Inside The Brain Machine

Neuroscience changed how I think about creativity

The author, moments before sliding into a $5m MRI machine.

I climbed onto the narrow bed that jutted out in front of the MRI machine.

“How do you feel?” asked Dr. Andrew Newberg, the neuroscientist in charge of the experiment.

“Great!” I said over-brightly, like I was about to receive a spa treatment rather than a brain scan. In reality, I was nervous. The machine was sealed behind an air-tight door with thick safety glass and emergency warning lights. And some of Dr. Newberg’s preparatory questions had been a little unnerving:

“Have you ever had a pot explode while you’re cooking?” he’d asked. He was concerned I might have some residual fragments of metal in my eye. “In the magnetic field, it would tear through your eyeball.”

I lay back and stared at the ceiling. The fluorescent light panels had been fitted with transparencies showing a blue sky framed by cherry blossoms. I appreciated the attempt to cheer the patient up, but the image looked so radiantly perfect that it made me think about the afterlife.

There’s nothing wrong with you, I told myself, this is just a psychology experiment.

I shivered. The machine’s giant doughnut was filled with liquid helium, supercooled to 450 degrees below zero. Dr. Newberg draped a white sheet over me, which added warmth, but made me look like a corpse. Then he retreated to the control room. I heard his voice in my headphones.

“Ready to go?”

“OK.” I had earplugs in and my voice sounded distant. Newberg had immobilized my head in a plastic frame, like Hannibal Lecter. But there was a tiny mirror mounted on top of it, so I could see him on the other side of the safety glass, peering at a computer monitor. A motor beneath me activated and my shrouded body slid smoothly backwards into the machine like a torpedo entering a tube.

The supercooled magnets exerted a force many thousands of times stronger than the Earth’s magnetic field. Newberg had explained that he’d had to brief the fire department to avoid entering the room as their axes would have been turned into deadly projectiles.

That same force was now enveloping my head. The magnets act on the water molecules that make up the majority of the human body. These normally dance around happily at random, but when placed in this ferocious field, they all snapped into a North-South alignment with the precision of marchers at a Kim Jong Un birthday parade.

I closed my eyes and tried to breathe slowly, ignoring the whooshing of the liquid helium. Gradually, the highly-aligned molecules in my brain started to calm down.

Bam! I was startled by a loud, repetitive banging, as if a brick being tossed into a washing machine. This was the scanner’s second magnet, turning on and off at high speed to knock my molecules out of alignment. As they straightened back to attention, the tiny particles were detected by the machine’s sensors. This information was used to construct a map of the inside of my head.

“Feeling OK?” said Newberg’s voice in my ear. “You’ll be in here for an hour or so.”

Dr. Andrew Newberg, Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine

I was visiting Philadelphia to take part in a creativity retreat organized by the Imagination Institute. All the participants had been politely encouraged to take a turn in the scanner.

Dr. Newberg’s main area of study was enlightenment: he’d been putting Buddhist monks and other spiritual leaders into the machine to see whether their moments of transcendence had a physiological basis. But right now, he was looking for patterns in the brains of creative people.

This meant that as well as fighting claustrophobia and a newly-discovered fear of magnets, I also had to deal with self-consciousness. What if my brain was revealed to be ordinary? I pictured Newberg and his colleagues in the control room looking at my glowing cerebral walnut on their screen and shaking their heads with disappointment. “Look at the pedestrian nature of his neuronal activity,” they were probably saying. “This one looks like he spends most of his day on the internet looking at cat pictures.”

I closed my eyes, visualized the cherry blossom, and tried to breathe slowly like one of Newberg’s Buddhist monks. Gradually, the relentless banging and whirring faded slowly into the background, and my thoughts began to drift.

The frontal lobes are the pride of the human race. Our ancestors were, quite literally, lowbrow.

On my flight to Philadelphia, I had read an article in Scientific American by the Imagination Institute’s scientific director, Scott Kaufman. He’d argued that we should stop using the “left brain and right brain” model to describe the rational and creative activities of the brain.

Instead of a simple left versus right bias, the brain’s activity had been revealed to be a web of shifting alliances and competitions between multiple parts of the brain: less a game of two halves, more like Game of Thrones.

One of the most-studied networks was the executive attention network, a set of structures that are activated when we pay attention, plan, make decisions, and generally try to get stuff done. While it includes regions such as the parietal lobe, the most noticeable activity is within the frontal lobes.

The frontal lobes are the pride of the human race. If you were to follow our progress from ape-like scavengers to Snapchat-using rulers of the planet, the main physiological change accompanying this is a steadily rising forehead to accommodate a growing frontal cortex. Our ancestors were, quite literally, lowbrow.

But the frontal lobes shouldn’t get all the glory. During MRI experiments like mine, scientists made a curious discovery. They were asking their subjects to take part in creative challenges, which produced diverse patterns of brain activation. But when the subjects were resting between procedures, the activity always returned to a particular state. Since this happened when the patient was supposedly not doing anything, they called this pattern “the default network.”

However, further study showed that the default network was more interesting than just a holding pattern: it was also associated with daydreaming, free association, and exploring ideas. It covered so many divergent creative thought processes that Kaufman renamed it “the imagination network.”

Significantly, the all-conquering frontal lobes tended to become deactivated while the imagination network was activated. As Kaufman wrote in Scientific American, “When you want to loosen your associations, allow your mind to roam free, imagine new possibilities, and silence the inner critic, it’s good to reduce activation of the executive attention network.”

In other words: if you want to be creative, you need to turn parts of your brain off.

Creativity is a mode, not an identity. Rather than being stuck in one mental mode, we should be thinking about how to shift gears between them.

Newberg’s voice interrupted my reverie.

“For the next ten minutes, I’d like you to meditate on how your creative work might impact the world in a positive way.”

As he spoke, the machine’s magnets shifted into a rhythmic series of industrial-techno-clanging sounds. I managed to maintain a focused pattern of thought for about ten seconds, before the weirdness of my environment distracted me again.

I found myself thinking more about the network model of brain function. The old left- and right-brain model led people to describe themselves as “left-brained” in the same way that they might say “left-handed.” In contrast, the network model was dynamic. It proved that creativity is a mode, not an identity. Rather than accepting being stuck in one mental mode, we should be thinking about how we shift gears between them. We should also be mindful about how we encourage ourselves and others to focus on one mode over another. This is especially true given the phenomenon of lateral inhibition — the brain’s tendency to actively inhibit the areas that are not currently activated. This implies that strengthening one network too much will diminish our ability to use the other.

I thought about my time in the education system and how often I was ordered to pay attention and focus. “Stop daydreaming, Stevenson,” my English teacher would bark, before launching a piece of chalk across the classroom toward my head. Does formal education systematically inhibit the imagination network?

Then my thoughts turned to my iPhone, lying on the desk next to Newberg on the other side of the safety glass. Like many people, I reach for it during quiet moments and bounce from Instagram to Safari to Crossy Road. I justify this by saying I’m using up “dead time.” But what if I changed my vocabulary from “dead time” to “imagination time”? From a neuroscience point of view, our phones are a jungle gym for the executive control network — and sapping our ability to be creative.

Frontal lobe prejudice even turned up my choice of beverages. Like most designers in the IDEO studio, I was regularly drawn to our shiny, steel espresso machine. But coffee also works for the executive attention network: sharpening attentional focus at the expense of imaginative drifting. This isn’t just a theory. Research by Mark Beeman and others has shown that coffee consumption leads to poorer scores in tests of divergent thinking.

My mind was racing. I was doing a terrible job at meditating as I ‘d been instructed. But I was full of ideas about how shifting into different brain modes could help unlock creative thinking in myself and others.

Then I realized that the banging of the magnets had subsided. The machine was winding down. My bed slid out of the supercooled doughnut and I saw above me once more the blue sky and the cherry blossoms. I had emerged from the tube, reborn.

Does formal education systematically inhibit the imagination network?

Afterwards, I got to talk to Newberg about his beliefs about how creativity worked in the brain. He agreed with the findings about the frontal lobes.

“To me, a lot of creativity is about how much the brain allows its different domains to intersect with each other,” he said. “One thing we see the frontal lobe doing is keeping everything in its own box.”

He referenced various creative states in which reduced frontal lobe activity had been observed, including musicians ad-libbing, rappers improvising, and people generally operating in a state of flow.

“You could think of it in terms of top-down and bottom-up activity,” he said. “When the frontal lobes are regulating, you don’t get things that are welling up, like the thoughts, memories, and emotions. And these are the things that might spark creative ideas.”

I couldn’t resist asking Newberg what he’d seen inside my brain, secretly hoping that during my mental exploration of creativity I’d displayed some cerebral fireworks on his screen.

“Well, er, you actually do have something interesting,” he said.

As a British person, I’ve been raised to consider the word “interesting” to be a highly loaded term. Especially when uttered by a doctor who has been viewing the inside of your skull.

“You have what looks like a sub-arachnoid cyst in your cerebellum,” he said, reaching for the mouse and scrolling through some images. “It’s probably nothing to worry about.”

Even as he uttered the reassurance, he pulled up a cross-section of my brain that revealed what looked like a large hole in the right hemisphere.

“Do you ever have any problem with your co-ordination?”

“Er, no,” I managed, while wondering if this was the reason I’d never managed to learn to moonwalk.

Newberg gave a reassuring shrug. “People live with all sorts of stuff in their heads and usually never find out about it.”

I felt like a home-owner who’d just had a contractor look in their basement, only to find some alarming cracks in the foundations. But then I pulled myself together: I’d survived forty-five years with my Swiss cheese brain, so I wasn’t going to let this information bother me now.

Besides, I had important things to do: I needed to stop drinking coffee, stop doing pointless things on my phone, and start embracing moments of “dead time” for what they were: opportunities to activate my imagination network, and listen for the quiet internal signals that could turn into ideas.

I also wanted to tell other people what the scientists have discovered: there’s a competition going on inside our heads. When CEOs, politicians and educators talk about the need for everyone to be more creative, they need to understand that this isn’t just another task for our over-active frontal lobes. We don’t need to think more. We need to think differently.

So I said goodbye to Dr. Newberg, turned off my phone’s notifications, and stepped out into the sunshine, trying not to have a plan.