Wednesday, March 13, 2013
Mental Repose, Evolving Creativity and the Literary Dynamism of Group Exchange
Restful repose of the mental kind is not only critical for the phrase-crafter, but has (according to University of California physical anthropologist Katerina Semendeferi) played a significant role in the prehistoric evolution of the innovative mind. In a recent article of Scientific American she delineates clear correlations between increased brain size and complexity (particularly in the prefrontal cortex which appears to orchestrate thought and action to accomplish goals) and spurred levels of creativity. Scanned studies of ancient hominid braincases and the examination of our nearest living evolutionary relatives (chimpanzees and bonobos) depict a selective disposition, generally speaking, for larger brain size - with our australopithecine kin (Australopithecus afarensis dating to approximately 3 million years ago) possessing a cranial capacity of approximately 450 cubic centimeters to Homo sapiens' 1330 cubic centimeters. This relatively spacious expanse of convoluted gray matter comprised wider inter-neural gaps that enabled a proliferation of axons and dendrites - in other words a more complicated connective framework.
However, it is contemporary psychological studies that cast intriguing insight into the manner in which bigger, more complicated brains spur creativity. Cognitive scientist Liane Gabora of the University of British Columbia has conducted studies of creative individuals to find that they are exemplary daydreamers; when confronting an issue they initally allow their minds to wander, facilitating a languid free-association in which one thought or memory spontaneously conjures up another. This process encourages analogies and gives rise to thoughts that approach the subject from disparate perspectives; until upon settling on a vague idea of resolution (perhaps plot development for the modern writer and the most efficient mechanism of stripping meat from the bone for Australopithecus afarensis) they then switch to a more analytic mode of thought, focusing particularly on the most relevant properties.
Neither Australopithecus afarensis, nor the literary-inclined Homo sapiens could afford to linger in the free-associative state in which one nebulous thought triggered the meandering arrival of another (our chopper-wielding ancestor susceptible to attack and starvation, the latter similarly vulnerable to the ceaselessly blank page on which nothing was ever inscribed). Productivity is dependent upon our default neural state: the analytic mode. A critical feature of the innovative brain was the ability to rapidly switch from one mode to the other by subtle alterations of dopamine concentration and other neurotransmitters. Enjoying a remarkable surfeit of neurons is not enough: mental repose and the free-association that accompanies it are critical for breaking free of the cognitive rut.
Another fascinating feature of the creative human brain consists of the cultural ratcheting process in which creative insights and technological innovations arising from the insights of previous generations are passed on; a cumulative acquisition of understood things. For the writer: literary concepts are built upon, refined, and re-examined; indubitably we learn and hone our craft from the narrative examples of what went before. Chaucer inspired Shakespeare, who in turn continued to influence the writings of numerous others subsequently. There are, of course, a countless array of literary greats in the narrative pantheon, all of whom combine innovative threads of their own in subtle company with those of their forebears. Harold Bloom coined the phrase "anxiety of influence" to describe the effect on modern writers of our literary precursors (the canonical giants I am assuming); whether we admire, deride or are intimidated by them we indubitably read them. Fragments, turns of phrase, luminescent depictions of character, particular world perspectives and methods of transcribing it, infiltrate our own writing mind and however unconsciously influence the turn of our own pen.
The nourishment of our creative brain, however, does not depend solely on cultural ratcheting and the cumulative accomplishments of our predecessors - it is also a matter of social interaction (yes, we must intermittently emerge from our literary cave blinking in the unaccustomed glare of the social spotlight). To elaborate upon this theme for a writer predisposed to solitary scribblings, I turn to behavioral primatologist Lewis Dean's experimental puzzle box that comprised three sequential and incrementally difficult levels. This puzzle was presented to a group of capucin monkeys, chimpanzees, and nursery school children. Of the nonhuman primates one of 55 reached level 3 after 30 experimental hours, whereas 15 of the 35 children had completed the hardest level after two and a half hours. The vital distinction between the two groups consisted in the collaborative nature of the human endeavor; the children, in the process of tackling the challenge, talked amongst themselves, offered mutual encouragement, and shared successful techniques.
Archaeological evidence of innovation is similarly demonstrable within larger groups, or clustered settlements that engaged in frequent interaction. In fact scientists now believe that this final cognitive push for cultural ratcheting was born of demographics - the larger the hunter and gathering band the greater the likelihood that one member will generate an idea that could advance a technology. When population density reaches a certain point we see a correlating spike in evidence of creativity: the emergence of complex technological recipes for lightweight stone blades for projectile weapons; cooking silcrete to a specific temperature to improve its flaking qualities; glues comprised of plant gum utilized to adhere point to shaft, and woven bedding manufactured from leaves of the Crypotocarya woodii tree renowned for its natural insecticides effective against disease-borne mosquitoes. Innovations borne of one or few and rapidly disseminated to an appreciative collective.
In a modern age of jostling, teeming, bustling proximity, where writers seek a self-imposed solitude to work on their pain-staking craft it is an intriguing exercise to ponder on the elements that have been prehistorically integral to innovation promotion. Ironically the very attributes which have been definitively associated with writers (that is writing itself coupled with isolation) can also be better honored in the breach than the observance insofar as the innovative brain is concerned: not writing, relaxing the frenetic burst of neural storms, indulging in a languid array of thought-streams, a leisurely succession of languishing musings that enable free-associative idea-connections. And intermittently eschewing literary aloofness for social exchanges that actively spur human creativity; albeit prudently and selectively chosen networks that support, nourish and stimulate the intellectual self. And of course reiterating the critical imperative to read widely and voraciously, to examine and dwell long upon the masters that comprise our literary heritage - for thence will the process of cultural ratcheting benefit our own particular works - as ours may be of interest to those to come. These are things we know: rest, converse, and read - but their palpable benefit to creatives (writers and otherwise) has, with this recent delving into the prehistoric stirrings of innovative accomplishment, acquired a new and most palpable imperative - a strategy acquired and honed over millions of years, and one which may prove useful indeed to us over the course of our brief and flickering lifetime.