Creativity, the Brain, and Young Jane Austen

As I mention elsewhere on this site, I’ve long been interested in both the nature of creativity and in layperson’s neuroscience, and I’ve been steeping in material about Jane Austen’s childhood, so I pounced on a recent article in The Atlantic called “Secrets of the Creative Brain.”

In it, neuroscientist Nancy C. Andreasen describes her search for the physiological links among creativity, intelligence, and mental illness, and for their hereditary interrelationships.

How is the creative brain different?

How is the creative brain different?

Creativity, she says, “tends to run in families, and to take diverse forms. In this arena, nurture clearly plays a strong role.” Of the writers she’s studied in the famed Iowa Writers Workshop, she notes that the “majority grew up in an environment where learning and education were highly valued.” This, as it happens, is an exact description of Jane Austen’s home life as a child.

As for mental illness, it’s long been known to sometimes be closely aligned with creativity. “This link,” Andreasen writes, “is not surprising. The archetype of the mad genius dates back to at least classical times, when Aristotle noted, ‘Those who have been eminent in philosophy, politics, poetry, and the arts have all had tendencies toward melancholia.’ This pattern is a recurring theme in Shakespeare’s plays, such as when Theseus, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, observes, ‘The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact.’ John Dryden made a similar point in a heroic couplet: ‘Great wits are sure to madness near allied, / And thin partitions do their bounds divide.’”

However, renowned psychologist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi offers a very different viewpoint in his engrossing book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. After thirty years of research, he says, “I have come to the conclusion that the reigning stereotype of the tortured genius is to large extent a myth created by Romantic ideology and supported by evidence from isolated and — one hopes — atypical historical periods.”

These were among the sources I utilized in writing my new book Young Jane Austen: Becoming a Writer, and while they don’t offer us truly definitive insights about Austen or her family — which have their own story about both creativity and mental illness — it made for a fascinating research process.

Ultimately, this process enabled me to feel confident in my perception of young Jane as a “creative” among family members who also displayed productively creative traits. Her mother, for example, wrote clever, funny poetry; her father, a rector, wrote sermons; her older brother James wrote poems, essays, and theatrical pieces; and her older sister, Cassandra, showed some talent as a visual artist.

"Evening" illustration by Massimo Mongiardo in YOUNG JANE AUSTEN

“Evening” illustration by Massimo Mongiardo in YOUNG JANE AUSTEN

Setting aside the long-running debate, mentioned above, about the stability of the “creative personality,” is there anything we can say with certainty about creative people and their temperaments?

Speaking from ample personal experience — I’m a “creative” myself, several of my family members and close friends are highly creative, and as an editor I’ve had the good fortune to work with a host of creative folks — it seems pretty safe to say that we tend to be observant, introspective, sensitive, and thoughtful, and that the impulse to create is one that lends meaning — and brings joy — to our lives.

Delving deeper, is it feasible to wonder if our brains might be configured a bit differently from others in whom this drive isn’t as strong?

Nancy C. Andreasen, who utilizes PET scanning and other sophisticated imaging techniques in her search to understand the links between the physiology of the brain and the creative process, thinks so. She writes that “One difference between a great writer like Shakespeare and, say, the typical stockbroker is the size and richness of the verbal lexicon in his or her temporal association cortices, as well as the complexity of the cortices’ connections with other association regions in the frontal and parietal lobes.”

She knows this because modern “neuroimaging tools show brain structure with a precision approximating that of the examination of post-mortem tissue; this allows researches to study all sorts of connections between brain measurements and personal characteristics.”

She goes on: “For years, I had been asking myself what might be special or unique about the brains of the . . . writers I had studied. In my own version of a eureka moment, the answer finally came to me: creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations, and seeing things in an original way — seeing things that others cannot see.”

Indeed, we can look back at Jane Austen’s earliest writing — her funny, clever, remarkably sophisticated “Juvenilia,” begun when she was 11 or 12 years old — and easily identify that bright spark of originality, her quick grasp of literary tropes and singular deftness in upending them to brilliantly comic effect.

In this way, I suppose, we are able to glimpse from afar the workings of a burgeoning creative intellect — and an unusual brain.


Read The Atlantic article here.


And here’s a TED video with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discussing “Flow: The Secret to Happiness”:



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