Known as “Japan’s Edison,” Yoshiro NakaMats holds the world record for patents, with over 3,000 to his credit. You can thank NakaMats for the digital watch, the CD, and the DVD, just to name a few of his most popular inventions1. However, his method for invention, as well as his daily routine, may strike you as odd. Dr. NakaMats, who believes that more than six hours of sleep is detrimental to the brain, sleeps only four hours a day. His diet involves one meal a day consisting of a special mixture of dried shrimp, seaweed, cheese, yogurt, eel, eggs, beef, and chicken livers, which NakaMats claims is beneficial to mental activity. Dr. NakaMats considers too much oxygen a hindrance to invention, so he spends hours each day diving in his pool and holding his breath for as long as possible underwater. He resurfaces to jot his ideas down on a waterproof, Plexiglas notepad — which he invented2. NakaMats is one of the many extremely creative types that exhibit odd behaviors. Scientists now have research showing that biology can explain why creativity and quirkiness are often connected.
Scientists have used psychological tests, brain imaging, and molecular biology to explain the link between eccentricity and creativity. Recently, Shelley Carson, a researcher at Harvard University, discovered a possible answer to this mysterious connection, and it deals with a process called cognitive disinhibition3. Our brain has filters for the large number of sensory signals and thoughts that we receive on a daily basis. These filters prevent the brain from being overwhelmed with distracting information and allow us to focus on the tasks at hand. Reduction in the ability to screen this onslaught of information is termed cognitive disinhibition. A person with cognitive disinhibition is consciously aware of more information. This stimuli surplus can then be processed in atypical and original ways to make connections between things that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. Making unusual connections is the foundation of creativity.
To measure eccentricity, scientists sometimes use tests that measure schizotypal personality, which is associated with odd behaviors, inability to form close relationships, and superstitious or paranormal beliefs. Schizotypal personality is a milder variety of the mental health condition called schizotypal personality disorder. Research has shown that schizotypal individuals often have reduced cognitive inhibition, which is associated with higher levels of creative thinking. Schizotypal people are often smart and talented, and do not necessarily have a personality disorder. People who are able to make unusual connections score higher on creativity as well as eccentricity tests, which Carson attributes to cognitive disinhibition. This is because moments of insight generally come when the filters in the brain relax for a moment, and an idea becomes accessible. People with cognitive disinhibition have reduced function of these filters, which could result in more flashes of insight. Being able to utilize the excess stimuli requires higher level cognitive functioning, but it could be the key to creative thinking.
Various brain imaging and electroencephalography (EEG) studies have been done on people that tested well on the creativity scales and exhibited schizotypal personality traits. Colin Martindale of the University of Maine conducted an EEG study that showed that creative thinkers produce more brain waves in the alpha range when performing creative tasks4. Alpha brain waves have a low frequency, and are associated with relaxed activity in your mind and body. Martindale interpreted these alpha range brain waves to be a sign of reduced stimuli filtration and consequently more intake of information. Andreas Fink at the University of Graz replicated Martindale’s experiment but came to a different conclusion. He claims that alpha activity is a marker for concentration on internal stimuli, instead of external perceptions, which are common schizotypal personality behaviors5.
In 2009 John Kounios of Drexel University and Mark Beeman of Northwestern University used both functional magnetic resonance imaging and EEG to measure brain patterns of subjects while they solved problems6. Kounios and Beeman focused on the bursts of insight associated with cognitive disinhibition. By asking subjects to indicate the moment they knew the answer, Beeman and Kounios found that alpha activity precedes a burst of gamma activity at the moment of insight. Gamma brain waves have high frequency and are generally related to mental processing, perception of reality, and memory. Kounios and Beeman concluded that alpha activity focuses on internal stimuli, whereas the gamma burst marks the instant when the answer enters conscious awareness.
The research being done to analyze the alpha and gamma brain waves is integral to understanding the neurobiology behind the behaviors of creative eccentrics. The cognitive disinhibition seen in people with schizotypal personality could further understanding of the connection between creativity and eccentricity. Researching this connection could help explain the eccentric tendencies of incredibly creative people like Dr. NakaMats, who spends hours underwater every day diving for ideas.
- Thompson, C. The Edison of Japan [Internet]. 2010 [updated 2010 Feb 10; cited 2012 Feb]. Available from: http://www.whatagreatidea.com/nakamatsu.htm
- Lazarus, D. ‘Japan’s Edison’ Is Country’s Gadget King : Japanese Inventor Holds Record for Patent. The New York Times [Internet]. 1995 April 10 [cited 2012 Feb]; Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/1995/04/10/news/10iht-matscon.ttt.html?pagewanted=all
- Carson, S. The Unleashed Mind: Why Creative People Are Eccentric. Scientific American [Internet]. 2011 April 14 [cited 2012 Feb]; Available from: http://www.nature.com/scientificamericanmind/journal/v22/n2/full/scientificamericanmind0511-22.html
- Colin Martindale, Dwight Hines, Linda Mitchell, Edward Covello, EEG alpha asymmetry and creativity, Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 5, Issue 1, 1984, Pages 77-86, ISSN 0191-8869, 10.1016/0191-8869(84)90140-5. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0191886984901405)
- Fink, A., Grabner, R. H., Benedek, M., Reishofer, G., Hauswirth, V., Fally, M., Neuper, C., Ebner, F. and Neubauer, A. C. (2009), The creative brain: Investigation of brain activity during creative problem solving by means of EEG and FMRI. Hum. Brain Mapp., 30: 734–748. doi: 10.1002/hbm.20538
- Jung-Beeman M, Bowden EM, Haberman J, Frymiare JL, Arambel-Liu S, et al. (2004) Neural Activity When People Solve Verbal Problems with Insight.PLoS Biol 2(4): e97. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0020097
- Image: Ushuaia.pl. Nakamatsu. Wikimedia Commons [Internet]. 2010 May 14 [cited 2012 Mar 27]; Available from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nakamatsu.jpg
- Image: Moren j. EEG. Flickr [Internet]. 2011 Jan 6 [cited 2012 Mar 27]; Available from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jannem/5335327140/in/photostream/