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the occupational hazards of an infovore

Even with all the different sorts of computers around today... the human brain is still the standard bearer for information processing. Sure, some computer systems are better at crunching numbers and others are better at sorting through mountains of data. But when it comes to formulating new ideas... the brain trumps all other competitors. Though -- as the Health Show’s Greg Dahlmann reports -- this advantage comes with its own drawbacks.
(originally aired January 22, 2004)
7:02 | listen: RealAudio · mp3

Everyday the brain wakes up to find itself swimming in a sea of information. It’s soaked with everything from primary sensory info like sights and sounds... to internally generated emotions and memories... to new ideas from other people.

{SC: so much info} :09
“There’s so much information out there that our senses can perceive, there’s no way we could process all of it. So, at various levels it’s filtered out.”

Dr. Shelley Carson is a lecturer in psychology at Harvard. She says one of the filters we use is called latent inhibition. It’s our ability to sub-consciously tune out things we don’t consider important... like that billboard you see everyday while driving into work... or the song that keeps repeating on the office Muzak. It’s a valuable mental tool... and people with low levels of latent inhibition can encounter real trouble. Dr. Carson says schizophrenia is marked by the inability to filter the world this way. But having a low cover charge at the brain’s door doesn’t affect everyone that way. In fact... for some people... it could be an important component of their genius.

In a recent study of Harvard undergrads with high I-Qs, Shelley Carson and her research partner Jordan Peterson found that the highly creative people they looked at also had low levels of latent inhibition.

{SC: schizo pattern} :06
“So, they basically had the pattern profile of psychosis prone or schizophrenic people.”

And, yeah, that’s a little weird. Why does this low level of latent inhibition push some people into mental illness... while allowing other people to flourish?

Dr. Carson is trying to answer that question... and she’s worked up an early model to explain what might be going on. She cautions it still needs to be tested, but here it goes. People with low levels of latent inhibition have access to a lot more informational building blocks than the typical person. If you have a good working memory and the intellectual capacity to keep track of all these blocks while re-arranging them... then it’s likely you’ll be a highly creative person. But...

{SC: working model} :15
“If you have all of these pieces of stimuli and information bits floating around in your mind and you have less intellectual capacity, say, a lower IQ, then you might tend to be overwhelmed by this information.”

It’s just too much for the brain to handle... and it falters. Harvard’s Shelley Carson says that’s not to say being really smart means you won’t encounter mental illness. Nobel prize winner John Nash – of Beautiful Mind fame – was extraordinarily intelligent... but still suffered from schizophrenia. Dr. Carson says Nash’s intelligence probably provided him with some sort of ability to cope with his condition... it just didn’t make him bulletproof.

But when that balance between low latent inhibition and high I-Q is right... Shelley Carson says the brain can do fantastic things.

{SC: focus and flow} :28
“People, when they get into states often associated with creativity - the state of “flow” or being “in the zone,” tend to report being able to focus while at the same time being able aware of multitudes of things around them. So, this might be the optimal place for the highly creative person to be, both able to focus and able to have all that information at their finger tips, so to speak, in their cognitive work space.”

(sound collage)

This creative sweet spot is like being able to fluidly mix a collage of different sounds in your brain. Say, you imagine a street scene... with bustling sidewalks and the background hum of a city... now mix in birds... and a jack hammer... ok... less of the jack hammer... but more of the birds... now maybe we should toss in a motorcycle. It’s this ability to focus in on one part of the whole, while keeping the overall picture in mind that is a hallmark of being “in the zone.” And it could be for anything you might imagine... a painting, a symphony, a model describing particle physics. The creative person is only limited by the number of informational building blocks available to them... and their ability to manipulate them.

(sound down)

Shelley Carson is currently conducting a study to look at ways of stimulating greater creativity in people. Scientists already know that certain substances can affect a person’s level of latent inhibition. Anti-psychotic drugs prescribed to schizophrenics increase latent inhibition... helping people filter out some of the bothersome mental noise. Other substances – such as alcohol – have been shown to have the short-term ability to lower latent inhibition... allowing more information to flow into the brain. Dr. Carson says if scientists can more precisely figure out which brain chemicals are pushing which buttons... they might be able to more effectively treat people with mental illness... or even provide some sort of preventative treatment to highly creative people who are at risk.

This fine line between mental illness and flourishing creativity is most likely drawn somewhere in our DNA. Creativity is probably the result of a collection of many genes. One subset might affect levels of latent inhibition, another intelligence, and another the ability to coordinate it all. These genes are like cards in a deck we carry around as a population. Everyone gets dealt a hand with some combination of possible genes. One person might get a sort of royal flush... a hand full of genetic cards that make him or her brilliantly creative. Other people won’t be so lucky. Shelley Carson says the bad luck is an inevitable, but necessary, part of the game.

{SC: ev bio} :31
“If it is, in fact, true that people who are at risk for certain types of mental illness share common genes with people who are highly creative, then the various manifestations, you’ll see that in the population. Some people will end up being highly creative, some people will be at the other end and be mentally ill. And so the mental illness may the price that we have to pay to keep creativity in the gene pool.”

Dr. Carson says the plight of people prone to mental illness isn’t made any easier by our modern culture. The barrage of information has become almost inescapable. The upside is that the creative info-addicts in our society have that many more blocks with which to build. And recent surges in creative products like patents indicate the rate of construction is furious. Still, Shelley Carson says we all hit the wall eventually.

{SC: overload} :18
“There’s a limit as to how much you can be processing at one time. And anyone, even a genius, when they overload are going to become disorganize, confused and need a break... if not in an asylum, in an easy chair.”

Of course... the brain is fantastically adaptable. What might seem like a torrent of information to one generation, may seem like a trickle to the next. But Dr. Carson says our hardware has to max out eventually... and when it does...

{SC: brain extension} :05
“Maybe we’ll be able to hook our brains up to a computer someday... who knows what we’ll be able to do then.”

For the Health Show... I’m Greg Dahlmann.



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