There’s more good news again this morning. Psychologists from the University of Toronto and Harvard University have identified one of the biological bases of creativity. The study seems to show that the brains of creative people appear to be more open to incoming stimuli. Other people’s brains might shut out this same information through a process called “latent inhibition” — defined as an animal’s unconscious capacity to ignore stimuli that experience has shown are irrelevant to its needs. Through psychological testing, it seems that we artists are more likely to have low levels of latent inhibition.
“Creative individuals remain in contact with the extra information constantly streaming in from the environment,” says co-author and U of T psychology professor Jordan Peterson. “The normal person classifies an object, and then forgets about it, even though that object may be complex and interesting. The creative person, by contrast, is open to new possibilities.”
Previously, scientists associated psychosis with the failure to screen out stimuli. The new research indicates that this failure might also contribute to original thinking, especially when combined with a high IQ. Tests for latent inhibition were given to Harvard undergrads. Those classified as potential creative achievers — participants under age 21 who reported unusually high scores in an area of creative achievement — were seven times more likely to have low latent inhibition scores.
Peterson also states: “If you are open to new information, new ideas, you better be able to intelligently and carefully edit and choose. If you have fifty ideas, only two or three are likely to be any good. You have to be able to discriminate or you’ll get swamped.”
With regard to “swamped,” I’ve always noticed that my “normal,” successful, non-artist friends are well served by their latent inhibition. They spend little time on impossible projects or flights of fancy. Often, they go straight for the jugular. They’re frequently “bottom line” folks. My research shows that many artists admire the uncluttered among us. As a dreamer who’s perfected the art of walking into walls, I’ve struggled to add some of their wisdom to that of my own.
PS: “It appears likely that low levels of latent inhibition and exceptional flexibility in thought might predispose to mental illness under some conditions and to creative accomplishment under others.” (researcher Shelley Carson)
Esoterica: “During the early stages of diseases such as schizophrenia, which are often accompanied by feelings of deep insight, mystical knowledge and religious experience, chemical changes take place in which latent inhibition disappears. It appears that we have not only identified one of the biological bases of creativity but have moved towards cracking an age-old mystery: the relationship between genius, madness and the doors of perception.” (Jordan Peterson)
Artist’s mind’s eye
by Dora Boes
I have always wondered why I can look at a room, see it finished, and place my furniture around where I want it. All done in my mind’s eye. So many people that I know cannot do this. I would be interested to know if artistic people can all do this. I always thought of it as my “artist’s eye.” After reading your letter, I think I may be right. I can also look at a scene and picture how it would look on paper.
I am annoying to my family at times because I notice all stimuli — noises, colours, places, neat things. In fact, I find it hard to turn them off and sleeping can be difficult!! Apparently my “what’s that?” can be disturbing to people who don’t notice much. Luckily I have two other artists in the family who are beginning to say “what’s that?” even more often.
Alerted ant brother
by Lena Davis
The artists you describe are grasshoppers and the masses are ants. You know the fable I’m sure. My daughter got her nickname from this concept. She calls us grasshoppers and she’s the little cricket who is beyond the ants or the grasshoppers in conscious awareness, wisdom and magic. It was just really good to read your message; I don’t feel like such a lunatic anymore. Last week while getting into the car I saw the most beautiful rainbow I have ever seen. I kept driving and called all my friends on my cell phone, including my ant brother to get outside to see the rainbow. There was a moment there when I thought what a strange thing for a person to do, but then I realized that there is value in getting others to start to notice the beauty around us.
by Cora Jane Glasser, New York City, NY, USA
Ellen Dissanayake writes a compelling argument in favor of the biological and evolutionary basis of art in all humans. The research in your letter refers to “normal people” as those who are not creative. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that we as artists are normal, and everyone else is lagging behind in the evolutionary climb. A fine argument indeed for more funding for the arts!
(RG note) Ellen Dissanayake (Diss-an-eye-a-ka) is an independent scholar. See Ellen Dissanayake, The Core of Art: Making Special.
Problems with Peterson
by Marina Morgan
Peterson and his colleagues’ study results have problems in that he appears not to have factored in or out the male-female differences of the brain, which makes males more focused and linear thinking, and females more naturally able to multi-task and “circle” information and issues. This would affect the quality, if not even the identification, of creativity studied, one would suppose. Secondly, he hasn’t accounted for ADD, and thirdly, he hasn’t accounted for conditioning — other studies show that those who thought of themselves as creative, were more creative and solved more problems than those who didn’t.
It’s in the genes
by Elizabeth H. Schmid
Having worked as a neuro-psychiatrist for 25 years with a State Hospital and County of Los Angeles psychiatric population I have seen thousands of Schizophrenic patients. Except for very few patients (who were probably misdiagnosed) my schizophrenic patients were of low IQ, as children, already slow thinkers, unable to think imaginatively or creatively. I have, however, seen hundreds of “mad geniuses” among the manic-depressive population. As a matter of fact practically every patient with bipolar illness was either directly an artist, writer, actor, musician, or at least a creative person. The old psychoanalytic observation that during psychotic episodes, the patient cannot screen out irrelevant information, has been proven correct from the biological point of view by these Toronto and Harvard psychologists. The question remains what do people do with this “irrelevant information”? Some, usually patients with a schizophrenic thought disorder, cannot do anything with these stimuli, whereas people with artistic genes — many of whom have bipolar illness — become extremely creative except at the peaks of their illnesses. The people who seem to gain most from low levels of latent inhibition are those with healthy brains, but with artistic genes.
More seeds to plant
by Moncy Barbour
Jordan Peterson has unlocked the mystery of madness and genius. One must know which data to keep delivered by their senses, all five or perhaps all six. A sensory overload is as simple as too great a variety of seeds to plant for harvest. One must make a decision which seeds to plant or time runs out and they starve. Or they precisely pick the correct amount of seeds to plant and make them flourish with their green thumbs and sweat. Since creative people have such a vast intake of thoughts induced by their environment, perhaps they have more seeds to plant in the fields of Fine art. Are we not lucky? All that can happen to the creative mind on their journey is average mundane success, genius or madness. And one more thing that would be the worst conclusion for myself, not taking the journey at all!
by June Raabe, Ladysmith, B.C., Canada
As a young art student I refused a mind-altering substance because I felt “my mind is already too close to the edge — if I ingest something I might go over the edge and never come back.” Also, I do not drink alcohol. By contrast all the weird feelings associated with an artistic “high” are marvelous, wonderful and without any nasty bodily symptoms except a bit of lightheadedness. After reading a Time-Life book on the mind which showed the paintings of schizophrenic patients… all very “Van Gogh-like” with bright colours and “flame” designs around the objects I concluded (wrongly, I believe) that Van Gogh was a schizophrenic. It turns out that he had a form of epilepsy. My consolation to myself for the difference between me and the ordinary folk who have ordered uncluttered lives, matched socks, washed dishes, no excess paper or books, no boxes of bright paints, crayons, fabric, coloured paper, hallowe’en hats… is that my mind is busy with other more interesting things! It’s also the excuse for moving my art to the dining room table and leaving the “spare bedroom/studio” full of paper, paintings, frames, two computers and uncountable piles of art magazines. I’d like to tidy up before I die but today is always too busy.
Food control of inhibition
by Yaroslaw Rozputnyak, Moscow, Russia
Foodstuffs are a condition for change of the latent inhibition (too hungry, not hungry or too full up). It is observed that lack of food protein leads to the intellectual disorders and easy resorbtive protein from a fish helps at schizophrenia. The age changes structure of a spectrum of the latent levels of inhibitions for various doors of perception.
by Kathie Briggs
A couple of years ago I took one of those quizzes in the Sunday supplement. It was written by Elaine N. Aron (Ph. D.) who wrote a book called The Highly Sensitive Person. My score was pretty high. Later my husband read the quiz and the article and pointed it out to me. “This sounds like a description of you.” So I ordered the book and learned a lot about myself and about other people as well. I never knew other people could filter stimuli. I thought everyone else was bombarded with it. She has an analogy I love: The entire village is singing and dancing and you hear the lion outside the village. The book says about 20% of the population are this way.
Now I understand how I am different and I value it. I also know that I need to write down my ideas even if it means getting out of bed in the middle of the night. I might not ever follow through with the idea but if I don’t get it written down it keeps me from being productive. Even keeps me from sleeping.
by Gertjan Zwiggelaar
What differentiates artists from the rest of humanity, is that artists have minds which are particularly fine tuned to Divine Creative Energy and have the courage to defy convention, utilize their wisdom and immerse themselves in an experience of divine power, the power to create. Artists are the lucky humans whose minds were not overly destroyed by the public education system in which they were imprisoned during their formative years. The public education system instills inhibitions which keep people from attaining their potentials.
Artists are engaged in a Divine Madness in that the experience of using the force of will to gather energy with which to manipulate matter and form it into something totally new, something only seen previously in the mind of the creator, is a divine act. And madness, because to straight society, what artists do is irrational. It makes no sense to some people that we will deny ourselves food, as long as we have paint and canvas.
People who see beyond
I wonder at the correlation of this finding and A.D.D. (Attention Deficit Disorder)? When my son was in grade three he was tested and “labeled” A.D.D. A highly creative individual who found it difficult to stay on task. That is unless the “task” was something he enjoyed, something that stirred his creative juices. He could play games for hours, draw for hours. Intricate drawings full of amazing imagination and imagery.
There is a wonderful book called The Souls Code: In Search of Character and Calling by James Hillman. In that book he talks about people who in current times would be labeled A.D.D., Winston Churchill and Leonardo da Vinci just to name two, who in fact were simply looking beyond what was presented to them. So many outstanding people in our history fall into this category. Mr. Hillman explains how these people were born already destined to see beyond the obvious, the everyday. Add to that… low levels of latent inhibition and you have some pretty amazing people.
by Jane Champagne, Southampton, Ontario, Canada
I’ve forwarded your letter on latent inhibition to some 32 painter friends who are joining me next week for a “Paintescape” in Killarney, Ontario. Rugged terrain, shrimp-pink granite, sparkling white quartzite hills, glittering lakes, the occasional bear — perfect for painters whose lower “latent inhibitions” won’t get in the way of absorbing everything there is to see in one of the most beautiful regions in Canada. Like me, they’ll be relieved to know that we’re not slightly mad, that there’s a biological reason for our creativity. I’m not so sure about their absorption level around the fireplace at Killarney Mountain Lodge’s circular bar though. Seriously, it’s a relief to know that thee and me and Van Gogh and every other artist ever born were endowed with that mysterious biological element that gives us our urge to create. It’s not insanity: It’s art!
by Elzire (Terri Steiner), Princeton, Mass. USA
Your letter came at a time when so many “intuitive” happenings and dreams were actually coming true, that I thought I was “going over the edge” a little. I’m bipolar, though I’m rarely depressed, and the hypo-mania that I’m almost constantly in has gotten me in so many projects, in every aspect of my life. Fortunately, I’m accomplishing all. The super high state of awareness, unfortunately, keeps me from sit-down stuff like painting, but works great on putting a new roof on my house, gutting, and adding a room with a cathedral ceiling, buying a new car, and being a leader in many projects.
painting by Nancy Howe, Vermont, United States
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2003.
That includes Sonja Picard, Vancouver BC, who wrote, “Thank god for these university studies… now I don’t have to worry about my obsessive working habits or frequent martinis in the day or voices telling me to create… I guess I’m normal.”
And also Edie Allison who wrote, “As a person who is often, maybe constantly, puzzled by similar observations, it is a relief to read what you wrote; I find it hard to resist not-so-great conclusions without such an angle on things.”
And also Gloria who wrote, “This explains why I am so distracted by other things going on in a restaurant or similar situation. Often my companions don’t have a clue that things are happening around us. They are immersed in the company they are with, while I am involved in everything around us. I used to think that was a character flaw in me, so this study is comforting to me.”
And also Janet Faulhabe who wrote, “My word for this phenomenon is ‘sponging.’ Some people just soak up whatever’s going on. However, the madness aspect may arise from the difficulty of setting limits or boundaries between oneself and what one is soaking in… hence, the link between creativity and schizophrenia and mental instability.”
And also Lois Coletti who wrote, “Some call it the ‘Edison trait.’ Thomas A. Edison had to be home-schooled, but his creativity flourished in that environment — and he literally had a “lightbulb” moment! But lack of inhibition can create problems as well as inventions. I’m happy to say that I’ve been conscious of the need to rein in the dreams and thus been able to function in this goal-oriented world.