Is The Pandemic Making You Smarter?
It goes without saying that the pandemic sucks. But—suckiness notwithstanding—what if the pandemic is also super-charging your brain?
In February of 1665, two people in the St. Giles district of London suspiciously fell ill. Days later, they both perished. In April, three other London districts reported similar cases. By summer, it was clear to everyone: Plague had returned to London. In order to slow the contagion, the University of Cambridge canceled its classes. Among those sent home was an undistinguished mathematician who grew up in the countryside 60 miles north of London. His name was Isaac Newton.
One day while wandering through the orchard in his backyard, Newton noticed an apple fall from a tree.* This was not the first time he had seen apples falling from trees. But this time, for some unknown reason, the mundane event struck him as interesting. That seed of interest bloomed into one of the most influential ideas in modern civilization—the theory of gravity.
During the same quarantine, Newton revolutionized the science of optics and invented calculus. Most people assume Newton’s “year of wonders” was spawned by the sudden clearing of his calendar. Without distractions, the thinking goes, Newton was finally able to fully indulge his interests. (Which begs the question: would teenagers all over the world still be tortured with high school calculus if The Tiger King had aired in 1665?)
But what if there was something else happening in Newton’s brain that unleashed this flurry of insight? And what if that same force is igniting a creative explosion in your brain, and you don’t even know it?
THE LAW OF CREATIVE COMPENSATION
Not long ago, psychologists at the University of British Columbia brought two groups of study participants into their lab and asked them to read a short story. One group read an adaptation of a story called The Country Dentist by the absurdist writer Franz Kafka. The story was typically “Kafkaesque,” meaning that its twists and turns made little obvious sense—from the neighbor who kindly but inexplicably acts like a horse to the family that begs the country dentist to pull a tooth from their toothless child.
The second group of participants read a version of the same story that actually made sense: A friendly neighbor volunteers his horse but doesn’t proceed to act like one; the little boy with a toothache actually has teeth. You get the picture.
A little while later, the researchers tasked both groups with spotting hidden patterns in rows of letters. This is where things got interesting.
The people who read the confusing version of the Kafka story were nearly twice as good at spotting correct patterns in the strings of letters. Let that sink in for a second. Exposure to absurdity made people twice as insightful.
Since then, the researchers have found enhanced abilities after people look at nonsensical word pairings like “turn-frogs,” “careful-sweaters,” and “quickly-blueberries” versus more coherent pairs like “hot-lava” and “cheese-cake.” The same thing happened after showing some people an absurd short film by David Lynch, rather than a coherent clip from The Simpsons. (Homer might be ridiculous, but apparently there is sound logic to his ridiculousness.)
Researchers call this bizarre phenomenon “fluid compensation.” In the same way an aging man might compensate for disrupted (ahem) pelvic functioning by purchasing a high-powered sports car, our brains compensate for the disrupted meaning in one domain by doubling our capacity to make meaning in another domain.
If necessity is the mother of invention, nonsense appears to be the baby’s daddy. The question is why?
DISTURBANCE IN THE FORCE
“Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.”
In normal times, when the things around us make sense, our brains work on default mode. We wake up. We go to the office. We go to the gym or the grocery store. We take the kids to soccer practice. We see friends. We follow a routine.
But when the neighbor in the Kafka story acts like a horse for no discernible reason, or when people at the grocery store start dressing like Bane from the The Dark Knight Rises, the “default network” passes the reigns to another cluster of brain functions called “the salience network.” The salience network activates a powerful set of cognitive skills with one primary goal: Restore meaning.
Meaning is to the mind, what gravity is to the universe. It is that ever-present force pulling on all the objects in your mental world—every taste, touch, sound, smell, sight, fear and hope. In fact, the pull of meaning is so ubiquitous in our minds, that we rarely notice it. Much like oxygen for our lungs and electricity for our house, we only notice it when it’s gone.
When your brain can’t make sense of why Neighbor Brown is licking a salt block or how someone slurping down a bowl of bat soup in rural China can instantly make the old neighborhood resemble a zombie apocalypse movie, the salience network springs into action. It starts to compensate. It scours our surroundings, trying to connect the dots between ideas that were right in front of us all along, but that we just never noticed before.
This gives us an important clue about what sparked Newton’s “year of wonders.”
The bubonic plague wasn’t just deadly. It was a mystery. Nobody at that time—Newton included—understood what caused the plague or why it suddenly appeared in London. They didn’t know how best to treat it; or how exactly to protect themselves from it; or how long the outbreak would last. Trying to make sense of the plague outbreak was like trying to untangle the true motives of Carole Baskins.
So what did Newton’s brain do? It compensated.
Even though his default network had stopped paying attention to apples falling from trees a long time ago, his salience network saw everything with fresh eyes. It connected the dots between the apples in his orchard and his developing ideas about math.
YOUR BRAIN ON QUARANTINE
Thirteen years ago, I lived through another quarantine. One month after my dad barely survived a massive heart attack, my wife and I made a cross-country move from southern California to southern Minnesota in order to be closer to our parents. That’s when my quarantine began.
It wasn’t government-mandated, but it checked all the boxes. Working every day from an isolated home office in the basement? Check. Rarely leaving the house? Check. Never seeing my remotely connected co-workers outside of grainy video chats with limited bandwidth? Check. Never spending time with friends? Check. Worried about a fatal threat to my aging parents’ health? Check.
My sunny, care-free, SoCal existence had been violently disrupted and I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it. I barely slept. I questioned my marriage. I invented calculus. (Author’s Note: I didn’t invent calculus).
But during that same unhappy period, I hatched the idea that fulfilled a lifelong dream of signing a book deal with a major publisher. For years, I had chalked up the book deal to nothing but a cosmic consolation prize for enduring the dumpster fire of my isolated existence back then. But the research on creative compensation challenges that assertion. It reveals that each of us has a creative giant sleeping just below the surface of our normal daily routine. Sometimes we just need a little adversity to pull the covers off.
A CHILD ON THE BEACH
So, am I suggesting that the pandemic is a good thing? Of course not. Sugar-coating a turd won’t make it a doughnut.
What I am suggesting—with history as my witness—is that it’s often right here in these disorienting periods of fear, frustration, and loneliness that our legacy-leaving creations begin taking shape. I am suggesting it might not be a coincidence that after the Great Plague, London became healthier and stronger, and art and science experienced a renaissance.
I am also suggesting that, the more your normal work processes and projects get starved of resources, the harder your creative superpowers will hunt for game-changing insights about the way you reach your customers, manage your costs, and serve your team members. As the creature comforts of your job recede further into the background, the reason why you first chose to become a doctor, a nurse, an engineer, or a leader will snap back into place at the forefront of your mind. I am suggesting that while on detour from the desensitizing routine of daily life, you might finally connect the dots between the person you are and the person you can become.
Newton once said “I am only a child playing on the beach, while vast oceans of truth lie undiscovered before me.” I, too, was only a child playing on the beach during my last quarantine. But I was more of a bratty kid pouting about the crumbling sandcastle of my former lifestyle, while totally ignoring the “vast oceans of truth” lapping at my feet. Lucky for me, my salience network had already strapped on its scuba gear and dove in.
What I’ve learned since then is this: Even though the process of creative compensation is automatic, embracing the process is a decision. Each day, we can either stand on the beach and curse the tide, or we can slip our shoes off and go for a swim.
*The famous story about an apple plunking Newton on the head is probably apocryphal. If it did happen, he was too embarrassed to ever mention it in writing. What we do know is that later in his life Newton told at least four people that an apple in his orchard inspired him during his year on quarantine. Did he watch an apple fall to the ground? Did he simply reflect on the fact that apples hang down from tree branches instead of curling up? We’ll never know. Regardless of the question, gravity was the answer. This mundane observation never appeared noteworthy to him until the year of his plague-induced quarantine.
- For a detailed and entertaining look at Newton’s life, read the biography Isaac Newton by James Gleick.
- For more on fluid compensation, check out “The Meaning Maintenance Model: On the Coherence of Social Motivations” in Personality and Social Psychology Review by Stephen Heine, Travis Proulx, and Kathleen Vohs.
- Wired to Create by Scott Barry Kauffman and Carolyn Gregoire is a great book on the neuroscience of creativity and the different functions of the default network and salience network.
- I expand on these ideas in the book Ricochet: What To Do When Change Happens to You.