The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Sunday, July 20, 2014
Brain / Mind ... Science ...

There’s an interesting article on the Nautilus web site (one of many) about how the inner electro-chemical dynamics of the brain are seen as operating on a thin boundary between stability and chaos. The science of chaotic system dynamics has identified various patterns called “strange attractors” in which a system exhibits something of a repetitive, quasi-orderly pattern while at the same time varying randomly in timing and pathway from cycle to cycle. Such a system may sometimes flip to a different pattern with a different cycle direction and space, and then flip back again to the original; but in both patterns, there appears to be an approximate center or a “strange attractor” around which the system characteristics revolve. So, you can have a one-attractor cycle, or a two-attractor cycle, or even more. And no particular cycle around an attractor is quite the same as the last one. The changes from cycle to cycle are unpredictable, but the cycle, or the meta-cycle involving multiple “attractor cores”, does have stability.

Such systems are seen to be on the ledge between either setting back into a fully-ordered and predictable path round and round some attractor point, or pushing into full-blown chaos where the attractors however strange just fall away and the system’s motions just go wild. Researchers are finding that a healthy functioning brain lives on this knife-edge. Why did nature and evolution select such an arrangement? One clue can be found in the design of high-performance aircraft, especially modern fighter jets. Once upon a time, airplanes were designed for maximum stability against changing wind currents. Pilots manually controlled the aircraft flaps, which steer the plane and also allow the plane to respond to changing winds and turbulent air flows. Recall, however, that humans can only react to things so quickly (typical human reaction times between start of perception and recognition / mental reaction are between 0.15 and 0.3 seconds; then add even more time to carry out the responsive muscle motions); our brains and bodies need processing time. So it takes a while for the hand controlling the airplane flaps to react to what the pilot sees and feels from buffeting air currents. This is not a long time; but when a jet is barreling along at 900 mph, even a few tenths of a second might be too late to put the plane back on an even keel.

So, aircraft had to be designed to be as naturally stable as possible. However, such design also made them more like battleships in the ocean, in that they took a relatively long time to change course when needed (such as when an enemy plane or missile is suddenly spotted). Thus, in modern jet fighters, the airframes are designed to keep the plane on the “edge of chaos” (aka “negative stability”); using modern electronics to sense unwanted direction changes and make adjustments to the flaps, airplanes can shake around just a bit as they cruise along, but not go over the edge into losing control. When it comes time to making an intentional course change, this shaking makes the plane very agile, able to shift its course very quickly.

I’m not a scientist, but it seems logical to me that evolution used the same trick to give human beings the ability to be fast on the uptick. A brain on the edge of chaos is also a brain that can make quick decisions and adapt to changing conditions. Which is not a bad thing when you live in a forest or savannah where a predatory animal might be lying in wait for you around the next corner. This characteristic still serves us well in modern society; take away the cheetahs, but you still are left with many unexpected threats here in “civilized” life.

So I was a bit surprised NOT to see “negative brain stability” discussed in a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly on “Secrets of the Creative Brain”, by neuroscientist Dr. Nancy Andreasen. In this long article, Dr. Andreasen discussed her interest in literary and artistic geniuses, and mused on the fact that mental illness plagued a disproportionate number of them, along with their families. After pursuing a PhD in literature, she decided to go for an MD so as to become involved with neuroscientific research. She has been involved in various research over the years regarding the difference between IQ and creativity, between being gifted versus being a genius. It became clear to her that although IQ comes in handy, creativity is ultimately something different. Many creative people don’t have extraordinary IQ s. But they often do get depressed, commit suicide, get addicted to drugs, or otherwise go off the mental rails sometime in their lives.

Thus, she is now in the middle of a study involving the dynamic neuroimaging (lengthy brain scans) of highly creative people. One of her selection criteria was “big C” creativity, i.e. the candidate must have some public recognition of success, must be in the public eye. She will focus on how the “association cortices” within the brain become active while creative people either perform focused tasks or are allowed to let their minds wander. The latter activity is probably where most of the “eureka” / “now I see it” thinking takes place. So she will ask her candidates to lie still on their backs while enclosed in an MRI machine, ignore all the high tech stuff around them, and just let their minds go where they will.

At the same time, Dr. Andreasen will be tracking their own personal and family experiences with depression, bi-polarity, aggression, schizophrenia, addiction, etc. Perhaps she might identify some brain geometry or dynamics in her scans that correlates with the presence or absence of some of these conditions. This would obviously be of interest in analyzing how mental dysfunction relates to the structures and dynamics that promote the creativity process.

Andreasen’s article doesn’t say much about how the brain works, or how a creative brain might work differently from a normal one. The article is long on interesting anecdotes and the story behind her work, but short on theory. She appears to assume that the average Atlantic reader would not be interested in what is known thus far regarding the brain processes and structures that propel creativity, or what her early data might be hinting at. Perhaps that was a good assumption, perhaps the magazine itself boxed her in. But it really would have been nice if she could have spent a few paragraphs on the issue of chaos and mental agility, given how relevant it is to the connection between genius and madness.

Again, I’m not a scientist or in any way an expert on the brain, the mind, or on genius and creativity. Personally, I have my own “AH HAH!!!” moments, but overall my creativity level is pretty average. And on the other side of the coin, I have been mostly free up to now from suffering mental dysfunctions. I may not be a paradigm of health overall, but I have managed to keep the parade of daily life moving for most of my years (and I hope I can keep it moving for a few more years, until my number is up).

Nonetheless, I can’t help but relate the genius / madness connection with the “negatively stable” F-16 Falcon fighter jet. The Falcon mostly works just fine; but what if we could put some kind of super-powerful engine in it using a volatile new kind of fuel. The F-16 designers would not have envisioned this, i.e. engines that could push its speed, altitude and acceleration well beyond its normal capacities. What would happen if you just put the new engines in anyway and fueled it up with the new premium octane, without otherwise adapting the plane? Well, you’d get great performance. But arguably, you would also run a bigger risk of going over the edge and losing control to chaos, if and when encountering a sudden unexpected swirl of storm turbulence (one that the normal F-16 could usually get thru OK). You would expect more crash and burns with this version of the Falcon, unless you could beef up the stability devices.

So, creative people with “big engines” propelling their nimble, chaos-critical minds and association cortices, would accomplish a lot of things that normal humans couldn’t, despite having their own “strange attractor” focused brains. But when the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune come along, ordinary people would have a better shot at riding out the storm, versus some genius out there speeding away beyond what the normal mind was designed for. There probably have just not been enough geniuses throughout human history (and what few there are often kill themselves early, and thus do not leave as much progeny as usual) for evolution to adapt to their needs. So, the fine line between brilliance and madness stays pretty much as it has always been.

That’s my half-assed notion on what might be going on with geniuses. Maybe in a few years we will read Dr. A’s papers and reports on what she found in her big study. And we will see if my own ideas on the link with chaos and strange-attractor borderline states is closer to genius or madness. Or, just another nice idea that sounds good, but doesn’t hold up in the real world.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:06 pm      

  1. Jim, You found an interesting article, to say the least. The description of how an airplane works was news to me, which only shows that I know nothing about how an airplane actually works, stays in the air, or actually remains in the air for that matter. An engineer, I guess it is, I am not. I found the whole relationship to chaos theory and “strange attractors” fascinating, to say the least.

    In some regards I can see how it all relates to the creative mind; but then again, I am not sure that the comparison is one that really fits. For the most part the reason that I’m not sure about the comparison fitting is that I myself have no ability at anything that we might label “creative”, that is, art, writing poetry, etc. Yet, I can appreciate creative things when I see them, can recognize that they are actually creative; but if it’s a matter of having to *do* that kind of thing, count me out. Yet, on the other hand, in some ways I recognize a kind of creativity in me that comes out at particular times, but never at times that society would label “creative”.

    So, it may be that I should simply say that I have nothing to say here as I do not possess any creative ability that society would recognize as such.

    I find the correlation between “creativity” and “madness” interesting. I’ve had occasion to do quite a bit of study about schizophrenia (“madness” is really not a term used by those who try to help people who suffer from “madness”. Most of the time another, more specific, word is used to define the particular “problem” a person who suffers from “madness” may have). In addition too often in the past has the term “madness” been used to define people who simply disagreed with a political stance of the government, as say in Russia (or even a place now such as North Korea) where people who disagreed with the politics were called “mad” and committed to asylums. The same holds for long ago disagreements with religious beliefs; a person must be “mad” if he/she did not accept the prevailing religion of society.

    But for the sake of brevity I’m willing to go along with the word “madness” here. I am also willing to leave aside here also all the problems that may come up with perceiving reality in a different way from the way most people perceive it. In some cases society should and must be protected from some individuals who perceive reality quite differently from the way others do. But I am willing to leave aside all of this for this particular discussion of “madness” and “creativity”.

    This whole concept of “madness” is often considered a way of seeing the world/reality in a way that does not agree with most of society. I’ve often tho’t that if the rest of the people who saw the world as say a “mad person” sees it, that particular way of seeing the world would be “normal” and the way society sees the world generally would be “abnormal” or “mad”.

    Why might not “madness” simply be another way of perceiving the world in which we all live, a different way from that of what the majority of society considers “normal”? In fact, if one gets right down to it, each person has his/her own particular view of reality. The more that view of reality overlaps with the view of others the less “mad” one may be considered; the less the overlap with the rest of society, the greater the “madness”.

    So from that standpoint I’d say it may be that creative people have a different kind of “strange attractor” – or one that varies more from the “strange attractors” of others. I find myself wondering who put who in charge of deciding what was “normal” or which “strange attractor” was the “correct” one when it comes to all the other various ones that may overlap more with reality as others see it than those who perceive reality from a “creative” point of view. (I might add here that it took me literally decades to come to this conclusion; so his is not simply a passing tho’t on my part.)

    I once heard a famous musician (well, famous back in the 1970s) that music to her made her see colors. I myself have on occasion “tasted” certain kinds of music (not all kinds). This phenomenon is called “synesthesia”; basically, it’s a mixing of the senses that most of the time are not mixed. Is this “madness”? Or is it “creativity”? Or is it simply perceiving reality in a different way from that of most of the rest of the people in the world?

    I find this discussion of this article and what this neuroscientist, Dr. Nancy Adreeasen, and what she is trying to find out about the brain is quite interesting. Yet, I also find it seems to simplify the whole topic in almost a pitiful way. I wonder what other neuroscientists or even those who might be called “shrinks” (those who would not be called neuroscientists but who deal with people who have strange and different ways of perceiving reality) would say about this article.

    An interesting concept, but one I think that easily might lead to only a particular kind of creativity or only particular kinds of creativity (those acceptable by/to whom, I wonder). While it is a good attempt, why throw out all those “crazy” people who may perceive reality differently from the majority of humans but who do no harm to them and who may (or even may not; why not let people be as they are?) may add something wonderful to humanity? An interesting article but one I find, upon deeper consideration, problematic. MCS

    [Mary — my use of the term “madness” was a bit of poetic license, an intentional anachronism. Obviously it would be more sensitive and politically correct of me to say “mental dysfunction”, but when writing this I was thinking perhaps of Edgar Allen Poe. So I wanted to be a bit more poetic and anachronistic. My apologies to anyone who suffers from these conditions, as I’m not trying to be insensitive or derogatory; but would Poe ever have been able to hear the raven cry “nevermore” in an entirely politically correct world?]

    Comment by Mary S. — July 20, 2014 @ 10:59 pm

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