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Friday, January 26, 2018

The brain that changes itself


Inborn talent? That’s just another take on that old lie, determinism.
Violinist. Painted so long ago I remember nothing about it.
If you’ve taken one of my classes or workshops, you know that I’m not a big believer in inborn talent. We are all born with great potential in many different areas. In some instances, that potential is magnified and a prodigy appears. In too many other cases, that potential withers from lack of nurture.

I don’t believe we’re born to be artists or mathematicians, any more than I believe we’re born to be depressives or alcoholics. That’s just a variation on that hoary old lie, Determinism. It’s not nice whether it shows up as eugenics, racism, gender roles or Predestination.

Of course, there are instances where the brain is damaged, either before birth or by accident or illness. But even this doesn’t necessarily mean the end of creativity. I know a guitarist who suffered a traumatic brain injury. He works hard to learn his parts, but he plays them with beautiful understated good taste, sensitivity and skill.

Creation, by Carol L. Douglas
One of my favorite books is Dr. Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself. Doidge is a Columbia-trained psychiatrist and on the faculty at University of Toronto, so he’s not talking through his hat when he claims that the human brain is “a plastic, living organ that can actually change its own structure and function, even into old age.”

One of the ways the human brain adapts to injury or aging is by encouraging healthy brain regions to compensate for damaged areas. For example, music confers benefits to dementia patients. Conversely, damage in one neural pathway may hurt others. There is a link between deafness and dementia. 

In some circumstances, healthy human brains cross-talk as a matter of course. This is a phenomenon called synesthesia, which is when stimulating one brain pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.

In the most common form, letters are mentally associated with colors, but colors can be associated with sounds, or mathematical sequences can be seen spatially. More rarely, there is overlap between sensory stimulus and emotional states.

We know very little about what causes this. Heck, we didn’t even admit it was real until a few years ago. However, a 2014 paper suggests a link between synesthetia and higher levels of creativity. 

Dancer, by Carol L. Douglas
Both synthesia and creativity work by creating or discovering links between different spheres, noted the authors, Lawrence E Marks and Catherine M. Mulvennad. These take the form of sensory links in synesthesia and conceptual links in metaphor. The sensory links are typically fixed and rigid. The conceptual links are mutable, however.

People with synesthesia show a greater capacity for creative cognition. This may be because of a link between synesthesia and neural hyperconnectivity, which plays a role in creativity.

Which came first, the synesthesia or the creativity? If Dr. Doidge is right, we all have the potential for running more than one process on the same neural tracks. I’m synesthetic myself, and I think they both grew up together in my brain.

1 comment:

Annette Koziol said...

I love Violinist. And Dancer. Very interesting article.