Do you know what creativity is? Can you measure it? Last week the well-known neuroscientist Dr. Ysbrand van der Werf chose the setting of Utrecht University Hall (a former Chapter House from 1462) to give an inspiring lecture on the subject. As soon as he started, van der Werf grabbed the attention of everyone in the packed room by showing a live experiment with FaceReader.
A FaceReader webcam was aimed at Ruud Abma, one of the coordinators of the Studium Generale lectures. The entire room filled with laughter when Dr. Abma enlarged several facial expressions, such as happiness, anger, and sadness. Van der Werf explained that measuring facial expressions is only one way to gain insight. By combining facial expression analysis with physiological measurements and brain activity measurements, scientists get a quite complete overview of responses to stimuli.
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When the lecture continued, van der Werf zoomed in on sleep research and explained that in dreams people construct the most creative images. He further explained that sleeping can be very beneficial in learning and memory tasks. A couple of times he referred to the MRI scans he makes to gain more insight in brain processes. How informative these scans can be, they aren’t sufficient to explain creativity. For him, creativity is about the creator and the person interpreting the things created.
For example, view the video of 2013’s winner of the Art of Neuroscience award. Isn’t it beautiful? The next winner will be chosen March 11th. I will certainly check the website again. This kind of product can be viewed as a creative flow in which an artist turned a scientific measurement into a beautiful piece of art, right? How then to measure the flow of creativity? Can one person create more beautiful images than the other? How to influence this creativity? Practice, practice, practice? Brain activity therapy? Van der Werf indicates that in this research area there is still a lot to discover.
A recent project van der Werf is working on, involves the writer Arnon Grunberg, a notable Dutch writer. A team of scientists has measured the emotions, brain activity, and subjective feelings of Grunberg as he created a new book. They turned his study into a living lab. Now that they can analyze the measurements, the scientists aim to answer questions such as ‘When he writes about anger, does he feel the emotion himself?’ and ‘What factors influence the creative flow?’.
In a second phase, a selection of readers will be measured as they read his book in controlled circumstances. In the third phase, the reactions of thousands of readers will be measured, for example by using a special app for reading it in the form of an e-book. In this experiment, you see that van der Werf not only aims to measure the creator, but also the interpreters.