With a name like Dr. Rex Jung, who wouldn’t want to fund this guy’s research?
Jung is an assistant professor of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico and research scientist at the Mind Research Network. He has been a practicing clinical neuropsychologist studying creativity and the brain since 2008. His first study focused on artists, with about 200 participants. The second, which he and his team are working on now, also has 200 participants, and focuses on people working in stem science, technology, engineering and mathematics—the four pillars of scientific creativity.
I was one of Jung’s subjects, which meant lying in MRI machines and taking a lot of tests. He told me I have a loose frontal lobe, and I guess he liked something about my brain activity because he titled me as Artist-in-Residence for his project at the MRN. (He commissioned a painting from me, to encapsulate the nature of his study.) The study would test how many different sorts of answers you could come up with to different sorts of problems. I liked the feeling of being reduced to units of measurement.
After five years, his most surprising find was the difference between the workings of intelligence and creativity. “Intelligence, associated with brain integrity [is straightforward:] bigger, stronger, better, faster means higher intelligence. But with creativity the story is much slower, and the frontal lobe with lowered integrity is associated with higher creativity,” he says. “We have to understand how taking the brakes off the frontal lobes plays a role in creative cognition.”
I had some Burning Questions for Dr. Jung.
Eva Avenue: Can exceptionally creative people exist without a drive to create art?
Dr. Rex Jung: I think creativity is this general thing that exists in the brain and manifests itself as artistic or scientific creativity. There’s a general module in the brain that is a way that we do problem-solving out in the world and reasoning out in the world, it’s an adaptive evolutionary process that exists in both arts and sciences.
Are you really the first team to do systematic research on the neurology of the creative process?
There are individual studies that have been done on creativity and neurology, but we claim to be the first team that’s trying to look at the systematic relationship between the brain and creativity. It is shocking and surprising that we really are [the first] trying to get this systematic look at how creativity is manifested in the brain…. The funding does make a difference.
You’ve said humor is an important part of creativity. Have you found that most creative people are also funny?
There are creative people who aren’t funny at all; there will be a bell-shaped curve with creativity and humor overlapping. Humor and creativity overlap but they aren’t isomorphic, so there’s an interesting interplay between humor and creativity. So you can find people who are highly creative, but not necessarily a barrel of monkeys—more in the scientific realm, with more disciplined endeavors—as opposed to people in the arts, where more humor and loose associations are necessary to make things work creatively.
I read in an article about you that creativity not only involves coming up with new ideas, but it’s also connected to the shutting down of the brain’s habitual responses, or letting go of conventional solutions. It also said creative connections occur when people are peaceful. Is this related to how Zen meditation, or not thinking while you’re totally immersed in receiving your immediate physical sensory experience, helps us execute solutions we may not have otherwise been able to do, for whatever reason?
I think it’s one mechanism to induce hypo-frontality, and you can do that many ways: Through a warm bath, a long walk, through exercise, meditation, through drinking alcohol, and drugs in general. I wouldn’t recommend that. You can down-regulate your frontal lobes; they’re designed to keep you out of trouble. You can take the brakes off the system to relax the inhibitory controls. All these techniques to disinhibit the frontal lobes are well known by artists who also use one or many of them to do that.
Ernest Hemingway said to write drunk and edit sober. It’s kind of this back and forth; the creativity process is both idea-generation and editing. Doing both while under the influence of drugs is virtually impossible: new-idea-generation, but pushing the idea outward on drugs, because all ideas are equally valid.
It’s possible to be in the generative mode [under the influence of drugs], or by taking a long walk or taking a warm bath. There’s this myth that this [taking drugs] is a magic path to creative problem-solving. But it’s not. There are a lot of different ways to down-regulate your frontal lobes, and drugs are the worst ways to do it, because it muddies the neural pathways to move your idea forward. All your ideas seem good when you’re high.
You describe the “aha moment” as the subconscious neuronal activity being made conscious. Can you talk about how that works ?
The so-called “aha moment” is making the unconscious conscious. You’ve been incubating an idea for a long time and then you become consciously aware that you have a solution to the problem. Researchers have been working in this area. They think they’ve localized it to a region of the brain, but it’s still in its early days.
You said something about a genius being rare because they have the “more is better” phenomenon of high intelligence, and the “less is better” phenomenon of high creativity manifested in the same brain, at very extreme levels. Is this just a case of having lots of grey matter and minimal white matter? Is too much white matter like plaque build-up around the heart of creative processing?
Genius is an interplay between high intelligence and high creativity. It’s the combination of both of those. High intelligence requires high integrity of lots of regions of the brain—so grey matter, white matter, everything works well. Creativity, we notice the frontal lobe in particular, the integrity is lower in people who are highly creative—where its grey matter, white matter, biochemistry, particular regions of the frontal lob have lower integrity. The fact you have high integrity throughout other regions and low integrity in the frontal lobe means genius is rare. Rare to have that in the same brain.
Do you think Dr. Oppenheimer’s brain was like this? I hear he was unusually sensitive, and the only guy able to convince Richard Feynman to lend some help with the A-bomb project in Los Alamos.
I think Feynman was a genius. Oppenheimer, I don’t know as much about him, but I think Feynman was clearly a genius. He had that loose frontal lobe you could see through his behavior, his disinhibited behavior. They don’t get along with others as well, they don’t go along to get along.
Photo courtesy of Rex Jung. Brain diagram from Wikimedia Commons.