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.