April 9, 2012

Book probes Dylan’s brain for signs of creativity


Understanding how the brain bridges the logical and illogical, especially in the creative sense, remains an elusive, compelling mystery. But a new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer, could shed new light on the subject.

The Guardian ran an excerpt of the book recently, in which Lehrer describes the stages of the creative process:

Every creative journey begins with a problem. It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer. When we tell one another stories about creativity, we tend to leave out this phase of the creative process. We neglect to mention those days when we wanted to quit, when we believed that our problems were impossible to solve. Instead, we skip straight to the breakthroughs. The danger of telling this narrative is that the feeling of frustration – the act of being stumped – is an essential part of the creative process. Before we can find the answer – before we probably even know the question – we must be immersed in disappointment, convinced that a solution is beyond our reach. It’s often only at this point, after we’ve stopped searching for the answer, that the answer arrives. All of a sudden, the answer to the problem that seemed so daunting becomes incredibly obvious.

While the above might sound somewhat obvious, laying out the process in a systematic way allows Lehrer to delve deeper, into the left and right hemispheres of the brain, which is where things get interesting.

Using simple, comprehensive language, he explains just what happens inside the brain when a seemingly unsolvable dilemma is resolved through the “insight process.”

… while the left hemisphere handles denotation – it stores the literal meanings of words – the right hemisphere deals with connotation, or all the meanings that can’t be looked up in the dictionary. Metaphors are a perfect example of this. From the perspective of the brain, a metaphor is a bridge between two ideas that, at least on the surface, are not equivalent or related. When Romeo declares that “Juliet is the sun”, we know that he isn’t saying his beloved is a massive, flaming ball of hydrogen. We understand that Romeo is trafficking in metaphor. She might not be a star, but perhaps she lights up his world in the same way the sun illuminates the Earth.

How does the brain understand the line “Juliet is the sun”? The left hemisphere focuses on the literal definition of the words, but that isn’t particularly helpful. We can grasp the connection between the two nouns only by relying on their overlapping associations, by detecting the nuanced qualities they might have in common. This understanding is most likely to occur in the right hemisphere, since it’s uniquely able to zoom out and parse the sentence from a more distant point of view.

Few scientific-based books appeal to sizable audiences, of course, without including as an example a widely know cultural hero. In the case of Imagine, it’s Bob Dylan, who proves a telling and entertaining case in point.

After a difficult European tour in 1966, Dylan claimed he was quitting singing and songwriting. He was tired of the creative constraints, he said, and no longer found satisfaction in the industry. Shortly thereafter he moved to Woodstock, NY. For a while nothing happened. Then one day, isolated in a cabin and free from pop-culture contraints, Dylan had what Lehrer describes as a “strange feeling.”

“It’s a hard thing to describe,” Dylan would later remember. “It’s just this sense that you got something to say.” What he felt was the itch of an imminent insight, the tickle of lyrics that needed to be written down. “I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit,” Dylan said. “I’d never written anything like that before and it suddenly came to me that this is what I should do.” Vomit is the essential word here. Dylan was describing, with characteristic vividness, the uncontrollable rush of a creative insight. “I don’t know where my songs come from,” Dylan said. “It’s like a ghost is writing a song.” This was the thrilling discovery that saved Dylan’s career: he could write vivid lines filled with possibility without knowing exactly what those possibilities were. He didn’t need to know. He just needed to trust the ghost.

In retrospect, we can see that the composition allowed Dylan to fully express, for the first time, the diversity of his influences – Arthur Rimbaud, Fellini, Bertolt Brecht and Robert Johnson. There’s some Delta blues and “La Bamba”, but also plenty of Beat poetry, Ledbetter, and the Beatles. What Dylan did was find the strange thread connecting those disparate voices. During those frantic first minutes of writing, his right hemisphere found a way to make something new out of this incongruous list of influences, drawing them together into a catchy song. He didn’t yet know what he was doing – the ghost was still in control – but he felt the excitement of an insight, the subliminal thrill of something new.

Take the above account as you will, and Imagine may very well not be much more than pseudo-science geared toward pop-culture creative types, but this excerpt is interesting because it ties creativity and science together in ways lots of people can understand: the music of a legend.

Now, if only we could get the Guardian to pull this god-awful Dylan illustration from the article we’d really be bridging the gap between logical and illogical.

Who is this man?

Kevin Murphy is the digital media marketing manager of Melville House.