Eminem may not have known this when he wrote it, but his line about getting along with the voices inside his head is strangely apt. According to psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, the brains of creative geniuses and people with schizophrenia are similar in surprising ways. They both have an extremely active precuneus, or area that facilitates daydreaming and free association. The only difference is that unlike people with schizophrenia (and Stan), creative geniuses can distinguish between fantasy and reality.
On Sunday, as part of the 92nd Street Y’s Seven Days of Genius series, Kaufman, along with neuroscientist Heather Berlin and science rapper Baba Brinkman, discussed the neuroscience of creativity. During the discussion, they explained a bit about what happens in, say, Eminem’s brain when he freestyles versus when he raps from memory.
Here are some highlights:
On genius and consistency:
Kaufman: “It’s a great myth that creative geniuses are always consistently geniuses. A lot of creative geniuses are good marketers and high in narcissism, so it can allow them to appear as though they don’t have to work hard at all. But lots of aspects of the creative process resemble what everyday people go through when they’re trying to be creative.”
On being a screw-up:
Kaufman: “It is important to take risks. Most of Thomas Edison’s stuff is really crap. He actually had in his generation some of the worst ideas; he just happened to have one or two things that were the best of all time. So it’s okay to have lots of horrible stuff if you can eventually get it together.”
On Marshall Mathers:
Berlin: “He probably has more advanced connections in terms of his language areas. Over time, when you practice something, a cognitive skill or a motor skill, you’re developing connections in the brain. So I’m sure his brain would look slightly different.”
Kaufman: “I would predict that his dorsolateral prefrontal cortex might be smaller than average. That’s the area of the brain that filters curse words.”
On rappers’ creative states:
Berlin: “The medial prefrontal cortex has increased activation when they’re improvising compared to doing a memorized rap, which has to do with the internal generation of new ideas. There’s decreased activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which has to do with your sense of self. When that part turns down, you lose the filter that makes sure you conform to social norms, which allows for the free flow of information. That can be a really good thing, because on stage consciousness can get in the way.”
Quotes have been edited for length.