“When I seek out a flow state, I seek out dimensions of consciousness that to me are more pleasing.” – Professor Arne Dietrich
Arne Dietrich knows more about the mechanics of the brain than almost anyone. He studies the neuroscience of consciousness, and has led groundbreaking research into flow states and creativity. He approaches this field from what he calls a “hardcore scientific, materialist, mechanistic” angle. There is much spoken about when it comes to consciousness, that Arne has no time for. If there is no evidence, the idea is worthless. If you pose a theory on consciousness, the brain or anything at all, you have a large burden of proof. Show me the evidence. This is his view.
But are there areas of life (consciousness, intuition, states of being) that just don’t fit the current scientific model of enquiry? Do we always need evidence and proof?
I suppose that is what separates the scientific materialist from those who put more weight on personal experience. Some things might always be “unproveable” but does that invalidate them? Does personal experience render something as truth for that person, and if so why is evidence required?
In this 45 minute interview Arne and I both had a great time discussing consciousness and the brain. Our conversation spans the mechanics of the brain to Sufi’s seeking altered states, hunting flow states, meditation and psychedelics.
Arne surprised me with how he fielded questions about esoteric and ephemeral concepts, such as meditation, shamanic ritual and psychedelics. I have respect for his stance and appreciate the intellectual rigour in which he approaches all topics. Listen in to find out how a ruthlessly sharp and scientific mind sees the world.
What you will learn in this episode:
• Some of the “toxic theories” of neuroscience- including right brain/left brain and the “we only use 10% of our brain” theory
• What Arne thinks of the “weirdness of quantum mechanics”
• Does a tree have consciousness?
• What is the validity of personal experience over scientific “fact”
• The “burden of proof” on anyone who expounds theories on consciousness
• Arne slamming the “gut brain” theory
• Where do morals and intuition come from?
• How does meditation correlate to flow states?
“Right brain theory of creativity. That, in my opinion, is an idea that should be treated like nuclear waste and buried for a million years. It’s just dumb.”
“The brain is an extremely expensive machine. It weighs only 2% of your body but costs about 20-25% of all of your resources.”
“This idea of 10% (use of the brain) violates basic principles of biology and neuroscience and evolution.“ [Tweet This]
“In my personal life, I also hunt flow states almost religiously, if that’s the right phrase to use.” [Tweet This]
“To me, an altered state of consciousness, almost by definition of neural activity, is the lowest state of activity. That does not necessarily mean that this is not something healthy or unhealthy. There’s no value judgement to this. It’s a purely mechanistic approach to understanding alter states mechanistically in the brain.”
“When I seek out a flow state, I seek out dimensions of consciousness that to me are more pleasing.” [Tweet This]
“Humans have discovered a variety of ways, drugs of course the almost obvious ones, to induce altered states.” [Tweet This]
“The weirdness of quantum mechanics and sort of the parallels that are being drawn to the weird events of conscious experience are very entertaining, very interesting.”
“Does a tree have consciousness? No, you need a network to compute it. That means you need a computational machine – you need a brain.”
“You should open your mind and you should keep it as open as you can. But you should not open your mind so far that your brain falls out.”
“So if you wanna claim that consciousness exists somewhere else, let’s say, I dunno, in a salamander… then of course you have to support it somehow before I spend time thinking about it.”
“Like no other field of Psychology, the study of creativity is beset with nebulous concepts, combustible propositions, and myopic theorizing, to say nothing at all a vacuous fluff out there.”
- 1:38 How Arne ended up being a neuroscientist
- 3:53 Specialising in the “science of consciousness”, Aha moments, insight events.
- 6:45 Toxic theories abounding the “science” of consciousness- right/left brain and 10% brain usage
- 11:02 Definition of consciousness
- 12:00 Altered states of consciousness are lower states.. transient hypofrontality
- 18:05 Senoi tribe in Malaysia. Dreams and altered states.. shamanistic ritual or psychedelic substances.. Sufi’s
- 20:30 Extreme sports and altered states
- 21:51 Quantum mechanics and altered states of consciousness
- 24:23 Does a tree have consciousness?
- 25:27 Are beings “interconnected” by collective consciousness?
- 27:40 What’s the validity of personal experience over scientific proof?
- 27: 52 How does a scientist view “synchronicity”?
- 29:35 Would you forget being a scientist and come to the jungle and take some ayahuasca with me?
- 31:12 Arne’s thought on the “gut-brain theory”- it comes down to computational complexity
- 33:12 What does intuition mean to Arne?
- 34:19 Where do our morals come from?
- 37:10 Does the brain generate consciousness or is it a transceiver of consciousness?
- 39:05 Talking about Flow states- What the connection is between meditation or meditative states and flow states?
- 41:14 Does training for flow or meditation enhance the other and vice versa?
- 41:58 Creativity: why don’t we know much about it? how can we be more creative?
- 49:48 GAMMA and THETA brain waves, and creative states.. I get accused of making a “false category formation” and Im proud of it. 😉
- 53:52 What would Arne do if he could change one thing in the world?
How Creativity Happens in the Brain By Arne Dietrich
Rise of Superman,Steve Kotler
Jiro: Welcome to the Flowstate Performance Podcast. I’m Jiro Taylor, and today I’m talking to Arne Dietrich who’s a professor of cognitive neuroscience, and the author of “How Creativity Happens in the Brain”. Welcome, Arne.
Arne: Hi, welcome.
Jiro: How are you today?
Arne: I’m alright.
Jiro: Excellent! Cool, so I’ve been reading through your website today and I love the way you describe what you do. You called yourself a “Tour Guide into the Bizarre World of Brain Cells and Human Behaviour. “
Arne: Yeah, I suppose it is a bizarre world because it brings two things together, at least in my case, that people do not usually associate with one another. These are sort of ephemeral mental events, like creativity out of states of consciousness. The other thing is really hard core, no frills, mechanistic view of how that happens in the brain. Very few people bring these two things together. It is a bizarre world for many people to see these experiences people have and put into a language that sounds so scientific. It is scientific.
Jiro: Absolutely, absolutely! So, talk to me. Set the scene for me, how did you end up becoming a neuroscientist?
Arne: That was early on in life. I was a teenager and I noticed a knack that I had for watching people, understanding people and looking at them, really in a way that would understand, underlying themes, mechanisms, causes of behaviour. So I studied psychology, naturally, and I also have a very scientific mind. So I gravitated naturally to what you could call the most mechanistically, scientific branch of psychology- and that is neuroscience. Or the intersection where psychology and neuroscience come together. I then entered, got my PhD in a neuroscience program. In a very traditional neuroscience program, and went from there. That’s how I became a neuroscientist.
Jiro: Right, fantastic. Within the world of neuroscience, where would you say that you specialize?
Arne: Well, I started out in a very traditional program. I worked on learning and memory. On the hippocampus, on doing brain surgery on animals and testing them for all kinds of things. With all the techniques available about thirty years ago when I got my PhD. But I’ve gravitated away from this to what would be, I guess, called a niche within neuroscience. And these are these experiences that are very difficult to bring into the lab. And therefore, tightly controlled in terms of the conditions for a scientist. It’s much easier to do work on memory. So many people scare away from investigating these sort of events because there’s very little funding for it. It’s also quite difficult, it’s new territory. But for me, this was much more interesting than doing the traditional work on attention, on memory. Or on some sort of disease like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or Attention Deficit Disorder. I gravitated towards what very few people do, and therefore there’s not much work in that area, as opposed to other areas of neuroscience.
Jiro: Would you say that what you spend a lot of time studying is the science of consciousness?
Arne: Yes, that’s exactly what I do. I would say that that fits straight on and things like the Aha effect or eureka moments, insight events, creativity, flow- these are all, I would think, subheadings under the overall banner of studying consciousness, or conscious events,or alterations to consciousness.
Jiro: Absolutely. Okay, fantastic. Well, I believe that you’re probably one of the most learned people on the planet when it comes to the questions “ What is consciousness?”- And that sure is a slippery question, isn’t it?
Arne: Yeah, I think there is very good work on consciousness. People who we take the visual system and visual experiences. But very few people do what I do with science, which I find rather normal, and that is studying an event by altering it. And so very few people, although there are people that study consciousness, and some very famous people from Antonio Dalmazio to people like Francis Crick, the late Francis Crick. But they never studied it by deliberately changing it through… Let’s say, flow states. And I my approach to consciousness or understanding the topic was by studying its alterations. And so, in that I have very few colleagues. But actually, in the study of consciousness, there are quite a number of people in it.
Jiro: It must have changed a lot since you’ve been in the profession. I guess, the last twenty years has been, or the last ten years perhaps, has been a renewed interest. I think probably Csikszentmihalyi kicked off a whole load of interest and then more recently, there seems to be more of a convergence or spiritual themes and scientists who are sort of exploring consciousness with a different perspective. Would you say that’s true?
Arne: Yes and no. I think the haydays are already over , we’ve sort of crossed over an inflection point already and for the last ten years, actually, we’ve been a bit stuck. I think the ten years before that were really where the first sort of getting together of perspectives and views happened and a lot of flurry activity occurred. But in the last six, seven, eight years I’ve not seen the same kind of progress. I guess it’s slowed down a bit because once we aired the first of the ways on which we can explore this, there was not continued interest. So it’s not an increasing, accelerating thing. To me in the last few years, we have kind of evolved around the same themes. And some of them are, I think are not very healthy, and in fact are theoretically toxic. And that is also part of the problem that people entering the field, that are not trained in neuroscience, and then dabble around somewhere with neuro networks and the prefrontal cortex without fully understanding how difficult it is to get true, honest, sound, mechanistic explanations going. And so I’ve become a little bit of a critic of the field with critiques that are I think are necessary in order to move the field forward.
Jiro: Really. Can you give an example of such a toxic theory?
Arne: Yeah, I mean for instance. I think the most famous one is certainly the right brain theory of creativity. That, in my opinion, is an idea that should be treated like nuclear waste and buried for a million years. It’s just dumb. It’s just a stunted idea. The main problem of that idea is actually the under lining mistake in thinking that creativity can be localized in such a manner. The right brain is really only one instance of a way of thinking, that I think is profoundly mistaken, and that is to find locations for creativity. Or location for flow, rather than mechanism. And now, in the current days of functional MRI and of PET scans and these wonderfully colored neuro scans that appear on all media outlets these days, you get the idea that creativity has got to be somewhere, flow has got to be somewhere. But this is probably a mistake in view. It is probably a distributed entity. And looking for the centers of creative thinking is pretty much like looking for the center of thinking. It’s in the brain, stupid. And that is one of the things I think that’s a toxic idea.
Jiro: Understood. Yeah, I think that more and more people are tuning in to the idea that the whole left brain, right brain thing doesn’t have much validity. But, what about this one, which I’m sure you can straighten me out on, but this whole idea of we use 10% of our brain. What’s the truth there?
Arne: Actually this is a bit of an interesting thing in neuroscience because I remember many, many years ago I was part of a sort of a network who were trying to get to the source of this rumor, of this myth, of this mistake. Because it is another stunted idea. And we couldn’t. We didn’t know where it ever came from. I have heard it I think on all five continents. And I’ve heard it expressed to me as a fact, as this is something that everybody knows obviously to be true. But we know it’s not. And so I find that not only the source, but also how widespread it is, a very fascinating thing. There are two, very easy, theoretical arguments against this that should make clear that this is not something that could possibly be the case. But the main one, to reduce it to the main one is an evolutionary argument. The brain is an extremely expensive machine. It weighs only 2% of your body but costs about 20-25% of all of your resources. To build this thing for evolution has costs. To produce something like this, a machine like this and then only use 10% of it pretty much violates the principles of evolution, of an adaptive approach. When you evolve something, it has to have functionality. There can be, of course, epi-phenomena. And you can of course evolve something that doesn’t have a direct function, sort of on the side. Sort of an epiphenomena. But it is very unlikely that a machine as expensive as the brain, I mean metabolism-wise, would be an add on, and actually is not needed. As far as we can tell in neuroscience, you need all the brain you have, otherwise you wouldn’t have it. This idea of 10% violates basic principles of biology and neuroscience and evolution.
Jiro: Alright, thank you for putting it straight there. Understood. Okay, so you’ve written a book, which is actually entitled “An Introduction to Consciousness”. Which I just saw it, I know it’s not your most recent book. But can you explain to me, I know that this would fill a whole book so it might be difficult but could you explain to me in a nutshell, your definition of consciousness?
Arne: Consciousness, a bit like creativity, is something that is insufficiently defined. And it’s a bit like what William James said 120 years ago, that you know it when you see it. We all know what we’re talking about, when we’re talking about consciousness. But putting the finger on it and circumscribing it with precise language has been very, very difficult. And the reason why that is the case is because there are fundamental, philosophical differences in conceptualizing the concept of consciousness. The main one is subjectivity. That some people, let’s say, Team A, would think that this is a fundamental component of consciousness. Team B, they’re sort of the hard core, materialists scientists, do not think so. And we cannot even agree on the fundamental components of conscious experience, which is why we dodge the bullet a bit. We all do it , in the field of letting it, of defining it a bit loose, a bit like a fuzzy set.
Jiro: Okay. I watched the TED Talks video that you gave and basically I noticed how you put across an idea that altered states of consciousness are not higher states of consciousness. Could you just run us through that idea?
Arne: Yeah, of course. It comes from my own experiences, well but also from my knowledge as a neuroscientist about how the brain works. In my personal life, I also hunt flow states almost religiously, if that’s the right phrase to use. Thinking about my own experiences, introspecting about them as well. And theorizing what we know about the brain comes back, for instance, “10% Idea”. And, of course, if you understand the brain operating at full capacity, in full consciousness, your conscious state right now, my conscious state right now, meaning attending to external stimuli. Like you and I do, right now, Then, this would require pretty much the full capacity of the brain. Any alterations to this are naturally subtractions to contrast experience. And most of my alterations to consciousness that I experience, for instance, in long endurance exercise, which is one of the flow states I get into constantly, whether it’s skiing or hiking or doing triathlons.I noticed that most of the mental capacities that I have are down regulated. Things like attentional processes, working memory, my sense of self. A very complicated computation that you can compute the difference between self and other that requires a lot of neuro resources. And you know, when you’re in the flow state and you merge with your surroundings, you no longer compute this. For me, all of these sort of things, were subtractions to experience. And I also understood that most of these complicated mental events, like attentional processes, like a sense of self, like a theory of mind, self reflect of consciousness, the fact that I can think about, the fact that I’m thinking… all of these things are gone in the flow state.
And all of these are also computed in the frontal cortex. And so, the idea initially that I had about 12, 14 years ago now is that what happens in the altered state is that the frontal cortex must be down regulated, modules within the frontal cortex, not the whole frontal cortex but modules within it, are down regulated.
And I call this Hypofrontality and explored theoretically whether that could be an underlying mechanism for altered states of consciousness. I pitched this idea then several years later after working out the details of how this would work in neural networks in the frontal cortex. So the idea is very simple – altered states of consciousness therefore would be a down regulation, they are not higher states of consciousness in terms of brain activity. They might be higher in terms of experiences, in terms of what you understand about the words, but they are certainly not higher in terms of neural mechanisms, in terms of neural resources, in terms of your brain activity.
Jiro: Okay. okay. I understand a lot clearer now because after watching that video, I don’t know if you’ve read the comments below it, but there’s a lot of people that say things like ‘how is he defining higher and lower,’ and ‘he’s obviously not experienced in this sort of altered state of consciousness and all those sort of thing. And I knew what these people are saying because in my life experience, sometimes these “technically” higher states of consciousness kind of get in the way of my life. Sometimes self-consciousness is not convenient. It stops me from expressing myself for example. And sometimes you want self-consciousness just to go away. Sometimes, I seek out these “lower states of consciousness” I guess you call it. That’s really interesting.
Arne: I do the same thing. I mean, I’ve never known anybody who’s very happy, who thinks a lot about his own thinking. Very critical and self-critical people…. Sometimes, less is more. But not in terms of neural activity. To me, an altered state of consciousness, almost by definition of neural activity, is the lowest state of activity. That does not necessarily mean that this is not something healthy or unhealthy. There’s no value judgement to this. It’s a purely mechanistic approach to understanding alter states mechanistically in the brain.
Jiro: Right- So you’re basically looking at the amount of neural activity that’s going on.
Arne: Yeah, because I seek this out just the same. When I seek out a flow state, I seek out dimensions of consciousness that to me are more pleasing or more happier, to be honest. Understanding different things about the world.
Jiro: I read about this tribe that exist in Malaysia. They call this the Senoi people. I don’t know if they’re still around anymore but this anthropologist studied them in 1960’s and 70’s. Basically, he realized that this tribe, completely isolated from other civilizations. And they almost communicated telepathically. They seem to sense whenever he was coming and they’ll be there waiting for him with no communication devices and.. their dreams world sort of merged into their reality. Like if they dreamed about a mango tree then they’d go and find this mango tree sort of thing.
In your course of studying, you must have come across some interesting things. Have you studied people involved in shamanistic ritual or psychedelic substances for example?
Arne: No, because I’m not an anthropologist. And consciousness is interdisciplinary and the different disciplines, they need to work together, each coming with their own area of expertise. And this is not something that I can do. I’m not trained on it. But I’ve had quite a number of experience studying induction methods. I can tell you one instance that is quite common in my neck of the world – these are Sufi’s who spin. They also come to an altered state. I wouldn’t call it in a steady flow state but it’s certainly an altered state. And you can see the altered state in their faces. They’re not there, they’re not with us, they’re somewhere else in their minds. And so humans have discovered a variety of ways, drugs of course the almost obvious ones, to induce altered states. And I have studied them some but not directly with those involved doing these induction methods. I’ve read about the weirdest things of induction methods involving pain, sleep deprivation, food deprivation, dances. I mean dancing to certain rhythmic beats and music are similar induction methods. And there is a great variety of those. I’m amazed about them. I’ve never heard of the tribe you talked about. But I would not be surprised if we find more and more people who have been more and more inventive on how to alter their mental state.
Jiro: Indeed- Yeah. It’s a very interesting area. So in the modern day, you got these guys who are throwing themselves off cliffs, or peddling down the mountain at 50km/h to induce an altered state of consciousness but it’s such an interesting parallel to think, to join them up with Sufis or Shamans or Tibetan Monks 1500 years ago.
Arne: Yeah, also join them up with people Engineers in Silicon Valley who make the next Iphone because it’s not necessarily that one is better than the other or creativity can be associated with one state or the other. It’s a different kind. And so when you can also solve problems and be very creative, and that is often times forgotten in a very highly concentrated default state of consciousness where there is no alteration whatsoever. That also has to be included in sort of whole spectrum of when it comes to flow and creativity. That also is a way to presume your life or this tribe or any other tribe that comes up with the technological marvel we do that can only be done in a different state of consciousness what I would call, I guess for lack of better word, default consciousness.
Jiro: Interesting. Arne came to talk about creative in just a minute. But just a bit more on consciousness, do you feel like it’s possible to fully understand and define consciousness without really understanding quantum mechanics and the sort of unknown for the field that’s throwing up?
Arne: Yes, I do. The weirdness of quantum mechanics and sort of the parallels that are being drawn to the weird events of conscious experience are very entertaining, very interesting. But I guess, that’s also where it ends, on the entertaining part because so far, we have not been able to, and there’s no serious work that I know of to tie this in a way that would be scientifically suitable or scientifically sound. These are just metaphors of how you can be in two places at the same time or things like this or quantum gravity. So what for instance, Roger Penrose has pursued, I think is misguided to a larger extent and is fascinating because I think it tells an interesting story. But for neuroscience, I think we are going to discover that the events that we run after, of course we are made out of the same method, so we’re made of quarks,bosons, mesons and gluons, but of course above the sub-atomic level, these effects cancel each other out even at the level of their molecule, much less of a neuron, much less of a neural network.
And so for that really to work, or have any sort of scientific validity, we would need to find quantum effects at the size of neural networks. And we are talking about several levels, layers of explanations that we would have to cross. Without crossing those, and I don’t think we will cross them, because as I said, as soon as we go out of the sub-atomic ground, these effects cancel each other out, that we will have explanations of consciousness sooner or later. It’s hard to predict, that do not have to make at all any recourse to quantum mechanics.
Jiro: Okay. In your professional opinion, does a tree have consciousness?
Arne: No, you need a network to compute it. That means you need a computational machine – you need a brain. Certainly, I would go for the idea that you have a continuum. That means I would not make a categorical separation, although it’s a big jump, the categorical difference. So the less brain you have, the less neurons you have. The less networks you have, the less sophisticated complexity in your neural network, the less consciousness you have. Once you get to a plant, you no longer have a neuron, you no longer have a computational machine and there I would find talking about consciousness in a living organism that doesn’t compute information in the same bytes and bits than we do and I find not very useful. Without ruling this out, with a 100%, I’d go for 99.999999.
Jiro: I’m glad you said that! I’m glad you left that .0001%. So, do you think that as a human, do you feel like we have connected to each other in some way? Does that question should mean anything to you?
Arne: Of course we’re connected. But in what way do you mean that?
Jiro: Connected by some form of collective consciousness.
Arne: That is non-communicative in ways that I can either see it or hear it? That I cannot pick up with my normal sense systems? No, I don’t think so. Until we have evidence otherwise, I think it is safe to stick to explanations that we can support…. that sort of flight into a mysterious forces and events I find only useful if it can be supported scientifically. Again, without ruling it out, the possibility of course, that’s why in science, we talk about falsification, I will not rule this out. Unless, there’s evidence, I will also not listen to it. I don’t have the time. I only have 85 years on this planet and I wanna get somewhere. By the time I die, I wanna understand something that I didn’t understand when I was born. Spending too much time out on a loop, in lalaland, is not my way of approaching consciousness. As I told you, I have a very high mechanistic, scientific point of view on the matter. That is my approach. It does not mean necessarily that has to be everybody’s approach. But for me personally, somebody who makes statements along these lines has a very large burden of proof. If you have an extraordinary claim, you should bring extraordinary evidence before I spend my time listening to you.
Jiro: Yeah, fair enough. My personal feeling with things like this is that if I experience something then it’s true in my experience.
Arne: Oh yeah. That’s certainly the case.
Jiro: How do you explain synchronicity? That idea of meaningful coincidences. In déjà vu, I guess it’s similar. That whole idea of- I don’t wanna say Law of Attraction- but that synchronicity.
Arne: Again, as a scientist, I would require of all scientist or with anybody who’re making a claim, that this be demonstrated with proper control conditions. This is where it usually is a problem – once you put this under proper controls, you also have to count the false alarms. The times you thought there’s synchronicity and there isn’t. When you thought somebody is on the same page and she wasn’t. Once you properly do that, then you will have an assessment of whether that experience is something that is generalizable or whether that is something that you fool yourself because we are very good at fooling ourselves. You have to eliminate before you can make a claim.
Jiro: Yup, right- Interesting…
Arne: That’s true for Psychology as well as for Neuroscience. Otherwise, you cannot falsify. That means, otherwise, you cannot eliminate something because we have a range of experience that includes almost everything. So it be experience enough itself is being counted as evidence which we don’t do in science. We don’t count subjective experience as objective evidence. You have to produce the evidence itself and then we can go from there.
Jiro: Do you think in your life you’d be interested in dropping the mantle of being a scientist and for example, come along to the Peruvian jungle with somebody and go and spend some time with some Shamans and take some Ayahuasca and have that sort of experience as an exploration of consciousness?
Arne: You are assuming that I haven’t done that yet? Yeah, yes. Of course! Well, I lived in Peru for a while. I lived there for one year. Anyway, without going into that – yes, but I would understand these experiences as my experience and not as something generalizable. As something that holds for other populations, because the same set of rituals might be experienced completely differently by others. As a scientist, I would understand that and I think a critical attitude, a scientifically critical attitude towards these experiences is just healthy.
As I always say to my students, you should open your mind and you should keep it as open as you can. But you should not open your mind so far that your brain falls out. At that point, you have to be critical. Yes, I’m open to this. I have been opened. I was open to this. Experiences like this – I would take as just that. Experiences of mind but not experience that I can generalize scientifically as phenomena of consciousness that applies to others as well.
Jiro: Interesting! Okay. Just moving on. What do you think about this gut as a second brain theory? This idea that we have lots and lots and lots of neurons in our gut or maybe spread throughout our body down to our spinal cord and therefore that being evidence, that we kind of have an “2 brains”
Arne: Not much. For the same reason, I think the short answer would be – computational complexity. First of all, you don’t have neurons in your gut…. even the neurons in the spinal cord, are primarily in order to distribute your motor commands and collect sensory information. There is a degree of autonomy and they do computations, obviously. But look at the complexity and look what a system like this could possibly do in computing the kind of things that you and I would call consciousness or conscious experience. I would, certainly again think, that this sounds far-fetched.
As long as there’s evidence that there sort of a second system inside of you somewhere in some shape or form that equals that between your ears, you have a long way to go if you wanna make that claim. Again, for the same reason – if you look at animals and you go down the list of what they can do with their mental capacities they have, given the brains that they have that I think staying on the right side of having my sanity check here is very important in order really to make progress. You can entertain any idea you want to but the sceptical attitude I think is very important if you’re dealing phenomena that are so easily fooling you.
Jiro: What does intuition mean to you?
Arne: Same thing. For intuition we have a good definition. Intuition we define typically as knowledge that you have without intentionally thinking. It is just sort of knowledge that pops out and of course, that means it’s computed in your head but not by conscious part of your head, of your brain. You have very complex systems. Your implicit systems are very complex systems in the brain where the computations actually do not reach your conscious reflective part of networks and they can be very complex. And so they can’t compute knowledge, they cannot compute events, they cannot compute understanding of something that in its full form is catapulted into consciousness. And all of a sudden you have an idea going ‘oops’ ‘oops.’ And you have sort of an intuitive knowledge but you’ve obviously computed it, just not consciously and intentionally. Locating this in the gut, I think, is a wrong place to go.
Jiro: Where does it come from? Where does these morals, instincts, intuition. Is it like hard-wired into our DNA? Where is it coming from?
Arne: Our DNA, we can dispense of that. In terms of hard-wired, we can also be very critical of that as well. Your genes, the 25,000 or 26,000 that you have, in human genome project counted, they are by far not even by orders of magnitude, enough to specify your brain connections. You cannot look at your brain and think that this is pre-determined by genetic make up. This is just combinatorially not possible. You have always an effect of brain wiring that is of course guided by your genetic program, but it’s also influenced vastly by your environment. And it already starts prenatally and of course it continues and grows by then your upbringing, and then your culture, and then your experiences, and your brain wires are set up in ways that has a lot of randomness in it.
You have very large scale systems that are very very complicated. And as I said, they don’t necessarily reach within your computation consciousness. They are the ones that we ought to be looking at. As a matter of fact, within the study of consciousness, in my neck of the woods, that means neuroscience. I would think that this is now the hard area of neuroscience. To do exactly that kind of work, of how the brain accomplishes, this sort of knowledge, understanding, behaviours that run intuitively. They can be very complex. As you said for instance, an even moral understanding of a certain situation – we have an intuitive, instinctive sort of sense and it’s very unlikely that it is hard-wired, in the sense that this is pre-determined. It depends a lot of your experiences, just because it isn’t hard-wired doesn’t mean that it isn’t computed in the brain. But it’s not in the network that is not pliable; it’s not in the network that is not plastic. It can change because of new experiences that you have. So the word hard-wired here is sort of a red flag that I think we, neuroscientists, are always put into this position that if we are talking about these events coming from the brain, then we are always put into the position that ‘oh it must be hard-wired.’ And it is not necessarily the case. We understand brain plasticity very well. And the word ‘hard-wired’ I think doesn’t apply to these complex behaviours, at all in fact.
Jiro: Fair enough. There’s a lot of talk about, certainly in my circles, about looking at the brain. Does consciousness exist just within the brain? Does the brain generate consciousness? Or is the brain a sort of model that does like radio transceiver of consciousness? Is this something that you’ve heard before?
Arne: Yeah, I’ve heard this before.
Jiro: Is this one of the things that you would like to place in the “harmful toxic myth” category?
Arne: No. This is different. This is a possibility but it’s so far-fetched I don’t have any time for it. Unless you of course bring evidence. So it’s very different. Whether something is falsifiable and false, or whether something is, not the idea, but there’s really actually no evidence for it, but also no evidence against it. That’s very different. So when you have an idea like this again, the burden of proof is on you. And so far, I’m not aware of any single datum, of any sort of evidentiary basis at all, not a single piece of information, not a single bit that we have evidence for the existence of consciousness outside brains. That means outside neural networks.
And again the complexity argument arises here – the more complex it is, the more complex can your consciousness be. So if you wanna claim that consciousness exists somewhere else, let’s say, I dunno, in a hologram, or in a black hole, or in a salamander, or in the universe as a whole. Whatever your argument is really, or some other aliens, then of course you have to support it somehow before I spend time thinking about it.
Jiro: Yeah, okay. Fair enough. Let’s get on to flow. Just firstly, the question that I’m often asked and I think about a lot. What the connection is between meditation or meditative states and flow states? Is this something that you’ve looked into?
Arne: Yeah. I have and I am one of those who have defined this a little bit I think more precisely of where the differences between flow as an altered state. There are seven markers but to make a somewhat longer story short, the main thing is movement. A flow state as defined by Csikszentmihalyi and as it is generally accepted as a flow state, is a smooth integration of sensory input and motor output that is true for a surfer and a musician, for an actor, and somebody who plays tennis, that there is an output.
In meditation there is no output or it doesn’t have to be. I guess you can produce an output, but it’s not necessary. In meditation, you sit and that’s it. You don’t have a motor movement that is smoothly integrated with sensory input. And that’s the main difference. Now phenomenologically speaking, and I’ve been in both states, although I’m not a very good meditator, I’ve meditated and I haven’t for many years, I’ve never achieved deep states. I guess because I didn’t dedicated enough time for it. But from my understanding, these are two different states I can distinguish, in meditative state and in flow state.
Jiro: Do you think that one helps the other? Do you think training for meditation makes you more prone to flow state and vice versa?
Arne: I have no evidence for this and I’m suspecting yes.
Jiro: Hmmm. Okay. Okay. Interesting.
Arne: I cannot support myself. That is a statement that I with go with a hunch that yes, that one facilitates the entrance to the other.
Jiro: Honestly, I have a personal experience that it’s one way. From personal experience, I would say that training from meditation facilitates flow states but I don’t know whether flow states. You don’t see very many enlightened Red Bull athletes. And those guys spend a hell of a lot of time in flow.
Arne: Yeah, that’s true. I would go with your idea. I have the same experience. Or let’s say I have the same hunch. But I don’t have a mechanism for it. I don’t have any explanation for it. And I don’t know how that would work. But I would go with that. The main difference here, I think, between meditation and flow is the movement.
Jiro: Okay, interesting. So you’ve got creativity and it seems to be a little bit of a black hole or an area of much confusion and you know what, it just baffles me the way we are on the world. We can put a man on the moon but we don’t seem to be closer to understanding creativity. And I just wanna read a quote that you wrote in an article, just because I think it’s a great sentence, “Like no other field of Psychology, the study of creativity is beset with nebulous concepts, combustible propositions, and myopic theorizing, to say nothing at all a vacuous fluff out there.”
So tell me about where we are now, especially with you having written the book relative to this world of vacuous fluff when it comes to creativity.
Arne: Yeah. The amazing part of that sentence is that it gets to appear in many scientific academic articles. I got it somehow through the review process, but I think it’s also because there’s an understanding there. I think you have noticed the last half an hour or a few minutes how hard core of a speaker I am when it comes to admitting evidence and where you can stand in order to build something that is not built on quicksand. And when you look at the ideas out there about creativity and where it comes from and what enhances it and how you can foster it.
You have some really crazy ideas that either don’t work or have no theoretical foundation or conceptually mistaken, incoherent, and everybody dabbles in it. Everybody thinks that they understand it somehow and everybody understands differently. When you listen to one person, he tells you something he’s convinced because that’s how he experienced it and then you talk to another person then she tells you another story, completely different, that is incongruent with the first story you have. When you wanna make sense out of all of this, you’ll see that the process of falsification, the process of falsifying things, the means of throwing out ideas, that we know don’t work has not taken place here. And everything floats in the air.
And everybody picks up whatever they want to pick up. And this has unfortunately, also penetrated the scientific study of creativity, which is heavily fragmented with everybody having sort of the same idea, or sorry, different ideas and doing whatever they want to do, claiming whatever they want to claim. That’s where the sentence comes from. You have even neuroscientists who tell you what I think is fluff.
Jiro: Is there any non-random marker yet found? Is there any sort of theme or theory that’s put out there? Like if I said to you, ‘I want to be more creative.’ Are you able to scientifically back any sort of method to become more creative?
Arne: That’s a very difficult question. We know that certain things work better than others. And we know this empirically, because more people have tested this out. Ideas for instance, like for instance, generating as many ideas as you can possibly can without judging them first. I think there are things that have produced variations that then other people can pick up on. But we also know that this can produce a lot of dead ends and waste a lot of time. But in general I think, it is very difficult at this point, because of the way creativity research has not progressed in the last 30 years. There’s very little that we can make sound connections between the level of Psychological events or even Neuroscientific events and enhancing creativity. We are working on this and I think this will come. But currently, we have to be very very cautious in order to make these sorts of connections because what we know is very tempting.
Jiro: Understood. Thank you for that explanation. Can you tell us about the book? I guess the book is called, ‘How Creativity Happens In the Brain.’ Just tell our listeners a little bit about it.
Arne: Yeah. I think I start out in the first chapter or two demolishing pretty much most of the currently circulating ideas that not only includes the ‘right brain’ but also ideas that my colleagues in neuroscience are floating. That includes, for instance now, the new front runner of where creativity happens, the so-called default mode network, maybe you’ve heard of it. Ideas that have to do with wide metric density or as located in a specific area like the superior temporal gyrus or the frontal cortex. When I’m done with these, I made very cautious steps of how a neural network works. I forego localization of function. I don’t think creativity is localized. I take the position that it is widely distributed. So looking for it with a function from our eyes and misguided the idea. I’ve theoretically backed this up over many many pages of why that is the case. Of course, you have to support your subject claim and I go take very cautious steps. The first one is, that you have to understand the underlying mechanism of generating new stuff and it’s always an evolutionary generated test algorithm. You do this consciously, you do this unconsciously. But what you effectively do is generate ideas and test them for fitness. I think this is a fairly safe way to start. That means also that you start looking for types of or parts of creativity and the safest one to go is variation selection. Once you look for variation and selection in the brain, you no longer really look for creativity as a whole in the brain. I think you have a better approach. Then, I also outlined how that algorithm works differently in the brain than it works on DNA. Because of course you recognize this as the basic algorithm of nature – the variation selection process with inheritance are proposed by Darwin and currently the reigning theory of Biology and of modern principles. But our brains do that differently and I have spent several chapters explaining exactly what is the difference between how the algorithm works in nature and how it works in our brains. And then, spending several chapters seeing whether we can tie these differences to brain mechanisms. That is effectively the book without getting into any detail and of making cautious steps towards how possibly is neuroscience of creativity should look like. Because it should not look like the way it looks right now, which to me is fluff.
Jiro: Okay. Just something came to my mind. I know that your friend Steve Kotler, wrote the Rise of Superman book. I can’t remember whether it’s in reference to your research but I remember a chapter talking about creativity and flow and featuring GAMMA waves being paired and when we are in a THETA brain wave state then you might see these GAMMA brain waves, going off, signalling sort of neural activity linked to creativity. Is that correct or not?
Arne: The last two words are not, the rest is – “linked to creativity”. What you should say in order to make this sentence correct is to say “linked to a type of creativity”. And then you’re on your way. As soon as you link it to creativity, as a whole, I can easily, theoretically and empirically demonstrate that not having these better waves can also produce a creative state. So you enter something, what you just said is a false category formation by associating a particular mechanism with the whole of creativity and that’s where the mistake comes in. As soon as you say, that you can link this with a type of creativity, then you’re on your way to something that can be supported. Because there’s also a different type of creativity where that is not required. You see?
Jiro: But I’m only 99.999% sure of my theory, so I’m okay, I’m safe. So tell me I just did a false category classification?
Arne: Yes and by associating this with the whole of creativity. If you were to associate it with a type of creativity, let’s say flow or certain parts of flow, or certain parts of certain parts of flow, then I think you’d be more sound, because I can easily tell you gazillions of exceptions to it, that are also created. And then you have something called the false category formation. You associate creativity with one thing when we know that the opposite is also associated with creativity.
iro: Right! We can talk about this for days on. But, I know that you’re a busy man. It’s really a fascinating chat – we’ve covered a lot ground – from consciousness, to creativity, to a lot of the myths that are out there. There’s just a couple of questions that I like to ask all guests but not necessarily neuroscience or consciousness but I’m just interested, it’s a classic question but if you could have a last meal with any three people, any humans from any era of history, who do you wanna hang out with?
Arne: Just a meal?
Jiro: You can just hang out with them. You can go kite surfing with them if you want.
Arne: Well, if it’s just a meal… I would really love Angelina Jolie.
Jiro: Hahahaha. Okay, it’s just a meal.
Arne: Okay, it’s just a meal. (long pause) Difficult.
Jiro: Anyone come to mind?
Arne: I’m thinking on two lines: one – I’m thinking what the person did. That means what he or she is famous for and how interesting it would be to talk to this person. But then I immediately also think about what I know about that person’s personality. What that person would even talk to me about for instance- Isaac Newton s a good example. He’s such a head case and I think having dinner with him would not do anything to increase my understanding. And so I would think of him and I’d immediately would discard him because of his personality. I don’t think he’d be a very interesting dinner conversation partner. He would have the brain but you wouldn’t be able to tap it.
Jiro: Ah, we’re just looking for interesting conversation here huh.
Arne: Yeah, yeah. I wouldn’t have it with Newton…I don’t think so. From what I’ve read about his personality, I’ll dodged that bullet
Jiro: No problem. And if you had the power to change anything in the world just for the click of your fingers, what’s one thing that you’ll change or you’ll take away at?
Arne: I would change the population explosion.
Jiro:. Okay. Okay.
Arne: Because its underlying driving force of all other problems for this climate change, whether it’s hunger, whether it’s poverty…But certainly all that thing that might look like could actually bring us down, as in extinct us, the sooner or later. We have to go back to a billion people on this planet somehow and we are still accelerating the population. So that’s the first thing that comes immediately to mind. Because everything else would not be a problem, at least not in the order of magnitude that it is, if there will only be 1 billion people on this planet.
Jiro: Yup! I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that. Well, listen, I’m really grateful for your time. And we’ll wrap it up then and thank you very much for your time. And get on with your day. All the best and take care.
Arne: I enjoyed it a lot. Thanks!