Thursday, April 8, 2010

Intellectual Hares and Tortoises

Have you ever been in the presence of someone really smart whose mental agility and power were so impressive that it made you feel, well, hopelessly slow? Have you known people so quick in their ability to analyze and solve problems that you felt like an intellectual tortoise by comparison? Well, if you're a tortoise don't despair. Research is suggesting that the cause of slower thinking is also a cause of greater creativity. Here's the nub of the New Scientist report:

As far as the internet or phone networks go, bad connections are bad news. Not so in the brain, where slower connections may make people more creative.

Rex Jung at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and his colleagues had found that creativity correlates with low levels of the chemical N-acetylaspartate, which is found in neurons and seems to promote neural health and metabolism.

But neurons make up the brain's grey matter - the tissue traditionally associated with thinking power, rather than creativity. So Jung is now focusing his creativity studies on white matter, which is largely made of the fatty myelin sheaths that wrap around neurons. Less myelin means the white matter has a lower "integrity" and transmits information more slowly.

Several recent studies have suggested that white matter of high integrity in the cortex, which is associated with higher mental function, means increased intelligence. But when Jung looked at the link between white matter and creativity, he found something quite different.

Jung found that the most creative people had lower white-matter integrity in a region connecting the prefrontal cortex to a deeper structure called the thalamus, compared with their less creative peers.

Jung suggests that slower communication between some areas may actually make people more creative. "This might allow for the linkage of more disparate ideas, more novelty, and more creativity," he says.

The results are surprising, given that high white-matter integrity is normally considered a good thing, says Paul Thompson at the University of California in Los Angeles. He acknowledges that speedy information transfer may not be vital for creative thought. "Sheer mental speed might be good for playing chess or doing a Rubik's cube, but you don't necessarily think of writing novels or creating art as being something that requires sheer mental speed," he says.

So, next time you're in the presence of a really outstanding thinker, don't be jealous. Console yourself with the thought that you're quite possibly more creative than he is.


Coal vs. Nukes

The West Virginia coal mine accident is a terrible tragedy, but for those of us not directly touched by the loss of life it might not be insensitive to reflect on a statistic:

The number of workers known to have died in the West Virginia coal mine tragedy is now at 25.

The average number of coal mine deaths per year since 2000 is 30.

The number of people known to have died in the U.S. as a result of accidents in the 40 year history of electricity generated by nuclear power is 0.

And yet we refuse to build more nuclear power plants because we're afraid that nuclear power will pose a hazard to people, both the plants themselves and the storage of the waste. Yet we continue to mine coal even though we know that coal poses a hazard, both to those who mine it and to the environment into which the combustion products are dumped.

As if this weren't inscrutable enough, President Obama wants to solve the problems coal poses to human safety and the environment by simply eliminating both coal and nuclear power as a source of energy. How we will light our homes once he has ushered in the golden age of a nuclear-free and fossil fuel-free world he hasn't yet explained to us, but we can be sure that he knows what he's doing.


Transcending Race

The New York Times confirms that Barack Obama is indeed the nation's first black president, having inexplicably checked "Black" to identify his race on his census form. I say "inexplicably" because the man who was going to bring us together and end all of that ugly divisiveness that plagues our politics, the man who was going to transcend race, could have checked "Other." Instead, he chose to identify with the black father he never knew, and spurn the white family that raised him.

Doesn't that seem faintly racist, if I may be forgiven for asking? If someone had one white parent and one black wouldn't it be inaccurate and arbitrary to call oneself white?

A student once asked, if every president until Mr. Obama had been black would everyone be calling President Obama the first white president?