Despair and Creativity: Neuroscience and Bob Dylan

Every creative moment is preceded by a problem. The problem leads to frustration, an impasse, where it seem no solution will ever be reached. The problem makes us want to quit—it’s too vast, too impossible to solve. Only when we are saturated in disappointment, and have nearly given up on looking does the answer reveal itself in a “Eureka!” moment. In the afterglow, the solution to the awful problem appears obvious and clear. “The neuroscience of Bob Dylan’s genius” is a Guardian published excerpt from American author and journalist Jonah Lehrer’s upcoming book Imagine: How Creativity Works. By way of Bob Dylan, he shows how this procedure of realization crosses the borders of right and left brain to inform creative events.

Jonah Lehrer:

Although Dylan’s creativity remained a constant – he wrote because he didn’t know what else to do – there were increasing signs that he was losing interest in creating music. The only talent he cared about was being ruined by fame. The breaking point probably came after a brief vacation in Portugal, where Dylan got a vicious case of food poisoning. The illness forced him to stay in bed for a week, giving the singer a rare chance to reflect. “I realised I was very drained,” Dylan would later confess. “I was playing a lot of songs I didn’t want to play. It’s very tiring having other people tell you how much they dig you if you yourself don’t dig you.”

Dylan has met his creative wall, one that will push him to frustration, even to the point of wanting to quit music.

The first stage is the impasse. If we’re lucky, however, that hopelessness eventually gives way to a revelation. This is another essential feature of moments of insight: the feeling of certainty that accompanies the new idea. After Archimedes had his eureka moment – he realised that the displacement of water could be used to measure the volume of objects – he immediately leaped out of the bath and ran to tell the king about his solution. He arrived at the palace stark naked and dripping wet.

At first glance, the moment of insight can seem like an impenetrable enigma. We are stuck and then we’re not, and we have no idea what happened in between. It’s as if the cortex is sharing one of its secrets. The question, of course, is how these insights happen.

It was the early 1990s and Mark Beeman, a young scientist at the National Institutes of Health in America, was studying patients who had suffered damage to the right hemisphere of the brain.

In his 1981 Nobel lecture, the neuroscientist Roger Sperry summarised the prevailing view of the right hemisphere at the time: the right hemisphere was “not only mute and agraphic but also dyslexic, word-deaf and apraxic, and lacking generally in higher cognitive function”. In other words, it was thought to be a useless chunk of tissue.

Breeman began to study patients who had damaged right hemispheres and yet still exhibited cognitive issues. Some couldn’t understand humor, sarcasm, or metaphor. Others couldn’t make sense of directions or maps.

At first Beeman couldn’t figure out what all these deficits had in common. What did humour have to do with navigation? And then, just when Beeman was about to give up, he had an idea – perhaps the purpose of the right hemisphere was doing the very thing he was trying to do: find the subtle connections between seemingly unrelated things. Beeman realised that all of the problems experienced by his patients involved making sense of the whole, seeing not just the parts but how they hang together.

Take the language deficits caused by right hemisphere damage. Beeman speculated that, while the left hemisphere handles denotation – it stores the literal meanings of words – the right hemisphere deals with connotation, or all the meanings that can’t be looked up in the dictionary. Metaphors are a perfect example of this. From the perspective of the brain, a metaphor is a bridge between two ideas that, at least on the surface, are not equivalent or related. When Romeo declares that “Juliet is the sun”, we know that he isn’t saying his beloved is a massive, flaming ball of hydrogen. We understand that Romeo is trafficking in metaphor. She might not be a star, but perhaps she lights up his world in the same way the sun illuminates the Earth.

The suddenness of the insight is preceded by an equally sudden burst of brain activity. Thirty milliseconds before the answer erupts into consciousness, there’s a spike of gamma-wave rhythm, which is the highest electrical frequency generated by the brain. Gamma rhythm is believed to come from the binding of neurons: cells distributed across the cortex draw themselves together into a new network that is then able to enter consciousness.

Just when Dylan was most determined to stop creating music, he was overcome with a strange feeling. “It’s a hard thing to describe,” Dylan would later remember. “It’s just this sense that you got something to say.” What he felt was the itch of an imminent insight, the tickle of lyrics that needed to be written down. “I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit,” Dylan said. “I’d never written anything like that before and it suddenly came to me that this is what I should do.” Vomit is the essential word here. Dylan was describing, with characteristic vividness, the uncontrollable rush of a creative insight. “I don’t know where my songs come from,” Dylan said. “It’s like a ghost is writing a song.” This was the thrilling discovery that saved Dylan’s career: he could write vivid lines filled with possibility without knowing exactly what those possibilities were. He didn’t need to know. He just needed to trust the ghost.

It’s a common statement that necessity breeds invention. The expectation is that out of need, breakthroughs will present themselves. But it is often neglected how important that struggle is, or the various ways in which a struggle presents itself. I consider myself to be a person who works well under tight and stressful circumstances that create debilitating restrictions. I’m sure many others can relate to this as well. What makes me successful in doing so, is the parameters the situation enforces. By having restrictions, I am forced to abstract connections that I could not have otherwise made. Unless I am confronted by obstacles, I can’t invent a new idea, I’ll just stick to recreating what I know. The challenge accelerates and promotes insight.

Order Imagine: How Creativity Works. It’s an awesome book.


“The neuroscience of Bob Dylan’s genius,” Jonah Lehrer The Guardian

Photo via Minnesota Public Radio

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