Neuroscience of the creative ‘Geek’

Sheldon Cooper, Big Bang Theory (Getty Images)

In the television series, Big Bang Theory we are introduced to Sheldon Cooper, a genius yet eccentric theoretical physicist. In many ways, Sheldon epitomizes the way inventors, creative scientists and engineers are portrayed in popular culture. Typical descriptors include ‘brilliant or genius’, eccentric and/or socially gauche, ‘absent minded’ and ‘independent thinker.

While these descriptors are pervasive in western culture, are they based on reality? As far as areas such as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) are concerned the short answer appears to be yes. Well-known real-life examples are provided by Nicola Tesla, Albert Einstein and Alan Turing.

From a scientific perspective, most of these descriptors are consistent with a high IQ in combination with what are considered neuropsychiatric disorders, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and high functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or high functioning autism. Absent mindedness or a tendency to inattention or hyperattention and/or forgetfulness is one of the major features of ADHD while eccentricity and social gaucheness are typical of autism. While autism covers a wide spectrum of autistic symptoms, in this article, I will be limiting the discussion to cases of autism with average to above average IQ or high functioning autism.

The fact that ADHD and autism, especially high functioning autism are so frequently associated with exceptional scientific and technical creativity suggests that these conditions contribute to the appearance of such exceptional creativity. Recent developments in the neurosciences suggest that this association is more than a coincidence and that the combination of these conditions carries the capacity to confer exceptional creative capacities in STEM fields.

The neuroscience of creativity

To understand how such ‘disorders’ as ADHD and autism can confer profound creative potential we start with the issue of creativity. Our understanding of the neuroscience of creativity has made great strides over the last 15 years. One widely appreciated aspect of creativity is that much of the process occurs unconsciously.

We are all familiar with the experience of thinking over a problem without much success only for the answer pop into our head sometime later when we are otherwise engaged or simply daydreaming. Many creative individuals have shared this experience. The ancient Greeks attributed this creative inspiration to the Muses, the nine daughters of Jupiter and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory.

The neuroscience research into creativity has revealed that the creative process is the result of the interaction between two major brain networks. The brain network tasked with coming up with creative solutions is a network known as the Default Mode Network. This network was only discovered in the last 20 years and is most active when you are doing….not much. In fact, it is most active when you are engaged in daydreaming.

While daydreaming, the brain Task Networks or those concerned with thinking tasks such as paying attention, arithmetic tasks and generally thinking about ‘things’, are less active and inhibited. The moment you engage in a thinking task, the situation is reversed and one or more of the Task Networks becomes active and the Default Mode Network becomes less active and inhibited. In other words, the Task Networks and the Default Mode Network have a Yin-Yang relationship. When one is active the other one is inhibited and less active and vice versa.

We now believe that it is the Default Mode Network that creates new ideas by combining various pre-existing memories and all of this happens unconsciously. However, out of a possible almost infinite number of ineffective combinations of memories only one correct or workable combination pops into your awareness. Henri Poincare, one of the most creative mathematicians of the early 20th century describes the creative process thus:

To invent, I have said, is to choose; but the word is perhaps not wholly exact. It makes one think of a purchaser before whom are displayed a large number of samples. Here the samples would be so numerous that a whole lifetime would not suffice to examine them.

This is not the actual state of things. The sterile combinations do not even present themselves to the mind of the inventor. Never in the field of his consciousness do combinations appear that are not really useful. All goes on as if the inventor were an examiner for the second degree who would only have to question the candidates who had passed a previous examination. ( Poincaré (1908) The Foundations of Science)

Ineffective combinations or ‘wrong answers’ never emerged into Henri’s consciousness. What was happening? As Henri mentioned, it is as if the possible answer had been judged and if deemed unsatisfactory, never entered his consciousness. Neuroscience research now has an answer to what was judging the possible answers produced by the Default Mode Network and only permitting the ‘correct’ or ‘best’ answer to enter consciousness.

Evidence from brain imaging studies as well as brain injury studies point to regions in the left hemisphere, specifically, the frontal cortex and the temporal cortex have the task of judging the creative possibilities generated by the Default Mode Network. This Judgement Network also operates unconsciously and will only allow a ‘solution’ to enter consciousness if it satisfies the Judgement Network’s selection criteria.

In judging a new idea, the Judgement Network uses rules or selection criteria that are based on the information you already hold in long-term memory. For example, suppose the problem you are trying to solve is how to start a car with a flat battery. Now your judgement network will know that you can’t use a torch battery for that purpose. Hence any solution provided by the Default Mode Network that suggests using a torch battery to start the car will be rejected by the Judgement Network and not even enter your consciousness.

Generally, the more active the Judgement Network is, the more stringently it judges new ideas and the more likely it is to reject the answers provided by the Default Mode Network and vice versa. Higher levels of Judgement Network activity will suppress creativity as even good ideas and solutions generated by the Default Mode Network may be rejected. Conversely, lower levels of Judgement Network activity is associated with higher creativity.

Typical factors that increase creativity by reducing the Judgement Network activity are positive mood, an uncritical and supportive social environment and surprisingly drowsiness. By contrast, a hyperalert or anxious state, a feeling that ideas put forward will be criticized increases the activity of the Judgement Network and reduces creativity.

Creativity, the gift of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

In addition to being highly creative, what do the following list of 10 names have in common?

Leonardo da Vinci (Renaissance painter and polymath)
Winston Churchill (British wartime leader)
Virginia Woolf (Novelist)
Vincent Van Gogh, (artist)
Thomas Edison (inventor)
Albert Einstein (physicist)
Richard Branson (entrepreneur & founder of Virgin Airlines)
David Neeleman, Founder, JetBlue Airways
Paul Orfalea, Founder, Kinko’s
Bill Gates, Founder Microsoft

Although only 3 or 5 (depending on opinion) of the above-mentioned individuals exhibited autistic symptoms, they all exhibited symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or were formally diagnosed with ADHD. While link between ADHD and creativity is now is now increasingly acknowledged, it was first recognized by the author, education reformer, conservationist and political commentator Thom Hartmann in his 1993 book entitled Attention Deficit Disorder, a Different Perception. Only now are we beginning to understand the neuroscience behind this association.

Recent research on ADHD has transformed the way we view the neural factors underlying this condition. An older, and now increasingly out of date view is that ADHD is the result of certain brain regions experiencing low levels of the neurotransmitter, dopamine or that those regions lack sensitivity to dopamine. Hence the most common drug treatments for ADHD symptoms were drugs such as amphetamine or methylphenidate (Ritalin) which increased dopamine levels in the brain.

More recently, we have come to recognize that the ADHD symptoms arise from an altered relationship between the Default Mode Network and the Task Networks. These networks have a mutual inhibitory relationship in that when the Task Networks are active, such as when you are paying attention or engaged in a thinking task, the Default Mode Network is inhibited and less active.

But what happens when the Default Mode Network doesn’t stay inhibited? Suppose you have been asked to focus on a task that you find boring. For example, obliging your parents by reading a book chapter they have recommended. At first, you seem to be performing adequately, but then, without you even noticing it, you stop reading, your eyes glaze over and you find yourself daydreaming about your plans for the week-end. That is how it feels when the Default Mode Network suddenly increases its activity. Not only are you daydreaming but you have stopped reading as the Task Networks used for reading have been inhibited by the Default Mode Network springing into activity.

We now know that people diagnosed with ADHD have a Default Mode Network that is naturally more active, and it is this that accounts for their greater creativity. Work from my laboratory has shown how methylphenidate (Ritalin), the most common drug used to treat ADHD symptoms achieves this by increasing dopamine levels which in turn inhibit the Default Mode Network and thus reducing the intrusions of the Default Mode Network and hence improving task performance. Although beyond the scope of this article, it should be noted that Mindfulness meditation is another effective approach to controlling and regulating an overactive Default Mode Network.

While increased Default Mode Network activity is associated with enhanced creativity, there is also a downside. The increased Default Mode Network activity can activate other areas of the brain, especially parts of the prefrontal cortex (subgenual prefrontal cortex for neuroscience geeks) and this can lead to negative mood and depression. Furthermore, the reason Mindfulness meditation is recognized to be an effective treatment of depression is because this practice controls and regulates the overactive Default Mode Network.

What do people have to do with it? Meet the Social Brain.

While the relationship between ADHD and creativity may accounts for the increased incidence of ADHD in those exhibiting exceptional creative capacity in STEM fields, how does autism fit in the picture? To answer this, we must appreciate the fact that humans are social animals. In fact, prehistoric human survival depended on individuals being able to recognize how others view them as well as how they felt about them (hostility, friendship, interest etc.).

Unsurprisingly, many areas of the brain have evolved to enable us to read these important social cues as they contribute to social bonding. One important factor that enhances social bonding is empathy, or the emotional recognition and experience of other people’s emotions such as their pain, distress, joy etc.

Imagine you are with a friend to help them fix a back fence by replacing some damaged panels. Your friend is showing you what needs to be done by nailing the first panel. As you watch him hammer the first nail, his finger slips and the hammer hits his thumb with a thud. You flinch instantly and seem to feel some aspects of his pain as he erupts with expletives. What you just experienced was emotional empathy.

As you watched your friend hammer the nail, special neurons in your frontal cortex were firing. In fact, these are precisely the same neurons that would fire if you were the one hammering the nail. Unsurprisingly, these neurons are called ‘Mirror neurons’ because they fire as if you were performing the action that you were passively viewing. Mirror neurons are also thought to play a part in you feeling your friend’s pain.

In fact, your capacity to experience emotional empathy is influenced by how strongly your Default Mode Network communicates with the Mirror neuron system as well as another region. The more strongly the Default Mode Network communicates with both the Mirror neuron system and another region known as the insular cortex, the more vivid will be your experience of emotional empathy.

Related to emotional empathy is the capacity to understand another person’s point of view or perspective. This capacity to put yourself in ‘someone else’s shoes’ is termed cognitive empathy or ‘theory of mind’. It turns out that a person’s level of cognitive empathy is related to how strongly the Default Mode Network communicates with another part of the brain known as the parieto-temporal junction.

Both emotional empathy and cognitive empathy play an important role in facilitating social bonding, in part through conscious and unconscious imitative behaviour. Humans and other primates are naturally inclined to imitate those in their environment. Such imitative behaviour facilitates social bonding by internalizing social and behavioural norms. This internalization also extends to the way one thinks about issues and has been termed ‘group think’.

The link between Autism and outstanding scientific ability.

There is something special about the link between an aptitude and interest in the STEM fields and autism. There appears to be a strong genetic link here as the incidence of children diagnosed with autism increases in those whose father work in the STEM field. This genetic link between expertise in STEM and autism was recently highlighted in a survey of Cambridge University students.

The incidence of autism in close relatives of students studying physics, engineering and mathematics was six (6) times higher than those in relatives of students studying humanities (English and French literature) (Baron-Cohen et al 1998). Furthermore, people diagnosed or exhibiting features consistent with high-functioning autism are over-represented in academia and industries associated with science and technology.

So what is it about those exhibiting high functioning autism that gives them such a significant advantage in the STEM fields? One of the most widely accepted explanations has been offered by the Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University. Baron-Cohen suggests that humans can engage in two types of thinking and feeling.

One is ‘Empathising’ where thoughts and feelings are directed at understanding the actions, thoughts and feelings others. The Empathising process includes both emotional empathy or the capacity to experience the emotion of others and cognitive empathy or the capacity to understand another person’s thinking.

The other major process is Systematizing or looking at the world in terms of the behaviour of physical or abstract objects and, looking for patterns in their behaviour. Fascination with mechanical or technological items and a desire to understand some features such as the workings of electric motors or the organization of a public transport system are some typical examples.

Frequently, individuals with a high systematizing bias will develop a deep interest and knowledge of a specific topic leading to the ‘little professor’ label. All humans possess both modes of thought/behavior although the Systematizing mode tends to be stronger than the Empathizing mode in males while the Empathizing mode is stronger than the Systematizing mode in females.

Baron-Cohen argues that autistic symptoms are consistent with the systematizing mode being much more dominant than the Empathizing mode. High IQ individuals with such a systematizing bias are thus well suited to engage the type of thinking needed in STEM related professions. Baron-Cohen in fact argues that individuals with a Systematizing bias are responsible many of the discoveries and inventions that have made civilization possible.

Autism’s gift, independence of thought

We are now able to reconsider the question originally posed, why are some of the most gifted creative individuals frequently exhibit high functioning autistic traits and ADHD? While the process of creativity is associated with increased activity in the Default Mode Network, this increased activity is also responsible for the ADHD symptoms. The link between high IQ coupled with autistic traits and high ability in STEM based professions emerges from the enhanced systematizing type of thinking exhibited by such individuals.

Does that explain the remarkable STEM achievements of individuals experiencing high functioning autism and ADHD? I think not. There is one important piece of the puzzle missing. One of the prominent features of such highly creative individuals is their independence of thought. Frequently, they embarked on a novel approach that was either dismissed or derided by their peers.

One notable example is the Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla (1856–1943). Tesla is also a considered a genius who played a pivotal role in the acceptance of AC electrical power transmission (as opposed to Edison’s DC transmission) as well as the invention of the electrical induction motor. Tesla was also renowned for his independence of thought, pursuing practical as well as more fanciful projects (e.g. a superweapon or ‘death-ray’). Tesla’s autism is suggested by the fact he was widely considered asocial as well as exhibiting some eccentricities such as phobias and a fascination bordering on obsession with the number three.

What made these individuals embark on a new approach, often in spite of overt or subtle opposition from their peers or society as a whole? I suggest one of the main deficits associated with autism may be the other ‘missing’ element that led to their success.

One of the most consistent features of autism is the difficulty in reading other people’s facial expression and body language. Neuroscience research suggests that this deficit is associated with weaker communication between the Default Mode Network and parts of the temporal lobe (temporo-parietal junction). This deficit in perceiving the social and emotional cues presented by others accounts for much of the difficulty and distress those on the autistic spectrum experience in dealing with human relationships.

For example, situations that are especially challenging for those diagnosed with autism are informal gatherings such as parties. The difficulty in reading other peoples’ feelings and level of interest from their body language together with a strong systematizing mode of thought makes conversation, especially small talk, almost painfully difficult.

An important point to note here is that the capacity to read these social cues and react automatically and pervasively influences not only our behavior but also our thinking. As social animals, humans have a strong tendency to socially conform and many of the social norms that influence our behavior and thinking are automatically and unconsciously ‘picked up’ and accepted as our own, or more technically, ‘internalized’.

People on the autistic spectrum are less likely to pick up and internalize these norms and this may account for the ‘eccentric’ label often bestowed on such individuals. The resistance to social cues and social conformity in autism has been confirmed in laboratory tests of conformity.

The Judgement Network and independence of thought

So, what accounts for this link between independence of thought and creativity? Why do creative individuals, when faced with the same information, come up with a novel and useful approach that others had not seen? I believe the answer lies in the behavior of the ‘judgement network’ and the factors influencing it.

During the act of creation, the Default Mode Network creates numerous possible creative solutions which are each judged by the judgement network. In deciding whether to accept or reject the idea, the judgement network relies on two kinds criteria or rules. One of these criteria is problem specific information or knowledge. In other words, if the problem is about biology, there are basic facts such as the roles of DNA, RNA etc. that the judgement network uses in determining idea suitability.

In addition to these fact-based rules, I believe the judgement network also relies on the attitudes and informal belief that we have unconsciously picked up from our family as well as our social and work networks. These internalized norms arise spontaneously and are dependent on our capacity to perceive the subtle (and not so subtle) cues that those in our environment express in the form of body language etc.

In the work environment, these attitudes and belief structures or internalized norms are sometimes termed group think or sometimes referred to as ‘common sense’. Importantly, these internalized norms or group think are also used by the judgement network in its decision to accept or reject a new idea. In other words, the attitudes of your co-workers or group think may determine the decision your judgement network makes on a new idea.

So how does autism facilitate creativity? I suggest that the answer lies in the ‘internalized norms’ or the rules the judgement network uses to assess the suitability of the new idea.

Individuals diagnosed with autism are much less sensitive to many of the cues used to develop these internalized norms. As such the judgement network in autism is less constrained by the internalized norms and will accept a novel idea that would be rejected by neurotypicals with their more pervasive and dominant internalized norms.

In other words, autistic individuals, especially those working in STEM fields will be less influenced by group think and hence their judgement network less likely to reject an idea in conflict with the group think. Expressed another way, autism permits greater independence of thought.

The outstanding contributions in science and technology made by those experiencing the dual effects of ADHD and autism can now be understood. The activity of brain networks that create new ideas is higher in those diagnosed with ADHD, and hence these individuals are naturally more creative.

Being diagnosed with autism also means that these individuals possess a systematizing mindset that enables them to deal with abstract and concrete objects to arrive at novel solutions in such areas as engineering, physics and mathematics.

The final irony is provided by the fact that the very feature of autism that yields such a source of difficulty and distress in navigating the world of human relationships is also the element that grants the independence of thought that made possible to some of the most striking intellectual achievements of civilization.

Professor Emeritus with over 30 years of research activity in cognitive neuroscience. Current research areas include the link between ADHD and Creativity.