People talk about creativity during these sessions, talk about their own path and journey to it over many lifetimes. Everyone has their own path - but some of the answers are fascinating. I've heard that "creative energy is located near healing energy in the universe, and we call upon it to help and heal others." That the act of creating something is of value unto itself - that the energy behind the creation of the work (book/song/painting/whatever) uses quantum energy, some part of your intent and energetic makeup to create the object,and everyone who hears it/sees it/experiences it accesses your intent. "Every thought action word or deed contains your energy and that can be a healing one." I've heard that "comedy is the quickest way to heal or change a person's disposition; tears work but they require catharsis." I also heard, and am still working on "It doesn't matter whether the work itself has success, the effect on the universe is the same." Once a person creates something and it moves out like a wave into the universe, according to this one account, its the same energy whether others experience it or not. (gives hope for all my projects gathering dust). Finally, that we choose our lives, choose the best medium for us to express ourselves - it may be through banking, or teaching - it doesn't need to be "creative" per se to have the same effect. If you've signed up as a healer, you can do that in a myriad of ways. It's worth noting that the idea of consciousness existing outside the brain is echoed in near death studies, can be found explained by Dr. Bruce Greyson in his "Is Consciousness Created by the Brain" talk on youtube, is part of post materialist science, including neuroscientist Mario Beauregard's "Brain Wars," Gary Schwartz's PhD's work on ESP. They all point to the same research, that consciousness is not confined to the brain, and it's not confined to one particular lifetime. So when you add that to the mix "Oh, I've had a few lifetimes doing the same kind of work" you get a clearer picture of the genesis of creativity. My two cents.

Playground Duty
There are no tennis nets
only the metal frames
placed next to each other
She is only a little higher
than the end of the frame
her long black hair
tied in two bunches
with effort and concentration
she turns a handle of
the frame around and around and around
There is no product
only curiosity
and repeated action
a joy in the moment
the pleasure of doing
without an end in mind
When?.........I ask you
when did you last do
something like this ?
The thought went around and around
and around
and she never knew
how intently I watched her

With due respect, as I was listening to this episode on Creativity and the Everyday Brain with its "transient hypo-frontality" and other such plumbing or electrical engineering concepts, the image that came to mind was that of an enquiry about wildlife being conducted in the meat department of a supermarket. Creativity explained would no longer be creativity just like "art" cannot be computer generated in its etymological meaning which is a synonym of "yoga".

Hello, I am a huge fan of yours! I can't always catch your show but did manage to tune in for the last 15 minutes tonight. I'm going to listen to the entire thing tomorrow, but already I want to thank you. Thank you 1) for being a great interviewer, listener, questioner and thinker 2) for getting such engaging guests and 3) please send a big thanks to NPR to have a show like yours (and a few others too). I am not a 'church person' but am 'religious' in a sort of way. I can always relate to your show tho, and always find it a joy and really heart/thought provoking. Just wanted to let you know. K

May I ask concerning Krista's question on communities centered around people with disabilities (and my interest in particular, mental retardation). I would like to investigate this topic and request the name of the individual mention (sounded like Jon Vaniar, Marsh Movement).

In appreciation, Dorothy

I am a bit at odds with the description used here for creativity. Why is "useful" one of the pinnacles of this endeavor? How one defines "useful" makes all the difference. As an artist, I find that if I adhere to this standard that my ideas must be useful, my creativity shuts way down.

I love your show, Krista. Thank you so much.
I am troubled that a neuroscientist would so highly praise IQ tests. IQ tests are not reliable, do not give consistent results, and have been shown again and again to reward practice, like anything in life.