Creativity, Science, and the Brain

In my post about Bruce Hood’s interview I said there wasn’t anything I disagreed with. After re-listening to it, I find my position is a bit more nuanced. I’d still like to look more closely at the experiments he cites to see if there is anything there that addresses my concerns, like the difference between believing in an external essence of an object versus experiencing the memories that an object elicits. In this post I want to address something that both Bruce and Tom dance around during the interview: the positive aspects of superstition.

Tom tries to tie Bruce down concerning the bad aspects of superstition, citing witch burning and crusades. Bruce refuses to acknowledge superstition as a bad thing, and simply states that superstitious thinking, combined with economic factors and political motivation, can lead to such bad consequences. He further states that intuitive thinking is essential for science. Science doesn’t just creep forward in small steps, but is also driven by the intuitive leaps of the scientists. Our ability to see patterns leads us to the patterns we have accumulated in scientific knowledge, and this ability is a consequence of natural selection.

Bruce Hood further talks about unconscious reasoning, such as the dream of Friedrich Kekulé and the structure of benzene, and solving problems while you sleep or are taking a break. I myself have solved some problems this way, and many of the interesting physics problems that I have used in my teaching have come, seemingly randomly, while doing mundane things like raking leaves or taking a shower. Although he states that he is an atheist, and is a scientist, I don’t think he goes far enough in supporting science. In this way, his omission leads to the sense that he is a bit too supportive of the poor thinking associated with superstition. He points out that much of it is not factually correct, but I think he misses a big point in his exposition (one that I am quite confident he’d agree with).

Carl Sagan put it this way:

At the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes—an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive they may be, and the most ruthless skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense.

It is this sentiment that is missing from the interview, and would have cleared up many of the questions. Yes, we are all programmed (via natural selection) to be superstitious, to see patterns that may or may not really exist, to attribute properties to objects that may or may not be real. Science works by starting with that, and skeptically testing every pattern to see if it is real. It is only the ones that can stand up to skeptical scrutiny that we can trust.

Thus, Bruce’s “super-sense” is the starting point, the intuition which leads to “crazy” ideas, out-of-the-box solutions. Skepticism, open information, and honesty reduce the many possible ideas down to the ones that are true. In some way, this is like the process of natural selection: the “random” element in evolution (mutation, crossover, etc…) leads to variation, and natural selection works on that variation to produce the (far fewer) solutions that are optimal for the various ecological niches. In science, intuition gives us the variation, and skepticism and careful observation work on that variation to produce the (far fewer) solutions that are true.

Finally, in the fine words of Carl Sagan from his book “A Demon Haunted World” (the best science book for the public I have ever read!):

A physicist has an idea. The more he thinks it through, the more sense it seems to make. He consults the scientific literature. The more he reads, the more promising the idea becomes. Thus prepared, he goes to the laboratory and devises an experiment to test it. The experiment is painstaking. Many possibilities are checked. The accuracy of the measurement is refined, the error bars reduced. He lets the chips fall where they may. He is devoted only to what the experiment teaches. At the end of all this work, through careful experimentation, the idea is found to be worthless. So the physicist discards it, frees his mind from the clutter of error, and moves on to something else.

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About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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