Am I better than I used to be at recognizing insights?
Before I get into this post, let me start by saying that I think a song idea is very much like an insight, an “ah ha!” moment. Ideas for songs tend to arrive in a flash and for some inexplicable reason, songwriters are able to know instantly whether a song idea holds promise or not. Sure, a song is more subjective than a mathematical insight, but the mental experience is the same: you have been thinking about something and suddenly, out of nowhere, an answer presents itself, and you recognize that it is indeed the answer.
So, when I spied an article in a recent New Yorker that explored the nature of insight, I got to thinking about, you guessed it, songwriting and my brain injury. As I’ve posted ad nauseam, I think my subdural hematoma, bestowed upon me by a tile wall in 2006, has altered my brain in some way that makes writing songs easier for me than it was Before The Fall. And as I read the New Yorker article, I was looking for some answers about my condition.
I’ll cut to the chase: none jumped out, but, I am, maybe, slightly less mystified.
According to the New Yorker article, insights
“[come] with a burst of brain activity. Three hundred milliseconds before a [test] participant [communicates that he has had an insight] [there is] a spike of gamma rhythm, which is the highest electrical frequency generated by the brain. Gamma rhythm is thought to come from the ‘binding’ of neurons, as cells distributed across the cortex draw themselves together into a new network, which is then able to enter consciousness. It’s as if the insight had gone incandescent.”
Whatever… BUT, the article goes on to report that:
“When the scientists looked at the data, however, they saw that a small fold of tissue on the surface of the right hemisphere, the anterior superior temporal gyrus (aSTG), became unusually active in the second before the insight. The activation was sudden and intense, a surge of electricity leading to a rush of blood. Although the function of the aSTG remains mostly a mystery—the brain is stuffed with obscurities— [scientists weren't] surprised to see it involved with the insight process. A few previous studies had linked the area to aspects of language comprehension, such as the detection of literary themes and the interpretation of metaphors.”
Now this is interesting, because the anterior superior temporal gyrus is located toward the back of the lower brain, so its signal has to bubble up to the cortex before it can be processed and recognized for the flash of genius it is. And, if you are a loyal reader of this blog or have had the misfortune to sit next to me at a party and ask me about my brain injury, you will know that my subdural hematoma was on the back of my cerebellum, or, the rear, lower part of my brain. You will also know that Yuri Danilov, a neural scientist at the University of Madison and one of the very few people to be able to actually help me recover faster, theorized that my injury affected the way my lower brain and upper brain communicate. So, could it be that in addition to my motor skills being adversely affected by my fall, my songwriting skills were affected in the opposite way for the same reason? Hmmm...
Sadly, I just don't have the cranial horsepower to go much deeper into this subject, but if anyone out there reading this has some thoughts, please share!
For further reading on how we arrive at insights, check this out.