Neuropolitics: “Openness” and Cortical Thickness

Brain anatomy–gyruses

I ran across an interesting study today, on openness, creativity, and cortical thickness.

The psychological trait of “openness”–that is, willingness to try new things or experiences–correlates with other traits like creativity and political liberalism. (This might be changing as cultural shifts are changing what people mean by “liberalism,” but it was true a decade ago and is still statistically true today.)

Researchers took a set of 185 intelligent people studying or employed in STEM, gave them personality tests intended to measure “openness,” and then scanned their brains to measure cortical thickness in various areas.

According to Citizendium, “Cortical thickness” is:

a brain morphometric measure used to describe the combined thickness of the layers of the cerebral cortex in mammalian brains, either in local terms or as a global average for the entire brain. Given that cortical thickness roughly correlates with the number of neurons within an ontogenetic column, it is often taken as indicative of the cognitive abilities of an individual, albeit the latter are known to have multiple determinants.

According to the article in PsyPost, reporting on the study:

“The key finding from our study was that there was a negative correlation between Openness and cortical thickness in regions of the brain that underlie memory and cognitive control. This is an interesting finding because typically reduced cortical thickness is associated with decreased cognitive function, including lower psychometric measures of intelligence,” Vartanian told PsyPost.”

Citizendium explains some of the issues associated with too thin or thick cortexs:

Typical values in adult humans are between 1.5 and 3 mm, and during aging, a decrease (also known as cortical thinning) on the order of about 10 μm per year can be observed [3]. Deviations from these patterns can be used as diagnostic indicators for brain disorders: While Alzheimer’s disease, even very early on, is characterized by pronounced cortical thinning[4], Williams syndrome patients exhibit an increase in cortical thickness of about 5-10% in some regions [5], and lissencephalic patients show drastic thickening, up to several centimetres in occipital regions[6].

Obviously people with Alzheimer’s have difficulty remembering things, but people with Williams Syndrome also tend to be low-IQ and have difficulty with memory.

Of course, the cortex is a big region, and it may matter specifically where yours is thin or thick. In this study, the thinness was found in the left middle frontal gyrus, left middle temporal gyrus, left superior temporal gyrus, left inferior parietal lobule, right inferior parietal lobule, and right middle temporal gyrus.

These are areas that, according to the study’s authors, have previously been shown to be activated during neuroimaging studies of creativity, and so the specific places you would expect to see some kind of anatomical difference in particularly creative people.

Hypothetically, maybe reduced cortical thickness, in some people, makes them worse at remembering specific kinds of experiences–and thus more likely to try new ones. For example, if I remember very strongly that I like Tomato Sauce A, and that I hate Tomato Sauce B, I’m likely to just keep buying A. But if every time I go to the store I only have a vague memory that there was a tomato sauce I really liked, I might just pick sauces at random–eventually trying all of them.

The authors have a different interpretation:

“We believe that the reason why Openness is associated with reduced cortical thickness is that this condition reduces the person’s ability to filter the contents of thought, thereby facilitating greater immersion in the sensory, cognitive, and emotional information that might otherwise have been filtered out of consciousness.”

So, less meta-brain, more direct experience? Less worrying, more experiencing?

The authors note a few problems with the study (for starters, it is hardly a representative sample of either “creative” people nor exceptional geniuses, being limited to people in STEM,) but it is still an interesting piece of data and I hope to see more like it.

 

If you want to read more about brains, I recommend Kurzweil’s How to Create a Mind, which I am reading now. It goes into some detail on relevant brain structures, and how they work to create memories, recognize patterns, and let us create thought. (Incidentally, the link goes to Amazon Smile, which raises money for charity; I selected St. Jude’s.)

Advertisements

What Mental Traits does the Arctic Select for?

Apropos Friday’s conversation about the transition from hunting to pastoralism and the different strategies hunters employ in different environments, I got to thinking about how these different food-production systems could influence the development of different “intelligences,” or at least mental processes that underlie intelligence.

Ingold explains that in warm climes, hunter-gatherers have many food resources they can exploit, and if one resource starts running low, they can fairly easily switch to another. If there aren’t enough yams around, you can eat melons; if not enough melons, squirrels; if no squirrels, eggs. I recall a study of Australian Aborigines who agreed to go back to hunter-gatherering for a while after living in town for several decades. Among other things (like increased health,) scientists noted that the Aborigines increased the number of different kinds of foods they consumed from, IIRC, about 40 per week to 100.

By contrast, hunters in the arctic are highly dependent on exploiting only a few resources–fish, seals, reindeer, and perhaps a few polar bears and foxes. Ingold claims that there are (were) tribes that depended largely on only a few major hunts of migrating animals (netting hundreds of kills) to supply themselves for the whole year.

If those migrating change their course by even a few miles, it’s easy to see how the hunters could miss the herds entirely and, with no other major species around to exploit, starve over the winter.

Let’s consider temperate agriculture as well: the agriculturalist can store food better than the arctic hunter (seal meat does not do good things in the summer,) but lacks the tropical hunter-gatherer’s flexibility; he must stick to his fields and keep working, day in and day out, for a good nine months in a row. Agricultural work is more flexible than assembly line work, where your every minute is dictated by the needs of the factory, but a farmer can’t just wander away from his crops to go hunt for a months just because he feels like it, nor can he hope to make up for a bad wheat harvest by wandering into his neighbor’s fields and picking their potatoes.

Which got me thinking: clearly different people are going to do better at different systems.

But first, what is intelligence? Obviously we could define it in a variety of ways, but let’s stick to reasonable definitions, eg, the ability to use your brain to achieve success, or the ability to get good grades on your report card.

A variety of mental traits contribute to “intelligence,” such as:

  1. The ability to learn lots of information. Information is really useful, both in life and on tests, and smarter brains tend to be better at storing lots and lots of data.
  2. Flexible thinking. This is the ability to draw connections between different things you’ve learned, to be creative, to think up new ideas, etc.
  3. Some form of Drive, Self Will, or long-term planning–that is, the ability to plan for your future and then push yourself to accomplish your goals. (These might more properly be two different traits, but we’ll keep them together for now.)

Your stereotypical autistic, capable of memorizing large quantities of data but not doing much with them, has trait #1 but not 2 or 3.

Artists and musicians tend to have a lot of trait #2, but not necessarily 1 or 3 (though successful artists obviously have a ton of #3)

And an average kid who’s not that bright but works really hard, puts in extra hours of effort on their homework, does extra credit assignments, etc., has a surfeit of #3 but not much 2 or 1.

Anyway, it seems to me like the tropical hunting/gathering environment, with many different species to exploit, would select for flexible thinking–if one food isn’t working out, look for a different one. This may also apply to people from tropical farming/horticulturalist societies.

By contrast, temperate farming seems more likely to select for planning–you can’t just wander off or try to grow something new in time for winter if your first crop doesn’t work out.

Many people have noted that America’s traditionally tropical population (African Americans) seems to be particularly good at flexible thinking, leading to much innovation in arts and music. They are not as talented, though, at Drive, leading to particularly high highschool dropout rates.

America’s traditionally rice-farming population (Asians,) by contrast, has been noted for over a century for its particularly high drive and ability to plan for the future, but not so much for contributions to the arts. East Asian people are noted for their particularly high IQ/SAT/PISA scores, despite the fact that China lags behind the West in GDP and quality of life terms. (Japan, of course, is a fully developed country.) One potential explanation for this is that the Chinese, while very good at working extremely hard, aren’t as good at flexible thinking that would help spur innovation. (I note that the Japanese seem to do just fine at flexible thinking, but you know, the Japanese aren’t Chinese and Japan isn’t China.)

(I know I’m not really stating anything novel.) But the real question is:

What kind of mental traits might pastoralism, arctic pastoralism, or arctic hunting select for?

Creativity and Psychoticism

I was discussing the research for the AIDS and California post with a friend the other day, and they reacted with what I recall as shock and horror, protesting that San Francisco was home to Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs (formerly,) and all kinds of fabulous innovations. I thought about this for a moment, and replied something to the effect of, “Creatives are Psychotic.”

Now, I do not mean that creative people are stark raving bonkers and lost connection with reality, nor that they are violent, dangerous, malicious, or anything like that. I do mean that their minds do not function the same as everyone else’s.

Normal people, as I’ve mentioned before, (seem to have) neurological feedback loops that make them imitate other people. This is deep in the wiring of the brain; it’s crucial for things like learning to talk. People who imitate other people are normal, functional humans; people who fail to imitate others generally have severe life impairments. Understanding how these feedback loops work and influence our decision-making processes is crucial, IMO, to understanding the vast majority of humans.

But creative people, by definition, are not imitating others.

There are two obvious ways to be creative:

  1. Not know what other people know/think about something. Therefore, you are completely unable to have any conformist thoughts about it.
  2. Not care what other people know/think about something.

Most people who don’t know what other people know/think are small children, and small children are wonderfully creative. To get the same effect in an adult, in any useful sort of way, your best bet is to look for outsiders. Outsiders aren’t deeply tied into and invested in your way of thinking and doing things, and so can easily see things you’ve overlooked. I tend to think of Jayman’s creativity, for example, as springing at least partially from his semi-outsideriness, giving him a perspective other people lack. (Jay, if I’m wrong, forgive me.)

Creatives who don’t care what other people know see past what everyone else sees. They see new ways to combine things, new ideas, new stuff other people haven’t tried yet.

Normal people either cannot see this stuff, or when they do see it, their neuro feedback loops punish them for having deviant wrongthought.

The normal person experiences reality like a fish experiences water. A creative person is a fish with wings.

A normal person cannot escape from reality. They struggle to produce novelty because their brains only like doing things that are already being done. Normal is their programming.

Creatives lack some aspect of this programming. The normal feedback loops aren’t there. They are disconnected from reality. Not totally, of course–if they were totally disconnected, they’d probably just walk in front of a car and then we’d never hear from them again. They are usually connected enough to function, to eat and sleep and not get run over, but to be frank, all of that normal stuff is often a struggle for them.

Paul Erdős comes immediately to mind. Yes, mathematicians are creatives. This is obvious.

From the Wikipedia:

“Possessions meant little to Erdős; most of his belongings would fit in a suitcase, as dictated by his itinerant lifestyle. Awards and other earnings were generally donated to people in need and various worthy causes. He spent most of his life as a vagabond, traveling between scientific conferences, universities and the homes of colleagues all over the world. He earned enough in stipends from universities as a guest lecturer, and from various mathematical awards to fund his travels and basic needs; money left over he used to fund cash prizes for proofs of “Erdős problems” (see below). He would typically show up at a colleague’s doorstep and announce “my brain is open”, staying long enough to collaborate on a few papers before moving on a few days later. In many cases, he would ask the current collaborator about whom to visit next.”

Just one case; you may provide many others. Artists who cut off their ears or seem obsessed with vaginas; rock stars with their fiery careers and often spectacular ends; scientists or engineers obsessed with tiny, obscure bits of the world that no one else pays attention to, like eels or gyroscopes.

For San Francisco to be both the source of great technological breakthroughs and improvements, and a place where a good percentage of the population decides to just throw social norms out the window, heh, norms, who needs the damn things? seems entirely sensible. Sometimes not caring what other people think leads to good ideas, sometimes to bad ideas, sometimes to really strange but ultimately neutral ideas.

Therefore:

  1. If you want creativity and innovation in your society, you have to tolerate some crazy, socially-deviant behavior from your creatives.
  2. A certain percentage of “outsiders” will probably help maximize society’s creative output.
  3. Creatives are not always very good at taking care of themselves. If a peripatetic mathematician arrives suddenly on your doorstep, it’s probably best for humanity if you let him sleep on your couch and do math on your table. Society at large may want to keep this in mind, as well.
  4. Don’t believe *everything* creatives say. Sometimes they have great breakthroughs; sometimes they just don’t see the underlying logic for doing things the normal way.

 

This was not originally my idea–I think it was Bruce Charlton‘s. If not, I apologize.