zenpundit.com » brain

Archive for the ‘brain’ Category

Creativity and Ennui

Friday, August 16th, 2013

[Mark Safranski a.k.a. “zen“]

Creativity is a subject that has  interested me, going back to the days long, long ago when I was an art student. Creativity is only mildly correlated with IQ, but like “intelligence”, the deeper you delve into the study of  creativity and creative thinking the more “creativity” looks like a multifaceted, multidimensional and diverse set of capacities, habits and circumstances than it does a single, universal, characteristic or ability.

Creativity has been studied from a neuroscientific, psychological, evolutionary,  behavioral, economic and social perspective but what of creativity”s opposite?  What about Ennui?

From a cognitive perspective, the two may be flip sides of the same coin, note the correlation between highly   creative  people and incidence of depression. It may also be a sign of overuse of certain brain functions, like adrenal exhaustion from an excess of physical and mental stress over a long period of time. Creativity, being in “the flow” is intoxicating but it usually involves peak exertion which accumulates weariness. Exemplary performance in one area can also come at the expense of penalties in another area.

Or perhaps ennui is the natural, cyclical ebb and flow between generative conceptual fertility and barrenness, the brain preparing itself for the next creative “surge” to come?

When are you creative and when are you not?

New Books

Monday, March 11th, 2013

 

Out of our Minds: Learning to be Creative by Sir Ken Robinson 

Wild Bill Donovan by Douglas Waller  

I am about half finished with the first book by creativity in education guru Sir Ken Robinson, who also has a new book out called, The Element. Technically, I have been reading a large volume of books, articles and research regarding creativity and creative thinking lately for a project, but most of those are academic in nature while Robinson is writing for mainstream audiences. I may or may not review it here, but it is clearly argued and Robinson is an effective popularizer.

The biography of Wild Bill Donovan is timely. If the idiosyncratic and at times improvisational OSS, staffed by gifted amateurs, eccentric adventurers and white-shoe, unapologetically elite WASPS, was something that would be impossible to exist in today’s rancid political climate, there are elements in that legacy that are in short supply in today’s modern and highly technological IC.

Ironically, many of the pioneers in creativity research that developed that field within cognitve psychology in America were themselves disproportionately veterans of the OSS.

The Sounds of Silence and Your Own Mind

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

Scott Shipman had an excellent book review post An Unknown Future and a Doubtful Present: Writing the Victory Plan of 1941 — a review-lite and a few questions in which he discussed the intellectual seriousness and evolution of war planner   Major Albert C. Wedemeyer as a military officer and strategist:

….Wedemeyer was an honor graduate of the Command and General Staff College, and his performance earned him the opportunity to attended the Kriegsakademie, the German staff college. However, coupled with impressive academic preparations, Kirkpatrick writes that Wedemeyer’s curiosity exposed him to a “kaleidoscope” of ideas and methods. Kirkpatrick summed-up Wedemeyer: “Competence as a planner thus emerged as much from conscientious professional study as from formal military education…” Going on to say:

In common with many of his peers, much of Wedemeyer’s professional and intellectual education was less the product of military schooling than of personal initiative and experience in the interwar Army.

Wedemeyer’s intellectual development was purposeful and paid off. In Wedemeyer’s deep study of his profession he used the prescribed paths, but also explored on his own. How common is that today? 

As often happens, the discussion can take an unexpected turn in the comments section. Lexington Green weighed in with this:

Think about George Marshall in China, traveling around on horseback.  No cell phone, no email.  The man could actually think.  Or Eisenhower meeting with Fox Connor to talk about the books Connor had him read. Telephone calls were not even common.  The military might do well to have two days once a quarter of silent retreats, only emergency communication permitted, with literally no unnecessary conversation, for groups of officers and non-coms, with some assigned reading and some self-selected on the same theme, then an open discussion after dinner. It would cost virtually nothing and would be an intellectual and mental oasis, and some good ideas might come out of it.  Religious silent retreats which last a couple of days and are truly life-restoring. This would probably be useful as well.

That in turn provoked this response from Marshall:

My sense is that many of us live, work, and fraternize in a culture of crisis. Everything is urgent. One response is to just shut off the moment we get some downtime. TV, drinking, schlock fiction, immersion in pop culture, video games, blog reading are some of the ways I’ve coped. I grew out of those as timewasters as I realized that I no longer had time to shut off if I wanted to do something.

But I still live in a culture of crisis. Almost everybody around me “has no time”. It doesn’t really matter what is being proposed, the sense of urgency kills all ambition toward progress. Defending myself and my space form this is a daily challenge – and some days I lose.

I’m visiting family this week on a long-scheduled “vacation” that has been interrupted by my office several times already, but always with the promise, “just this thing, Marshall, we don’t want to take you away from your family”. And these are the people I choose as my allies!

The culture of crisis doesn’t believe in people’s choices. It says that time will only be wasted, so we have to keep our people busy. After all, see how they spend their “free” time? Dissolute wastrels the lot of them. And then the culture of crisis tells us that we need to recharge by shutting off our minds. You need to vege out, man, you’re stressed; turn on the TV and have a beer, mate. Or else fire up your e-mail and write six more. And, hey, sorry about your insomnia, but it lets you get a jump on the day, amirite? [….]

The discussion moved on, but I have been mulling upon this exchange ever since.

The first thing that came to mind is that what we mean by “silence” really isn’t silent, what is really meant is that there is an absence of human voice pulling at our limited capacity for attention. Cognitive load is probably a real, if variable, limit on human cognition and the nature of hyperconnected information society is that all too frequently we are -and feel – “overloaded”.

When human voices are absent the “background” environmental noise comes “forward” , natural (wind through trees, animals etc) or mechanical (various humms and clicks) that we unconsciously tune out as a matter of routine focusing on conversation or distracting hearsay, broadcasts and so on. The processing in the brain is significantly different depending on what kinds of sounds you are listening to, for example:

1. Listening to Music

2. Listening to Language

3. Listening to unpleasant sounds (nails on chalkboard etc.)

So eliminating human speech from your environment but not hearing (earplugs) itself allows other regions of your brain to become more active than usual, depending on whatever else you may be doing at the time (walking, chopping wood, smelling a flower, scanning the horizon and so on).  Your brain’s performance and how it varies when thinking under conditions of different combinations and levels of sensory stimuli – “crossmodal processing” – is not yet well understood as research is in early stages of investigation.

I will speculate here that what is important for enriching your thinking is that taking your brain out a linguistic-saturated environment (let’s include the “soundless noise” of intruding textual symbols as well from smartphones, iPads, laptops)  gives it an opportunity to operate differently for a time and establish new neuronal network patterns of activity. Various forms of meditation – which involves both silence and an intentional modulation of attention – also  alters normal  brain activity.

I will now go further out on a data-free analytical limb and hypothesize that making a practice of “silence” and/or meditation might improve your thinking by making moments of creative insight more likely. Studies on insight tend to show that as a cognitive event, insight  comes about as a kind of a “pulse” of activity and relaxation in the brain:

….Mark Jung-Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, has spent the past fifteen years trying to figure out what happens inside the brain when people have an insight. Jung-Beeman became interested in the nature of insight in the early nineteen-nineties, while researching the right hemisphere of the brain. Mentions Jonathan Schooler. Jung-Beeman decided to compare word puzzles—or Compound Remote Associate Problems (C.R.A. Problems)—solved. He teamed up with John Kounios, a psychologist at Drexler University, and they combined fMRI and EEG (electroencephalography) testing to scan people’s brains while they solved the puzzles. The resulting studies, published in 2004 and 2006, found that people who solved puzzles with insight activated a specific subset of cortical areas. Although the answer seemed to appear out of nowhere, the mind was carefully preparing itself for the breakthrough. The suddenness of the insight is preceded by a burst of brain activity. A small fold of tissue on the surface of the right hemisphere, the anterior superior temporal gyrus (aSTG), becomes unusually active in the second before the insight. Once the brain is sufficiently focused on the problem, the cortex needs to relax, to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere that will provide the insight. As Kounios sees it, the insight process is an act of cognitive deliberation transformed by accidental, serendipitous connections. Mentions Joy Bhattacharya and Henri Poincaré. The brain area responsible for recognizing insight is the prefrontal cortex. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at M.I.T., spent years studying the prefrontal cortex. He was eventually able to show that it wasn’t simply an aggregator of information, but rather it was more like a conductor, waving its baton and directing the players. In 2001, Miller and Princeton neuroscientist Jonathan Cohen published an influential paper laying out their theory of how the prefrontal cortex controls the rest of the brain. It remains unclear how simple cells recognize what the conscious mind cannot. An insight is just a fleeting glimpse of the brain’s huge store of unknown knowledge.

Another interesting data point to consider re: “silence” and insight is that the mental illness of schizophrenia, where delusions and other mental “noise” exists is significantly negatively correlated with insight.  Researchers are currently investigating if meditation can ease the symptoms of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.

For myself, I find my best ideas come via insight when I am doing something primarily physical requiring steady but not all of my concentration and I am alone – working out, walking the dog, a household chore and so on. Relatively useful ideas can happen when I am reading or writing or debating (i.e. interacting with a text or a person), but they tend to be analytic and derivative, sort of an intellectual “tweaking” or “tinkering” but not ones that are fundamentally creative or synthesizing.

Lexington Green may be right – Silence is golden.

 

On the Limits of Human Intelligence

Monday, July 16th, 2012

IQ as a concept (and specifically “g“) and the psychometric instruments used to quantify them has provoked fierce political and scientific debate for decades. The political debate tends to be heatedly emotional and revolve around the inescapably inegalitarian societal implications of crafting policy (education, public health etc.) in light of a wide spectrum of IQ scores being unevenly distributed through the population. Scientific debate tends to be more focused on defining or identifying the parameters of intelligence, the relationship between physical brain structure, cognition and human consciousness,  heritability, neuroplasticity, the accuracy of psychometric instruments and more specialized topics beyond my ken.

What’s usually seldom disputed by scientists is that large differences in IQ are significant and that a very, very small number of individuals – the top 1% to .0001% of the Bell Curve, have unusually gifted and varied cognitive capacities.  It is technically more difficult to measure people who are such extreme outliers with accuracy as their intelligence might very well exceed the parameters of the test. Stephen Hawking’s IQ is frequently estimated in the media to be in the 160’s and Albert Einstein’s in the 150’s but those are speculative guesses. Most of the people touted as being “smarter than Einstein” with astronomical IQ scores, like Marylin vos Savant or Christopher Langan do not (for whatever reason) produce any tangible intellectual work comparable to that of Stephen Hawking, much less Albert Einstein. Maybe we really ought to use that cultural comparison with greater humility until there’s a better empirical basis for it :)

[If you are curious what the extremely smart do think about, browse the Noesis journals of The Mega Society]

It is being asserted that any evolutionary improvements to human intelligence are apt to come with (presumably undesired) tradeoffs or deficits. That we are “bumping up against” our “evolutionary limits”. I’m not qualified to evaluate that hypothesis, but it’s assumptions are not stable as advanced societies are already radically changing their cognitive environments as well as approaching the ability to directly manipulate our genetic legacy. Whether it is Kurzweil’ssingularity” or not matters less than these things change the “natural” probability of our evolutionary trajectory. A one in a billion random genetic mutation is no longer so if you can design it in a lab.

How much higher could we push cognition? Or could we expand the existing range by adding a new dimension of senses?

Why would a dictatorship not bound by ethical scruples not do this, even at considerable cost to the individual subjects of such experiments, in order to systematically harness the results of “a genetic arms race” for the benefit of the state? Though a growing body of supersmart people would eventually become difficult to control if your secret police were not intelligent enough to comprehend what they were doing .

The potential economic rewards of increasing human intelligence would inevitably outweigh any risk assessment or ethical constraints.

Before Disruption….Thinking

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

“What you think, you become”

    – Buddha

“We are what we frequently do”

    – Aristotle

There has been a lively and still evolving debate in the milblogosphere regarding “disruptive thinkers”, starting with Benjamin Kohlman’s post at SWJ whose editor Peter J. Munson has done a fine job steering, collecting and commenting upon. A selection:

The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers by Benjamin Kohlman

Disruptive Thinking, Innovation, Whatever You Want to Call It is Needed for a Military in Crisis by Peter J. Munson 

The focus on disruptive thinkers coincided with a different but relevant debate over professional military education (PME) when a scathing blast was recently  leveled at the US Army War College by Major General Robert Scales (ret.) , himself the former commandant and a strong advocate of rigorous PME.  A few of the criticisms made by General Scales at a gathering at FPRI were mentioned in a post by Thomas Ricks who believes in shutting down the service academies and war colleges and maybe just sending everyone to Yale, Princeton and Harvard for MBAs. Or something.
.
What was interesting to me is that many authors and their points had less to do with a close examination of cultivating cognitive skills than related topics of changing organizational culture, the perils of groupthink, rehashing ideas from Frans Johanssen’s The Medici Effect and John Kao’s Innovation Nation, the superiority of entrepreneurshiphidebound military bureaucracy and other tangents to indirectly create an environment in which insightful or innovative behavior might happen.  Only Mike Mazarr zeroed in to the heart of the matter, writing:
….We need to improve, for example, in the detail and specificity of critical and creative thinking methodologies that we integrate into the curriculum.
Bingo!
.
There’s nothing wrong -in fact, much to the good – with the call of Kohlman and others like Joan Johnson-Freese to deliberately combine students and faculty of radically different professional backgrounds. Such a personnel mix is a good base for horizontal thinking to take place, where discussions can range across fields generating insights and analogies and accelerating learning.
However, just assembling a broad mix of talent and putting them together in a building is not enough because it is not any more goal oriented than a MENSA social. Good things might happen, sure, but just as easily not. This is why DARPA is a lot more productive of an organization on an annual basis than the Institute for Advanced Study. There needs to be a mixture of problem-solving and play, free inquiry or experimentation and unifying goals. Communities of interest have to first have a sense of community for the vibrantly sharing and inspiring “minds on fire” effect to take place.
.
If the military or more broadly, American society, wants a larger number of creative, innovative, “disruptive”, strategic or whatever kind of thinker, then the answer is to actively and purposefully teach students creative, critical, insight-generating and strategic thinking skills and to value intellectual curiosity, skepticism, imagination and empiricism over ideology and conformity. The other indirect, “better environment”, stuff certainly improves your chance of success, but systemic improvement will only come about by making such objectives the focus of instruction and learning rather than a haphazard byproduct.
UPDATE:
At Best Defense, Ricks has provided a copy of his prepared remarks on PME as well as a link to the audiofile that I could not pull up the other day. Check out what he has to say.

Switch to our mobile site