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E M E R G I N G I D E A S I N B R A I N S C I E N C E
How the Brain CREATES
Brain imaging and behavioral experiments can now examine how creative thinking works in different contexts and domains.
Roger E. Beaty, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at The Pennsylvania State University, where he directs the Cognitive Neuroscience of Creativity Lab. His lab studies the psychology and neuroscience of creativity, using brain imaging and behavioral experiments to examine how creative thinking works in different contexts and domains, from the arts, to the sciences, to everyday life. His research has been supported by grants from the John Templeton Foundation and the National Science Foundation. He received his Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and completed postdoctoral training at Harvard University. Keely A. Muscatell, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she directs the Social Neuroscience and Health Laboratory. Her research focuses on uncovering the neural, psychological, and physiological mechanisms linking social experiences to physical health and well-being. She completed post-doctoral training at UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco, earned her Ph.D. in psychology from UCLA, and a B.A. in psychology and Spanish from the University of Oregon. When not in the lab, Muscatell can be found reading Dave Eggers, Ben Lerner, and Zadie Smith, watching college football, and/or drinking craft beer while listening to her and her partner’s vinyl collection. Brenda Patoine is a freelance science writer, reporter, and blogger who has been covering neuroscience research for more than 30 years. Her specialty is translating complex scientific findings into writings for the general public that address the question of “what does this mean to me?” She has interviewed hundreds of leading neuroscientists over three decades, including six Nobel Laureates. She founded ScienceWRITE Medical Communications in 1989 and holds a degree in journalism from St. Michael’s College. Other areas of interest are holistic wellness, science and spirituality, and bhakti yoga. Brenda lives in Burlington, VT with her cat Shakti. Kayt Sukel‘s work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly , the New Scientist , USA Today , the Washington Post , Parenting , National Geographic Traveler , and the AARP Bulletin . She is a partner at the award-winning family travel website Travel Savvy Mom, and is also a frequent contributor to the Dana Foundation’s science publications. She has written about out-of-body experiences, fMRI orgasms, computer models of schizophrenia, the stigma of single motherhood, and why one should travel to exotic lands with young children. She is the author of Dirty Minds: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex and Relationships and The Art of Risk: The New Science of Courage, Caution & Chance .
Roger E. Beaty, Ph.D. The Creative Brain Page 10
Keely A. Muscatell, Ph.D. Brains, Bodies, and Social Hierarchies Page 14
Brenda Patoine Social Media & Teens: No Simple Answers Page 18
Kayt Sukel Building a Better Brain Model Page 21
COVER ILLUSTRATION: J.F. PODEVIN
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WINTER 2020 | VOLUME 1, ISSUE 1
10 The Creative Brain Brain imaging and behavioral experiments can now examine how creative thinking works in different contexts and domains. By Roger Beaty, Ph.D.
POINTS OF INTEREST NOTABLE FACTS IN THIS ISSUE 4 Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, is testing a new policy in this country and abroad to hide visible likes on its platform. The Social Media Conundrum, Page 8 4 A phenomenon known as fixation or impasse—taking a break to let our minds wander— may loosen things up and help us find a creative solution. The Creative Brain, Page 10 4 Hundreds of studies have shown that individuals from lower SES backgrounds have higher blood pressure and greater arterial plaque buildup, and ultimately suffer heart attack and stroke at higher rates, than those of higher status. Brain, Bodies, and Social Hierarchies, Page 14 4 “[Social media use] doesn’t affect all teens the same, and overall, is neither good nor bad for the mental health of teens.” Social Media & Teens: No Simple Answers, Page 18 4 Researchers are using organoids, or so-called “mini- brains,” three-dimensional, self-organizing tissue cultures derived from human iPSCs, to study how brain cells come together as the brain grows. Building a Better Brain Model, Page 21
14 Brains, Bodies, and Social Hierarchies Does our perception of our social standing impact life expectancy and heart health? Are there interventions available to develop emotion regulation strategies? How does low income impact the way the brain functions? By Keely Muscatell, Ph.D. 18 Social Media & Teens: No Simple Answers Our author explores the question on every parent’s mind: Is social media
rotting kids’ brains? By Brenda Patoine 21 Building a Better Brain Model
Advances in technology have led to the development of organoids and chimeric models to study the activity of human neurons—and how they communicate with one another. By Kayt Sukel
SECTIONS 5 Advances Notable brain science findings 6 Briefly Noted By the Numbers; In Memoriam 7 Bookshelf A few brain science books that have recently caught our eye. 8 Neuroethics: The Social Media Conundrum By Philip M. Boffey
2 Contributors | 4 From the Editor | 24 Advisory Board | 26 Editorial Staff
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Creative minds (and brains) at work
BY BILL GLOVIN Executive Editor, Dana Foundation A t the Dana Foundation, we strive to provide you with the latest in brain science and all that it includes: research, policy, ethics, funding—the list goes on and on. We have done this in a variety of ways: neuroscientist-authored articles followed by podcasts with people such as Thomas Insel, David Van Essen, Helen Mayberg, Steve Hyman, Britt and Edwin Moser—I’m proud to say the list is formidable. We’ve also offered up articles by science writers that explain complex research; a neuroethics column; a print publication that reprinted news articles (Brain in the News), and educational materials. And while we’re still dedicated to that course, we are consolidating most of these separate parts into a new, quarterly digital publication we are calling Cerebrum magazine. We do this in conjunction with our recent readership survey (in which you told us you very much want us to continue delivering neuroscientist-authored articles), as well as a recent website redesign aimed at helping you find what you’re looking for—a good read, details on a specific disease, something to share with your colleagues or students—more easily. Our inaugural cover story—“The Creative Brain” by Roger Beaty at Penn State—describes the latest on what we know about the part of the brain that can make the world such an inspiring, wonderful place. Keely Muscatell at University of North Carolina tells us about new research that ties income and other factors to stress and other emotional responses. Other articles (by science writers) cover organoids and the impact of social media on teens. Philip M. Boffey, former deputy editorial page editor and Pulitzer prize winner at the New York Times , goes in a slightly different direction by examining the effect of social media on society in his column. We are fortunate to feature Phil in an ongoing role as our neuroethics columnist. Cerebrum is a team effort. Besides the support of our talented staff, our past and future efforts would not be possible without input from my invaluable nine-person advisory board—made of prominent neuroscientists (who weigh in on potential topics and authors, and review articles). Their bios are available in both our web and digital magazine versions. The Dana Foundation’s mission is “to advance understanding about the brain in health and disease through research grants and public outreach.” We hope our new magazine serves you in advancing your understanding by delivering—at no cost—the kind of content that enhances your own life and the lives of others. l
EMERGING IDEAS IN BRAIN SCIENCE
Podcast Assitant Editor Megan Mess a n Editorial Assistant Carl Sherman Copy Editor Bill Glovin Executive Editor Seimi Rurup
Carolyn Asbury, Ph.D. Scientific Consultant Bruce Hanson Art Director Jaimie Nally Web Production Coordinator
Cerebrum is published by the Charles A. Dana Foundation, Incorporated. DANA is a federally registered trademark. © 2020 by The Charles A. Dana Founda- tion, Incorporated. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be repro- duced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publish- er, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in articles. Letters to the Editor Cerebrum magazine 505 Fifth Avenue, 6th Floor New York, NY 10017 or email@example.com Letters may be edited for length and clarity. We regret that we cannot answer each one.
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ADVANCES Notable brain science findings
SCREEN TIME has been linked to white matter deficits in preschoolers in a new study led by John S. Hutton, M.D., of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. The study found that screen time use in 3- to 5-year-olds ranging from 1.5 to 10 hours a day—well beyond the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended limit of one hour per day—were correlated with lower microstructural integrity in the neuronal cables that relay electrical signals across the brain. The cross-sectional design of the study doesn’t prove that screen time caused the deficits, but it points to the need for more research to understand the relationship between digital media use and early brain development. l CYSTIC FIBROSIS is a rare, progressive, life-threatening disease that results in the formation of thick mucus that builds up in the lungs, digestive tract, and other parts of the body. It leads to severe respiratory and digestive problems as well as other complications such as infections and diabetes. Last fall, the US Food and Drug Administration approved Trikafta (elexacaftor/ivacaftor/ tezacaftor), the first triple combination therapy available to treat patients with the most common cystic fibrosis mutation. Trikafta is approved for patients 12 years and older who have at least one mutation in the gene that regulates cystic fibrosis, which is estimated to represent 90 percent of the cystic fibrosis population. l AFM, or acute flaccid myelitis, is a mysterious neurological condition that can cause limb weakness and polio-like symptoms, mostly in young children. A new study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine , points to a group of common viruses—known as enteroviruses— that sometimes cause neurological symptoms. The study found antibodies to enteroviruses in the cerebrospinal fluid of nearly 70 percent of the children with AFM, a sign that their bodies had mobilized to defend against enterovirus infection. l MICROBIOME is a collection of microbes that lives in our intestines and influences our immune system and the way we feel, as well as helps us digest food. An experiment that appeared in Nature Microbiology showed that people’s microbiomes seem to rapidly shift on a diet of raw foods. The study, which had a limited sample size, raises questions about
PROBLEM ADAPTATION THERAPY, or PATH, is a novel approach to treat depression. The therapy, developed at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City and White Plains, N.Y., focuses on solving tangible problems that fuel feelings of sadness and hopelessness. It incorporates tools, such as checklists, calendars, signs, and videos, to make it accessible for people with memory issues. A caregiver is often involved. l
CRISPR, shorthand for “clustered regularly inter- spaced short palindromic repeats,” allows the cell (or a scientist) to precisely edit DNA or its sister molecule, RNA. A new study, published in Nature
Communications , found that CRISPR-associated enzymes have the potential to kill certain bacteria and develop more effective drugs. About 10 million people (up from the current number of 750,000) could die worldwide by 2050 from viruses that are resistant to antibiotics, based on the findings. Viruses have evolved to the point where they disguise themselves from drugs, often by hiding inside host cells (less than 100 antiviral drugs have successfully made it all the way to the clinic since 1963). l
ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE is a disorder where very little progress has been made in finding a cure. But some good news came from a study in Nature Medicine that was featured on the
front page of the New York Times on November 5. A woman, whose genetic profile showed she would develop Alzheimer’s by the time she was in her 50s, experienced no cognitive decline until her 70s due to a mutated gene that protected her from dementia. That finding suggests that treatments could be developed to give other people that same protective mechanism. l OMEGA-3S—found in fish oils and other foods— is a popular supplement for both heart and brain health. But while the jury is still out on heart health, an analysis that included 32 randomized trials testing 41,467 participants found that the supplements are probably ineffective in treating depression and anxiety. Omega-3s are found in seafoods like salmon, swordfish, and mussels. Neither length of treatment nor size of dosage demonstrated effectiveness. The study was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry . l
whether starting to eat cooked foods, in the distant past, shaped the evolution of the organisms that live inside us, and whether bacteria from those foods have helped us survive times of scarcity. l
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BY THE NUMBERS 1 in5 adolescents have harmed themselves to sooth emotional pain at least once, according to a review of three dozen surveys in nearly a dozen countries. 10 seconds is the amount of time it takes for nicotine from a cigarette to fill your lungs, surge through your bloodstream, and enter your brain. 20 is the percentage of Americans who suffer anxiety disorders.
27,000 people from around the world attended the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Chicago in October. 400,000 people around the world have brain implants. Most are for Parkinson’s. 24,000,000 Americans suffer from sleep apnea and don’t know it, and many who do know don’t get treatment.
25 is the percentage of all adults in Britain who take prescription medication for pain, anxiety, depression, or insomnia, and half of those people had been taking the drugs for a year or more. 200 drug trials have failed in finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. 500 mentally ill people in New York City call 911 every day.
MARGARET LAWRENCE, Pioneering Psychoanalyst Margaret Lawrence, pediatrician and child psychologist, passed away at the age of 105 on Dec. 4, 2019, in Boston. Lawrence was primarily raised in Vicksburg, M.S., and resolved to become a doctor after learning that her older brother had died in infancy. As an adult, she attended Cornell University in the 1930s as an undergraduate but was denied acceptance into their
PETE FRATES, ALS Advocate
Peter Frates, the former Boston College baseball player who helped make the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge go viral, died on
Dec. 9, 2019, at the age of 34 in his Beverly, M.A., home. The 2014 internet challenge was intended to spread awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and to encourage donations to research. It involved a person who was nominated being recorded having a bucket of ice water dumped on his or her head and then posting the video to social media, while also nominating at least three other people to take part. While not the creator of the challenge, Frates’ participation helped make it go viral, which led to the ALS Association receiving over $115 million in donations. Frates, who had ALS himself, also raised awareness about medical costs, revealing that about $70,000 to $95,000 a month was needed for treatment. About $77 million of the money raised by the challenge was used for research that led to the discovery of the NEKI gene, which contributes to the disease and may give scientists guidance in developing treatment drugs. l
medical school. After this rejection, Lawrence applied to Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, where she was accepted and was the only woman of color in her class of 104 students. Having completed a pediatric residency at Harlem Hospital and then receiving her master’s in public health from Columbia, Lawrence went on to serve as chief of developmental psychiatry services for infants and children at Harlem Hospital for over 20 years and later opened up a private psychiatric practice in Rockland County, New York. l
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BOOKSHELF A few brain science books that have recently caught our eye
Remembering: What 50 Years of Research with Famous Amnesia Patient H. M. Can Teach Us About Memory and How It Works by Donald G. MacKay
continued to refuse help and died at age 55. Rosenberg eventually became a psychiatrist, and Bedlam (Random House/Penguin) chronicles the historical, political, and economic issues surrounding mental illness in America. Drawing on his own experiences, Rosenberg shows what it means to be mentally ill in the United States and how we as a society can and should move forward to help the people who are most in need. l How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut Put simply, How to Tame a Fox (University of Chicago Press) is a story about modern-day attempts to domesticate animals, namely silver foxes. More complexly, it is also the story of evolution sped up, hidden research, and Soviet science and history coming to light. In the 1950s, an experiment was devised by geneticist Dmitry Belyaev. He theorized that by selectively breeding only the tamest and gentlest foxes, they could create domesticated ones, essentially recreating the evolution of wolves to dogs in real-time. He recruited Russian geneticist Lyudmila Trut, Ph.D., to join the experiment, and together they began their work while simultaneously attempting to hide it from agrobiologist Trofim Lysenko. (Lysenko rejected Mendelian genetics and, with the help of Joseph Stalin, shut down genetics research in the Soviet Union from the 1930s to the 1950s.) Belyaev died in 1985, but the experiment he co- conducted remains ongoing with over 50 generations of foxes bred to date. This book is not only an exploration of those foxes, but about science under siege and how everything—genes, environment, evolution—shapes behavior. l
help accelerate training. The concept of neural plasticity, or how the brain is flexible and able to learn from and adapt to new experiences, and how this concept pertains to athletic training is also described. Katwala uses interviews with top athletes and scientists to not only convey the scientific facts regarding athletic training, but to do so in a way that can help anyone who is willing to learn. l Human Language: From Genes and Brains to Behavior edited by Peter Hagoort Language is essentially what makes us human. Edited by Peter Hagoort, Human Language (MIT Press) compiles research from various fields to study one of the most complex cognitive functions that we as humans command. This book helps analyze the capacity for language from a plethora of perspectives, and contributors draw on recent developments in fields such as neuroimaging and genetic sequencing, to provide new insights and examine everything from the organization of language skills, to the evolutionary need for communication, to the genome’s role in building a language-capable brain. l Bedlam: An Intimate
Widely known only as “Patient H.M.” until recently, Henry Molaison was the victim of brain surgery gone wrong. In 1953, at age 27, he received a bilateral medial temporal lobectomy in an attempt to cure his epilepsy; and while the surgery was successful in controlling the disorder, it also destroyed his hippocampus, leading Molaison to be unable to form new memories. In an attempt to help others, Molaison devoted the rest of his life to helping scientists understand his memory, or lack thereof, and from 1957 to his death in 2008, he was the most studied amnesiac patient in history. One of the doctors who worked with him for 50 years, Donald MacKay, M.D., relays what his studies showed in his book Remembering (Pronetheus Books), along with the importance of memory functions and ways to keep the brain sharp at any age. Most importantly, it keeps the promise made to Molaison that the work done with him would be used to help others. l The Athletic Brain by Amit Katwala There is a theory that in order to become an expert at something, one must devote 10,000 hours to that task. In The Athletic Brain (Simon & Schuster), author Awit Katwala displays just how false that theory might be, particularly when it comes to sports. Through his book, Katwala explains how training changes the brain and, in turn, debunks the 10,000-hour rule. Other issues covered: how athletes handle pressure, ways to train the brain to release an athlete’s full potential, and how technology can
Journey Into America’s Health Crisis by Kenneth Paul Rosenberg Each year in America, one in five adults experiences mental
illness, which translates to around 40 million people. Author Kenneth Rosenberg’s older sister, Merle, was one of them. Her previously diagnosed schizophrenia—which was kept a secret by their parents—erupted into paranoid psychosis when she was 20-years-old. While Rosenberg, M.D., did all that he could to help Merle after their parents passed away, she
— Megan Messana
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...[W]hether social media use actually causes depression or anxiety or whether teens who are already depressed or anxious turn to social media more frequently has yet to be pinned down.
The Social Media Conundrum
the number of consecutive days that two people have communicated with each other. That gives two teenagers something neither of them wants to lose. If they communicate 150 consecutive days, they are likely to take extreme measures to keep the streak going. Programmers on many social media also exploit outrage, an effective measure to get your attention— especially as it relates to politicians. Readers anxiously share their outrage at what someone did or said with friends who in turn pass it on. The danger is that outrage—and outright lies—can spread rapidly on social media, tearing apart the nation’s social fabric and weakening democratic efforts to find common ground. “I don’t know a more urgent problem than this,” Harris says. “Never before in history have a handful of people at a handful of technology companies shaped how a billion people think and feel every day with the choices they make about these screens.” Parents, who are primarily responsible to oversee the use of social media by their children, face ethical issues of their own. They have the formidable challenge of monitoring what their children are communicating as well as time spent without snooping and invading their privacy. One idea is to set firm ground rules, perhaps in consultation with their children. They might note what technology leaders, who know better than anyone the dangers of social media, have done with their own families. In an article in the New York Times on Sept. 10, 2014, entitled “Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent,” Nick Bilton quotes several technology chief executives and venture capitalists who strictly limit their children’s screen time, often banning all gadgets on school nights and imposing tight time limits on weekends. They worry about exposure to harmful
check emails, search the internet, and send text messages. I also watch cable news on television obsessively to keep up with impeachment and election developments which are always described breathlessly as “breaking news” to hook the viewer. The most fascinating discovery for me, in searching the internet for ethical issues raised by social media, was the anguished hand-wringing by many key players in the tech companies that have produced the social media that so many people are worried about. Sean Parker, the billionaire first president of Facebook, gave a candid insider’s look in an interview with Axios co-founder and former Politico chief reporter Mike Allen on November 9, 2017. Parker described how social networks purposefully hook and potentially hurt our brains to maximize the time we spend on social media so that the tech companies can charge advertisers as much as possible to reach our eyeballs. Perhaps the chief insider critic is Tristan Harris, who founded a software company that Google bought out and then hired him as a product manager. Harris has described his concerns most fully in an interview with Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes on April 9, 2017 and in two TED Talks, the most recent one on July 26 that same year. Harris says the problem is not that people in the industry are evil or have bad intentions, it’s that they are racing against competitors to gain users’ attentions at all costs. One simple tactic is the use of “likes” and “dislikes” on Facebook and Instagram which keeps people checking in to see how they are doing. A more devious tactic described by Harris was employed by Snapchat, the chief way that American teenagers communicate. Programmers invented a feature called Snapstreaks, which shows
BY PHILIP M. BOFFEY R esearch on the impact of social media on the mental health of teenagers has yielded a confusing mix of conflicting and inconclusive results. Yet even amidst the uncertainty, the state of play has raised ethical issues for many participants in this arena, including tech companies, parents, clinicians, and researchers. The confusing landscape of research findings is ably described by Brenda Patoine in “Social Media & Teens’ Mental Health: No Simple Answers,” one of this issue’s articles. She notes the alarms raised by a steeply rising incidence of depression, anxiety, and suicide in young people that has occurred in parallel with the rise of the smart phone and the near-universal use of social media by young people, such as Snapchat and Instagram. But whether social media use actually causes depression or anxiety, or whether teens who are already depressed or anxious turn to social media more frequently, has yet to be pinned down. Some studies have found negative mental health effects, some have found no effects, and still others have found a positive protective effect. One complication, experts say, is that social media use doesn’t affect all teens the same way; its impact depends on the characteristics of the teens and how they use social media. In the interests of full disclosure, I am an octogenarian who almost never uses social media but who uses his iPhone 11 for hours at a time—an average of 3.5 hours a day over the past ten days to
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One proposal would push the industry to change its business model from emphasizing “time spent” on a social media site to ‘time well spent.’
and sexting, or an online user asking to have sexual relations with them. Depending on the answers, the clinician might help craft a family media plan, schedule follow-up appointments, or refer the patient for behavioral health therapy. The ethical obligations on those who conduct research on social media is a muddle of conflicting opinions. A systematic review of the attitudes of the users of social media and the researchers who want to study their postings was published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research on June 6, 2017. It found no “overarching consensus with regard to social media research ethics.” Respondents disagreed sharply, for example, on whether postings on social media should be considered public, like a letter to the editor, or a private communication, requiring some kind of informed consent. There was much more support for using aggregate statistics than for qualitative research relying on quotes. The authors, from universities in the United Kingdom, urged that guidelines for ethical conduct be formulated within the research community lest we miss the considerable potential of social media research, which can generate results much more quickly than the traditional published scientific literature. What can be done to overcome the devious tactics used by tech companies to ensnare teens in compulsively using and returning to social media? The tech companies themselves, responding to rising public concerns, have begun to offer technical fixes to mitigate screen addiction. Google has recently rolled out some experimental apps that give people help in controlling their usage. Various apps keep track of how many times you unlock your phone in a day in case you want to drive that number down, let you block work-related apps while you’re at home, and leisure-related
content like pornography, bullying from other kids, and kids becoming addicted to their devices. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, revealed in an interview with the Daily Mirror in the United Kingdom on April 21, 2017 that he banned his children from having mobile phones until they were 14, forbade phones at the dinner table, and set a curfew time after which screens could not be used so as to help his youngest get to sleep at a reasonable hour. Other guidance for parents was posted on December 15, 2017 at an online resource of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. The crux: avoid blanket condemnations and tailor your approach to the individual child. Stressful factors that your children may feel include seeing people posting about events to which they haven’t been invited, feeling pressure to post positive and attractive comments about themselves, feeling pressure to get comments and likes on their posts, and having someone post things about them that they can’t change or control. Some of the author’s advice was similar to that from tech insiders, such as setting screen-free times before sleep, on car rides to school, and on the occasional weekend or vacation. Pediatricians must also cope with additional ethical burdens imposed by social media. An editorial in Pediatrics , a journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, published in May 2018, urged clinicians to expand the kinds of questions they ask young people to include queries about social media use. Such questions might include how much time they spend on social media sites in a typical day (more than 120 minutes would raise concern), whether they think they use social media too much, whether viewing social media increases or decreases their self- confidence, and whether they have personally experienced cyberbullying,
apps while you’re at work. These apps let you select and print out the crucial information you’ll need that day, such as schedules, important contacts, map directions, and more, so that you can go through the day without using your phone at all. Apple has introduced features that inform people how much time they’re spending on screen, how much of that time is devoted to various activities, and how to limit the time they spend on various apps and activities. Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, is testing a new policy in this country and abroad to hide visible likes on its platform. People will only be able to see the likes awarded their own photos but not how many likes other users have received. The goal is to reduce the anxiety caused by social comparisons. All these are steps in the right direction but how well these voluntary excessive screen time remains to be seen. If they fail to make a dent in the problem, lawmakers and regulators may need to push the industry to try harder or to change its business model. The public, which buys and uses the phones and social media apps, has enormous power to change the landscape. We can push the industry to provide even more features to reduce screen time and improve the quality, not quantity, of our communications. We can also declare more and longer holidays from the tyranny of our phones. Those of us who have tried such temporary abstinence say it is liberating. l Phil Boffey is former deputy editor of the New York Times Editorial Board and editorial page writer, primarily focusing on the impacts of science and health on society. He was also editor of Science Times and a member of two teams that won Pulitzer Prizes. approaches will work to reduce compulsive use of phones and
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B R A I N
BY ROGER E. BEATY, Ph.D. ILLUSTRATION BY JEAN-FRANCOIS PODEVIN O ur author’s Cognitive Neuroscience of Creativity Lab at Penn State uses brain imaging and behavioral experi- ments to examine how creative thinking works in different contexts and domains, from the arts to the sciences to everyday life. His article examines the part of the brain that directs creative thought and asks the million-dollar question: Can creativity be enhanced?
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Creative thinking is supported in part by our ability to imagine the future—our capacity to envision experiences that have not yet occurred.
W hen we think about creativity, the arts often come to mind. Most people would agree that writers, painters, and actors are all creative. This is what psychologists who study the subject refer to as Big-C creativity: publicly-recognizable, professional-level performance. But what about creativity on a smaller scale? This is what researchers refer to as little-c creativity, and it is something that we all possess and express in our daily lives, from inventing new recipes to performing a do-it-yourself project to thinking of clever jokes to entertain the kids. One way psychologists measure creative thinking is by asking people to think of uncommon uses for common objects, such as a cup or a cardboard box. Their responses can be analyzed on different dimensions, such as fluency (the total number of ideas) and originality. Surprisingly, many people struggle with this seemingly simple task, only suggesting uses that closely resemble the typical uses for the object. The same happens in other tests that demand ideas that go beyond what we already know (i.e., “thinking outside the box”). Such innovation tasks assess just one aspect of creativity. Many new tests are being developed that tap into other creative skills, from visuospatial abilities essential for design (like drawing) to scientific abilities important for innovation and discovery. But where do creative ideas come from, and what makes some people more creative than others? Contrary to romantic notions of a purely spontaneous process, increasing evidence from psychology and neuroscience experiments indicates that creativity requires cognitive effort— in part, to overcome the distraction and “stickiness” of prior knowledge (remember how people think of common uses when asked to devise
brain imaging studies that found that the areas it connects—medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, bilateral inferior parietal lobes, and medial temporal lobes—tend to activate “by default” when people are simply relaxing in a brain scanner without a cognitive task to do. When left to our own devices, we tend to engage in all sorts of spontaneous thinking—sometimes referred to as mind-wandering—much of which involves recalling recent experiences and imagining future ones. The engagement of the hippocampus and default network in memory and imagination is consistent with a popular theory of episodic memory known as the constructive episodic simulation hypothesis , which posits that both memory and imagination involve flexible recombination of episodic details, such as people, places, and events that we’ve encountered. On the one hand, remembering a past experience seems to require that we reconstruct that experience: piecing together the relevant people, places, and things that comprised the event—not simply pressing play like a video recorder. Likewise, imagining a future experience apparently requires that we construct that experience based on what has happened in the past. The flexible nature of the episodic system seems to be particularly beneficial for creative thinking, which also requires connecting information in new and meaningful ways. In a recent study, we explored further whether the same brain regions support memory, imagination, and creative thinking. We presented research participants with a series of object cue words (e.g., cup) and asked them to use the cue words to either 1) remember a personal past experience, 2) imagine a possible future experience, or 3) think of creative uses for the object. This design
creative ones). In light of these findings, we can consider general creative thinking as a dynamic interplay between the brain’s memory and control systems. Without memory, our minds would be a blank slate—not conducive to creativity, which requires knowledge and expertise. But without mental control, we wouldn’t be able to push thinking in new directions and avoid getting stuck on what we already know. Creativity By Default Creative thinking is supported in part by our ability to imagine the future— our capacity to envision experiences that have not yet occurred. From planning dinner to envisioning an upcoming vacation, we routinely rely on our imaginations to picture what the future might look like. Interestingly, the same brain region that allows us to imagine a future is also involved in recalling the past: the hippocampus. A seahorse-shaped region embedded in the temporal lobe of the brain, the hippocampus plays an important role in piecing together details of experiences— people, places, objects, actions—both to accurately re-construct past events and to vividly construct possible future events. Early research with amnesiac patients provided clear evidence for the role of the hippocampus in remembering and imagining, finding that patients with damage to this area had trouble not only recalling the past but also imagining the future. Since then, researchers have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study how the brain remembers and imagines. Strikingly, some of the same brain regions activate when we recall past experiences and imagine future experiences. Important among them is a large set of cortical regions collectively known as called the default network. This network got its name from early
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A controversial question in creativity research concerns the phenomenon of cognitive control: our capacity to regulate the contents of our minds.
allowed us to determine which brain regions were common and unique to episodic (remembering and imagining) and creative thinking. We found that memory, imagination, and creative thinking all activated the bilateral hippocampus. This finding builds on other recent work on memory and creativity using episodic specificity induction, a procedure in which participants are trained to recall episodic memories in a high degree of detail. These studies found that episodic specificity induction (which strongly engages the default network) can improve creative divergent thinking: after the induction (they were instructed to recall in detail a recently- watched video), participants produced significantly more ideas, and these ideas were significantly more variable in their topics. A subsequent fMRI study found that the episodic induction process boosted activity in the left
network—can allow new ideas to come to mind that might not have otherwise. On the other hand, serendipity and spontaneity alone do not guarantee either novelty or usefulness: we often need to redirect our thought processes away from what we already know and think hard about whether our ideas will actually work. This highlights two key elements of the creative thought process: idea generation and idea evaluation. Cognitive neuroscience has begun to provide insight into these two sides of creativity. For example, one fMRI study asked visual artists to generate and evaluate ideas for a book cover based on short written descriptions. During idea generation, activation of the hippocampus and default network increased, presumably reflecting engagement of the episodic system. During idea evaluation, where artists were asked to critique their drawings, they again activated hippocampal and default regions, and also frontal brain regions associated with cognitive control, including the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Most interestingly, the analysis also showed increased communication (i.e., functional connectivity) between these regions during idea evaluation, suggesting cooperation between the spontaneous/generative aspects of the default network and the deliberate/ evaluative aspects of the control network. These networks typically work in a complementary fashion: when one activates, the other tends to deactivate. When we let our minds wander, for example, we engage the default network, without needing to focus our attention through our control networks; conversely, when we try to focus our attention on a given task, we need our control network to work
anterior hippocampus, linking creative performance to heightened activity in a brain region strongly associated with episodic memory. Together, these findings provide clear evidence that the hippocampus—as part of the medial temporal lobe subsystem of the default network—supports the generation of creative ideas: more proof that the same brain region that supports our ability to remember also supports our ability to imagine and create. Directing Creative Thought A controversial question in creativity research concerns the phenomenon of cognitive control: our capacity to regulate the contents of our minds. Does creative thinking happen spontaneously, or can we deliberately direct the process? On the one hand, relaxing the filter on our brains by letting our minds wander—a process governed by the hippocampus and default
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While it remains unclear whether creativity can be improved in the long- term, some strategies may boost short-term creativity.
While it remains unclear whether creativity can be improved in the long- term (i.e, trait creativity), some strategies may boost short-term (i.e. state) creativity. Given what we’ve learned about the neuroscience of creativity, it seems possible that harnessing the flexible and generative potential of the default network may provide a short- term boost. For example, when we are stuck on a problem—a phenomenon known as fixation or impasse—taking a break to let our minds wander may loosen things up and help us find a creative solution. Another potentially useful strategy involves priming the episodic system. The episodic induction process mentioned earlier—thinking about a past experience with as much detail as possible—has been shown to temporarily boost the number of ideas people generate on a creative thinking task. Until rigorous science on creativity training has been conducted, there are a few things that may modestly boost creativity in a more sustained way. For one, we can pick up a creative hobby, like painting or learning a musical instrument. One study that trained students how to play music reported gains in their musical creativity over time. But whether such gains transfer to make people generally more creative is not yet known. (This is where cognitive “brain training” programs fall short: people tend to get better on specific training tasks, but this improvement doesn’t generalize to other tasks.) Until research has clarified whether cognitive abilities can actually be improved through neuroscience- based intervention, old-fashioned arts education might be our best bet. l
efficiently, without distraction from the mind-wandering default network. The study with visual artists, along with subsequent findings with poets and others, suggests that creative thinking involves increased communication between brain networks that usually work separately. In a recent study, we explored whether this brain connectivity pattern may provide insight into individual differences in creative thinking, i.e., what makes some people more creative than others? One possibility is that creative people can more readily co-activate the default and control networks to solve creative problems. We recruited a large sample of participants, mostly undergraduate and graduate students and asked them to complete the creative uses task during fMRI. We recorded their ideas while they were in the scanner and later scored them for creative quality, allowing us to link each person’s brain patterns to the quality of their ideas. We found that, as expected, people varied widely in their performance on this task. Some consistently came up with common uses for objects, such as saying a brick could be used for building something, while others devised decidedly more innovative responses, e.g. a brick could be ground up and used as a filtering substance. To analyze the data, we used a machine learning method called connectome-based predictive modeling (CPM). CPM allows researchers to characterize individual differences in such behavioral traits as personality and intelligence, by identifying functional connections in the brain that reliably predict these traits in new participants who were not used to build the models. In our study, CPM was used to estimate creative thinking ability based on brain connectivity patterns during the creative uses task.
Our analysis showed stronger functional connections between the default, control, and salience networks (a network involved in switching between the default and control networks) in highly creative people: the brain connectivity pattern reliably predicted the creativity score. Importantly, the association generalized to three other samples of participants: individuals with stronger functional connections between these networks tended to produce more original ideas. Boosting Creativity Psychology and neuroscience have made encouraging progress in our understanding of how the creative brain works. As summarized above, we now know that creative thinking involves the interplay of the brain’s default and executive control networks, and that these connections allow us to spontaneously generate ideas and critically evaluate them, respectively. And we are learning about how our memory systems contribute: the same networks that we use to recall the past also allow us to imagine future experiences and think creatively. Yet several important questions remain. One of the most important concerns whether creativity can be enhanced—and if so, how? Research findings thus far suggest that neuroscience tools can be used to predict the ability to think creatively, based on the strength of their brain network connections. But we do not yet know whether these connections can be strengthened to improve creative thinking. Longitudinal studies are needed. Just as the efficacy of cognitive or brain training programs in improving intelligence has been critically questioned, skepticism should be applied to interventions that claim to boost creativity.
Financial Disclosure: The author has no conflicts of interest to report.
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BY KEELY A. MUSCATELL, Ph.D. ILLUSTRATION BY WILLIAM HOGAN Brains, bodies and social hierarchies
O ur author— the director of the Social Neuroscience and Health Laboratory at the University of North Carolina—examines new research that ties income and other factors to stress and emotional responses. Does howwe perceive our social standing impact our life expectancy and heart health? Are there interventions available to develop emotion regulation strategies?
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Psychologists, sociologists, public health researchers, and, more recently, neuroscientists, are all interested in understanding socioeconomic influences on the brain and body.
S ocioeconomic status (SES)— or one’s annual income, years of education completed, and occupation—has long been appreciated as a critical determinant of longevity. Indeed, there are large gaps in life expectancy for those at the top of the socioeconomic ladder compared to those at the bottom, and at many points in between. But how can a “macro-level” societal factor, like how much money you make or if you graduated from college or not, “get into the skull and under the skin” to influence an individual’s health and well-being? Psychologists, sociologists, public health researchers, and, more recently, neuroscientists, are all interested in understanding socioeconomic influences on the brain and body. It perhaps comes as no surprise that living in poverty, without enough money to meet basic needs like food, water, and shelter, or to go to the doctor when you’re sick, can take a toll on health. But, interestingly, the data show that the relationship between socioeconomic status and health is present even in countries with universal health care, suggesting that there is more to the psychological experience of being lower in SES beyond just access to health care. Further, some intriguing research shows that our subjective perceptions of our standing in the US are a better predictor of health compared to more objective indicators like income and education. Together, data like these have led some to conclude that, in addition to our objective life circumstances, how we perceive our social standing and how we compare to others in our environments can impact our health. Given the robust associations between socioeconomic status and health, more recent research has focused on understanding the
mechanisms, or pathways, through which SES may impact disease processes and health outcomes. Some of this work has utilized advancements in brain imaging technology to explore how SES impacts the functioning of the brain in ways that could lead to poor health outcomes. Other work has focused on the relationship between socioeconomic factors and physiological processes, such as the functioning of the cardiovascular system and the immune system. What follows is an overview of these areas of recent research, all of which are attempting to fill in pieces of the complex puzzle of the relationship between SES and health. Much past research on the effects of SES on the brain has focused on how socioeconomic factors influence the development of brain regions important for academic achievement among children and adolescents. Together, this work suggests that children whose parents’ make less money or have fewer years of education have different trajectories of development in brain structure (i.e., the size and shape of different brain regions) and in brain function (i.e., what brain regions are used to perform a task) that may prevent them from performing to their full potential in school and beyond. This research has been critically important in facilitating our understanding of how SES in early life can shape brain development in ways that may perpetuate economic inequality. But given that most SES-based health disparities don’t develop until much later in life, when adults start to develop chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes, more recent work has begun to shed light on how SES influences SES Impacts Health-Relevant Brain Functioning
neural activity in brain regions that may contribute to chronic disease development among adults. One brain region that has received a lot of attention for its potential role in contributing to SES-based health disparities is the amygdala. The amygdala is an “infamous” brain region that is often incorrectly characterized as a “fear center” of the brain. Instead, our current understanding of the primary function of the amygdala is that it plays an important role in helping detect salient information in the environment (which could be feared things, like snakes or spiders or angry faces, or could be positive things, like a smiling baby or winning a raffle). The amygdala is important for health because it has strong connections with other brain regions that can start physiological cascades like the “fight or flight” response, which, if chronically activated, can take a toll on the body and put individuals at risk for chronic disease development. Given the amygdala’s importance for health, a number of prior studies have investigated the association between socioeconomic factors and amygdala responses to stressful or threatening stimuli, like angry faces or receiving negative performance feedback. This growing area of work shows that individuals from lower SES backgrounds have greater amygdala activity to stressful, threatening stimuli, compared to higher SES individuals. Although speculative, this suggests the possibility that lower SES individuals are more reactive to stressors, which, over time, could increase risk for poor health outcomes. But of course, it’s not only our initial, “knee jerk” response to a threatening situation that is important for health over time, but also how we cope with the situation. Psychological scientists
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