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The Innovation Factor: Your Brain on Innovation

Want to know what makes a creative genius tick? Neuroscience gives us some clues.
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Innovation: Part II

You're giving a presentation to your board of directors, and your pants fall down. Mortified, you hightail it out of the room, only to fall on your face, trousers in a tourniquet around your ankles. As you lie splattered on the carpet, something clicks: You can fly out of there! You take wing, exiting through a chimney that materializes out of thin air.

That is, of course, the stuff that dreams are made of. Freud could have had a field day with the symbols: Naked. Flying. A chimney. But does it have anything to do with innovation?

Quintessential innovator Ray Kurzweil thinks so. For 37 of his 54 years, Kurzweil, who's founded nine companies, has been inventing revolutionary products, among them a print-to-speech reading machine for the blind and a music synthesizer capable of re-creating the sounds of orchestral instruments. For the past 20 years, he's been quite literally dreaming up the solutions to his creative dilemmas in the dead of night.

Every evening before bed, Kurzweil plucks out a vexing problem -- perhaps a business strategy, a technical conundrum, or even an interpersonal issue. First he posits the characteristics of a potential solution. Take, for example, the extraskeletal walking system for paraplegics that he's considering developing. He wants it to be simple enough for a user to put on without help. Lying in bed, Kurzweil begins to fantasize about such a system, sometimes imagining that he's giving a speech about how he reached his conclusions. "This has the purpose of seeding your subconscious to influence your dreams," he says. Then he drifts off to sleep.

All night, snippets of the solution filter in and out of his dreams. At the first glimmer of consciousness, Kurzweil returns to the problem. It is then, during the brief quasi-conscious state known as "lucid dreaming," that he merges the logic of his conscious thought with the relaxation of inhibition engendered by his dreams to arrive at many of his most startling insights. "The most interesting thing about dreams is that you don't consider it unusual when unusual things happen, like a room floating away," says Kurzweil. "You accept this lack of logic. And that [irrational] faculty is needed for creative thinking. But you also need to be able to apply a critical faculty, because not every idea that's different and out of the box will work."

Kurzweil has plenty of proof that the method works. Lucid dreaming helped him visualize a new stock-predictor system and nearly verbatim sections of his latest book, The Age of Spiritual Machines. Which makes one wonder: What is occurring in his brain during that half hour of luminously creative thinking? What is the look of Ray Kurzweil's -- or any innovator's -- brain during innovation? And are the brains of innovative individuals structurally or functionally different from other people's -- that is, are they larger than average, do their synapses operate differently, or is their wiring denser or perhaps more sparse but faster?


"What you're really doing in the process of creating is choosing one thing over another, not necessarily because it is factually more positive but because it attracts you more. Emotion is literally the alarm that permits the detection."

--Antonio Damasio

The 21st century may be the golden age of neuroscience. But when it comes to understanding precisely how creativity works in the brain -- and whether an innovator's brain is indeed different from yours and mine -- the experts still have to rely more on conjecture than on fact. Yes, it's known that most higher brain functions (such as perception, memory, and intelligence) are centered in the cerebral cortex, that 0.1-inch-thick infolding of neuron-rich gray matter overlaying both the right and the left hemispheres that would cover some 1.5 square feet if it were laid out like a tablecloth. And it's accepted that the neurons in the gray matter -- as in other, more subterranean sections of the brain -- use branchlike projections called dendrites and axons to transmit information to one another across the gaps, or synapses, that separate them. The information -- instructions, say, to store memories -- is transferred along the daisy chains of neurons by chemicals called neurotransmitters, forming charged networks, or circuits, in the process. (The average brain has 100 billion to 1,000 billion neurons, each of which makes 100 to 10,000 connections with other neurons.)

The brain has a remarkable ability to create new circuits, a phenomenon known as plasticity. That capacity for regeneration means that the cerebral wiring for our own store of knowledge and memories, which grows as we do, is as unique as a thumbprint. It also means that if one chunk of gray matter is destroyed by, say, a stroke, new circuits may be laid in another location to compensate, essentially rewiring a person's store of knowledge and memories.

To date, neuroscientists, like cartographers, have created maps of the brain. But they have been unable to capture fully the neuronal landscape that evokes a Kurzweil music synthesizer or reading machine, for example. Among the questions researchers are asking: Does the process of innovating activate neuronal circuits in a particular part of the brain, the way that language, say, primarily activates circuits in parts of the brain's left hemisphere? Or does it pull in contributions from other parts of the cerebral cortex and even from areas that are involved in emotional behavior, like the amygdala, which lies deep in the brain's core? What components of thought does innovating require: Visualization? Auditory recall? Working memory?

Though researchers don't yet have all the answers, they are getting closer to posing the right questions. For instance, a study done at Heinrich-Heine University, in DĂ"sseldorf, Germany, has shown that the primary auditory areas of musicians who have perfect pitch are larger than average on the left side of the brain, despite the fact that pitch perception generally resides on the right. The finding suggests that the brains of gifted people may, in fact, be different -- although which came first, the rare ability or the unusual brain structure, remains a chicken-or-egg inquiry.


Tracking the "Aha!"

In a study at Tufts University, researchers using an electroencephalograph (EEG) detected the actual "Eureka!" experience -- the moment when the fog surrounding a problem clears and insight hits. The researchers presented subjects with sentences that made no apparent sense. The subjects sat mute, confused. Five seconds later, the researchers gave them a single-word cue. For example: "The dinner was uneaten because the wood was warped." Pause. "Chopsticks." Less than half a second later, electrodes that were attached to the subjects' foreheads -- right above their frontal lobes -- picked up a pulse that came with the flash of insight.

The researchers learned that a period of confusion not only led to insight but also helped the subjects remember what they'd learned. "Put the person in the transition from noncomprehension to sudden insight -- that's the memory boost," says Tufts associate professor Sal A. Soraci, one of the researchers.

If a period of incomprehension is essential for the learning that leads to innovation, then how does your brain assimilate that learning to the point where it can go beyond making connections and think outside the box? Two recent studies provide intriguing clues.

A brain-imaging experiment conducted by the Medical Research Council in Cambridge, England, found that a particular network in the brain -- based in the lateral frontal cortex of one or both hemispheres -- is activated when people are involved in complex thought. The region remains quiet during more routine thought. "My guess is that this is the kind of network that you might find operating in creative people at the moment that they're being creative," says Michael I. Posner, professor emeritus at the University of Oregon and coauthor of Images of Mind. The discovery of the network leads to some intriguing theories about why people often fail to come up with creative solutions when they're focusing on a problem but succeed later, when they're doing other things, like taking a shower or watching a movie. "It may very well be that in some people -- or all of us, some of the time -- the network sustains its activity even when the people, in their conscious minds, go on to something else," says Posner. "And that sustained activity, when it comes up with something, when something resonates, allows the [conscious] person to break in and come to a solution."


Crossing Hemispheres

Posner and a colleague at the University of Oregon conducted another study that shed light on novel thinking, this one using an EEG. The researchers asked subjects to generate a typical use for a list of nouns -- for example, pound for hammer and sweep for broom. Initially, left frontal areas and then Wernicke's area, which sits in the left temporal lobe, lit up. (Language is generally associated with left-hemisphere activity, spatial problems with the right hemisphere.) But as the task was repeated, the subjects' brain activity in those areas tapered off. For the next series of tests, the researchers added a twist: they had the subjects come up with a novel association between the words -- say, throw in response to hammer. The result? The frontal areas lit up, as before. But so did an area on the right side of the brain. And then the two sides, in a seeming game of neuronal catch, tossed the pulse back and forth. When we think outside the box, the study seems to tell us, the brain not only recruits additional processing power but also grabs input from unexpected neuronal circuits.

Yet is thinking outside the box all it takes to be innovative? Are reasoning and imagination -- the twin faculties that most of us associate with innovation -- enough for Ray Kurzweil to know which of the formulas that he's dreamed up based on past technological trends will lead to the best mathematical models for predicting future trends?

No, says Antonio Damasio, head of the neurology department at the University of Iowa College of Medicine. The innovator has to be able to feel outside the box, too -- that is, to make value judgments about the images and ideas that he or she has produced in such abundance. "Invention," as the French mathematician Henri PoincarÉ said, "is discernment, choice." And choice, notes Damasio, is based on human emotion -- sensations that originate in the brain but loop down into the body and back up again. "What you're really doing in the process of creating is choosing one thing over another, not necessarily because it is factually more positive but because it attracts you more," says Damasio. "Emotion is literally the alarm that permits the detection."

Kurzweil, for his part, calls that alarm "intuitive judgment." But he disagrees that it -- or reasoning or imagination, for that matter -- is exclusively human. He sees a day in the not-too-distant future when we will merge mechanical processes with biological ones in order to amplify what our brains alone do today. "Ultimately, we'll be able to develop machines that are based on the principles of operation of the human brain and that have the complexity of human intelligence," he says. "As we get to the 2030s and 2040s, the nonbiological component of our civilization's thinking power will dominate."


Thea Singer is an associate editor at Inc.


Ray Kurzweil's Brain on Innovation

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To see what's happening inside the brain of an innovative entrepreneur, we asked the McLean Hospital Brain Imaging Center, in Belmont, Mass., to do a functional MRI (fMRI) of Ray Kurzweil's brain. Deborah A. Yurgelun-Todd, director of the center's Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory, and Staci A. Gruber, assistant director, had Kurzweil perform a routine task (reading aloud common nouns like blouse and razor) and then asked him to come up with novel uses for those words. For instance, Kurzweil suggested "building a cabin" for blouse and "decorating" for razor.

In the three-dimensional images pictured here, Yurgelun-Todd and Gruber explain, the green areas are the parts of Kurzweil's brain that were activated during the routine tasks, and the red areas are the parts of his brain that were activated during the innovative tasks. Some of the specific brain regions that sprang into action when Kurzweil was thinking outside the box: the dorsal anterior cingulate, which lies in the frontal lobes deep inside the brain, just above the band of fibers that connect the two hemispheres; the back part of the parietal lobes; and the right cerebellum, a cauliflower-shaped structure that lies at the base of the brain.


The Innovation Factor: Part II

Inside Innovative Minds
Innovative Minds
Your Brain on Innovation
What's Your Innovation Quotient?

Plus: The Innovation Factor: Part I


Please E-mail your comments to editors@inc.com.

Last updated: Sep 1, 2002




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