Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Creativity Gene

by Sarah Sullivan

See this lovely young woman to the left? That’s Maile (pronounced: MY-lee) Meloy. Before the age of 30 she had published stories and essays inThe New Yorker, The Paris Review, Slate and The Wall Street Journal (just to name a few.) She received critical acclaim for her 2003 debut novel Liars and Saints and a few years later her book of short stories, Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, was named one of the ten best books of 2009 by the New York Times Book Review. After taking the world of adult writing by storm, Maile turned her attention to children’s literature and wrote the bestselling YA novel The Apothecary which has already been optioned for a screen play. Maile has a little brother. His name is Colin Meloy. He is the lead singer and main lyricist for the indie folk band The Decemberists, you may have seen them on Conan O’Brien or David Letterman. If music’s not your thing, that’s ok. You can read his fantasy book series for children,The Wildwood Chronicles, instead. 

I grew up around Meloys. My father was a lawyer and the Meloy family, Maile’s father, grandfather and uncles, were lawyers as well. I babysat Maile and Colin when they were children and I was a not much older adolescent. I have enjoyed watching their stars rise and illuminate more brightly by the year. What are the odds of two siblings born and raised in the rural State of Montana growing up to become creative superstars? It raises the age old question: Are our creative fates governed by nature, nurture or some combination of the two?

From my perspective,there was nothing exceptional about Maile's and Colin’s middle class upbringing. To be sure, both parents were undeniably bright, engaged, interesting people who encouraged their children to be the same and provided them with lots of enrichment opportunities in the arts as well as in the great outdoors. They were also a product of their hippieish 70’s upbringing which is to say a lot of organic whole wheat, not much T.V. and divorce. 

So what is it that makes some people more innately creative than others? There is a growing body of research to suggest it really does have something to do with our genetic makeup. According to researchers compiled at the Department of Neuroscience at Cornell University in 2011 artists and musicians have a "a specific genetic characteristic". These individuals tend to have a smaller corpus collusum, which is the bundle of fibers that divides the two halves of the brain. This allows for greater connectivity between the two sides of the brain and "benefits the incubation of ideas that are critical for the divergent-thinking component of creativity." This research substantiates similar findings of a major University of Hellsinki study published in 2009. 

So what does that mean for the rest of us who have not yet achieved fame and fortune in our creative endeavors? Well, the good news is few, if any of us, will ever know the size of our corpus collosum leaving us blissfully ignorant and able to assume that our brain fibers are of the exact right proportions to maximize our creative potential. Second, I can tell you from my first hand experience in meeting many neurologists (due to my daughters neurology needs), that all neurologists readily admit there is much more they don't know than they do know about the brain and how it functions. So until someone scans my brain and tells me definitively that I don't have what it takes, I'll just keep plodding along. In the meantime, I'll continue to enjoy watching Maile and Colin flourish and imagine their busy little brain waves jumping about from neuron to neuron hatching brilliant nuggets of words and music to entertain us all. 

We're you raised in a creative environment? 

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