October 6, 2006

Vanderbilt Prize winner probes nature of genius

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Vanderbilt Prize winner probes nature of genius

Nancy Andreasen, M.D., Ph.D., talked about the many forms that genius can take at last week’s Discovery Lecture.
Photo by Susan Urmy

Nancy Andreasen, M.D., Ph.D., talked about the many forms that genius can take at last week’s Discovery Lecture.
Photo by Susan Urmy

The wistful refrains of Don McLean's “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)” — an ode to the troubled genius of Vincent Van Gogh — served as a soundtrack to the second in Vanderbilt's Discovery Lecture series, entitled “The Creative Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius.”

In a presentation tinged with poetry, music and art, Nancy Andreasen, M.D., Ph.D., the recipient of the inaugural Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science, vividly illustrated the many forms that “genius” can take, and probed the biological sources of such creativity.

To study creativity, Andreasen said, it is first necessary to define it. Quoting a poem by William Blake, she first offered a poetic definition of creativity: the ability “to see the world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower…”

However, an objective, scientific definition is much more elusive. Andreasen described early research showing that creativity is not synonymous with intelligence. Creativity, she noted, must incorporate measures of great skill or talent and “the ability to perceive and produce novel ideas or products that are useful to society.”

While preparing her latest book on the neuroscience of creativity, Andreasen, of the University of Iowa, was confronted with a question central to the issue of creativity — how does the brain produce these novel thoughts, or “create?”

“I decided I would ask this question to some of my very close colleagues,” Andreasen said. No one could provide an answer, so she turned to the mathematical concepts of chaos theory and “self-organizing systems.”

Highlighting the complexity of the human brain — with its quadrillion neurons and far greater number of connections (or synapses) between those neurons — Andreasen proposed that creativity is a result of the continuous and spontaneous reorganization of these connections — characteristics of a self-organizing system.

“You realize that (the brain) is truly a miracle of complexity,” she said. “It's not surprising that our brains have such a great creative capacity, unique in the universe.”

Anecdotal evidence from composers, writers and scientists suggests that their best ideas seem to come at times when they weren't even thinking about the task at hand; they tend to happen subconsciously.

“There's no single executive controlling this — it just happens … (creating) is not something we can usually force,” Andreasen said.

While there appears to be no centralized control of the creative process, Andreasen noted that parts of the cerebral cortex — called association cortex — seem to be crucial.

“I think what's happening — with a small amount of evidence to support it — is that the association cortices in the brain are just running wild,” she said.

In a brain imaging study of creativity, Andreasen found that during rest, the association cortices of the brain were highly active. Recently, she embarked on an MRI study as a follow-up, where she plans to image the activity of the association cortices of highly creative people. Her first subject ¬- filmmaker George Lucas.

“He has absolutely beautiful activations in his association cortices,” she said.

Andreasen also addressed the link between creativity and mental illness. By studying writers involved in the “Iowa Writer's Workshop,” Andreasen found that they and their family members displayed a high incidence of mental illness.

“Eighty percent of the writers had significant mood disorder that required treatment,” she noted.

This suggests, she said, that people who are considered highly creative may be more vulnerable to mental illnesses like schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder.

Andreasen is the Andrew H. Woods Chair of Psychiatry at the University of Iowa College of Medicine and director of the Iowa Mental Health Clinical Research Center. The Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science was recently established by Vanderbilt University School of Medicine to honor women who have made significant advances in the biological and biomedical sciences and have contributed positively to the mentorship of other women in science.

For a complete schedule of the Discovery Lecture series and archived video of previous lectures, go to www.mc.vanderbilt.edu/discoveryseries.