Friday, 29 May 2009

Creativity, IQ and cultural bias

Last week's New Scientist featured research on the existence of a 'creativity chemical'.

The University of New Mexico's Rex Jung (with a name like that, don't you already believe everything he is going to say?) explored whether the chemical N-acetyl-aspartate, which is already associated with neural health, metabolism and intelligence, could also play a role in human creativity.

Jung measured the NAA levels, IQ and 'capacity for divergent thinking' in 56 adult volunteers. His findings:

Overall, volunteers' creativity scores correlated with levels of NAA in a brain region called the anterior cingulate gyrus (ACG), which regulates the activity of the frontal cortex - implicated in higher mental functions. But while low levels of NAA in the ACG correlated with high creativity in people of average intelligence, in people with IQs of above 120, the reverse was true (The Journal of Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1523/jneurosci.0588-09.2009).

Jung speculates that if there is less NAA to regulate frontal cortex activity in "average" brains, they are freer to roam and find new ideas. In highly intelligent people, however, tighter control over the frontal cortex seems to enhance creativity. Perhaps this is because they are more likely to come up with new ideas anyway, and the tighter control allows them to "fine-tune" that ability.

"People say you have to let your mind wonder freely to be creative," says Jung. "For people of average intelligence, perhaps it's true that you need to utilise more areas of your [frontal cortex] for something truly novel and creative to emerge, but in more intelligent folks, there's something different going on."

If this is true, it would imply a completely different approach to the development of people's creativity, depending on their IQ. With a two decade old O level in Chemistry, I am not going to challenge Jung's lab work. However, the problem may lie in the testing. The history and critique of IQ testing is well known; many believe that cultural and class biases are inherent. How about testing for 'divergent thinking'? Compared to the huge IQ industry, testing for divergent thinking has less profile, status and research. But if given similar scrutiny, would we also discover that these tests are equally flawed, if not more so?

The other problem is that divergent thinking is just a part of what makes us creative. Convergent thinking can help too, amongst other attributes.

Meanwhile, expect Holland and Barrett to soon stock a creativity supplement, somewhere near the fish oil.

Last word to Mr Jung: 'I would have loved to see what Einstein's ACG looked like'.

No comments: