It will not come as a surprise that human creativity – from coming up with a new recipe in the kitchen to altering the way people live – finds a place in our brain.
In short, our brain, in essence being a network of neural networks, creates new neural links between existing concepts.
A complex interplay between multiple brain networks enables us to transform existing concepts into new ideas. Knowledge is creativity’s main ingredient. The more knowledge you store, the more inputs the brain has to form new connections between networks.
We have also gained insight into how the creative process is induced. Focus – driven in the executive attention network – can be counterproductive. Mind wandering enables your brain to make looser associations, stimulating more divergent connections.
That is not a coincidence as brain wave states inducing “a state of flow” are closely linked to this imaginative process. When our logical pre-frontal cortex function slows down, we become more imaginative.
Do we help others, or do we help ourselves? It is an age old discussion. Recently, the concept of altruism has increasingly been put to scientific scrutiny.
A large body of research supports our helpful nature, even if this may be driven by selfish reasons. Rooted in evolutionary theory, helping others increases the chance of our species’ survival. This behaviour has been identified with toddlers and chimpanzees, suggesting the innate nature of this behaviour.
There is still much discussion as to the why and how of this behaviour though. Some scientists claim mirror neurons drive empathetic behaviour: these neurons mirror the experience of others and our brains process this as if it was our own experience. Many scientists though find this (still) a too expansive interpretation of the concept.
Science has taken up an extensive interest in the neurology of altruism; hence more nuanced views can be expected. What we do know is that our brain chemistry does support altruistic behaviour: giving to others stimulates mesolimbic pathways – usually linked with food and reproduction – and releases endorphins, creating the helper’s high.
The environment in which we live is the theatre of our life. To tell the truth, apart from a Darwinist interpretation we don’t know why we have a tendency for sustainability.
An entire branch of science is looking to change that; ecological psychology researches the interplay between individuals and its surroundings. A cornerstone of this scientific area is our innate emotional connection with nature, better known as the biophilia hypothesis.
A simple example is that we generally find baby animals ‘cute’. If you are wondering why, the theory suggests that, evolutionarily, this positive emotion across mammals drives survival and protection of all species involved.
The question then arises about why we do not always act upon this in a sustainable way. One take at the answer is neurotoxicity: many pollutants are disrupting our endocrine system. As a result, we experience altered behaviour, such as decreased motivation or increased aggression.
Being the most difficult part to describe, finding inner peace and feeling ‘part of something bigger’ is the most spiritual need we have.
Science – quantifiable by design – struggles with this immaterial need. There is a large variety of scientific perspectives to our spiritual needs. No definite answer exists, which in itself is a compliment to science as a whole. Isn’t science in its essence, our way of constant wonder and questioning?
With that in mind, broadly speaking, one can approach our spiritual needs mechanically, psychologically and “non-scientifically”, the latter not discounting the actual value of the perspective.
The mechanics of finding inner peace have become increasingly clear thanks to recent neuroscience. Adjusting breathing which clears the mind, a cornerstone of meditation, drive physical changes to our brain structure.
From a purely mechanical perspective, one could say that this spiritual need is supportive of other needs and is not a standalone need as such. It helps us with stress management, increase focus and self-control and decrease anxiety.
This is where transcendental psychology comes in, as it researches the spiritual realm for its own merit. A large array of research explores the need for mysticism, altered states of awareness and peak experiences. This research is supported by neurobiology, showing these experiences drive chemical processes which are linked with reward and pleasure.
Unsurprisingly as it touches the borders of science, the entire domain is under intense criticism. On the other side of the spectrum, some physicists claimed to have identified parallels between physics and eastern mysticism. Giants from physics such as Heisenberg, and Schrödinger, gave mystical interpretations to their theories.
Because the currently accepted standard model of physics still seems flawed and we do not know the true nature of the universe, not a single human being really knows. Science is still just in its infancy, only a few centuries old, with still so much to discover.
So, it is up to each individual to determine which place – if any – spirituality has in our life. Quoting the Tao of the Universe, “Science does not need mysticism and mysticism does not need science, but man needs both.”
What science does show is a clear correlation between spirituality and how we experience the quality of our lives. Hence, spirituality is a key building block when we aspire to maximize life quality and happiness.