Tag Archives: Brain

aimee mann

Aimee Mann’s Head Is Filled With Sharp Tools.

A few things you should know about Aimee Mann: She boxes. Comedians and twelve step programs are her great inspiration. While her songs might lead you to believe otherwise, Aimee Mann isn’t sad. She guest-starred as a cleaning lady on Portlandia. The word brain came out of her mouth 19 times during our conversation at Q Division studios in Somerville. She is 51.

Q: So, I think you know that I want to talk to you about creativity and aging.

A: Aging. That word aging seems to have certain connotations.

Q: I know.

A: Aging sort of implies decay.

Q: Right, and that’s real. Our bodies are going to break down and die. But we can also think and talk about aging in terms of the passage of time.

A: Yeah it’s interesting because I feel like it does sort of have two meanings. I would say my relationship to what I do has changed over time, but only in a positive way, you know? Like, really in a positive way.

Q: Tell me about that.

A: I think that two things happen as you do something a lot. One, your brain becomes acclimated to the specific kinds of tasks that you ask it to perform and begins to perform them more automatically for you. And the second is that you learn how to make smarter choices and shortcuts, so that you’re more efficient. I almost feel like it’s exponentially easier and more efficient to be creative, because a lot of creativity is generating ideas and then stepping back – well, this is how it works for me — generating ideas and then stepping back and being objective and editing your ideas.  For me this task would be thinking of the thing you want to say and arranging it in a form that rhymes. That would be one big task that I require of my brain. And if your brain is closer to doing that automatically, then you’re already ahead of the game.


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Big Bang Theory

Here’s a burning question: how do you start a song?

Some people stare out the window and wait for an idea to arrive. This can take months, according to numerous reputable songwriters, so here’s hoping the view, at least, rocks.

Other people get stoned, switch on the tv, and strum guitar. Eventually, or occasionally, or one time ten years ago, they stumble on a killer riff.

I know a songwriter who comes up with song ideas while walking the trails near her home, another who fills notebooks with words that are like signposts directing him to the music, and another who always begins with a mood. She conjures moods with a chord pattern, a hurried or languid tempo, bright or dusky sounds, and the mood invariably suggests a story or a character or a memory or an emotion that grows clearer and more concrete until she knows what the song is about.

Then there are artists for whom the whole question is moot. Kristin Hersh doesn’t make up songs; she channels them. I think that must be a blessing and a curse. The idea of songs materializing fully formed is awfully attractive from a hard labor standpoint. It’s damn romantic, too, the notion of annointment. But the chosen few are literally out of control, whipped into service by a freakishly domineering muse. Sort of redefines too much of a good thing.

I decided that I needed to go away by myself to see if I could start a song. A long weekend visiting my father in Los Angeles was already on the calendar, so I booked a week in an old rock cottage in Joshua Tree, the most magical place I’ve been. I figured if I could find inspiration anywhere, it was here.

Jen had some advice in advance of my trip.

You know about the two sides of your brain, right? One of them thinks about things like websites and math and the other side does what people call the creative. I think of it as the file cabinet-y side and the swirly side. There are some people who are always on the swirly side. They trust in the cosmos. It’s hard for them to pay the phone bill. When the rain is coming down on them, they’re looking up and thinking nothing, just letting it rain. But you, you see the rain coming and you observe it. You analyze it and figure out how it forms rivers. What I want you to practice before going away is looking up at the rain and not thinking about it, getting your gaze away from the analytical.

When you’re being creative, forward motion is more important than getting something right. I used to write with the tape recorder on, or nearby, and I suggest you do this. I could feel when something good was happening and I’d try to play it as many times as I could. It’s not that I thought it was good, I felt it. It’s like running after a ball that’s going down the street, but as soon as you think about the ball, it vanishes.



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Something From Nothing

Where do ideas come from? The writer Amy Tan has some thoughts.


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howard gardner

How Does Howard Gardner Spell Creative Longevity? N-E-O-T-E-N-Y

Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist, is the Hobbs professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. We spoke in his office on campus.

Q: You believe that creativity can be learned and cultivated. You don’t buy into the myth of an individual being endowed with a gift –

A: I think that’s nonsense.

Q: Have we, as a society, conveyed that message effectively?

A: I would say that, in fact, America is probably where creativity is the strongest message in the society as a whole. I would say on Wall St, in Silicon Valley, and Hollywood – I mean that’s the message. Schools don’t particularly promote it, but it’s less important here than if you were in China 30 years ago where the message didn’t exist at all. I wrote a book 15 years ago about creativity in China and the United States, and I argued that – it sounds kind of simplistic, but I did manage to make a book out of it, which nobody read — that it’s important both to have skills and to be able to go beyond the skills. And the problem in America was people thought they were creative but they had no skills, and nobody was interested in what they were doing. And people in China had tremendously developed skills, but they were afraid to part from those skills. And what I learned from going to China was that it didn’t matter which order it occurred in. I had thought that you’ve got to play first, and then you pick up the skills. But in China, if you could develop skills and the message goes out to use those flexibly, people are good at it.

Q: So do you feel that in this country our emphasis on individualism is an asset when it comes to –

A: It has been an asset because creativity has been largely individual. I mean the good question, which you’ll undoubtedly run into, is to what extent is that changing because of the digital media or because we’re all in touch with everyone? 100 years ago, the assumption was that creativity was a germ that came out of somebody’s mind. And that may be much less true nowadays, for the reasons I just stated.  I think we’ve been successful for two reasons. One, we’ve had a frontier which then became a cyber frontier, and things like Hollywood, which is it’s own kind of frontier, and Silicon Valley. And because we’ve allowed immigrants. The flowering of creativity that occurred in the sciences and in other areas mid-century was when you had Europeans coming here and they wedded the theoretical orientation, the systematic thinking of Europe, to empiricism, which is what we do in Anglo-American societies. And that contributed enormously to all the Nobel Prize winners. I mean if you look at how many people who are purely Americans get Nobel Prizes, almost nothing. They’re almost all Italian American, Chinese American, Jewish American. And so certainly one thing that everybody who studies creativity will tell you is you don’t get it when you have little islands. This may be the Japanese problem. I mean England was an island, but it owned the world.


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It’s Getting Better, and Worse, All the Time

Shelley Carson is a research associate and lecturer in the department of psychology at Harvard University. She wrote  ”Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life.” We spoke on the telephone.

Q: How do you define creativity?

A: Good question. So researchers in general — and I know you’re coming at this from the arts angle, and I’m coming at it from the research angle —  researchers suggest that creativity contains two components. First is originality and novelty. And the second thing is that it has to be either useful or adaptive in some way. In other words, either the product or the idea has to serve a purpose.

Q: How do you measure creativity?

A: Good question again. There’s a number of different ways to measure creativity. As researchers we’ve found that the best way to do it is to come at it from multiple angles. The most frequent way of measuring creativity is through divergent thinking tasks. Are you familiar with divergent and convergent thinking?

Q: I am.

A: Okay. So divergent thinking tasks are one of the things that are used in brain scans, when you’re doing neuroimaging, and it’s typically used as a measure of trait creativity. There are several different subscales of the divergent thinking tasks. They measure fluency, which is the number of responses you can come up with to a given prompt, they measure originality, which is the statistical infrequency of a person’s response, they measure flexibility, or the ability to change from one category of response to another, and they also measure elaboration, how much detail do you give to your answers. Another way of measuring creativity would be through interest or achievement inventory. So for instance, I’ve devised a measure called The Creative Achievement Questionnaire or the CAQ, and it’s fairly widely used now around the world. Basically it asks you to check off any accomplishments you have in 10 different domains. It begins with “I have taken lessons in this area.” Basically it’s a hierarchy of things that become more and more exclusive as you go through each domain or area of creativity. Then you get a total score for that. And then another way that creativity is measured is actually in the lab, having people make a creative object. The two that are most often used would be a collage or what’s called an American haiku, which is a non-rhyming five-line poem. And then these in turn are rated by professionals in the field for creativity, usually a panel of three to five people will measure it.


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