Secrets of the Creative Brain, and Ride the Tiger Video​

Paper I submitted for my Atlantic University TP5005 course – August 30, 2019

In her 2014 article in The Atlantic, “Secrets of the Creative Brain,” psychiatrist and researcher Nancy C. Andreasen seeks to learn the relationship between creativity and a higher than usual occurrence of mental illness, as well as to see what sets these people apart from others.  Based on anecdotal evidence, she launched her research with a preconceived notion that creative people tend to have a higher incident of schizophrenia in themselves and other family members. She soon realized, however, that she wasn’t able to confirm this hypothesis after interviewing subjects for an extensive study she was undertaking.

 What she did find though was that an astounding 80% of the creative people she studied –scientists, mathematicians, artists, and writers – had some type of mood disorder compared to only 30% among the control group.  She also found a higher rate of mental illness among creative people and their families, which included bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and alcoholism. 

She also found creative people, while undoubtedly bright with an I.Q. in the 120 range, weren’t “genius smart.” What sets them apart isn’t their intelligence necessarily but rather their “divergent thinking.” Andreasen says that this means they have an “ability to come up with many responses to carefully selected questions or probes, as contrasted with ‘convergent thinking,’ or the ability to come up with the correct answer to problems that have only one answer” (2014, p. 6).  In other words, what makes them exceptional is that they can “think outside of the box.” 

 Interestingly, she also discovered that her creative group was taller than the control; they tended to have happier marriages, were socially mature, and held good jobs.  The reason they were so well adjusted, particularly with their careers, is that they loved what they did.  

Other common personality traits the researcher found is they tended to be adventuresome to the point of risk-taking, they were often lonely since they push boundaries where others don’t dare go, they faced an abundance of rejection, and once they came up with their idea or invention, they considered it nothing special since it’s so obvious to them. Andreasen notes that these more negative aspects can lead to mental illness and their frequent dark moods. This is offset, however by intense joy and happiness when they complete a project or discover something new. 

Andreasen found that creative people have their “eureka” moments during what she described as “Random Episodic Silent Thought” or REST (2014, p. 12-13).  REST is also known as free association and is located in the Association Cortices.  She found that with creative people, this area of the brain is highly active.  These eureka moments aren’t typically lightning bolts that come out of nowhere, but rather they will have ruminated and incubated on something for a while, and when they are in a REST period, such as in the shower, the solution suddenly hits them.

 While Andreasen focused on what sets creative people apart, the 2016 PBS documentary, Ride the Tiger, “is a one-hour documentary that tells the stories of individuals who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder,” as the station describes it on their website. The show is divided into two parts, the first is shorter and addresses the manic phase of bipolar disorder, while the latter covers its depressive phase.  It touches briefly on the symptoms of those diagnosed as bipolar, and most of the show is dedicated to examining treatment options.

 Individuals interviewed for the documentary describe the wild ride they experience when they are manic.  One noted that she was thought she was a prophetess, while another said he felt he could fly.  They experienced delusions of grandeur, were void of judgment, took huge risks, could be a danger to themselves and others, and some experienced hallucinations.

Not surprisingly, pharmaceuticals were the underlying treatment for manic people.  Drugs were the go-to treatment for people in the depressive state as well.  The pervasiveness of drug treatment as the main staple of the mental health industry is well documented as our last paper assignment addressed.

The show interviewed researchers who were examining possible non-pharmaceutical neuroscience and engineering approaches to treating mania and hypomania.  While they are making some progress, they haven’t made nearly as much as they wanted to this point.  One treatment that wasn’t mentioned for mania was “talk therapy,” which is likely because it wouldn’t be that useful.  These people believe that they are like Superman, and probably wouldn’t have much desire to sit on a couch and discuss their “issues.” They don’t see that there is a problem at all, rather they see themselves as the solution.

The lion’s share of the documentary was devoted to the depressive phase of bipolar disorder.  What was tragic was the utter fear and disappointment those interviewed felt when they realized they were slipping from mania to depression.  It was coming, and they braced for the worst.  It was like being in a slow-motion car wreck for them. 

Symptoms of depression are well-documented, and even most “healthy” people have experienced dark moods, grief, and heartaches. It’s much more intense and last longer for people with clinical depression, however.  One interviewee described it as feeling like a fog was rolling in, another indicated that they felt that their brain was trying to kill them, while another noted that everything hurt.   

Beyond the array of drugs, there are some promising treatment options.  One covered by the documentary is known as Deep Brain Stimulation (D.B.S.), which one doctor described as a pacemaker for the brain.  It sends electrical pulses into parts of the brain, which allows the neuro signal to get around the “roadblock” caused by their depression. It’s useful for patients where drugs are no longer effective, and one woman said it’s doesn’t make you happy all the time, it just makes you “mood appropriate.”

 Electroconvulsive Therapy (E.C.T.) is a treatment that’s been around since the 1940s, and it’s making a comeback.  It involves “shocking” the patients with electrical charges administered directly into the brain. It’s controversial with its checkered past, although the process has been refined to some extent.  A similar but less intrusive approach called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (T.M.S.) involves the use of high-powered magnetics placed on top of the skull, which sends less powerful electrogenic pulses into targeted areas of the brain.

 Other treatments discussed were the use of a new fast-acting drug called Ketamine, which addresses the issue of most anti-depressants taking up to six weeks to work.  It tends to lose its effectiveness after three weeks, however.  And another approach is extensive research into the role genetics plays with those suffering from depression.  There is a strong family history connection, so geneticists are trying to isolate the genes they believe may be the underlying cause. 

 Not surprisingly, the documentary did not discuss non-invasive holistic approaches to treating depression until the 47-minute mark of the 54-minute piece.  They finally discussed many strategies that people like Edgar Cayce have espoused for over 100 years, including prayer, meditation, proper diet, being around family and friends, finding a creative outlet, and talk therapy.

There are certainly similarities between both ends of bipolar disorder as covered in the PBS documentary, and those who are experiencing spiritual emergencies.  For example, David Lukoff’s L.S.D. experience, where he believed he was a prophet who was to develop and distribute a manifesto that melded the Eastern and Western religions was clearly a manic period for him.  It lasted for a few months and then it disappeared as quickly as it came on.  Christine Goff, on the other hand, experienced a significant depressive period when she hit rock-bottom with her alcoholism, which was triggered by a kundalini awakening.

Andreasen’s description of the “eureka” moments for creative people experience can also be linked to what those undergoing spiritual emergencies experience.  Someone going through a spiritual transformation will likely see it clearly in a REST period, and like the creative people in the studies, they too many have been ruminating over their life’s purpose for some time.  For example, a busy professional whose running themselves ragged may have thought about whether it’s all worth it but don’t have an opportunity to slow down enough to let it sink in.  Then one day, they find themselves on a cross-continental flight with 5-6 hours to “just be,” and wham, it hits them.  They leave the plane a different person.

Let’s hope that more and more health professionals will emerge who understand the difference between spiritual emergencies and mental illnesses.  This will avoid a life sentence of misunderstanding and endless pharmaceuticals for a great deal of people.  

References

Andreasen, N. (2014, July/August). “Secrets of the Creative Brain,” The Atlantic, Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/07/secrets-of-the-creative-brain/372299/

Lukoff, D. (2009, June 15). [David Lukoff]. Talk at Santa Rosa JC on Spiritual Emergence Pt I & 2. [Video file]. https://youtu.be/EuPqmJxXuwwhttps://youtu.be/cCr2u9AWFpE

Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) (2016). Ride the Tiger: A Guide Through the Bipolar Brain, United States. Retrieved from: https://www.pbs.org/video/ride-tiger-ride-tiger-guide-through-bipolar-brain/