The Secret of Human Creativity! Every Month In "Discover"

I like Discover magazine, but lately they've been ticking me off. Seems like every month they have some weird brain phenomenon to describe, and they have to suggest that it's the key to creativity or consciousness or something.

Two examples from recent issues:

Scientists have found that the brain's 100 billion neurons are surprisingly unreliable. Their synapses fail to fire 30 percent of the time. Yet somehow the brain works. Some scientists even see neural noise as the key to human creativity. (Fox, 2009)

And then in another issue there's an article about glial cells in the brain. Astrocytes are one kind of glial cell that do some cool stuff. But apparently having an independent communication channel in the brain based on calcium just isn't cool enough on its own...

...neuroscientist Andrew Koob suggests that conversations among astrocytes may be responsible for "our creative and imaginative existence as human beings." (Zimmer, 2009)

Neither article goes on to say a single word about how these things could possibly account for creativity. I often see phenomena being suggested as possible explanations for things in the brain like creativity or consciousness. Why do they just love to suggest it so often?

Notice that it doesn't happen as much with the more mundane aspects of cognition like planning or vision. It's always things like creativity and consciousness. What these things have in common is that people tend to have a mystical view of them. That is, most people find just about ANY explanation of these processes unsatisfying, because they feel that they are fundamentally unexplainable. However, the mention that it could be explained is very compelling.

But not just anything could be a candidate for the key to understanding. No, it's always got to be something that involves systems that are analog (such as calcium levels) or random (such as quantum effects or neural unreliability) in some way. This fits well with people's preconceived notions that creativity is random and impossible for digital systems to achieve.

But even with explanations of these kinds, once you get under the hood people get very skeptical. Why? Because when you look at something under the hood, it loses it's mystique.

I'll take an example from quantum effects. People like them because they are, apparently, truly random. Creativity feels random sometimes, doesn't it? Sure it does (this is because much of creative thought is unconscious, but just because something is unconscious does not mean it's random. But I digress). The problem is that getting random information is really easy. You certainly don't need to go to the quantum level to get information that's random  enough for creative acts. The real work is sorting through the randomly-generated garbage for something of value. In the generate-and-test or generate-and-evolve general models of creativity, it's the evaluation that does all the difficult work. But the quantum effects are not suggested to have anything to do with evaluation phase. That's done by applying real-world knowledge, paying attention to your emotions when you experience it, etc. Well that can't be creativity, people say. That's just problem solving and feeling.

And there lies the problem. When you explain creativity or consciousness in any way that is valuable, you must explain it with processes and parts that are in themselves neither creative nor conscious. And that's where it gets unsatisfying.

It's not [insert mystical cognitive process here], it's just [insert mundane explanation here.]

The attitude allows one to dismiss all of the detailed theorizing about how creativity and consciousness works, and instead pin hopes on some new process that we barely understand, and certainly don't understand how it could shed light on these problems. And if you're a mysterian, that's really kind of satisfying.

As someone who does research related to creativity, I encounter this attitude often. Not just in laypeople, but also in scientists, and even scientists that happen to be psychologists (cognitive scientists tend to be a bit better about this kind of thing.)

Someday scientists will explain creativity and consciousness.

But whatever the explanation ends up being, you're not going to like it.


Fox, D. (2009). Thinking machine. Discover, October, pp59--64, 75.

Zimmer, C. (2009). The brain. Discover, September, pp30--31.

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