I feel like recently I have started to put my finger on that elusive ‘link’ between creativity and madness. I think that madness may boost some forms of creativity by freeing up associations that a sane person’s subconscious would not allow them to entertain. The main point is that hyperfrontality, saneness, or the opposite of madness, is restrictive and actually inhibits some forms of creativity and the dark horse associations that can underlie it.
For a long time I have been reading about the associations between creativity and madness. I agree with the notion that madness, schizophrenia, some forms of psychosis and some drug induced states may be conducive to a certain brand of creative energy, but I have not been quite able to understand exactly why. Coming home on the bus today, I related the concept of lateral inhibition to the problem, and in doing so, contrived a plausible solution that has begun to satisfy my curiosity about the subject.
The mind of someone with schizophrenia is altered in a way that makes them process things differently. For them there is less continuity over time. When we think, we hold a number of different concepts in our association areas at any one time. Neurons in association areas and especially in the PFC remain active for a few seconds at a time, allowing their content to persist. This makes it so that some concepts are sustained for extended periods allowing them to affect subsequent thoughts. This process keeps human thought on a tight and narrow track. What it really does is it allows people to have precise thoughts, where each thought is very closely related to the preceding thought. Clearly this is the only way that planning can happen, if you continue juggling the same concepts without dropping the ones that have just come into play. Just think, if more nodes of activation are conserved during the transition between the present thought and the next thought, the two will be very closely related conceptually. If a sequence of thoughts are very closely related, there is little room for wild additions. This keeps sane people from injecting new conceptualizations and non sequiturs. In schizophrenia these PFC and association area neurons cannot persist for as long (cannot maintain tonic firing) and thus the thought process is continually derailed by tangential (or more emotional and less cerebral) associations. Importantly, the driving element(s) may fall out of the equation and leave room for unexpected, unpredictable substitutions.
When you have a group of concepts that coactivate together and that keep each other mutually active, they inhibit “lateral” concepts and this puts specific limits on where the train of thought can go next. When you think about walking down the street and ducking to grab a dollar bill certain neurons responsible for representing the verb ducking laterally inhibit the noun duck corresponding to the bird. This makes it so that conceptualizing the word dollar bill in this context does not automatically evoke a picture of a duck bill. Lateral inhibition puts constraints on the associations that the unconscious can draw from. The brain does a fantastic job of inhibiting lateral concepts, which is good because it keeps us from making faulty associations. The drawback; however, is it limits the capacity to creatively insert a new concept in to that mix.
When you are constantly dropping association assemblies, when you continually cannot remember what you were just thinking, a new association may have the “relative momentum” to carry the train of thought off on a novel tangent. Because you may, now all at once, be missing the main theme, peripherally associated concepts can end up entering the mix - specifically because they may cohere well with what is left after the earlier ones have dropped out. So what you end up with, if you are very lucky, is something novel. They are based on true associations that are good, but are usually kept from entering the mix. Going from a dollar bill to a duck bill is absurd in some contexts but potentially innovatory in a poetic, artistic or comedic context.
Of course, creativity does not only come from madness, it can also come from its opposite. Higher-order thinking patterns can memorize creative algorithms and apply them when they deem appropriate. In these instances creativity is less spontaneous, more contrived, but also more “volitional.” Sometimes I catch myself consciously applying certain rules to my thought, attempting to infuse creativity into my thinking or attempting to think outside the box. As I see it there are two paths to creativity, more conscious ones and less conscious ones.
Both 1 and 2 represent a train of thoughts. In example 1 a normal person thinks about A, then B, then C. Even though A was the first thought, some of the neurons responsible for it are still firing and so it influences what comes after C. In other words, the thought that comes after C is influenced by the coactivation of A,B and C. Coactivity is indicated by the box encompassing A,B and C. Example 2 is supposed to represent someone who, because of schizophrenia, dementia or PFC damage cannot keep the third-to-last thought (A) active. Here the fourth thought, E, is not the same as D because it was not influenced by thought A at all, it is only influenced by B and C. Thus, if previous thoughts drop out of the equation early, attention is not as narrowly focused, possibly leading to the creation of new, novel thoughts.