Monday, February 10, 2014

Tracking Creativity: the Default Mode Network

I attended with great interest the symposium "The Default Mode Network in Aesthetics and Creativity"  which took place on February 7 at the Italian Academy of Columbia University. My expectations were to find leads to the biological definition of human creativity and also to learn about methodologies to identify creative thinking and "measure" it; methodologies which I could have used or at least reference in my PhD research "Form Mind Body Space Time". I also hoped that the symposium presented content across different art and science practices from an interdisciplinary perspective. 
The symposium was opened by the introductory remarks of the two conference organizers: David Freedberg, the Pierre Matisse Professor of the History of Art and Director of The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America of Columbia University, and Gabrielle Starr, the Seryl Kushner Dean of the College of Arts and Science and Professor of English: Professor Freedberg mentioned how the DMN is a relatively new area of studies in neuroscience and himself has not heard of its relevance until very recently; the prominence and almost sudden popularity of the related research prompted him to organize the symposium.

Randy Buckner, principal Investigator of the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory (CNL) and Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and member of the Center for Brain Science, opened the morning session with "The Evolution of the Default Mode Network". The presentation started with the ambitious question: “What Makes Us Human” and explored the evolution of brain in primates; particularly emphasis was in the role of memories and linking past present and future in the sense of self.
Randy Buckner "The Evolution of the Default Mode Network"

 Nathan Spreng followed with "The default network and self-generated thought: component processes and dynamic control". Spreng is assistant professor and the director of the Laboratory of Brain and Cognition in the Department of Human Development at Cornell University; his presentation focused on the DMN in memories and social cognition as well as the complexity of brain architecture in network interactions.

From Nathan Spreng 's "The default network and self-generated thought: component processes and dynamic control"

Yvette Sheline, Professor of Psychiatry, Radiology and Neurology at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, ended the morning session with “The Default Mode Network in Major Depression: How fMRI Sudies Inform Anatomical, Negativity-Bias and Inter-Network Dysfunction Theories”. The title was very explanatory of the presentation which focused on the relationships between DMN and major depressive disorders (MDD).
Creativity was finally addressed in this presentation: mainly in its relationship with depression. Sheline showed several excerpts on depression from several illustrious “creative” individuals, including Samuel Johnson, Ludwig van Beethoven, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, William Styron, Kay Redfield Jamison.

DMN, MDD and creativity, from Yvette Sheline
MDD, PTSD and CBT from Yvette Sheline's presentation
The presentation also included case studies on post traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) and the effects of different treatments on the brain imaging on subjects affected by the disorders, branching from pharmacological treatment to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

The afternoon session was opened by Bill Kelley, Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth University, presenting “Finding the Self? Insights from the Default Mode Network”. Kelley’s presentation included several images from brain imaging techniques, mainly from functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) — representative of his research on memory and the brain. We learned about Kelley’s research on the biology of memories as well his collaborations with social psychology; of his main research themes is the influence of cognitive, emotional experiences and memories on individuals’ sense of “self”.
Slides from Bill Kelley's presentation

The following presentation titled "What we talk about when we talk about the default-mode network " was a collaborative effort of Daniel Margulies (Professor and Group Leader of the Max Planck Research Group: Neuroanatomy & Connectivity, Germany) and Felicity Callard (Senior Lecturer in Social Science for Medical Humanities at Durham University, UK) . The presentation main questions were “What and where is the default mode network?” “What are the different methods used to probe and delineate it?”. Mind wandering was highlighted as a “core function” of the DMN.

Snapshots from Callard and Margulies' presentation
Rex Jung, Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico and research scientist at the Mind Research Network, followed with the presentation "Networks of Creativity" which I found the most relevant to the symposium theme. He asked, in a humanistic tone, the fundamental question (which was not clearly stated in the previous presentations) “What is creativity?” and answered with the four stages "preparation incubation illumination verification" reminiscent of the early investigations by Henri Poincaré and Graham Wallas. Junk talked about creativity as an evolutionary process and characterized as a mental state where the cognitive domain of knowledge meets the deliberate and spontaneous processing mode. Differently from the majority of speakers —who focused only on fMRI— Jung proposes a multimodal imaging techniques where fMRI is used in conjunction with proton spectroscopy, structural Magnetic Resonance Imaging (sMRI), diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) and EEG. Important areas of investigation were also addressed, such as localization of creativity in the brain and its biological characterization and measurement of creativity from divergent thinking. Jung also emphasized how creativity is a complex cognitive construct involving several neural networks and how it differs from intelligence.
Rex Jung's "Networks of Creativity"
 Edward Vessel,  assistant research scientist at the Center for Brain Imaging at New York University and one of the symposium organizers, concluded with “Art Reaches Within”. His presentation asked the question “What is an aesthetic experience?” He replied with several quotes including  “The beautiful and the sublime taste” by Burke (1757) and "Beauty is the pleasure we attribute to an object" by G. Santayana (1896).
Snaposhots from Vessel's presentation "Art Reaches Within"