The Influences of Society

Many people have observed that during certain ages and in certain places, creativity appears to cluster. The first time I became aware of this is when Bob Joynt, a distinguished behavioral neurologist and former dean of the University of Rochester College of Medicine, was giving his presidential address to the American Academy of Neurology. At one time the National Institutes of Health (NIH) gave training grants that allowed neurology programs to train clinician investigators, but for some reason they decided to cancel this program, Dr. Joynt and others thought that the loss of these funds might be devastating to academic neurology. Having an excellent sense of humor, Dr. Joynt projected a famous picture of Jean Charcot, one the founders of modern neurology and psychiatry. This picture was taken before the NIH was even founded. This picture shows Charcot examining a patient while many of his students—who subsequently became the founders of modern psychiatry, such as Sigmund Freud, and neurology, such as Babin-ski and Dejerine—watched him. Joynt inserted a letter into this picture. This letter, sent by the NIH, asked Charcot to discharge Drs. Freud, Babinski, Dejerine, and so on, because the funding of his training program was going to be terminated. I was struck by the fact that almost all of these founders of modern neurology and psychiatry had spent time together with Charcot in Paris. Creative people need role models and mentors to teach them the required skills. Even in the United States there were primarily three major mentors who are responsible for modern-day neurology: Derrick Denny-Brown, Raymond Adams, and Houston Merritt. Although these three people developed neurology programs at different medical centers (i.e., Denny-Brown at the Harvard Neurological Unit of Boston City Hospital, Adams at the Massachusetts General Hospital, and Merritt at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital), at one time all three of these founders were together at the Harvard Neurological Unit of Boston City Hospital.

During the time that Charcot taught in Paris, this city was not only a center of creativity in the medical sciences, but also a center of creativity in many other domains, including painting and writing. Several centuries before Paris became a cultural center, Florence was a center of culture. There are many other examples of these phenomena, even going back to ancient times (e.g., 500 bce) when cities such as Athens were centers of art, architecture, and philosophy. The factors that lead to the development of these creative centers are unknown, but there are several possible explanations. First, it might only be a chance phenomenon, but as I mentioned, when observing an anomaly, if one just attributes this anomaly to chance or to some supernatural power, then observing that anomaly does not lead to creative innovation. A second theory that might help explain the flurry of creativity at these centers is the role of great mentors such as Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato, but the observation that the creativity in these centers was not restricted to a specific domain seems to diminish the importance of this mentor theory.

Earlier I reviewed the evidence that to be highly creative a person probably needs to have sufficient intelligence and that the degree of intelligence needed to be highly creative probably varies according the domain of creativity. Though humans have a high degree of within-organism intelligence, other organisms with very limited brain capacity and low intelligence have excellent environmental adaptability as colonies, and some would call the ability to survive and adapt to the environment a form of intelligence. An excellent example of collective intelligence using these criteria might be an ant colony. In many of the historic centers of creative activity, such as ancient Athens or 19th-century Paris, there was a high degree of communication between people who were being creative in the same domain (perhaps analogous to intrahemispheric communication), but in these centers there was also communication with people who were performing creative acts in other domains (perhaps analogous to interhemispheric communication).

People from other cultures who could share their diverse experiences frequently enriched the environment of these creative centers. For example, in my domain, one of the most important 19th-century Parisian discoveries was reported by Paul Broca, who demonstrated that the left hemisphere of most human brains was dominant for mediating language and that the anterior portion of the left hemisphere was important for the expression of speech. Broca was a surgeon who had a great interest in anthropology, and it was at an anthropological meeting where he heard an outsider Auburtin discuss some of the theories of Gall, who suggested that human knowledge is stored in a modular fashion and that different forms of knowledge are stored in different anatomic areas of the brain.

Another important advance was the invention of printing presses and the development of journals that allowed people who were not living in close proximity to communicate. This form of communication also enhanced creativity. One of the most exciting inventions of our era is the Internet, because—just as the white matter pathways in the brain, such as the corpus callosum, allow modular systems within the brain to communicate—systems such as the Internet allow people from all over the world the ability to communicate rapidly. It is the sharing of knowledge that often leads to paradigmatic shifts.

In the previous chapters of this book I mentioned several factors that appear to be important in creativity, and perhaps for these creative centers to develop they needed to supply the people who lived in these cities the ability to develop their creativity. The first stage in the development of creativity is preparation. The critical part of preparation is education, and in all these historic creative centers, education was excellent.

People who have different experiences, thoughts, and means of expression will not share their differences if the society is intolerant. Germany had a rich history of great composers, writers, scientists, and physicians before the Nazi era. During the time the Nazis were controlling Germany and Austria, in the United States and United Kingdom there were great advances in the science of medicine, such as antibiotics, rapid postsurgical ambulation, and intravenous fluids. While the United States was developing atomic physics, Germany, was experiencing supreme intolerance and, other than the discovery of how many Jews could be killed with one bullet, a paucity of scientific, medical, or artistic advances. Although Heisenberg, the cofounder of quantum mechanics with Nils Bohr, lived in Germany during the Nazi era, he performed most of his important work before this time.

I also suggested that during the act of creative innovation it is helpful if a person is in a low state of arousal. The same principle might be also true for these centers of creativity. During starvation, war, persecution, and plagues, societies and the people who live in these societies are in a state of high arousal and often in a state where they are preparing for flight or fight. Throughout history the centers of creativity were relatively prosperous, without starvation, plagues, or war. Finally, although I previously mentioned that creativity is primarily motivated by endo-incentive drives, exo-incentive rewards might further encourage creative people. Thus, in these creative centers, people who were being creative were recognized, encouraged, and rewarded.

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