Creativity in Biology and Computing

No one has been able to define creativity, which is not surprising as it can existing in many different forms – just as there are many ‘art forms’. Creativity encompasses everything from inventing disruptive technologies to painting ‘Guernica’. 

A number of people have tried to categorize creativity e.g (K Lunke 2016, James C. Kaufman and Ronald Beghetto (2007)

However a ‘silo’ approach to creativity, suggesting that individuals can be creative in some ways, but not others, may be based on ‘cultural norms’.  Such an approach to creativity may present barriers to further development including the development of creative machine intelligence.

Here, I will explore whether different forms of creativity might align with each other.

New Model of Memory

It has been known for some time that the hippocampus is the place for short-term memories while the cortex is home to long-term memories. It has been thought that hippocampus provides the necessary environmental cues, which are transmitted to the cortex where learning-dependent associations take place.  

But recent neurological research has shown that (in mice) memories are formed simultaneously in the hippocampus and the pre-frontal cortex (i.e short term memories are not simply processed into long term memories), and once a long term memory is established it is not necessary to connect to this through the short term memory system.

Researchers labeled memory cells in three parts of the brain: the prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus (HPC), and the basolateral amygdala (BLA). Notably, they found the BLA stores both positive and negative emotional associations to a memory in conjunction with the PFC and HPC…memories appear to be formed rapidly and simultaneously in both the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus on the day an initial memory is created. Then, the memory is consolidated in the PFC over time.. memory cells in the amygdala appear necessary for the communication of a spectrum of emotions linked to a particular memory. The amygdala acts as a type of emotional relay station between the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. 

This revised view of the human memory may help us better understand creativity, for example could different memory systems being supporting bounded versus unbounded forms of creativity?

For example it may be the case that one system may support open creativity (thinking outside the box), and another logic and reasoning (i.e operating within existing boundaries). Scientists have recently found in humans that using electrical stimulating to suppress the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) – involved thinking and reasoning- can increase levels of ‘open’ creativity. To break mental fixation, there is a need to loosen up learned rules.

Participants whose DLPFC was temporarily suppressed by the electrical stimulation were more likely to solve hard problems than other participants whose DLPFC was activated or not stimulated. This demonstrates that suppressing DLPFC briefly can help breaking mental assumptions learned from experience and thinking outside the box.

But the researchers also observed that these participants got worse at solving problems with a higher working memory demand (where many items are needed to be held in mind at once). These problems require the participants to try a number of different moves until finding the solution, which means they have to keep track of their mental operations.  C Di Bernardi Luft (2017)

Working Memory and Creativity

There has been an on-going debate on whether a strong working memory can contribute to, or dampen, creativity. Some have proposed that working memory is key to creativity, and others suggest it can reduce creativity.  This might be because working memory is fundamental to some forms of creativity, but is less useful in other cases.

Working memory tends to strongly predict analytical problem solving and reasoning, but may be more weakly correlated with high exploratory creativity and divergent thinking.

Highly Exploratory, ‘Open’ Creativity

Creative people have messy processes, and often messy minds, full of contradictions, according to Dr Kaufman. His research has shown that openness to experience is more highly correlated to creative output than I.Q., divergent thinking or any other personality trait. These are people energized and motivated by the possibility of discovering new information: “It’s the thrill of the knowledge chase that most excites them.”

An extreme example of exploratory creativity is automatic drawing.  Such drawing deliberately seeks to avoid using existing schemas or simply recalled memories. Instead it seeks to tap straight into the subconscious mind. There is no plan or structure, no predefined ‘task’ is undertaken, no specific agenda is adhered to, and there is little resulting sense of personal ownership.  This is not a ‘linear process’ and artists using this method can find themselves almost dislocated from ordinary time – as if they are ‘dreaming’.

A similar approach may be used in improvised surreal comedy, performance or poetry. The use of associative memory is very loose, and it allows for a width of associations which would not normally be available. It is the art of pareidolia and ‘nonsense’, and a highly plastic (open to change) brain.

It is also the fearless journey of something foraging beyond known territories/hunting grounds.

This type of creativity also ‘enjoys errors’.  In an environment of exploratory creativity, the emergence of something unexpected (a mistake?) can be seen in two ways. The viewer view it as damaging to ‘the whole’ – perhaps even leading to the abandonment of the project. Alternatively they can see it as ‘an addition’ or ‘redirection’, and integrate it into the project, and potentially seek to reproduce it as a ‘new technique’.

This type of creativity can, by its very nature, seem disrespectful or deviant – giving little consideration to the conventions of its time and inventing its own perceptions. It enjoys taking risks. For example think of early reactions to the work of surrealists or other new schools of art.   Sources are also treated with little reverence.

We, as human beings, are landed with memory systems that have fallibilities, frailties, and imperfections — but also great flexibility and creativity. Confusion over sources or indifference to them can be a paradoxical strength. Indifference to source allows us to assimilate what we read, what we are told, what others say and think and write and paint, as intensely and richly as if they were primary experiences. It allows us to see and hear with other eyes and ears, to enter into other minds, to assimilate the art and science and religion of the whole culture, to enter into and contribute to the common mind, the general commonwealth of knowledge. This sort of sharing and participation, this communion, would not be possible if all our knowledge, our memories, were tagged and identified, seen as private, exclusively ours. Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.  Oliver Sacks.

It is difficult to identify many scenarios in adult life of such highly exploratory creativity or ‘free expression’ – as most creative pursuits rely on techniques that have already been acquired to some degree. Exploratory creativity is perhaps closest to the creativity of childhood – when babbling, scrawling, and playing is still socially acceptable. A number of modern artists e.g Klee and Miro, deliberately sought to reconnect with this level of creativity.

A technology that bears a resemblance to this is ‘confabulation’ within the field of neural networks -in which missing or incomplete information is incorrectly filled in by the brain are generally modelled by the well known neural network process called pattern completion.  The concept of such opportunistic confabulation grew out of experiments with artificial neural networks that simulated brain cell apoptosis.  It was discovered that novel perception, ideation, and motor planning could arise from either reversible or irreversible neurobiological damage. 

Another type of technology that could potentially be associated with exploratory learning is the Hopfield network.  Hopfield/constraint satisfaction type networks can be used to learn (autoassociate) patterns. Random inputs to the network will sometimes converge on states which are learned patterns, and sometimes converge on states which are unlearned/spurious…. Spurious states can be numerous, and can have basins of attraction as large as or larger than those of learned states… . A system which cannot recognise learned information cannot ‘know what it knows’, or distinguish between ‘fact’ and ‘fantasy’.  A V. Robins 2003. 

Google’s inception is another exploratory creative technology.  Its name is suggestive of surrealist techniques (lucid dreaming) and non linearity.  Inception programmers said they did not prescribe the features the network should amplify, instead they let the network make that decision.  This creates a feedback loop – if a cloud looks a bit like a bid, the network will make it look more like a bird.  This in turn will make the network recognised the bird even more strongly on the next pass, and so forth, until a highly detailed bird appears – seemingly out of nowhere.. even a relatively simple neural network can be used to over-interpret an image – just as children enjoy watching clouds and interpreting the random shapes.  Because the data is stored at such a high abstraction, the results are an interesting remix of learned features. We all know that artificial neural nets are computational and have no minds, yet they can seem as if they are a window into the neural net’s subconscious.  Google Inception may be making use of technologies that encourage confabulation, or a Hopfield neural network (e.g reaction diffusion Hopfield neural network.

A system that fills in the gaps is something that everyone may need to be able to access. Our brains operates in a very sporadic, periodic way, with lots of gaps in between the information the brain represents. “The mind is papering over all the gaps and bubbly dynamics and giving us an impression that things are happening in a smooth way, when our brain is actually working in a very periodic fashion, sending packets of information around.”  MIT News 2016

An open creative approach also offers is the capacity to make loose associations, and generalise. And Every learner must embody some knowledge or assumptions beyond the data it’s given in order to generalize beyond it.

This type of creativity has its limitations. It can seem ‘nonsense’ to a wider audience, and be difficult to fit with existing knowledge. So it may be less likely to be viewed as ‘useful’ and more likely to be rejected by others (particularly those looking for a quick commercial win) who will see it as chaotic (unless they are into ‘outsider art’).

But an ‘open’ creative idea can potentially be worked on (through selective creativity) to create a useful outcome.  In addition, drawing on this type of creativity may be useful for getting past change blindness and ‘inattentional blindness’, where we are so busy with existing tasks that we fail to notice obvious major change. Moore and Egeth’s work shows that we consciously see far less of our world than we think we do. We might well encode much of our visual world without awareness.” In such a situation, working memory may not be that useful when looking for the ‘new’.

For when we perform a task which demands processing a high information load, it takes up most or all of our brain capacity for perception of any other information, so our processing becomes selective. It could be argued that many successful creative ideas have been those where someone has noticed a ‘change’ (e.g information is available that wasn’t previously) when others around them haven’t been able to do so.

Bounded or ‘Selective’ creativity

Creativity which is more bounded (focused exploring what is already known) is likely to draw more directly on existing memory and technique and be linear in nature. It may be drawn down existing mental pathways, rather than create new ones. It is foraging process which relies on existing hunting grounds rather than striking out to new (unknown) areas which present more risk. As such this form of creativity may rely more on the hippocampus.

This could be a form of creativity more useful in making ‘improvement’ or ‘adaptation’ e.g a very accomplished piece of modern conceptual art that follows established practices or the next generation of mobile phone design. It may draw more heavily on convergent thinking, which is normally logical, rational, deductive and focused. It aims to produce the single best answer to a problem with little or no ambiguity. It emphasises speed, accuracy and logic and concentrates on recognising the familiar, reapplying techniques and accumulating stored information. This is the type of thinking is encouraged through project management and linear processing/business improvement type approaches.

In technology terms this type of creativity has more resemblance to classical machine learning systems which automatically learn programs from data ((a.k.a. data mining or predictive analytics). Supervised algorithms can apply what has been learned in the past to new data.

Convergent creativity is more likely to result in a concrete product that is of ‘use’ in the current environment (e.g the next generation of an existing approach). It could also be useful in developing an ‘open’ creative idea into something practically useful.

However, it may be less useful in initially generating ‘symmetry breaking’ innovation (e.g the establishing of new paradigms).

Thinking Fast and Slow – Combining Approaches.

Kahneman’s concept of ‘thinking fast and slow’ refers to modern research on the two systems of the mind.

“System 1” thought processes operate automatically, process information fast, are heavily influenced by context, biology and past experience, aid humans in mapping and assimilating newly acquired stimuli into pre-existing knowledge structures, and are self-evidently valid (experience alone is enough for belief). 

“System 2” thought processes are deliberately controlled, effortful, intentional, and require justification via logic and evidence.

Paul Norris and Seymour Epstein found that an experiential thinking style (System 1), but not a rational thinking style (System 2) was positively associated with performance measures of creativity, humor, aesthetic judgment, and intuition, as well as self-report measures of empathy and social popularity. A rational thinking style was associated some measures of adjustment, and both thinking styles were positively related to personal growth.

The key to both intelligence and creativity may be the ability to flexibly switch between different modes of thought. Kaufman and Singer (2012) describe ways in which this might be possible – essentially the person must let their mind wander (gaining mental distance) while maintaining meta-awareness of the contents of their imagination. Such mind wandering is more likely to take place during a ‘period of incubation’ away from demands and stress.

Research suggests that mind wandering can lead to dissociation with sequential time.  J D Jackson 2013.  This suggests this process changes the connectivity of the brain, particularly to the regions responsible for encoding time.

Recent research challenges the “right-brain” as the “creative brain” myth — a new study suggests it’s how well the two brain hemispheres communicate that sets highly creative people apart.

It has been found that people with significantly more connections between the right and left hemispheres have higher scores for some forms of creativity.  D Durante 2017

In the world of technology, systematic empirical comparisons showed that the best machine learner varies from application to application, and systems containing many different learners started to appear… researchers noticed that, if instead of selecting the best variation found,  many variations were combined, the results are better.

Creating a High Level of Connectivity

The above suggests that creativity comes with a high level of openness.

Meditation and Connectivity

Meditation practice has been associated with meta-cognition. It also results in physical effects that influencing biological rhythms including of eye movement, breathing and the heart rate, etc.

Recent research suggests that various forms of meditation can alter brain connectivity – and meditation has been linked closely to ‘ego dissolution’.

Meditation can encourage the meditator to dissociate with sensory input and sequential time. Various forms of meditation seem to seek to cut off the automatic tendency for the default mode network to connect ‘mind-wandering’ with memories of the past, story telling, or thoughts of the future. Mindfulness encourages centring on the now.  Transcendental meditation seeks to go beyond ordinary time and space.

Evidence has suggested that meditation training may increase default mode network connectivity within brain regions important in top-down executive control – especially the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

The default mode network is most commonly shown to be active when a person is not focused on the outside world and the brain is at wakeful rest, such as during daydreaming and mind-wandering. But it is also active when the individual is thinking about others, thinking about themselves (self consciousness), remembering the past, and planning for the future….The default mode network has shown to deactivate during external goal-orientated tasks such as visual attention or cognitive working memory tasks, thus leading some researchers to label the network as the task-negative network.  

Recent studies of both mindfulness disposition and mindfulness training provide evidence for associations between higher levels of mindfulness, decreased mind-wandering and improved cognitive performance.

However area that calls for further investigation is whether there is a difference between meditation which is linked to a belief system (e.g Buddhist meditation) and meditation which is used without association with specific belief (e.g stress relief).  Buddhist meditation will also encourage ‘openness’ and potentially reduced latent inhibition.

Different types of meditation seem to have slightly different effects. Focused styles of meditation leads to increased activation of frontal regions of the cortex (Newberg et al, 2001).  Compassion meditation linked to increased gamma-band synchronization across distributed neural regions synchronization across distributed neural regions(Lutz et al 2004).  It is not clear what would happen if several types of meditation are integrated together.

Psychedelic drug use and connectivity

The taking of psychedelic drugs has also been found to increase brain connectivity, altered perceptions of time and space, and result in ‘ego dissolution’.

Results from studies suggest that LSD simultaneously creates hyper-connections across the brain, allowing the functions of seemingly unrelated regions of the organ to ooze into one another. At the same time, the drug apparently chips away at organization within networks—including a system the brain defers to at rest called the default mode network, which normally governs functions such as self-reflection, autobiographical memory and mental “time travel.”

It has already been pointed out that the images produced by Google Inception resemble those created by someone on LSD, or alternatively experiencing psychosis (which research suggests may be linked to differences in connectivity and ego dissolution).

(Inception generated art next to psychedelic type art work

Recently some ‘creative’ workers (e.g in Silicon Valley) have been micro-dosing with LSD to try to increase their ‘creativity’.

Schizotypal Traits,  the Precuneus and Connectivity

Many mental health conditions and cognitive disabilities (from schizophrenia to dyslexia) come with working memory impairment.

Schizotypal traits – associated with creativity, but not a mental health condition – can be broken down into two types. “Positive” schizotypy includes unusual perceptual experiences, thin mental boundaries between self and other, impulsive nonconformity, and magical beliefs.

Recent neuroscience findings support the link between schizotypy and creative cognition. One study of participants with schizotypy (without mental illness or working memory defects) of the functional brain characteristics of participants while they engaged in a difficult working memory task found that the more creative the participant, the more they had difficulty suppressing the precuneus while engaging in an effortful working memory task. The precuneus is the area of the Default Mode Network typically displays the highest levels of activation during rest (when a person is not focusing on an external task).  According to the researchers, “Such an inability to suppress seemingly unnecessary cognitive activity may actually help creative subjects in associating two ideas represented in different networks.” H Takeuchi 2013

Another study found that association between the ability to come up with original ideas and the inability to suppress activation of the precuneus during creative thinking. As the researchers note, these findings are consistent with the idea that more creative people include more events/stimuli in their mental processes than less creative people. But crucially, they found that those scoring high in schizotypy showed a similar pattern of brain activations during creative thinking as the highly creative participants, supporting the idea that overlapping mental processes are implicated in both creativity and psychosis proneness. A Fink 2013.

The Precuneus has significant structural connectivity with the hippocampus and middle pre-frontal cortext.  Findings review high levels of structural and functional connectivity linking the thalamus, precuneus and Default Mode Network. Differences in structural and functional connectivity may be interpreted to reflect dynamic shifts in resting state functional connectivity for cortical hub-regions involved with consciousness.  S Cunningham 2016.

A study of Harvard undergrads found the greatest creative achievers were seven times more likely to have reduced latent inhibition.

The Role of Dopamine and Latent Inhibition

It is interesting to consider the role dopamine might have in this effect. Anyone who has engaged in highly creative activities will know that these can be accompanied by a ‘rush’ of discovery. Some research suggests that human creativity relies on dopamine, and on the interaction between frontal and striatal dopaminergic pathways in particular. But there have been mixed findings and the exact involvement of dopamine may be dependent on the type of creativity. D L. Zabelina 2016. Creativity which is highly reliant on structuring and working memory may access different dopamine pathways than highly exploratory creativity.

Latent inhibition is tied to dopamine. A reduced latent inhibition allows us to treat something as novel, no matter how may times we’ve seen it before and tagged it as irrelevant. S Carson 2003.

Ageing, Alzheimer’s and Mind Wandering 

In Alzheimer’s, the build up of Amyloid Plaques are associated closely with the default mode network. Both normal aging and Alzheimer’s disease (AD) have been associated with a reduction in functional brain connectivity.  AD is also associated with a lose of sense of self, weakened space and time sense, etc.

Although dementia is not always associated with older age, it is interesting to note that generally, people lose their capacity to engage with mind wandering as they age. Researchers have found that our tendency to mind wander decreases with age where as mindfulness disposition increases with age.

Gamma Oscillations

Meditation, use of LSD, psychiatric illness, and Alzheimer’s are all associated with differences in gamma neural oscillations.

The synchronization of gamma oscillations unconstrained by sensory input has been invoked as a model for hallucinations and perceptual aberrations that occur during psychosis and in certain psychedelic states. (Behrendt, 2003; Behrendt and Young, 2004).

Long-term Buddhist practitioners self-induce sustained electroencephalographic high-amplitude gamma-band oscillations and phase-synchrony during meditation.  A Lutz 2004. 

Gamma oscillations have been closely linked to the operation of the working memory – with pulsed bursts potentially packaging and separating out information.  Neural oscillations may also be supporting fusion of multi-model information, through providing synchronisation of different regions/functions of the brain. They could also support connections between the multiple memory systems discussed at the beginning of this article.   Changes to rhythms in eye movement or breathing can influence gamma oscillations,  and which in turn could influence perceptions of self, time and space, etc.  These findings are explored in more detail in another article on this site.  

Changes to the coupling of gamma and theta oscillations may also be resulting in different processing modes (co-existing in the brain), enabling dynamic switching between exploratory and selective modes of attention. D McLelland 2016. 

Nurturing Creativity Through Different Forms of Attention

Drug use has side-effects and illegal drug markets are connected into criminal activities. It is, important that more research is done on the safety and efficacy of microdosing. In the meantime, physical exercise, education, social interaction, mindfulness and good quality sleep have all been shown to improve cognitive performance and overall wellbeing.Barbara Sahakian, professor of clinical neuropsychologyPsychosis is also something to be avoided.

So it is suggested that the best approach to enable creativity could be ‘mind-wandering’ combined with Mindfulness.

Lay buddhism also offers a range of ‘awareness techniques’ and guidance to avoid false memory syndrome (which can be a problem with LSD use, psychosis and meditation) and other negative side effects (i.e the anxiety and paranoia that comes with psychedelic drug use and psychosis).  This includes:

Optimal creativity would also require a wider environment where others are open to divergent and unstructured forms of creativity and then encourage translation into ‘useful’ outcomes. Potentially one individual could generate an idea using exploratory creativity, and then switch to bounded creativity in order engineer useful products.  Alternatively the individual generating the initial ‘open’ idea or product, can work with others who have a variety of skills and may be stronger at generating convergent creativity.  This could be a relationship of mutual benefit/symbiosis.

Unfortunately our current society does not offer such an environment to many people. We also tend to divide people up into general workers versus artists/creatives versus scientists/rationalists – so where is the ‘useful’ symmetry breaking creativity likely to emerge from?

There are some examples of artist-scientists. The most famous being Leonardo Da Vinci, who supposedly once said something along the lines of  “Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else” 

Author Michael Gelb sets out seven critical principles that were followed by Da Vinci and can be used by anyone else.

  • Curiosita: An insatiably curious approach to life.
  • Dimonstratzione: A commitment to test knowledge through experience.
  • Sensazione: The continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, as the means to clarify experience.
  • Sfumato: A willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty.
  • Arte/Scienza: The development of the balance between science and art, logic and imagination (“whole-brain thinking”).
  • Corporalita: The cultivation of ambidexterity, fitness, and poise.
  • Connessione: A recognition and appreciation for the connectedness of all things and phenomena; “systems thinking”.

And just try to think about a whole system without using visualisation’.  Vision and whole systems thinking are intertwined.

The Creative Learning Machine

The above findings on the neurology of creativity are likely to feed into work on the development of the creative learning machine.  It may need to be the case that the development of such a machine will require programmes to build in the capacity for mind wandering, disassociation with time and place, and ego death.  However this will need to be done in a way that results in positive creativity rather than dysfunction. Neurologists are still working on defining how these are differentiated, but the knowledge gap is closely fast.




N M Schuller   6 April 2017.





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