To all those who study the neuroscience of creativity:
Over the last 12 months, I’ve read 30 scholarly papers (seemed like a nice round number, and I had to quit somewhere) in neuroscience and neuropsychology. I was quite workmanlike about it, and even hired a research assistant to track down references in the papers so I could focus on reading.
Some of what I read was thrilling. Some seemed trivial. But taken as a whole, I believe your various disciplines are making a grave error with real consequences. This error has to do with value.
In a few sentences, you’re going to read what seems like an insult. It isn’t, really; it just turns something that seems settled upside down, which can be startling. I ask you to withhold judgment in the spirit of predictive coding, which was referenced in a couple of the papers I read. Predictive coding is an efficiency strategy of the brain that makes it stop paying attention to things it sees repeatedly. Instead, it just predicts what it’s seeing. The observation I’m about to make is like that. As soon as you read it, you’ll likely be flooded with predictive coding like, “Right, he’s anti-science, I know the drill,” and then fill in a lot of conclusions about my motives or even mental competence. But the thing you proved about predictive coding is that nobody’s immune, right? Nobody.
Yes. I realize I’m speaking in metaphor, here. Anyway, here’s the apparent insult/startling observation:
Scientists hate mystery with an exalted hate.
I acknowledge the confrontation in this. Carl Sagan, the 1st scientist I ever saw on TV, became a rock star by helping us all fall in love with the mystery of science. His heir apparent, Neil deGrasse Tyson, has used this language. I have a few scientist friends, mostly made doing research for my novels. The closest they get to poetry is when they talk about how much they love “the mystery.” Then, something interesting happens.
They go back to work destroying that mystery.
This is an interesting kind of love, yes? When one’s intuitive response to a thing is to want very, very much to turn it into its opposite? I had a girlfriend in college who wanted to love me this way. Eventually, I figured out it wasn’t love.
Now, you might claim that by dismantling this mystery, you can appreciate it even more. And this is true on one level. But it’s also true that once you love a mystery in your way, it’s destroyed. So, you love mystery in the same way some hunters love the animals they kill. This is not a glib statement. I grew up in a culture of hunting, on a working cattle ranch. It’s a fact that some hunters have moments of authentic, powerful admiration for a mature buck, even as they train a rifle on its heart.
This is why I prefer to say you hate mystery with an exalted hate. I don’t mean you despise it. You don’t hate mystery the way Hitler hated Jews. Your hate is exalted, like the hate of a committed gardener towards weeds. The gardener kills weeds because he wishes they were something else, like a patch of fescue, or a domesticated flower. What you value is data, which mystery yields in its death. Gardeners kill weeds with an authentic love for the garden in their hearts. You kill mystery with the love for data in your hearts.
I can acknowledge that your systematic conversion of mystery into data has yielded inestimable benefits to humanity. But, can you acknowledge it has also, in some ways, impoverished us? This is the question of value with which I began. This question has mattered for a long time, but now it’s the imperative question. This is because now:
You want to be the gardeners of our brains. The gardeners of us.
This is something we need to discuss. As I said, I’ve read a lot of your work over the last year. Implicit in almost all of it is the assumption the brain is a garden that would be better off without any weeds. You get very excited by research that hints of a brain that runs harder, faster, and even, by a narrow definition, more creatively. But there’s a problem:
The line between weed and flower is often imperceptible and arbitrary.
I see no evidence in your work that you recognize this.
Right now, you’re working very hard to love the mystery of what it means to be human in your way. When you have completed this act of love, what will you do with the data this death yields? There is a tipping point hovering on the outskirts of your work. Soon -not next year, but eventually - you will possess the recipes to the most exquisitely-powerful weed killers. You will be sharpshooters of the mind. 3 days a week, I teach creativity in a university setting. Year after year, the baseline creativity scores of my students trend lower. I recognize this is complicated. But I also know that more and more of my students are prescribed drugs shown to depress creativity. Meanwhile:
You and your colleagues are re-framing more of human behavior in the language of defect. Of weeds.
Depression, I already know about. But a paper I read describes optimism as illness. Anything outside the mean, then. I know how this ends. I live in suburban Nashville, and from my house, not a weed can be seen for blocks. These lawns are masterpieces of science. They are holocausts to weeds. You know what? Spring now mostly happens far above us, in the canopies of trees. The lawns are crushed the moment color ignites. I worry that you think your love for your work insulates you from making some devastating choices. But every weed in my neighborhood was killed with love for a perfect lawn.
I speak not of the haunted soul unable to leave her home, or the tortured person plagued by invisible voices. But everyone has places in the brain that clunk, and clank, and even rub us raw. From such places we make our modest art. The bull thistle pricks the skin, but it yields a brief, potent beauty.
So, I raise a solitary flag and demand you respect the mystery of the flaw; the mystery of the wound.
For millennia, humans have given dignity and value to the wound. Shakespeare said, “ … by a wound, I must be cur’d.” The great religions teach we are healed by wounds. I worry that because these are mythologies you assume they say nothing of value. Mythologies are not about the value of data. Mythologies are about understanding human experience. The great jazz bassist and composer Charlie Mingus said,
“I’m going to keep finding out the kind of man I am through my music.”
Mingus speaks here of the broken parts that direct the voyage of life. Repeat Mingus’ words out loud a few times, just to feel their strangeness in your mouth. When they no longer feel alien, you will understand the mystery of the wound.
Of the thousands of pages I’ve published, only a few glimmer toward greatness. Every one of those came from the broken place. I swear to you those lines are what make my life worth living. Likewise, of the countless hours of music I’ve made, there are only a few that made the hair on my arms stand up. They are beautiful, but not like a perfect lawn. More like the bull thistle or wild carrot, right before they die.
The last great myth written in our culture was The Lord of the Rings. In this myth, the world was saved by powerful men who voluntarily chose not to exercise that power. In our own national myth, George Washington did the same, by first choosing not to become King, and then, by not running for reelection for his 3rd term. Writing in his Circular to the States, President Washington said,
“For … it is yet to be decided, whether the Revolution must ultimately be considered as a blessing or a curse: a blessing or a curse, not to the present age alone, for with our fate will the destiny of unborn Millions be involved.”
This is where we are in your work. I know you will continue. You should continue. But you should respect the mystery of the wound. You should acknowledge the beauty of the flaw that directs the journey toward meaning. Look again at the picture at the top of this letter. The girl’s head is encased in a flowering weed the suburban gardener will happily kill. Sometimes, you’re killing ignorance, and that’s fine. Who wants to speak up for ignorance? Not me. But sometimes, you’re killing an invaluable mystery that connects human creativity to meaning. If you can see this distinction, perhaps we can survive your love for data and continue to create work of significance and meaning. If you can’t, we can expect to gradually become little more than perfectly-trimmed lawns of sickening uniformity.
Nashville, July 31, 2012