September 3, 2004

Sacks Lectures on Human Creativity

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Renowned neurologist and A.D. White Professor at Large Oliver Sacks attracted students, faculty and residents to Statler Auditorium last night for a lecture entitled “Creativity and the Brain.”

After a brief introduction by Prof. Roald Hoffman, chemistry and chemical biology, Sacks stepped up to the podium. He described himself briefly before embarking on a multidisciplinary commentary on perception and creativity as it involves living creatures.

“I feel my whole life is at large, unfocused and unsystematic,” Sacks said. Sacks then delineated some of the fundamental differences in behavior amongst plants, which have no nervous system, animals with simple nervous systems and animals with complex nervous systems, such as humans. “Plant adaptation exists in terms of molecular virtuosity, but they don’t move,” Sacks said.

Animals, whose bodies are less efficient at utilizing available substances, “move; they have behavior,” Sacks added.

For instance, “insects are dazzling in all sorts of ways, but only have a few hundred neurons,” while “an octopus has over 300 million neurons,” and “humans have over 100 billion neurons,” Sacks explained.

These differences in the nervous system’s complexity lead to differences in the degree of behavioral variation found in each animal. For example, when dealing with insects, “one would speak of instincts,” Sacks said.

However, as the nervous system becomes larger, “this hardwiring becomes less and less,” to the point where “the human infant is not rigidly programmed, or if it is, it is programmed to learn,” Sacks said.

Sacks further explained that a growing human requires experience, “an interaction between the senses,” which he reinforced with a story about a blind man named Virgil who was given the ability to see at the age of 50.

Sacks explained that when the surgeon took the blindfold off of Virgil’s eyes “he had a blank bewildered look on his face.” It was only when the surgeon began to speak that Virgil’s eyes uneasily focused on the surgeon’s mouth.

Before that instance, Virgil saw only the chaos of colors and textures, devoid of any meaning or context; but after the surgeon spoke, Virgil connected the surgeon’s voice to a mouth and made his first visual association or perception.

Sacks then described the process of learning in children and expressed awe at the brain’s capacity to sort through so much information and organize it into perception.

“It is very easy to model something like color perception by mechanical processes,” Sacks said.

“It is however, much more difficult to model processes of adaptation, association and discernment,” he added.

Finally, in defining creativity, Sacks merely described it as coming “from a greater depth than any reproduction.” He explained that creativity is often motivated by “dissatisfaction with the status quo,” and by an inherent tendency for “skill to become creative.”

At end of the lecture, Sacks quickly previewed some of the work being done to better understand the brain, before being exposed to over a dozen questions from inquisitive audience members.

“Why is the brain more complex, more evolved than other parts of the body?” asked one audience member.

Sacks responded by saying he believes “there is [not] much need for the heart or the kidneys to evolve, because they are highly efficient already.”

However, the cleverness provides the much needed adaptability that enhances survival. Sacks then introduced his own question, “So what will happen to the brain now, will it get larger?”

He explained that the modern brain has become more powerful through language, writing, and computers, but that he does not think that the brain’s “raw abilities are much more than they were during early times.”

A second audience member expressed dissatisfaction with Sacks’ definition of creativity saying, “I do not understand your definition of creativity. . . Are there not everyday types of creativity?”

Sacks agreed, saying, “I think there are, I think a life which is open and flexible, not too rigid is essentially a creative life.”

A few more questions followed before Hofmann concluded the lecture.

The lecture was part of Cornell’s A.D. White Professor at large program, which brings professors from around the world to Cornell to lecture on various topics. Hoffman nominated Sacks for the title and served as his official sponsor.

“[Sacks] is much more than a neurologist,” Hoffman explained in an interview, “he is a writer of great popularity and skill.”

Sacks has written over nine books, a few of which are used as text books in Cornell courses, and a variety of awards for his work in neurology. However, “what is remarkable about Sacks is the way he humanizes disease and looks at a diseased person as someone with great dignity,” Hoffmann added.

Archived article by David Andrade
Sun Staff Writer