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Neil Greenberg Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. CREATIVE BEHAVIOR. NOTE – stretching toward ART & ORGANISM. CREATIVITY is associated with biological stress:

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creative behavior
Neil Greenberg

Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville

note stretching toward art organism
NOTE – stretching toward ART & ORGANISM

CREATIVITY is associated with biological stress:

It provides a unique problem that engages many of the aspects of behavioral biology in which I am most interested:

It is a dramatic expression of the same kind of cognitive transcendence (going beyond the immediate situation) that we find in learning . . .

… particularly involving the biology of stress, and the integrative function of the brain

natural history


  • Describe trait, then
  • Development(ontogeny, experience)
  • Evolution(fitness)
  • Environment(ecology, context)
  • Physiology(causation, neuroendocrinology)
recently enlarged understanding
Recently enlarged understanding:

[1] Creativityis more than a trait of a few extraordinary individuals

[2] Stressis more than a massive response to life-threatening challenge

[3] The “R-Complex” is more than a regulator of motor acts

  • involves the expression of unprecedented or novel perceptions, thoughts, or actions . . .
  • by which an organism or group of organisms copes . . .
  • with present or potential changes in the composition and structure of the environment.
  • reflects a spontaneous or evoked increase in the intensity of cognitive processing . . .
  • that enables the relating and integrating of variables . . .
  • not ordinarily associated with each other.
creativity copes with needs unmet
  • Needs - and priorities
  • Physiology ( Food comes first, then morals. -Bertolt Brecht)
  • Safety (security, order, protection)
  • Belonging ( sociability, acceptance)
  • Esteem (status, prestige)
  • Self-Actualization (personal fulfillment) -Maslow
change stress and creativity
  • Change and stress
  • Stress and creativity
  • Evolution: “The peacock’s tail,” the lizard’s dewlap
stressors and coping responses
Stressors and Coping Responses
  • The organism possesses a remarkable sense of biological priorities
  • Mechanisms that helped cope with stressors -- fragments of motor patterns and autonomic reflexes -- have been cobbled together by evolution (“bricolage”).
  • Stressor is a real or perceived challenge to an organism’s ability to meet its real or perceived needs.
real or perceived needs that must be met
Real or perceived NEEDS that must be met:
  • Physiology( Homeostasis) (Food comes first, then morals. -Bertolt Brecht)
  • Safety(security, order, protection)
  • Sociality( acceptance, “acceptance”)
  • Esteem(better reproductive opportunities status, prestige;)
  • Self-Actualization(reproduction; direct or indirect fitness; “personal fulfillment”)

-apologies to Maslow

Coping . . .
  • STRESSORS are internal or external changes which by challenging an organism’s ability to meet its needs evokes a coordinated coping response
  • . . . constrained by a threshold for detectionof the change, for attentionbased on real or perceived relevance, andcapacity to respond at any particular level once the challenge is detected.
coping responses constraints of the system
COPING RESPONSES: constraints of the system
  • Input (stress can change the sensitivity of sense organs (e.g., Gandelman 1983); resolve competitive parallel afferent pathways,)
  • Integration(receptive field modulation; stress can affect arousal, selective attention (e.g., Archer 1973, R.J. Andrew 1972); differential regional sensitivity to hormones or neurotransmitters (e.g., Amy Arnsten 2000); control of microcirculation (e.g., Palmer 1986)
  • Output (resolve competitive parallel efferent paths to action; energetic reserves and the ability to mobilize them)
coping responses stress sensitive hormones
COPING RESPONSES: stress sensitive hormones
  • Sympathoadrenomedullary (SAMS) response (adrenal medullary /chromaffin response to sympathetic activation)
  • Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activation(CRF, ACTH, adrenal glucocorticoids)
  • Opioids(endorphin, enkephalin; affects perception of pain and reproductive axis)
  • Prolactin (affects reproductive axis)
  • Angiotensin, Melanotropin?
coping responses problems of interpretation
COPING RESPONSES: problems of interpretation
  • Bi-phasic (“paradoxical”) responses(responses can be diametrically opposed depending on absolute levels of hormone (e.g., Gandelman 1983) or presence of facilitating hormones (e.g., stress can facilitate classical conditioning [Shors et al. 1992] in males but not in females [Wood & Shors 1998])
  • Extra-trophic effects(e.g., CRF canenhances effects of novelty, affect learning,(see Koob 1991); ACTH can suppress aggression (see Brain et al 1971); MSH affects motivation, attention (Stratton & Kastin 1973; Kastin et al. 1971)
coping responses hierarchically arrayed
COPING RESPONSES: hierarchically arrayed
  • The most ancient (evolutionarily conservative) responses are invoked first (adrenal medullary /chromaffin response to sympathetic activation) (fear –subcortical limbic areas; pleasure --cortical limbic)
  • As each response’s adaptive scope is exceeded, successive mechanisms deploy (local, neuroendocrine [CRF, ACTH, glucocorticoids], behavior)
  • Behavior is the final option (invoked when “lower” responses capacity is exceeded or they would be would be too “expensive”)
coping responses not only emergencies
COPING RESPONSES: not only emergencies !
  • Elements of the stress response can be invoked whenever there is a mismatch (unmet expectations, cognitive dissonance; (Goldstein 1990))
  • Stressors can be cumulative(acute, sequential, episodic, or sustained stressors all make demands on the system)
  • The level of response is related to perceived prospects for success (e.g., learned helplessness; active versus passive coping identified with specific columns within the periaquaductal gray (Paradiso et al. 1999))
coping responses delicately balanced alternatives
COPING RESPONSES:delicately balanced alternatives !
  • “Fight or flight” (the classic stress alternatives to imminent aggressive threat –not only in animals with a cerebral cortex! -- Cannon)
  • “Flee or freeze”(lizards can apparently calculate prospects for survival based on external threat , internal resources, and environmental possibilities -- Rand)
  • “Green or brown” (the Anolis carolinensis dermal chromatophore –the “chromomotor model” --Greenberg)
  • “Tend and Befriend”(nurturing children or seeking social contact: oxytocin in conjunction with other stress hormones and opioids – SE Taylor 2002)
survey stress sensitive behavior
SURVEY: stress-sensitive behavior
  • Detection, Arousal and Attention(steroids affect sensory thresholds, EPI intensifies; acute CS enhances salience)
  • Activity(CRF facilitates in familiar habitat, inhibits in unfamiliar habitat)
  • Exploration(CRF and ACTH enhances effects of novelty, CS facilitates)
  • Learning and memory( EPI, CRF, MSH facilitate acquisition)
  • Cognition( catecholamine modulation; taking prefrontal cortex “offline” (Arnsten))
survey stress sensitive behavior1
SURVEY: stress-sensitive behavior
  • Feeding( CS stimulates or inhibits depending on circulating levels)
  • Aggression(ACTH suppresses, CS increases or decreases depending on circulating levels)
  • Social Dominance(CS increases submissiveness)
  • Reproduction( ACTH, CS, opiods, and prolactin impair HPG axis)
  • Dysfunctional behavior(stereotypies, neuroses, psychoses)
stress and the evolution of behavior

“In animals, almost invariably, a change in behavior is the crucial factor initiating evolutionary innovation” (Ernst Mayr 1988).

Behavior creates new selective pressures (Mark Baldwin via Deacon 1998)

stress and the evolution of behavior1

The “Ritualization” of signals a model:

fragments of motor patterns or autonomoic reflexesbecome temporally or spatially associated as an ensemble (Morris 1956, Hinde and Tinbergen 1958)

The “Central Adaptation Syndrome”(Huether 1996).

Controllable stressors lead to a “go and specialize” strategy (e.g., earlier recognition and avoidance, improved fighting strategies, refined submission behavior)

Uncontrollable stressors lead to a “wait and reorganize” strategy (e.g., CS reorganization of neural circuits; tuning of learning, motivation, and emotional states)

stress and the evolution of behavior2

Stress-sensitive intersections of motivation, affect, and cognition are candidates for evolutionary change.

Valence of affect : positive, cortical-limbic areas; negative, subcortical-limbic areas(Paradiso et al. 1999)

note: male anoles with subcortical lesions act like castrates- they attend stimuli but are not motivated to respond aggressively (“social agnosia,” recalling autistic failure to recognize signals)

Active versus passive copingparallel autonomic strategies correlated with activity in discrete columns of periaquaductal gray(Bandler et al. 2000)

envoi postlude

“take-home” messages that might emerge from considering these ideas are …

…nonspecific stress responses and sex steroids involve arousal and attention and motivation

…close ethological description and temporal resolution can reveal unexpected mechanisms

…the comparative approach can indicate evolutionary paths that my have been taken

… field and laboratory work are mutually stimulating

… hormones “multi-task” in the brain as well as in the body

… there are multiple input, integration, and output options and pathways for evolutionary bricolage


CREATIVITY provides a unique problem that engages many of the aspects of behavioral biology in which I am most interested:

It is a dramatic expression of the same kind of cognitive transcendence that we find in learning . . .

Particularly involving the biology of stress, and the integrative function of the brain

the beast in the brain
The “BEAST” in the brain?
  • the Reptilian complex of Paul MacLean’s “Triune Brain”
  • The basal ganglia of clinicians, MacLean’s “R-Complex”) … can be regarded the link between motivational/affective centers and effectors
in summary
In Summary . . .

[1] Creativityis an adaptive trait that underlies art and play

[2] Stress psychoactive hormones can inhibit or facilitate the neural processes that underlie creativity

[3] The striatal (“R”) Complexmay be the interface between cognitive and motor acts and contribute to the prioritizing of needs

extremes creativity as an affective disorder
  • “great” art is at the end of a continuum -- recognizable by certain connections we have in common with the artist [ZPD]
  • specific disorders [TLE, depression, schizophrenia]