Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

Slow minds = creative minds

I’ve mentioned in this space before that one of the most striking interviews I ever did as an arts journalist was with the actor John Hurt, who gave a stunning performance in a small indie film called “Love and Death on Long Island.” I sat up late on the night before the interview coming up with questions for the actor about his character. They were pretty philosophical.
I ended up making a fool of myself, and inadvertently embarrassing Hurt. He struggled to answer my queries, and finally said, “I think maybe you understand the character better than I do.” Well, no, he was just being polite. I think what happened was that I understood the character’s philosophical intricacies better than Hurt did, but Hurt could not have played that part so breathtakingly well without a profound grasp of the emotional contours of the character’s life. I learned from that interview that there is a great difference between cognitive intelligence and emotional intelligence. Hurt is a brilliant actor, but not much of a philosopher, so to speak. My error was assuming that Hurt had to be consciously aware of the meaning of his character in order to play him so well.
All of which is prelude to some new research out from a team led by neuropsychologist Rex Jung, who, in looking at the structure of brain tissue and its function, has found that the most creative people have “slower” minds. In a nutshell, Team Jung discovered that creative people have lower “integrity” in the fatty white sheaths that coat neurons than do others. This means that information is passed more slowly through their neural network. Conventionally, the more intelligent a person is, the faster the information travels through the person’s brain. Jung’s findings suggest that creativity benefits from slower brain processing. From New Scientist:


The results are surprising, given that high white-matter integrity is normally considered a good thing, says Paul Thompson at the University of California in Los Angeles. He acknowledges that speedy information transfer may not be vital for creative thought. “Sheer mental speed might be good for playing chess or doing a Rubik’s cube, but you don’t necessarily think of writing novels or creating art as being something that requires sheer mental speed,” he says.

Jung points out that this doesn’t mean that creative people can’t be very intelligent by standard measures, as the white matter connected to creativity exists in a particular part of the brain. And obviously, not every person with a “slow” mind in this way is a creative genius. Still, it’s interesting to think that there are now sound neurological reasons why actors and musicians can be so amazingly good at their creative work, but complete dodos when it comes to other areas of intellectual endeavor, such as politics and theology.

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posted April 7, 2010 at 3:26 pm

The million dollar question is whether mental slowness causes creativity (loosely) or whether slowness and creativity are both byproducts of another underlying phenonenon. Because if its the former, it suggests that one could train/coach people with “fast” brains to be more creative by slowing down their information processing speed. If its the latter, I’m guessing there’s no way.

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posted April 7, 2010 at 3:51 pm

Finally, my shortcomings are turning out to be assets, then: a very slow mind (eveything seems to take me sooo long, from dressing to planning dinner) But the results, while not always spectacular, are always very creatively satisfying–at least to me.
And then, last night I discovered the best use of all for my lifelong handicap of nearsightedness: in order to see the baby lice on my son’s head–yes, the critters finally struck us–all I had to do was whip off my glasses and I didn’t even need a magnifying glass.
Aging has some compensations!

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posted April 7, 2010 at 4:32 pm

Oh, I totally get this. Editing and criticism happen in a totally different realm of the brain from creative thought. Rumination, circling round and round an idea… not good for the game Pit, but excellent for say, creating a poem. I think taking the time to really absorb and respond to our world is a valuable activity, but not highly encouraged because it doesn’t have obvious practical value. Now when it takes me four times as long to reach the same conclusion as my husband, I’ll just tell myself I’m being creative.

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posted April 7, 2010 at 4:34 pm

I said “totally” twice. That is embarrassing. Also, William Hurt is brilliant, but like many people, not necessarily in a linguistic/verbal processing sort of way. High emotional intelligence perhaps would be a good way of describing what he has.

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posted April 7, 2010 at 5:04 pm

Another question: Does this mean that those who are philosophically astute are doomed to NOT be creative?

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Rod Dreher

posted April 7, 2010 at 5:15 pm

Short answer, Margaret, no.
I’m typing this on an iPad at the apple store. Amazing device! If it weren’t so difficult to touch-type on this thing, I’d buy one today.

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posted April 7, 2010 at 5:16 pm

Slowness may not be the important factor. Less myelin does mean less speed in the forward transmission from one neuron to the next, but it also means less insulation between *parallel* neurons. In other words, a broader set of associations are possible.
Too much demyelination is not good … you get MS and schizophrenia. But a bit less insulation makes you a bit less rigid.

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posted April 7, 2010 at 5:54 pm

Hmmm, this study sounds completely bogus to me, Rod. My oldest son was part of a gifted program at his public school all through middle school and high school and without exception, every kid in the program played a musical instrument and/or sang in the choir, many also participated in drama and art. These kids were all really, really smart; and some were scary smart, and they were also very creative. My Sam’s best friend, George, was not only a wonderful clarinetist and artist, he also scored 2400 on his SATs. My son, Sam, has written a musical, is also a wonderful clarinetist, participated in drama in high school, and is graduating this spring with a double major in Math and Physics and then it is on to grad school. Slow brain vs. fast brain…sorry, just sounds like another way to hang a label on people that in the end is really meaningless. No doubt there are some slow brain folks who not only aren’t very creative, but they’re also dumb as stumps, just like their are some “fast” brain folks who aren’t very creative and though maybe smart in a very narrow range of knowledge, are also dumb as stumps in many other ways. All of this reminds me of my sister-in-law who has apologized for the sordid behavior of her sons by shaking her head and saying, “Well, you know, they’re right brain kids, and the school system didn’t know how to handle them.”

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posted April 7, 2010 at 7:51 pm

I’m with MikeW. This study sounds somewhat problematic. It may explain why actors can be complete dodos yet not be intellectuals, but it does not explain the works of great writers and artists. In order to be a great writer, a person needs to understand how to write a sentence, and in order to be a great musician, a person needs to know how to read music. One of my colleagues is an etxremely talented musician and went to the preminent music schools in the country, and he is extremely quick and intelligent.

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posted April 7, 2010 at 8:35 pm

I thought the point was that different types of intelligence or brain activities occur in different regions of the brain, and with slightly different configurations, certain people’s brains perform better at creative tasks vs. figuring out Rubix Cubes. Some people like Mike W’s son may have brains that do both types of activities well, but they are nonetheless distinctly different.

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posted April 7, 2010 at 8:41 pm

That’s interesting and explains a lot about some of the theater people I’ve known. I love logic and ideas and making connections between obscure factoids no one has ever heard of and taking apart literary characters. I am a TERRIBLE actor. I’m always me, for better or worse.

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posted April 8, 2010 at 2:43 am

This smells of ipse dixitism. I know several actors and wanna be actors. In general they are dullards and narcissists that can regurgitate what some else has written and emote properly without seeming like they are reading a script. Intellect is hardly a requirement. That is why they are such dodos to talk to about politics or philosophy. Once you go beyond what someone else has told them they are at a complete loss. Try interviewing a truly creative person like a novelist and see how smart they are about many subjects.

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Dan Berger

posted April 8, 2010 at 9:04 am

Doug, when you’re right, you’re right. I’m reminded of Mark Shea’s comment that the ancients believed in the Muses because it was the best explanation for the fact that people who were such idiots and twerps suddenly became profound and beautiful when they sang (acted, painted, sculpted…)
The two (creativity and proper thought) are not exclusive, not even a little bit. They don’t necessarily have to do with each other, but the most creative people in history were very often the most brilliant. Think of Leonardo.

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Max Schadenfreude

posted April 8, 2010 at 11:25 am

I read this post yesterday and I’m still mulling it over in my mind.

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posted April 8, 2010 at 1:45 pm

I think people are largely missing the point here. I don’t think the article necessarily intends “creative” to mean artistic. I think it means innovative, coming up with new ideas. People can be innovative in most any field. There’s nothing inherently creative about singing or playing a musical instrument or acting. It’s possible to do any of those things well without actually doing anything original. I have a daughter who is creative in this way. She has never been the quickest kid in the class at finishing work or recalling facts, but she does beautiful, interesting work, making connections that the faster kids do not. No one doubts that she is bright, but she certainly works more slowly than many of the others.

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Roland de Chanson

posted April 8, 2010 at 10:04 pm


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posted April 10, 2010 at 8:29 am

Hi Doug,
I’m a professional actor. I have an MFA degree in Theatre. While you are correct that plenty of fame-seeking “dullards and narcissists” are drawn to acting, the people who stick in this profession and gain the respect of other (professional) actors exhibit exactly the opposite qualities. In theatre, professional respect and success depends on humility, teamwork and devotion to craft.

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