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Who’s On First?

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

I hate to do this ~ I really do, but as long as Jeffrey Kluger keeps writing articles like the one he just did in TIME (April 23, 2012: “Shhh! Genius at Work”), I’ll feel compelled to respond. I have nothing against the guy personally. I don’t even know who he is. But dammit all if he doesn’t just get under my skin every time he puts pen to paper ~ or key to pixel, as the case may be. In a sentence, I take issue with his impoverished view of human beings. He is quickly becoming the populist journalist poster child of reductio hominem ad absurdum. Allow me to illustrate.

The blurb of his article, which is about how sleep helps creativity, reads, “New research explains why your brain may be at its most creative when you sleep.” Innocuous enough until you dig beneath the surface to the assumptions buried in that sentence. You are not creative, your brain is. Of course, we all know that a body part can’t be creative, so surely Mr. Kluger is speaking metaphorically. It’s like saying “My heart feels sad.” A heart doesn’t actually feel sad. In fact, it doesn’t feel at all. Why? Because it’s an it, and its don’t feel. Likewise, brains aren’t creative because its aren’t creative, at least not in the human sense of putting to use one’s imagination.

But here’s the kicker: Mr. Kluger was being literal. He actually means that your brain is creative. We’re not alarmed by this, of course, because over the last hundred years, we’ve slowly and irrevocably come to equate ourselves with our brains, a fundamental change in the understanding of human identity that appears almost to be complete. We’re about to cross a threshold, perhaps an irreversible one, where we become indistinguishable from it, and I offer Mr. Kluger’s article as the latest example (one of his many: see my post “The Evolution(s) of Man”) of this historical shift.

Kluger’s favorite body part, the prefrontal cortex, once again makes a prominent appearance. We learn that the “human brain is a loud and messy and stormy place,” and though “the brain’s prefrontal cortex keeps order” during the day, at night it “punches out” and our occipital lobes (the vision centers of our brains) take over, and they apparently like to behave badly.

That’s a highly abridged synopsis of an article that reads like scientific porn, detailing the complicated goings-on between our ears with a cool, yet campy reverence for all things science (“scientific porn” because it reduces human beings to objects, which is what all pornography does at its core. I tell my college students that porn isn’t bad because it’s naughty but because it reduces human beings to things, and you can’t love a thing, and as Christians, the call to love is the central mandate of life.)

Scientists are the priests of this disenchanted age, and their methods and tools make up the liturgy of their practice:

“Neuroscientists have a growing arsenal of tools — fMRIs, PET scans, high-density EEGs — to watch the nocturnal brain at work and see how it ticks throughout the sleep cycle. To the surprise and delight of researchers, that’s finally helping explain one of the mind’s most ineffable qualities: creativity.”

Apparently not so ineffable after all, as a paragraph later we find out that “Dreams are just thinking in a different biochemical state,” according to Harvard University psychologist Deirdre Barrett, and that “in the sleep state, the brain thinks much more visually and intuitively.” I hasten to add that Ms. Barrett, like Mr. Kluger, uses the phrase “the brain thinks” quite literally. And all this time I’ve thought that we do the thinking and use our brains for that function. I guess our legs walk, too, and our hands write.

Turns out, the source of human creativity, which Kluger tells us has been the object of a hunt that “has been going on as long as people have been creating,” lies no further than the “hard drive in your head.” Well, that and plenty of sleep. The brain’s capacity to “run multiple programs at once” while you sleep is what allows for such creative breakthroughs. One of the most important of those (programs) is one that is “analogous to ‘running a repair-and-cleaning program on your computer to defrag the hard drive” (we have another leading light, Harvard psychologist William Killgore, to thank for that whimsical simile).

And those occipital lobes mentioned earlier? They’re the culprit, along with a hormone called cortisol. The occipital lobes act as a sort of PowerPoint presentation of the conversations between your left and right hemispheres, and the “result of the visual centers’ mixing images at will” (whose will?) can lead to such creative breakthroughs as Mary Shelley’s invention of Frankenstein (a rather apt illustration), or Paul McCartney’s melody for “Yesterday,” or the sewing machine. And that’s where cortisol comes in. Cortisol “helps form new and imaginative ideas from the data that survives the defrag.” But then, why do all of these disparate entities work in concert to begin with? Because “the brain dislikes fragmentation, so it weaves narratives. And that, in turn, gives rise to novel thinking.” Did you catch that? Not only does the brain like and dislike, but it tells stories, too.

And just when we thought we’d finally figured out the holy grail of the source of our creativity, Kluger has to add one more ingredient into “the brain’s secret creative sauce”: Dopamine, levels of which “rise in pleasure centers of the brain both when we’re dreaming and when we’re being creative, [which] serves as a reward and reinforcement that keeps the dreams — and ideas — flowing.”

So there you have it. You and I have been thoroughly deconstructed, all the way down to our dreams. And we’ve learned in the process that our brains think, feel, like and dislike, create, reward, degfrag, tell stories… and if that isn’t quite enough, can also act as its own traffic-cop by keeping itself “focused on a particular conscious task [and screening] out thoughts that it decides you oughtn’t think at all” (that’s just a little frightening — our brains are telling us what to do). And what thoughts are those anyway, you might wonder? “Those deemed rationally inappropriate.” Naturally. But then, what are religious thoughts, and why doesn’t the brain keep those out, or the myriad other thoughts that don’t bend to rational inquiry? Details, details.

The most striking thing about this kind of writing (and this kind of thinking), which has become socially acceptable because it is so deceptively subtle, is how it interchanges the human person with one of our constituent parts — the brain — and furthermore, how the whole of who we are is at the behest of a single part. We are nothing more than biological hard drives, while the spirit, which has traditionally been summoned in questions about the source of creativity, has been silently excised from the conversation. We — as in my fellow humans and I, in our individual and collective physical and metaphysical identities — have become nothing more than our own GUIs; our faces and bodies (or rather, images thereof) merely the graphic user interface that people interact with. Facebook, anyone?

I tell my students as often as I can that our language determines our realities, not the other way around. So as long as articles like Kluger’s can be written in mainstream magazines with nary a tilt of the eyebrow from the reading public, our realities will slowly and irrevocably be altered. I don’t know about you, but I’m not taking that sitting down. In the immortal words of Marilynne Robinson (from her book, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought), “I miss civilization, and I want it back.”

You are more than your brain, and more than the sum of your parts. You have a spirit, a soul, that accounts for the creative impulse inside you. You are a mystery, finally and always. If we cease to believe that, we are no longer human.

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