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The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius
Reviewed by SANDRA PATTERSON
Am J Psychiatry 2006;163:164-165. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.163.1.164
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By Nancy C. Andreasen, M.D., Ph.D., Washington, D.C., Dana Press, 2005, 197 pp., $23.95.

The Creating Brain is Nancy Coover Andreasen’s latest contribution to her ambitious goal of educating readers about the complex neurobiological basis of human behaviors. In her third book in this series, she addresses a question that has puzzled researchers to the present day: by what process does the human brain bring forth astonishing achievements in the arts and sciences that have never before been conceptualized? Readers familiar with Dr. Andreasen’s previous works, The Broken Brain(1) and Brave New Brain(2), will recognize her personal, conversational narrative and the breadth of her knowledge. As if she were speaking with you at dinner, she explores the earliest record of human creativity inside the Caves of Lascaux in Dordogne, France, and then the works of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarotti, William Shakespeare, Amadeus Mozart, Samuel Coleridge, and many others, including a discussion she had aboard an airplane about the nature of the creative process with playwright Neil Simon.

The book begins with the history of research in child development and the earliest studies in creative intelligence conducted by Alfred Binet and Lewis Terman, beginning nearly a century ago. Dr. Andreasen’s description of the longitudinal study of "Terman geniuses" or "termites" (highly intelligent children followed from childhood to their adult years at Stanford University) recalls nearly forgotten but important early findings that developed a key distinction between intelligence and creativity. The text cleverly uses the autobiographical accounts of a series of renowned artists, scientists, and writers to illustrate their special insights into their own creative process. The author highlights the astonishing similarities between the almost unconscious, turbulent state that many of these figures described as their subjective cognitive experience at the time of their greatest productivity. From Mozart, for example:

All this fires my soul, and, provided I am not disturbed, my subject enlarges itself, becomes methodized and defined, and in the whole, though it be long, stands almost complete and finished in my mind, so that I can survey it, like a fine picture or a beautiful statue, at a glance.… What a delight this is I cannot tell! (p. 40)

The next chapter guides the reader through a careful dissection of the neurobiology of the creative process by explaining the organization of the brain from the cellular and neuroanatomic level to the interaction of various brain regions observed in functional brain imaging. These lessons are then applied to explicate the mechanisms by which memory is formed, the mapping of language, and the neural basis of unconscious thought.

After providing this foundation in brain science, Dr. Andreasen uses it to probe the more complex topic of genius and insanity. Here we learn of her work with the Iowa Writer’s Workshop as well as seminal studies by Adele Juda in the 1920s. The overlap between creative genius and conditions such as schizophrenia and depression is discussed in detail, with special insights into the lives of key figures such as John Nash. Dr. Andreasen speaks of her own surprise at the high rate of mood disorders among the Iowa writers, which refuted her original hypothesis that creativity would be more heavily associated with psychotic disorders. She frames these findings in the nature versus nurture concept coined by Francis Galton in the 19th century and illustrates the influence of nurture with a detailed accounting of the environmental factors during the most creative periods in history that allowed individuals to express their natural gifts.

The text concludes with suggestions on how to understand our own creating brains and strategies to enhance our creativity and that of our children. Grandmotherly advice from Dr. Andreasen, down to the choice of bedtime reading to the children, is a warm and unique end to a book on the neurobiology of creativity.

In her preface to The Creating Brain, Dr. Andreasen briefly discusses her childhood and the ways in which her socially conservative environment, particularly with regard to women, interacted with her precocity, intelligence, and ambition. Her parents had expressed reluctance about her plans to enter medical school. Shortly before his death her father told her, "And you did turn out OK after all." Indeed she did! And the fields of psychiatry and neuroscience are much enriched for that, as are the lives of those of us fortunate enough to have worked with her for the past 13 years and enjoyed the pleasure of dinner and wine and conversation with her.

Andreasen NC: The Broken Brain: The Biological Revolution in Psychiatry. New York, Harper & Row, 1984
 
Andreasen NC: Brave New Brain: Conquering Mental Illness in the Era of the Genome. New York, Oxford University Press, 2001
 
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References

Andreasen NC: The Broken Brain: The Biological Revolution in Psychiatry. New York, Harper & Row, 1984
 
Andreasen NC: Brave New Brain: Conquering Mental Illness in the Era of the Genome. New York, Oxford University Press, 2001
 
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