Monday, October 26, 2009

The Evolution of Creativity

Liane Gabora writes some of the most though-provoking and thrilling things I've ever read. Her work on the evolution of creativity goes after the heart of the behavioral variation that has allowed hominids to survive for the last four million years. Below, an abstract from her paper, Revenge of the Neurds: Characterizing Creative Thought in terms of the Structure and Dynamics of Memory;

ABSTRACT: Empirical results suggest that defocusing attention results in primary process or associative thought, conducive to finding unusual connections, while focusing attention results in secondary process or analytic thought, conducive to rule-based operations.

Creativity appears to involve both. It is widely believed that it is possible to escape mental fixation by spontaneously and temporarily engaging in a more divergent or associative mode of thought. The resulting insight (if found) may be refined in a more analytic mode of thought.

The question addressed here is: how does the architecture of memory support these two modes of thought, and what is happening at the neural level when one shifts between them? Recent advances in neuroscience shed light on this. It was demonstrated that activated cell assemblies are composed of multiple ‘neural cliques’, groups of neurons that respond differentially to general or context-specific aspects of a situation. I refer to neural cliques that would not be included in the assembly if one were in an analytic mode, but would be if one were in an associative mode, as ‘neurds’.

It is posited that the shift to a more associative mode of thought conducive to insight is accomplished by recruiting neurds that respond to abstract or atypical subsymbolic microfeatures of the problem or situation. Since memory is distributed and content-addressable this fosters remindings and the forging of creative connections to potentially relevant items previously encoded in those neurons. Thus it is proposed that creative thought involves neither randomness, nor search through a space of predefined alternatives, but emerges naturally through the recruitment of neurds.

It is suggested this occurs when there is a need to resolve conceptual gaps in ones’ internal model of the world, and resolution involves context-driven actualization of the potentiality afforded by its fine-grained associative structure.

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