Carl Zimmer: Hi, I’m Carl Zimmer, a columnist
for The New York Times and I’m in conversation with Heather Berlin, a neuroscientist at the
Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. So Heather, I mean genius is this word that we
all use but I am really curious what people like you think about the word. Heather Berlin: Yeah, I guess well, I mean
I can describe it looking through my lens as a neuroscientist. I mean I think just the
word genius is a really all-encompassing term and what we try to do is kind of break it
down to the constituent parts and try to understand the neural mechanisms that drive those things.
So, for example, I think a really big part of what it means to be a genius is to have
a great deal of creative or like novel thinking. Making these novel associations between ideas.
Having a lot of pattern detection. So it’s not just about collecting a bunch of data
and knowing a lot of facts but it’s making these novel connections between ideas. And
I think what we want to look at is, for example, what is the neural correlate of something
like divergent thinking or thinking outside the box, having novel associations between
ideas. And that’s the kind of thing that we can begin to measure. Carl Zimmer: So how can you measure something
like that? Heather Berlin: So it’s been actually quite
a problem how to quantify this not just genius but let’s say creativity. We’re breaking
it down – particularly what I’m interested in is improvisation. So when people are being
spontaneously creative. Carl Zimmer: Why is that important to you?
What does that get at? Heather Berlin: So I think that a lot of what’s
happening in the brain is happening outside of awareness and we – when we have our sort
of conscious brain highly active it’s kind of suppressing a lot of what’s going on
outside of oneself. Sometimes when people are being creative they say it almost feels
like things are coming from outside of them when they’re in this sort of flow state.
And we’re starting to understand a little bit more about that state and it seems to
be that when people are being creative in the moment that the part of their brain that
has to do with their sense of self, self-awareness, self-consciousness is turned down. It’s
called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Carl Zimmer: Where is that? Heather Berlin: It’s sort of like right
here. It’s part of the prefrontal cortex on the lateral side. Carl Zimmer: So you can actually see that
change? Like the activity in there is changing in these kinds of situations? Heather Berlin: Yeah so for example there’s
been a few studies and we’re doing a new one now but in the studies all seem to show
that, for example, when a jazz musician is improvising compared to when he does a memorized
piece or even a rapper when he’s doing a freestyle rap compared to doing a memorized
rap there’s a similar pattern of activation across the improvising rappers and the improvising
jazz musicians. And they have a decreased activation in that dorsolateral prefrontal
cortex which has to do with self-awareness, monitoring your ongoing behavior and making
sort conforms with social norms. But they have also increased activation in a part of
the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex which is sort of like right here if you go
straight back a little bit. And that is turned up and that has to do with the internal generation
of ideas. It’s coming from within. It’s stimulus independent. So if you think of this state you’re having
this sort of free flow of unfiltered information coming from within that’s not being inhibited
by that dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. You don’t have to worry about how do people
think about me. And that free flow of information allows for the novel associations to be made.
If you think about a similar pattern of brain activation happens during dreams or during
daydreaming or some types of meditation or hypnosis where you lose your sense of self
and time and place. And it allows the filter to come off so that novel associations are
okay, you know. Dreams don’t all make sense. That’s where the creativity comes in. So
that’s why I’m interested in that state to see what happens in people when they’re
in that state because I think that’s a big part of what is involved with genius. Carl Zimmer: So I’m picturing like someone
in a scanner rapping. And it’s hard to picture. So I mean what does this look like? I mean
how do you – these experiments are so difficult to set up. You’ve figured something out
so how does it work? Heather Berlin: Yeah, so what we’re doing
is – and again it’s hard to make something ecologically valid or sort of simulate what
it’s like in the real world when you’re lying in this, you know, tube and there’s
this big clicking sound. So what it is is so there’s a loud clicking noise in the
scanner and we picked a beat that matches the clicking beat in the scanner, you know,
so that it’s not distracting. And what we do is in one condition we have them do a memorized
rap. And there was a similar study that was done by another group and a small group of
rappers but we’ve kind of elaborated on that. And in the improvised state we have
– we show them random images and they have to improvise and incorporate those images
into their rap in real time and we’re giving them real time audience feedback. So we’re
having other professional rappers with a dial going up or down. Because that’s part of
the real world situation. When you’re improvising it’s about audience feedback whether it’s
comedy improv, theater improv. And we want to see how that feedback affects their sort
of creativity. Carl Zimmer: But how does that feedback in
other people, being aware of other people listening to you – how does that connect
with your ideas about how these circuits that are involved with the self are coming down
when you’re being creative? I mean I would think like, you know, if you’re in that
flow state you could be performing in front of an empty room because you’re just all
– it’s all about what’s coming from within. Heather Berlin: Yeah, so what we think is
– so there’s something called the default mode network. And that seems to be sort of
active. It’s sort of a neurocircuit of the brain that’s active when your focus of attention
is internal. So when they’re in a kind of flow state we see activation of the default
mode network. But what we think is that there’s occasionally this – they have to monitor
the environment seeing, you know, how am I doing? So then they’ll switch into what’s
called the executive network which is looking externally and sort of monitoring the behavior. Carl Zimmer: So a different circuit of neurons
we’re talking about? Heather Berlin: Yeah. Carl Zimmer: We’re sort of flipping back
and forth. Heather Berlin: Yeah, between these two sort
of internally focused and generating new ideas and externally focused kind of to monitor
your situation. Because if you think about it when – if you just are having a random
flow it’s not like a jazz musician is just playing random notes or a rapper is just saying
random words. It has to make sense, you know. It has to be kind of have a certain appeal.
And so you do have to monitor at some level. If it’s just like a dream state – although
it’s getting at that novel thinking it’s not necessarily being creative because just
random thoughts with making no sense isn’t really what we’re looking for either. So
there’s that switching back and forth between the two networks.