topic Creativity


Clyde is sitting in front of a large white canvas. He starts to throw random colors onto the canvas and within a few minutes, an image starts to emerge. Several hours later, a rough draft of a painting is taking shape.

“Clyde, honey, you have a doctor’s appointment in forty-five minutes.” His wife, Irene, stands at the door watching him for few minutes before she finally interrupts.

As he heads out the door, she wonders once again how her husband’s mind works. As a research scientist, her work is so different than his that she is often in awe of her husband’s casual creative leaps of mind.

Illustration by Leena Prasad

Illustration by Leena Prasad

Irene has read a little bit about how the brain works. She knows that axons are the transport lines between brain neurons and they are protected by a material called the myelin sheath. White matter is the collection of axons and the thickness of the myelin sheaths determine the density of the white matter.  White matter carries messages across the brain.

Irene reads about research done by Dr. Rex Jung, a neuroscientist who studies creativity. According to his findings, the white matter in the creativity circuits of the mind is denser in highly creative people, a similarity shared by people with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. This is not to say that creative people suffer from psychopathology, rather that there are some similarities in the structure of the brain. Thicker white matter in some parts of the brain correlates to higher IQ whereas thinner white matter in other parts of the brain correlates to higher creativity (as defined by the researchers). Dense white matter carries information faster whereas thinner white matter slows down the transmission. This resonates with Irene because it seems to her that her thoughts travel in straight lines whereas Clyde’s mind sometimes takes loops and turns to go from one place to another.

Illustration by Leena Prasad

Illustration by Leena Prasad

Clyde is highly intelligent in addition to being very creative. So, this means that he has thick white matter in the IQ areas and thinner white matter in the creativity processing neurons. But there’s more to creativity than just the white matter. According to Jung, the pre-frontal cortex, the brain’s planning and control center, takes a break when the mind is experiencing a creative moment. This clarifies how Clyde often forgets about practical matters when his mind switches to a creative mode. It also explains his ability to be playful without the pre-frontal cortex putting brakes on his uninhibited ability to have fun.

When Clyde walks through the door several hours later, he has a bagful of groceries in his hand and has remembered to bring everything on her list. Later, he pulls out a painting of a dozen yellow roses from his studio to surprise her.  His wife is happy that his thick white matter, thin white matter, and pre-frontal cortex are working as a team to create a pleasant day for both of them.

Leena Prasad has a writing portfolio at FishRidingABike.com. Links to earlier stories in her monthly column can be found at WhoseBrainIsIt.com.

Josh Buchanan, a UC Berkeley graduate, edits this column with an eye on grammar and scientific approach.


  1. Jung, Rex., White Matter Integrity, Creativity, and Psychopathology:Disentangling Constructs with Diffusion Tensor Imaging, PLoS ONE | www.plosone.org, March 22, 2010
  2. Tippett,  Krista, host of Creativity and the Everyday Brain with Rex Young, On Being, May 2, 2013, http://www.onbeing.org/program/creativity-and-everyday-brain/1879

Rachael’s Defenses

topic racism
region amygdala, pre-frontal cortex, temporal lobe
chemicals cortisol

This article’s primary objective is the neurobiology of the brain and not the evolutionary, psychological, and social influences that might have formed the particular brain chemistry.

Rachael walks into the dimly lit bar and scans the faces to locate her friend. Priya is not here yet. She recognizes a guy at the bar as someone she has seen before. She stares at him a little too long, so he looks up at her. But there is no sign of recognition in his face and he looks away.


A black man, whom she does not recognize, walks towards her. Rachael pulls at a handful of her blonde hair with a nervous tug. Her heart races slightly and her palms are a bit sweaty. She smiles and says hello. The guy, Paul, tells her that they have met before. Oh, right, she remembers, she says, but she does not recognize him.

Rachael has seen Paul more often than she has seen the guy at the bar. Why does she recognize him but not Paul? There can be many factors for this discrepancy, but one of them can be a biological one. The man at the bar is white. Rachael is white. Neurosurgeon Alexandra Golby conducted a study in which she discovered that the face recognition areas in the temporal lobe are more active when people see someone of their own race. This higher activity leads to higher recall of the faces of people of their own race. Rachael’s brain is not unique in making this discrimination.

Why does her heart race when she sees Paul? This is a slightly racist response to seeing a black man she does not recognize. But it is not a conscious one. According to studies, many white people (most of the studies have been performed on white people) show an increased activity in the amygdala when they see a black face. The degree of response varies from person to person and the intensity of the response can be matched to the degree to which the person is a racist. The racing of her heart is triggered by the higher activity in her amygdala, the area of that brain that responds to fear by activating the fight-or-flight response and places the body in a stress mode.

Priya walks in to the bar and goes towards the guy at the bar. Paul leaves Rachael and goes up to Priya and gives her a hug. Priya’s amygdala activity stays the same when she interacts with Paul or Rachael or anyone else of any race. Her mother is Japanese and her father is from Palestine. She has had an early start in being comfortable with people of different races. Environmental factors contribute significantly to a person’s racist attitudes and thus in forming the chemical patterns of their brain. This is a positive indication that racist attitudes can be changed at the biological level.

Paul is happy to get away from Rachael. She fails to recognize him despite having had several conversations with him and he feels tense around her. Her body language is aloof towards him. It could be that she does not like him but he is starting to sense that perhaps it has to do with his race. Paul is right and Rachael does have racist tendencies even though she is not a racist, per se. She has friends of other races but she is most comfortable with people of her own race and exhibits other prejudiced characteristics. Rachael’s racist response to Paul raises the cortisol, the stress hormones, in both their bodies. Thus, her response not only hurts Paul but also harms her.

If not managed properly, issues of racism can lead to unpleasant results not only for the victims but for the racist herself. If Rachael continues to think and behave in her current mode, she is setting herself up for a future of stress leading to health problems. In order to change her automatic racist responses, she will first need to become more aware of her responses and consciously work on changing them.

What can she do to change her biological response? There is another part of the brain which is also activated when a white person sees a black face. The prefrontal cortex, the region that manages information and puts a brake on the emotional responses of the amygdala, is also activated when study participants respond to a black face. This part of the brain, located in the anterior part of the frontal lobe, is involved in learning and behavior control.  Thus, conscious efforts made by a person to change their behavior can train the pre-frontal cortex to manage the amygdala-responses more effectively, and thus minimize the cortisol and any other potential side effects of racism.

Rachael does not need to know the inner workings of her brain to effect change. She just needs to understand that her behavior is counterproductive not just towards herself but towards society in general. This understanding could lead to healthier brain chemistry and a better life for herself and for others around her.


Dr. Nicola Wolfe is a neuroscience consultant for this column. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychopharmacology from Harvard University and has taught neuroscience courses for over 20 years at various universities.


1.      Smith, Jeremy A., Marsh, J., & Mendoza-Denton, R., Are We Born Racist? Beacon Press 2010.

2.      Zimmer, Carl., This is your brain on racism. Or is that liberal guilt?, Discover Magazine, November 18, 2003

3.      Miller EK, Freedman DJ, Wallis JD. The prefrontal cortex: Categories, concepts and cognition. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2002;357:1123–1136. [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12217179]


Chai Tea


topic Laughter
region mesolimbic
chemicals dopamine


“Chai tea,” Tina says to the woman behind the counter.

Hema tries to suppress a chuckle.

“What’s so funny?” Tina asks.

“Nothing. It won’t be funny to you.”

“Try me, anyway.”

“Well chai in hindi means tea.”

“Oh,” Tina says and giggles. “Yeah, we like to appropriate other cultures words without considering what it means.”

“I don’t really care. But it does sound funny. I’ll have some tea tea please.”

“What makes something funny?” Hema says, as they sit down at a table wither their drinks.

“Well, maybe it has to do with something absurd. Like tea tea.”

They sip their drinks, considering the question.

“You know, I read somewhere that if a certain part of the brain is touched, it can cause laughter.”

“You mean, like in the inside, by a brain surgeon?”

“Yes, yes, during surgery, or when they are examining the brain.”

“So, the humor circuits are hardwired? I guess that makes sense. Everything is hardwired, I suppose.”

Hema could be describing the case reported in Nature magazine by neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried of University of California at Los Angeles. Fried made an accidental discovery while studying the brain of an epileptic patient, a 16-year-old girl. He was trying to diagnose the reason for her seizures by using an electric probe on her brain. Every once in a while, the girl would start laughing for no apparent reason. He realized that when the probe touched a specific area in her left frontal lobe she would laugh. If he increased the electric current, the girl would laugh with more intensity.

Much of research on humor has been done on brain abnormalities that cause inappropriate laughter. It is difficult to study “normal” humor because the definition of humor varies. But, researchers can look at the result of humor, i.e., how the laughter resonates within the brain circuits. Excluding laughter caused by tickling, laughing gas, or simply as social contagion, some recent studies examine the result of laughter on a healthy human brain as it responds to everyday humor.

The area that Fried was touching inside the 16-year-old girl’s brain is less than an inch-square and it’s called the supplementary motor area. In a study cited in the Brain journal, a PET scan revealed an increase in the blood flow in the supplementary motor area while subjects responded to humorous film clips.

“Do you think women laugh more than men?” Hema says.

“Hmmm… I’m tempted to say, probably yes, but I wonder if anyone has actually studied something like that?”

The answer is not as simple as per a study cited in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It’s not the quantity of laughter but the qualitative differences in the integration of the response in the male versus the female brain. A group of 10 men and 10 women were shown a series of cartoons and asked to rate the cartoons as being funny or not. An fMRI scan showed that the left prefrontal cortex was activated more in the women than the men for the cartoons that both genders found to be funny.

“Whatever happens in the brain, I’ve read that laughing is good for you,” Tina says.

“Sure, it certainly feels good.”

Laughter produces generous release of the feel good hormone dopamine and activates the reward circuits of the brain, the mesolimbic region. This was also discovered by the fMRI scan in the experiment that evaluated the differences in gender-based reactions to funny cartoons.
“We now have laboratory evidence that mirthful laughter stimulates most of the major physiologic systems of the body,” says William Fry, M.D., a Stanford University psychiatrist. He says that twenty seconds of laughter, real or fake, can increase the heart rate for a few minutes. Fry also says that laughter can potentially reduce the risk of heart attacks by reducing tension, stress, and anger and that it may even help in making people less susceptible to some diseases by warding off depression.
Yes, laughing feels good. More studies are required to map the exact brain areas complicit in causing this response. But, we can rest assured that a little laugher is indeed a “good medicine.”


B. Wild (2003). Neural correlates of laughter and humour, Brain, 126 (10), 2121-2138 DOI: 10.1093/brain/awg226

E. Azim (2005). Sex differences in brain activation elicited by humor Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102 (45), 16496-16501 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0408456102


Dr. Nicola Wolfe is a neuroscience consultant for this column. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychopharmacology from Harvard University and has taught neuroscience courses for over 20 years at various universities.