Creative Abnormalities

A couple weeks ago I was listening to NPR and heard an interview with VS Ramachandran, a neuroscientist who studies brain abnormalities in order to make new discoveries about the way our minds work. He studies localized damage or genetic changes in the brain. These anomalies don’t cause an overall decrease in mental ability, but only the loss of a single function of brain activity. This method allows him to map particular parts of the brain to particular functions and the theory is that this enables him to pinpoint the role of certain circuitry in brain function.

Through the course of the interview he was postulating that there are some abnormalities of the brain that may account for certain “abilities.” 

Shakespeare has always been admired for his unique gift of tying unrelated items and concepts together to create metaphors that are both revolutionary and universal. In the famous balcony scene Romeo declares that Juliet is the sun. We know, of course, that Juliet is not a burning sphere of gas, but we understand instinctively that she brings light, comfort and warmth to Romeo. This ability to create metaphors that imbue characters, situations and objects with universal meanings using seemingly unrelated ideas is at the core of the work of artists, poets, writers and other creatives.

VS Ramachandran theorizes that, rather than a creative gift, this ability may be due to irregularities of the brain. See, when we are born all of the regions of our brains are interconnected, all sharing information and making links. At some point in our development a gene comes along and trims these connections and the result we have is the modular brain. But if there is a defect or mutation in the gene that performs the trimming, the result will be some cross-wiring between the different areas of cognition. The more cross-wiring that exists the greater the propensity of someone to link seemingly unrelated ideas.

Ramachandran has discovered that this particular abnormality—called synaethesia—is eight times more likely to be found in artists, novelists, poets, and other creative people.

So, in theory, creativity is really the result of an abnormal brain.

While interesting, I’m not certain how much faith I put in this particular theory due to its emphasis on physiology to the detriment of the soul and divine gifting. I believe that our creativity is a mark of the Creator on his creation, but I also trust that one way in which God’s creative spirit can be pressed upon us is through a physical manifestation. Regardless, if physiological abnormalities play some role in producing a creative mindalbeit a deranged one—then bring on the abnormalities!

You can view Ramachandran’s TED Talk here.