The Creative Brain: Why Do We Create?

Where does creativity come from? It’s a question that’s left us mystified for centuries at the way writers make metaphors or sculptors render clay into arches and statues — and even neuroscientists aren’t quite sure how to explain it. Dr. David Eagleman shows how we’ve only begun to scratch the surface in the Netflix documentary “The Creative Brain” — making the argument that creativity, rather than the magical power we’ve always seen it as, is in fact a byproduct of our own evolution — the inevitable result of allowing our brains to grow in size over the centuries.

Rather than directly responding to external stimuli around us, this growth has allowed us to contemplate phenomena, rather than just react. Rather than simply finding and eating what our brain determines to be food, we’ve figured out ways to improve the taste and alter its appearance — using basic food items as tools or even art supplies. As the human cortex expanded, so did our prefrontal cortex, which lies just behind the forehead. It allows us to imagine what isn’t directly in front of us, allowing us to detach from the present place and time to go elsewhere.

Unfortunately, this is as far as the documentary goes when it discusses the neuroscience behind creativity. Eagleman already has a pretty impressive resume as a neuroscientist and the author of a variety of New York Times-bestselling popular science books on brain plasticity and time perception. He even explores growing interdisciplinary fields like “neurolaw” and is the host of an Emmy-nominated PBS series, “The Brain With David Eagleman.” I was looking forward to hearing more about the alternating processes that take place in the brain when works of art are being created.

Arne Dietrich elaborates on the prefrontal cortex in his book “How Creativity Happens in The Brain,” which describes activity the region’s activity as ramping up or slowing down depending on the activity taking place. A study that used fMRI technology on jazz musicians showed that activity in their dorsolateral region slowed down when the musicians improvised songs — this is the region that acts as a personal filter of sorts, and sometimes the part we tend to blame for writer’s block. There’s different forces at work when we conceive ideas, and how the variation of stimuli mixed with memories put those ideas together, but the film barely touches on that.

Instead, Eagleman shows us a succession of rather intriguing speakers — such as the architect Bjark Ingels who developed the concept for World Trade Center Two, or Nathan Myhrvold, the former Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft, who’s something of a polymath, astonishingly well-read on an unusual range of subjects — he’s written both cookbooks and designed nuclear reactors. The sculptor Ehren Tool talks about how pottery building has helped him cope with his experiences in the Gulf War.

All of their stories are interesting, and the documentary highlights some magnificent contributions they’ve brought to the world — but rather than making the documentary more personal — it produces the opposite effect — making it seem as if these people are specifically unique because of what seem like virtuoso abilities, and not the documentary’s intended message that everyone is not only capable of harboring creativity, but can use it in a way to solve society’s problems.

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