MindEdge Learning Blog

Brain researcher Rex Jung on the scientific basis of creativity

By Frank Connolly
Senior Editor, MindEdge Learning

The author Eric Jerome Dickey once observed that, "it's impossible to explain creativity. It's like asking a bird, "How do you fly?" That may well be true, but Rex Jung is willing to give it a try, anyway.

Jung, assistant professor of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico and a leading researcher into the neuroscience of creativity, speaks about the link between creativity and intelligence, the nature of genius, and LeBron James in the latest installment of Dig Deeper, MindEdge Learning's podcast on critical thinking and creativity in the digital age.

Rex Jung

Creativity, Jung says, is the brain's ability to come up with "something that is both novel and useful." Both attributes are essential, he argues: "These are kind of diametrically opposed: you can have novel things that are useless and you can have useful things that are not very novel. So there is this kind of sweet spot that approaches novelty on the one hand and then utility on the other, that I think is really the sweet spot of creativity."

Jung is quick to debunk the popular notion that creativity is a product of the brain's right hemisphere, while logic and rational thought belong to the left side. "It's completely wrong," he laughs. "It takes your whole brain to be creative... You need lots of brain to do creative things, which is at the apex of human endeavor. So it takes a lot of brain structure, and a lot of brain function, from both the right and left hemispheres to do the creative thing."

In reality, he says, creative thought results from the collaboration of three different brain networks, which together make up about 75 percent of the brain. Here's a highly simplified description of how they interact:

  • The default mode network, which includes the hippocampus and the precuneus, generates novel ideas.

  • The cognitive control network, which includes the prefrontal regions of the brain's frontal lobes, evaluates those novel ideas and dismisses, or "downregulates," those that are impractical or not useful.

  • The salience network,which includes the anterior insula and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, helps the brain toggle back and forth between those other two networks.

Jung cites recent research into improvisational musicians—rappers and jazz artists—which suggests that the default mode network is more active and the cognitive control network is less active when artists are in a highly improvisational "flow state." The same may be true of other creative types, he says.

In response to a fundamental question—Can everyone be creative, or is it a rare and limited gift?—Jung strikes an optimistic note. "I'm convinced that this creative thing that we do is probably a central brain attribute," he says. "And that there is domain specificity around that central brain attribute. So the novelty generation and the downselection we talk about with these different brain networks, is probably common across entrepreneurs and poets and basketball [players]." As for "domain specificity," Jung explains: "if you're a basketball player, if you're LeBron James, you're really going to be pulling from some domain specificity residing in the motor cortex, in the cerebellum, and lots of wonderful motor domain specificity. The same with musicians—you're going to have some very highly developed motor specificity, and motor talent, in your hands and fingers and whatnot, if you play a musical instrument. If you're an entrepreneur it's going to be a bit more diffuse—where you are more extroverted and more risk-taking, and you know, some personality variables and some more ethereal types of variables that come into play."

While everyone can be creative, Jung argues, true genius is a much rarer commodity. He defines genius as a combination of extreme creativity ("novel and useful problem-solving") and extreme intelligence ("rapid and accurate problem-solving"). And he's quick to point out an example of such a genius, currently toiling in the NBA.

"LeBron James certainly is a genius in his domain," he argues. "So someone that has rapid and accurate problem-solving—LeBron would certainly qualify in that domain—and someone who has novel and useful problem-solving; LeBron certainly qualifies in that domain... I think genius is so rare because it's just exceptional intelligence, exceptional creativity in a particular domain."

For those of us not blessed with such transcendent gifts, it's always a challenge to find ways of becoming more creative. On that score, Jung cautions that there's no easy cure-all. "It's different for different people. Creative people know what works for them; that does not mean that it will work for you, because people are as different as the faces that adorn our bodies," he says. In the long run, Jung counsels, "people need to find what works for them—and do more of that."

For a complete listing of Skye Learning's course offerings on creativity and innovation, click here.

To listen to the Dig Deeper podcast featuring Rex Jung, click here.

Copyright © 2018 MindEdge, Inc.

Pretesting has been shown to improve students' retention

By Heather Morton
Senior Editor, MindEdge Learning

When I first started working as a senior editor at MindEdge, I was baffled by the company's routine reliance on pretests. Why test students on material they have not yet studied? Their performance on a multiple-choice pretest, I thought, would lead either to discouragement ("I'm obviously not qualified to take this course") or to complacency ("Why bother completing the module?").

taking a pretest

Unsurprisingly, there turns out to be an evidence-based foundation for this pedagogical practice. Research shows that students who have completed a pretest retain 10 percent more information than students in a similarly situated control group who haven't. Furthermore, there is some evidence that forcing students to predict an outcome—essentially what a pretest does—helps them engage more with the material, leading to better discussion-board postings.

Pretesting falls into a larger category of predicting, the act of having students forecast future information: how a novel will end, the effects of an economic factor they have not yet studied, how a formula might be modified to take into account another influence on profit.

Experts have several theories about how and why predicting works:

Pretesting increases students' interest in the material that follows. Imagine you're watching a curling match for the first time. If you've been forced to predict a winner in the match, you will pay closer attention to what follows. You might wonder if the techniques you saw on the ice led to the win or loss of the team you chose. Similarly, when you see information on a topic you were tested on in the pretest, you might look for information that explains why your answer was correct or not.

Pretesting helps students recognize what they should pay attention to. Novices in a field rarely have an intuitive sense of what information is important. In literature classes, for example, students may note that a character went out for a walk after dinner (unimportant) while failing to notice that other characters are addressing him as "sir" (important). A pretest primes students to focus on certain aspects of a topic. A pretest that asks about the social class of a character will direct students' attention to information that reveals class while they are reading the novel—including how the character is addressed by others.

Pretesting primes retrieval, aiding students' ability to connect new knowledge to old. This theory is a bit more technical. One of the most important ways we remember information is through its connection to other information. As a writing teacher, I see this most clearly with words that are only partially known. A student who has heard "benign" will connect it to "tumor" and know that a "benign tumor" is the best kind of tumor to have. She will know that long before she knows what the word "benign" means on its own. Our brains use a network of connections to store and retrieve information. "Tree" will be connected to "leaves," "tall," "plant," "wood," "forest," "deciduous" and a host of other information we have on the topic. It turns out that we learn new information more easily when we have connected it to an already-existing network. A pretest asks us to ransack our minds for information on an unknown topic. This activation of previous knowledge allows us more easily to connect and retrieve the new information we are about to learn.

Experts caution that in the studies showing the effectiveness of prediction, students were provided immediate feedback on their predictions. Our use of prediction, therefore, should follow that model: it's easier to remember the wrong guess you made on the pretest rather than the right answer you learned several days later. To ensure that you are harnessing the full power of prediction for your students, make sure the course provides feedback shortly after the prediction.

A pretest, of course, is not the only opportunity to mobilize the learning power of prediction. Here are some other ways a course can use the power of prediction to improve student retention:

  • In a finance course, a video might pause after a real-world problem is presented and ask students to predict which formula is most appropriate to solve it. Students choose the formula from a multiple-choice list. The video continues and reveals the formula the professor chose.

  • In a writing course, students might read the first draft of a paper and then write into a text box their prediction of the three most important issues the writer should fix in the next draft. What the instructor is looking for in the next draft is revealed and explained immediately after.

  • An art history course introduces the Baroque period by displaying side-by-side works of art depicting the same Biblical story from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Students are asked to post to a discussion board about how the Baroque piece differently renders the Biblical story.

Because predicting can be incorporated into a variety of technological applications and applied to almost any field, it is another powerful and versatile tool to boost your students' learning in an online environment.


1 Lang, James M. Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2016, pp. 46-47.

For a complete listing of MindEdge's courses about online learning, click here.

Copyright © 2018 MindEdge, Inc.

Thinking about starting a nonprofit? Be patient with the process, counsels Julia Satti Cosentino, a partner in the law firm of Nutter McClennen & Fish LLP and co-chair of the firm's Nonprofit and Social Impact practice group. Although nonprofit startups face mountains of paperwork and dozens of regulatory hoops to jump through, Cosentino points out that complying with all those regulations will help your organization run more smoothly—and make it more attractive to potential donors.

[This video is for information purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any specific facts or circumstances.]

For a complete listing of the nonprofit management courses available through Skye Learning, click here.

Copyright © 2018 MindEdge, Inc.

Do laptops and tablets belong in the classroom?

By Joe Peters
Editor, MindEdge Learning

It's hard to imagine anyone with a better command of learning and technology than Dr. Patrick Winston, an MIT faculty member who, for nearly five decades, has been on the forefront of machine learning and artificial intelligence. How does he view technology in the classroom? He doesn't. One of his rules for his Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course is, "No Laptops."

Granted, Dr. Winston's preferences do not establish a universal axiom. But if an educator of his renown, working with students on the vanguard of technology, questions the value of such devices while lecturing, then maybe those of us with more pedestrian credentials should take note.

This is not to suggest that technology has no role to play in education. To the contrary, technology has an immense capacity to bridge logistical, financial, and cognitive gaps. Even a Luddite must acknowledge that the Internet provides access to a far greater breadth and depth of information–and far more efficient retrieval of that information–than the stacks of a research library.

However, as we see laptops becoming more prevalent in elementary and middle schools through programs such as BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), we should recognize the potential for educational distraction as well as benefit.

Not long ago, the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a coalition of 36 of the world's most advanced countries, conducted a study of 15-year-old students who regularly use computers and the Internet at school. The study concluded that those tech-using students tended to underperform on international assessment tests.

While we should be careful about drawing broad conclusions from a single study, these results nonetheless indicate a need for circumspection. But instead of raising a red flag about the use of technology in the classroom, many school districts have gone ahead and bulldozed the flagpole.

What's notable about many of the scholarly articles addressing BYOD and related programs is that their focus tends to be more on financial considerations than pedagogical ones. Inevitably, the justification for replacing the No. 2 pencil and three-ring binder with a laptop or tablet is a belief that we must start preparing students, even those in elementary school, for the jobs of the future.

In this regard, consider the data point provided us by the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, a private K-12 school that serves the children of many Silicon Valley executives. The school attracts the progeny of the country's technology incubator by being famously no-tech.

Again, a single anecdote does not establish a truth. But perhaps what these executives understand is that today's software and hardware may bear little resemblance to tomorrow's workplace. The famed "Moore's Law" holds that technological capability doubles roughly every two years. If that's true, then by the time a fifth-grader sends out résumés as a college senior, he or she will be five technology generations removed from the tools of today. Expecting today's laptops to prepare a 10-year-old for employment a decade hence is like using a World War I-era globe to teach modern geography.

Further, most kids have an intrinsic attraction to the range of today's computing devices. For many parents, the challenge is not getting their children to use these devices–it is getting them to stop using them. If we're concerned about making sure our kids are ready for tomorrow's workplace, relax–most of them are more than capable of learning how to use a new device in very short order.

If today's educators and parents are embracing classroom laptops with excessive exuberance, part of the fault must lie with those of us in the tech industry who have been clamoring for years about "skills gaps." Whether you are talking about political leaders being duped by simple phishing schemes or investment professionals struggling with a spreadsheet, the tools of today's workplace can be overwhelming. But perhaps we technologists have focused too much on the bytes, and overlooked the basics.

At the risk of committing techno-heresy in the eyes of my IT colleagues, let me suggest the fault has not been in the "hard skills" of understanding digital certificates and regular expressions, but rather in the so-called soft skills of communication, adaptability, and cooperation.

The next time you approach an elevator lobby, a bus stop, or some other public setting, make note of how many people prefer to stare at the thing in their hand rather than make even a superficial gesture–a smile, a greeting, or an inquiry about the weather. For all their promise, today's devices can be very isolating. In a grander context, we should ask whether these resources encourage us to reach beyond our comfort zones, or are they more like a digital cocoon?

As we face the evolution of artificial intelligence, arguably it is more important than ever for us and our children to prioritize the skills between our ears rather than those at our fingertips. As Dr. Winston counsels MIT students annually, in a talk entitled How to Speak: "Your careers will be determined largely by how well you speak, by how well you write, and by the quality of your ideas ... in that order."

For a complete listing of MindEdge's course offerings on cyber security and CISSP®, click here.

Copyright © 2018 MindEdge, Inc.