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.

High Confidence but Low Scores on the MindEdge Online Quiz

By Frank Connolly
Director of Communications and Research, MindEdge Learning

After a solid year of news reports, commentary, and public debate about fake news and other deceptive online content, public awareness of the issue is sky-high. But the public's ability to counter the fake-news epidemic is anything but clear-cut, according to the findings of MindEdge's second annual State of Critical Thinking Study.

correct responses to critical thinking questions.

The online survey of 1,002 college students and recent graduates, aged 18 to 30, shows that most are highly confident in their critical thinking abilities and related "soft skills." But that confidence seems woefully misplaced.

The survey included the same nine-question quiz on critical thinking and digital literacy that ran in the 2017 Critical Thinking Study. Last year's study documented significant weaknesses in the critical-thinking skills of many millennials—and this year's results are even more underwhelming.

Fully 52 percent of survey respondents could not answer more than five of the nine questions correctly, earning a failing grade of "F." The proportion of failing grades jumped by eight points, up from 44 percent in 2017.

Only 19 percent earned an "A" or "B" by answering eight or nine questions correctly. The proportion of "A"s and "B"s dropped by five points, down from 24 percent a year ago. Overall, the scores for all nine questions in the quiz are lower than in 2017.

At the same time, survey respondents express high levels of confidence in their own critical thinking abilities. A clear majority (59 percent) say they are very confident in their soft skills, and 40 percent say specifically they are very confident in their ability to detect false content online. The latter measure represents a five-point increase from 2017.

This stark disjunction, between high levels of self-confidence and low performance scores, suggests that critical thinking and online literacy remain a significant issue for today's young people.

It's important to note that these results apply only to millennials, not to the public-at-large. Pending further research, there is no current data to indicate whether millennials are better or worse at critical thinking than older Americans are.

Indeed, it is tempting to assume that millennials—as "digital natives" who have essentially grown up online—are better able to sniff out bad online content, just as they tend to be better at many other online skills. But there's a countervailing school of thought, which holds that millennials—precisely because they have grown up at a time when Google et al. have made information available instantaneously—may lack the patience and academic discipline to double-check sources and question assumptions, which are crucial critical-thinking skills.

So, which school of thought is correct? MindEdge will attempt to answer that question in its 2019 State of Critical Thinking study—so check back in a year.

Other survey results point to some promising findings. Respondents, for instance, recognize the importance of critical thinking and other soft skills: 50 percent say that soft skills (such as creativity and critical thinking) are just as important as hard skills (such as computer programming and analytics) in the workplace. Another 31 percent say soft skills are more important.

Interestingly, respondents are less sure of their hard skills: only 33 percent say they are very confident in their hard skills, compared to the 59 percent who profess to be very confident in their soft skills.

Overall, however, three-of-four (74 percent) survey respondents say their college education provided them with the skills they'll need to succeed in the workforce. On this point, respondents with a two-year college degree (69 percent) are almost as positive as those with a four-year college degree (75 percent).

On a related issue, the overwhelming majority (87 percent) of respondents says that soft skills are not innate; instead, they believe these skills can be taught and learned. This finding strongly suggests that young people are open to improving their own skills—including their critical thinking abilities—through continuing education and lifetime learning.

The survey also shows that:

  • 48 percent say the problem of fake news has gotten worse over the last year; only 17 percent say it has gotten better.

  • 24 percent fault politicians for the fake-news problem; 21 percent blame partisan websites; 20 percent fault content farms that turn out false material for profit; and 17 percent blame social media.

  • Significantly, only 11 percent blame "readers who don't have the critical thinking skills to detect false content"—a description that applies to many news consumers like themselves.

  • In assessing blame for the Cambridge Analytica data breach that exposed the personal information of up to 87 million Facebook users, most (54 percent) blame Facebook for not protecting the data in the first place.

  • Only 29 percent blame the analytics firms that allegedly misused the information.

For a complete listing of MindEdge's course offerings on critical thinking, creativity, and innovation, click here.

Copyright © 2018 MindEdge, Inc.

Harvard's Chris Colbert Visits the Dig Deeper Podcast

By Frank Connolly
Director of Communications and Research, MindEdge Learning

When it comes to fostering creativity and innovation in the workplace, sophisticated management strategies abound. But perhaps the most important thing, according to Harvard innovation authority Chris Colbert, is making sure that workers feel safe enough to take real risks.

Colbert, managing director of the Harvard Innovation Labs and a "serial innovator" who has helped build several companies over the course of his business career, discusses workplace innovation in the latest installment of Dig Deeper, MindEdge Learning's podcast on critical thinking and creativity in the digital age. To listen to the Dig Deeper podcast, click here.

Innovation, he says, is linked to — but different from — the idea of human creativity. He defines innovation as the process of creating "measurable improvement," while creativity is "the task of creating something from nothing." What the two share, he argues, is "the capacity to see what might be." And he believes firmly that innovation is a skill that can be taught and actively encouraged.

Citing Google's research on best practices in human resources, Colbert says the idea of "psychological safety" is one of the keys to encouraging innovative thinking. "If you create a safe environment for people, they are more willing to take risk — in every form," he says. "They're more willing to take risk in ideating, they're more willing to take risk in putting their ideas on the table, they're more willing to take risk in challenging the ideas of somebody else in the room. They have no fear in their capacity to open up and imagine what might be."

The Harvard I-Labs, he says, strive to create a psychologically safe environment by fostering a sense of community among the students and alumni who use the facility.

"When I first got here two years ago there was a kitchen and I thought, that's silly — why do we have a kitchen? Why do we give them food?" he recalls. "It seemed frivolous. But what I've come to realize is, the hearth is a really important facet of creating an innovative community and an innovative environment."

Equally important for companies that want to encourage innovative thinking, he says, is the example set by corporate leaders. "The only way to create an innovative organization is through innovative leadership," he insists. "If a leader wants an organization to be innovative, to take more risks, to be more open-minded, to be more creative, he or she must exhibit those behaviors."

Too many corporate leaders, he says, only pay lip-service to the idea of innovation. "We see this time and time again in corporate America, particularly the Fortune 1000, he says. "[People] who are stuck on their sort of legacy views, and holding onto what has been, and at the same time out of the corner of their mouth telling the organization that they must be more open to change, they must be more risk-amenable. But they themselves as leaders are not. And I would bet you dollars to doughnuts that those organizations will not survive, long-term."

The young people toiling in the Innovation Labs today will be among the corporate leaders of tomorrow. And Colbert believes that the most important lesson they can learn is that they must never stop learning. "The first lesson is, evolve or else," he says."Your capacity to survive, to thrive, to maintain whatever quality of life you aspire to, is directly correlated with your capacity to grow" And so the thing I would say to everybody at any age: if you aren't learning — it's trite but it's true — if you aren't learning, you are vulnerable. You are fundamentally vulnerable in your job, in your life."

Looking to the future, Colbert — though "a worrier by nature" — says the values and determination of today's young people give him plenty of reasons to be hopeful. He notes that of the 170 "venture teams" working on projects at the I-Labs, the greatest number are working on social enterprise projects aimed at having a positive impact on society. "The ideas that we see coming through here in the social enterprise space are scalable, because they're taking full advantage of the latest technologies and business sensibilities," he says. "It's not just about people caring — it's about people having the knowledge and the capacity to care, in ways that have real impact."

The bottom line? "I've probably never been more optimistic about the future," Colbert says.

Copyright © 2018 MindEdge, Inc.