I had a brain MRI some years ago. A lot of people get quite paranoid or claustrophobic in those imposing looking machines.
It has a narrow bed. They slide you into the tunnel. You’re surrounded by a torpedo tube of liquid helium supercooled to 450 degrees below zero. They put a white sheet over you for warmth, but you look rather corpse-like. The doctors and operators hide in a control room behind thick glass and they talk to you through a sound system.
I was in there so that they could look for something that might be causing me some issues. (They didn’t find anything.) But Neil Stevenson wrote about his time inside a “brain machine” as part of an experiment on creativity.
He had some of the same responses to the machine itself as I did. His doctor was concerned that he might have some residual fragments of metal in his eye which in a magnetic field “would tear through your eyeball.” Damn, glad I missed that warning!
What they are doing is acting on the water molecules that make up the majority of our body and forcing a very neat North-South alignment of those molecules.
A lot of people freak out from the banging noise the machine makes as it maps your brain.
Stevenson was part of a “creativity retreat” and the doctor was studying “enlightenment.” You may have already heard about similar studies using Buddhist monks and others to see if their transcendent states actually make a perceptible physiological change in the brain. This particular series of scans was focusing on looking for any possible patterns in the brains of creative people.
A few decades ago, studies about the right/left brain differences were all the rage, but that overly-simple hemisphere bias has fallen out of favor because further studies show that the brain’s activity is a much more complicated shifting web throughout the brain.
I never liked the term the “executive attention network” used by neuroscientists because it sounds so business-like. I guess the name fits though because this area is the part activated when we pay attention, plan and make decisions. It’s the get-things-done area. A lot of this activity is in the frontal lobes which have really changed in humans since our cave-dwelling ancestors.
Stevenson was asked to do something during his scan, unlike me who was told to sit still and just relax. He was given a creative challenge to do so that they can see brain activity then, and then again when the subjects were at rest in “default” mode.
One finding that I find interesting is that in this default mode we aren’t just out of it. This appears to be when daydreaming, free association and exploring ideas occurs, and that is certainly an important part of being creative. The doctor has termed this section that lights up as “the imagination network.”
When that network is active, those business-like frontal lobes seem to deactivate. That’s not a bad thing if you’re trying to free associate, be creative in your thought wanderings and explore new things. It also shuts down that damned inner critic who wanders around the executive attention network.
Takeaway: To help your creativity, turn off parts of your brain and move from area to area.
Stevenson thinks about that teacher he had years ago who told him to stop daydreaming. Unfortunately, that educator didn’t know that he was inhibiting the imagination network.
Read Stevenson’s article because his time in the tube made him reconsider his own approach to creativity. For example, like him, I often turn to my phone when I have “dead time” and check social networks or email. That probably is kicking up my get-stuff-down executive control network and not helping my creativity.
Here is another small revelation. I keep reading that caffeine really does help fire up your brain. It does. But it also gives a buzz to that executive attention network at the expense of imaginative freedom. Need to finish that report? Double espresso. Need some divergent thinking on a project or writing a poem? No caffeine. No advice on what to drink for that though. Maybe just water.
What I got from my MRI was that reassuring but ultimately useless answer from the doctor that “we didn’t find anything that explains your problem.” Better than finding a tumor or lesion, but not useful to further action. So, thanks to Mr. Stevenson’s scan, I now have some useful information from that multi-million dollar machine.
Okay, I’m done writing. Time to shut down that executive network and give creativity a chance. I do need my wife to read the article too so that she understands that this creative mode I am going into now is not just me zoned out on a couch. This is important work.