“The world is not fair to lefties”. ---Paul J. Silvia
August 13 is International Left-Handers Day, a time to consider that in the world of cognitive neuroscience research roughly one billion lefties---10%-15% of the entire human population---do not exist. Sorry Bill Gates, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, you don’t count. Indeed, I was shocked when University of North Carolina, Greensboro psychologist Paul Silvia informed me during the interview that follows that: “Essentially all cognitive neuroscience research uses only right-handed people.” Silvia says with lefties laterality in the brain is “just so different” that it throws off statistical group averaging. But doesn’t that simply mean neuroscience research is seriously flawed?
Dutch researcher Roel M. Willems writing in Nature thinks so, because left-handedness “falls within the normal range of human diversity”---and so Willems has proposed the following:
“To overcome this problem, it is important to develop and adopt methods of analysis at the level of the individual subject rather than the group level; this would then allow left-handers to be included in the study without negatively affecting statistical outcomes.”
Moreover, left handedness is not exclusive to Homo sapiens. Chimpanzees also exhibit left and right handedness, for example. And the beat goes on. . .
But I actually contacted Paul Silvia recently because he is one of three dozen academics currently funded by the Imagination Institute (bankrolled by the Templeton Foundation) to explore for an “imagination quotient.” Silvia and his collaborator Roger E. Beaty were awarded $175,000 to “study how the brain generates creative ideas”: “Creative Connections: Measuring Imagination with Functional Network Connectivity.” Results of their 2015-2017 investigation are about to be published.
Silvia is the author of five books, among them, How to Write a Lot; and Public Speaking for Psychologists (with D.B. Feldman); and 150 academic papers. He serves on the editorial boards of nine professional journals: Imagination, Cognition, and Personality; Journal of Creative Behavior; International Journal of Creativity and Problem Solving; Empirical Studies of the Arts; Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts; Self and Identity; Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin; Social Psychology; Social Psychological and Personality Science.
As a watchmaker (evenings and weekends) as well, Paul Silvia is especially aware of time. And in his spare time away from the watch bench and the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, where he is currently Lucy Spinks Keker Excellence Professor of Psychology, he shares his horological expertise with the world in his online blog: Adjusting Vintage Watches.
Paul Silva has taught psychology at UNC, Greensboro for the last 15 years. He’s also been a professor of psychology at the University of Hamburg, Germany, and before that a visiting researcher at the University of Erlangen, Germany (1999-2000). His PhD and MA are from the University of Kansas in psychology and his BA (with Honors) in psychology from the University of Southern California.
Suzan Mazur: You published an article in Nature in 2015 on the brain and creative idea production in collaboration with your colleague Roger Beaty and with current Imagination Institute scientific director Scott Kaufman et al. in which you conclude that generating novel ideas requires both cognitive control and spontaneous imaginative processes---in other words the whole brain is needed for creativity. How has your recent Imagination Institute project on generating creative ideas advanced those 2015 findings? What’s new?
Paul Silvia: The 2015 paper was our first toes-in-the-water. The whole brain view is really a good way to think about it. Traditionally with creativity and brain work, investigations have addressed: What’s the creative part? Where’s creativity in the brain? What’s the part that lights up?
And traditionally, the view has been: The right side is the creative part. But there’s really no part or piece or even single system. Creativity is a very complex thing. Our earlier study was really a pilot study. We had a small number of people and we were pretty limited in how we were looking at creativity. People weren’t especially selected because they were creative or eminent or accomplished. It was kind of a proof of concept. There was enough to suggest that we were on to something with the idea.
Suzan Mazur: But why were all of your participants in that first study right-handed?
Paul Silvia: The world is not fair to lefties, Suzan.
Suzan Mazur: Are you left-handed?
Paul Silvia: I’m not left-handed but I have a lot of friends who are left-handed.
Suzan Mazur: I am left-handed and particularly curious about this aspect of your study.
Paul Silvia: The reason why our participants were right-handed was largely because of laterality in the brain of lefties. You sort of have to pick all right-handers or all left-handers for a brain-scanning study because you’re basically averaging all the brains at the end of the study. For lefties, the laterality is just so different. Also, there are just more righties available.
Something not really appreciated with brain research is that we end up studying a very special group of people who are not taking any medications, are extremely healthy, are not claustrophobic and are fine for two hours in a small space that’s freakishly loud. You can’t have subjects who have migraines or seizures or depression. So you wind up with very healthy, very emotionally-controlled kind of people as subjects.
Suzan Mazur: How has your research funded by Imagination Institute advanced the 2015 findings? What’s new?
Paul Silvia: There’s a lot that’s new. It’s hard to create anything large scale without funding and the Imagination Institute has really been a god-send. In our most recent study we were able to work with a lot more subjects, close to 200 people. [Everyone in the Imagination Institute study was paid in cash.] And we specifically recruited people actively pursuing creative careers. So not just anyone off the street.
Primarily, we were able to research in an incredibly comprehensive way. Instead of just seeing creative ideas a person can come up with while they’re in a MRI scanner, the more recent study looked at creativity in everyday life as well.
For 8 to 10 hours, participants filled out personality scales and took intelligence tests, cognitive tests, surveys about creative achievement and hobbies. Then for a whole week we interrupted them 10 or 12 times a day on their smartphones and via a survey app that asked them what they were doing, thinking, and working on right then. We looked at whether they were daydreaming at that very moment. What were they thinking about? Were they thinking about the future? Were they thinking about a creative goal? Was their dream realistic? Was their daydream fulfilling, silly, interesting, idea provoking---
Suzan Mazur: Was this again an all right-handed group?
Paul Silvia: Yes, this was all right-handed. There were lots of exclusions. Illnesses---from epilepsy to stroke---disqualified candidates. Use of a wide range of medications that affect the brain, including some very common ones like antidepressants, also disqualified.
Suzan Mazur: But getting back to the left-handed issue, you’re saying it’s easier to test right-handed people because left-handed people have more lateral brain activity. It’s too much work to test lefties?
Paul Silvia: Essentially all cognitive neuroscience research uses only right-handed people.
Suzan Mazur: That’s fascinating.
Paul Silvia: It’s mostly because there are more right-handers around. If you could study only lefties, maybe it would work out [laughs]. You’d have to test righties separately from lefties. You can’t combine the two.
The left-hander’s brain isn’t a photographic negative of the right-hander’s brain. If you had half leftie and half rightie, maybe you could make it work but it’s just that there are so few lefties.
Suzan Mazur: One billion people more or less in the world are left-handed. So cognitive neuroscience research appears to be seriously flawed if it is basing its science only on a right-handed population.
Paul Silvia: The other problem is the ambidextrous people.
Suzan Mazur: Humans have two useful hands. Aren’t most people ambidextrous in some ways?
Paul Silvia: Yeah, it’s really not a left/right thing. It’s much more like there’s this line from 1 to 100 and everyone is on there somewhere. It’s something that develops.
My office neighbor is studying how people develop handedness, which starts prenatally. Everyone learns to be handed, it’s not a biological default. There are just some complex developmental reasons. It starts prenatally and most people end up right-handed.
Suzan Mazur: What was the overall goal of your second study?
Paul Silvia: It was primarily to put how creative ideas arise to a big test. In looking at the creative brain, we needed to learn what our 200 participants were thinking about in everyday life, particularly how people were using imagination in everyday life, and we saw what their brains looked like during those moments via the scanner. Daydreaming, mental imagery, thoughts about everyday environment---that was a really big part of it.
The real test of whether something works is whether you can figure it out inside the lab where things are controlled and can then also say something about what people are like in their everyday lives. We had more people in the second study and there have been advances in neuroscience methods since our first study.
We were using a very fancy-pants method for the second study. We were essentially looking at networks of networks. Instead of looking at individual areas of the brain, we looked at clusters of areas that work together. There are a lot of these networks. Sometimes they compete with each other. Sometimes they cooperate with each other. Creativity seems to come from cooperation among networks that normally compete and inhibit and antagonize each other.
Suzan Mazur: When will you publish your findings of this second study?
Paul Silvia: We’ll be publishing a lot of different papers. We’re now wrapping up the big main one. That should be ready to submit to a journal within a couple of weeks. This project went very well, very smoothly.
We suggested in the earlier paper that there’s an old idea about creativity going back decades and decades that there’s kind of a yin-yang quality to creative thinking. There are people who say creativity is expansive, it’s daydreaming, it’s uncontrolled, it’s letting your mind roam free. It’s loose, a spontaneous way of thinking. But there’s a whole other side to this argument that has to do with planning, thinking things through, focus, controlled problem solving.
Many humanist thinkers have suggested that a fusion of these opposites happens in the brain, that there is a network for spontaneous thought, but there is also a network for controlled thought. And when people are coming up with different ideas, these two otherwise unfriendly networks work together.
Suzan Mazur: There is a recent study from Queen Mary and Goldsmiths universities indicating that suppression of the thinking and reasoning centers of the brain--- the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex---through electrical stimulation results in more creative problem solving. However, the ability to solve problems where a “higher working memory” is needed is apparently worse with electrical stimulation to the same region. Any comment?
Paul Silvia: That would be an example where the unfriendly networks don’t work together. We say, “sort of” to this approach. “Yes,” and “mostly.”
Whenever you have really two opposing schools of thought that have existed for centuries, it’s usually because they both do have some kernel of truth. Clearly an uncontrolled, spontaneous way of thinking is crucial to creativity.
Suzan Mazur: Emotion is coming from the oldest part of the brain.
Paul Silvia: Our brains are always mind wandering, daydreaming and very vivid, very emotional. But the other side is that there’s planning, practice, deliberation, foresight and sustained focus. Not letting your mind wander away.
Suzan Mazur: There’s another relevant study, published in Nature earlier this year, by Shi et al.---who cite your 2015 paper. The authors look at grey matter volume across the brain and identify two types of creativity: (1) artistic and (2) scientific, which they associate with two regions of the brain. They say scientific creativity is closely associated with the executive attention network and semantic processing, but also note that the “neural basis of scientific creativity” is still pretty elusive. Artistic creativity they think is associated with the salience network (dynamic switching network), but say there are conflicting conclusions and that more studies are needed. Are you aware of this study and can you say more about it?
Paul Silvia: I think it’s a sign of where studies of the creative brain are really going. In the paper we are about to publish based on our large sample and more comprehensive assessment of creativity, it looks like there’s a sort of mega-network. There’s the default network---spontaneous thought [deep prefrontal cortex & temporal lobe]; executive network of focused, controlled thought [outer prefrontal cortex & posterior parietal lobe]; and the salience network [dorsal anterior cingulate cortices & anterior insular], which is connecting things that are really important.
People who are most creative use a mega-network of all three working together. Notably the executive and default networks are usually antagonistic. But the calm focus that creative people experience, the expansive focus---there are not a lot of words for it---seems to resonate with a lot of people as a creative high.
Suzan Mazur: You are a watchmaker as well as social scientist. What is your fascination with watches?
Paul Silvia: Watchmaking helps me to cultivate a focus and awareness, it’s very contemplative. Watches are so intricate. It’s fascinating to me that long ago people could make such micro-mechanical machines. It boggles the mind. You can take a watch 20 years old, clean it up, tune it up and it keeps time as good as a Rolex that costs $10,000.
I think time---humans always have a sense that we move through time, time means something to us. The clock is a powerful metaphor.
Suzan Mazur: As a scientist and watchmaker, do you see the brain using algorithms to gather and encode information?
Paul Silvia: It’s funny to think of watchmaking and the brain because humans have always used whatever the most advanced technology was at the time as a metaphor for the brain. In ancient Greece, it was a catapult. It’s comical now to think of the brain as a catapult as a metaphor. Then you get to telephone systems and switchboards. Certainly, watches and clocks since the 1700s with all these interlocking pieces. The brain as a computer, as software. The most modern metaphor, it’s almost not a metaphor, is the brain as an organic network, a distributed system---like human society.
Suzan Mazur: But do you think in terms of the brain using algorithms?
Paul Silvia: The brain clearly does that. But we don’t know how. So little is known about the brain, it is so awe-inspiring.
Imagination is one of those mystifying aspects of existence. When nothing is happening, we imagine something. Sitting alone in a room, we start to daydream. We don’t have to do that. It isn’t necessary. But the brain doesn’t idle. When we’re asleep we experience sleep imagery. The brain just does it. It uses 10 pounds of neurotransmitters a day. It’s like a really efficient power engine.
Paul Silvia: The Imagination Institute has taken an investment approach in funding three dozen young scholars with fairly far-out ideas. It has a high-risk, high-reward model that importantly raises the profile of imagination studies. From our research, it does appear that some people have much more vivid imagery than others and find it easier to come up with really cool ideas, although humans in general have a lot of mental imagery. Everyone is creative.