Last week I was hit by some nebulous virus (I assume) that left me feverish and under the weather without actually confining me to bed. My brain turned to mush and even answering simple emails felt a challenge, a situation rendered more serious by the fact I’d just come back from a week away from my computer so the email mountain was particularly large. OK, to be more honest, the email mountain had been building up steadily since around the start of March when my diary had got severely overfull due to a plethora of London meetings and a trip to Brussels. The pressure of knowing that there was a horrendously large number of urgent emails, carefully colour coded in my Inbox to indicate their relative criticality, did nothing to improve the functioning of my brain as I stared at my laptop screen.
However, apologising for the dilatoriness of my responses to colleagues (or possibly apologising for the woolliness and unhelpfulness in any responses I did make) is not the point of this post. What interested me was the way my brain’s behaviour took on a life of its own. Normally I have enough self-control to mean that when I start writing a reply to an email I can usually manage to finish it and send it off. Not so last week. I would start reading an email and consider what I wanted to say in response, but before I’d managed to put that down in black and white my brain would go off at a tangent. I would find myself hunting out another email, or checking what I’d said to someone else 6 months ago on something vaguely relevant; maybe I’d even start chasing up some reference on the web. Half an hour later the original email was still unanswered and I’d forgotten what it was I wanted to say. I’d like to think this was a temporary condition brought on by my body temperature having crept up a degree or two, nothing drastic, just enough to make any sort of efficiency go out of the window.
It was a strange feeling. Although I am as capable of wasting time on the web as anyone, usually I am also able to concentrate if I try hard enough. In the state I was in, that was hopeless. My brain was just not going to play ball for a few days. Usually, one takes one’s brain for granted, familiar with the way of maintaining a balance and getting what one wants out of it. The only other times I am aware of my brain circuitry going astray is after a (classic) migraine attack. Although I find sumatriptan almost a wonder-drug in stopping the pain and nausea of the episode itself if I swallow it fast enough as the aura first strikes, I still get left with the after-effects once the headache itself has stopped. This, apparently, is called the postdrome and during this stage it is as if I can mentally visualise all those electrical signals trying to course through my brain and getting stopped at some unexpected barrier (maybe genuinely a synapse, I’ve no idea, I can only discuss what it feels like from inside). So, when trying to solve some problem I feel as if I can take a solution so far and then wham, I hit a brick wall, even though I know when fully fit that wall would not be there. This is particularly trying when attempting to teach familiar stuff: you know you know the answer but there’s no way you can retrieve it. You can feel the whirrings of the cogs in the brain and they are going nowhere. It is bizarre to know that your brain has simply gone on strike, although outwardly all is well. I appreciate that neuroscientists are probably appalled by what I’m writing but since as far as I understand it, the underlying biochemical cause of migraines remains a mystery, I guess I’m entitled to discuss it in non-scientific terms, just in terms of the symptoms I experience.
But back to the state of fever. What I realised when my brain was not behaving as I expected it to was the interesting light this cast on creativity. I wasn’t able to be dutiful and painstaking, but the flights of fancy and the way my thoughts darted about if I gave them free rein, allowed me to make connections my more disciplined brain would probably not have allowed. In full health, when is one at one’s most creative? In my experience it is not necessarily when one is fully concentrating on a task in hand but (inconveniently) as you drift off to sleep – and then wake up completely, fully alert as you try to capture that great thought; or (a particular favourite of mine) when sitting through a boring seminar. At times like that you are not consciously thinking about the seminar material, but you are also not being distracted by the boringly domestic (what should I cook for supper?), the frustratingly political (Osborne said what?) or the resolutely practical (if I catch the 0815 train I should arrive in time). So the mind seems to be receptive to random forays into interesting niches, bringing different familiar facts together in new ways. The single real Eureka moment I can remember in my whole research career certainly occurred in that way. There I was, sitting through a student seminar at a time when I myself was a research fellow, idly sketching some possible curves for the way polymer failure might occur as a function of temperature (written up here) when suddenly I realised how my collection of data made sense. But even without shouting Eureka, one can be productive by not concentrating– at least some of the time! – and creativity is such an important part of how we do science.
Creativity is, unfortunately, not necessarily something the average member of the public associates with science. The Blakeian view that ‘Art is the Tree of Life. Science is the Tree of Death’ is too often implicitly accepted, wildly wrong though it is. That view presumes that scientific discovery is a linear process, knowing where it is going to end up when a set of experiments is initiated, allowing no deviation into interesting offshoots and diverging paths. In other words, no room for creativity.
When I appeared on Start the Week a couple of years ago, the producers were, somewhat desperately I thought, trying to find a topic they felt the others round the table could relate to (I had been invited on because they’d spotted I was giving a talk on ‘Alzheimer’s Disease and Yogurt’ – a title which clearly caught their fancy). We agreed on the subject of creativity, as you can hear, but it is something I feel that scientists should bang on about a bit more as being a crucial part of our canon.
Creativity, lateral thinking of the kind provoked by a brain not quite under control, is more commonly associated with the drug-induced writings of someone like Aldous Huxley or the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I am most certainly not advocating the (ab)use of drugs or alcohol in the laboratory, but I do think we should recognize that creativity needs to be loudly reclaimed by scientists. For ourselves we need to work out how best to find that wondrous, passing state, where unexpected ideas can suddenly come from nowhere. However minor they may be, they may adventitiously flash into the mind and make sense of apparently incompatible experimental results or rationalise confusing data. In an ideal world we should be able to find this state, not only without recourse to dangerous substances, but also without being rendered otherwise useless by a virus.