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In memory of Matti Bergström

2014-08-17

 

During this summer, the Finnish professor and researcher Matti Bergström died at the age of 92. To the last he worked on various articles and book projects. His interests were many  and extensive. I was interested in his theories on creativity, and I had a section on that included in an early work (Norlander, T. Alcohol and the Creative Process, 1997). To honor the memory of Matti Bergström I publish it here again:

 

Bergström (1990) claims that the human brain modulates interplay between disorder and order, in between chaos and ordered knowledge. With the starting point from amongst others MacLean (1973), Bergström describes the anatomical brainstem-cortex dimension of the brain as possessing a developmental property whereby three stages may be distinguished in a top-down arrangement. One may further apply a regional division (simplified), each with its own composite to the fully-developed human brain: 1) The reptilian region; 2) The mammalian region with concomitant limbic strictures; and, 3) The uniquely 'human part of the brain' with its specially developed frontal-prefrontal-temporal cortex. Sadly, the particular function of the frontal-prefrontal-temporal, but latterly even thalamic, regions with regard to both order, language and personality has not been considered explicitly by Bergström (ibid).

 

According to Bergström, differences between these three brain dimensions may be explained by the interaction with the surrounding environment, during development, requiring incrementally structured energy expenditure. Individuals find themselves in situations where lower 'structures', i.e. the mammalian region and the reptile region, annex control functions. Such situations are observed in fear/anxiety reactions, surprise, emotion, forms of sexual behavior, sleep, etc. Bergström postulates that the whole of the brain from the most primitive structures of the brain stem to the neocortex are constantly 'occupied' during the course of a person's life. Both from his own and others research (Bergström & Bergström 1962; Bergström 1969) utilizing registrations of signal function both at the level of the individual cell and as summated electrical activity on EEG traces have contributed to his formulation of a brain model.

 

According to that model the physiology of the brain is controlled by two “generators“. One obtains its power from the vegetative nervous system (which controls the basic vital processes of the organism and is not influenced by the will) and the other from our physical environment. The first generator consists of the primitive brainstem. Bergström terms this the random-generator, because it transmits signals in a disordered, randomized way. The other generator, the highly developed cerebral cortex, he calls the knowledge-generator because it transmits signals ordered in an informative structural way.

 

Even though the brainstem has a relatively primitive structure and task supplying information, it has, according to Bergström, a crucial function. It regulates the consciousness, but also other vital functions such as respiration and cardiac function. That means that the individual is unaware of the flow of information from the knowledge-generator until it is met by the stream of information from the brainstem. All of our actions have two roots: consciousness and knowledge.

 

The two generators are postulated to work in a Darwinian way according to Bergström. Thus, the information produced by the knowledge-generator is subject to random alterations because of the signal-streams from the random-generator. Therefore it is possible for the brain to maintain a continuous transformation of knowledge, which produces new, unpredictable knowledge (compare with Darwin‘s concept “mutations“ and with that of "variation and selection"). Bergström calls this “true creativity“ since the new knowledge cannot be derived from the old one, and thus requires the formation of new, neurobiological entities.

 

It is interesting to compare the model of Bergström with the work of certain N. American researchers on dream studies (Hobson, McCarley & Wyzinski 1975; Hobson & McCarley 1977; McCarley & Hobson 1977) who utilize a similar model in order to explain whether dreams may have a biological background. The reticular formation in the brain stem, the axons of which reach eventually to cortical regions, has in this regard been implicated. It is known that the neurons of the reticular activating system may be activated (Steriade & Hobson 1976). This activation, immediate and during sleep, in turn results in a higher level of brain activity; consequentially, these waves of activity are postulated to lead to the synthesis of 'memory traces' in the respective region of the cortex, in a manner whereby dream-activity without  'contextual-editing' is originated. The ongoing brain function then strives to construct meaningful order out of these fragments of memory.

 

At times, the disparate efforts of the cortex to combine ordered sequences together may be quite successful: It was purported to be in a dream that the nobel prize laureate, Otto Loewi, came upon the manner in which he would perform the experiment to demonstrate that nerve impulse could at the same time be both of electrical and chemical, i.e. electrochemical, nature. The laureate, himself describes how, having awakened, he immediately got up, departed for the laboratory and "performed a simple experiment upon a frog heart according to the nocturnal procedure" (Harman 1989, p. 60). This experiment was destined for-once-and-for-all to prove that the chemical entity, acetylcholine, was a neurotransmitter.

 

Bergström suggests that the top-bottom synchronicity, i.e. from the cerebral cortex to the brainstem, of which he is a adherent, is the basic pattern which is reflected in left-right synchronization. Other scientists (Harnad 1979; Olson 1977; Wheatley 1979) have emphasized the left-right brain synchronicity as decisive for creativity, and the right hemisphere is described as the site for creative thought. Following a comprehensive perusal through recent research, Elliott (1986) establishes that “there seems to be a growing consensus that both hemispheres are required for creative thinking“ (Elliott 1986, p. 209). She argues that creative behavior is a product of the human capacity to will and that implies that the prefrontal lobe must be engaged and "thereby facilitating the harmonious functioning of the entire brain (left-right, top-bottom, front-back) and thus regulating all psychological functions associated with the creative process" (Elliott 1986, p. 203). At this point it may be relevant to indicate that while the right hemisphere may well be 'the basal site' for creativity an expression of that creativity would require involvement of the left hemisphere (as Eliott indicated). Thus, one must consider the postulate that language has evolved by a process of increasing hemispheric specialisation (Annett 1985; Corballis 1991); language ought then to exert the expressive influence upon creativity. PET-scan computer printouts of blood flow activity have implicated frontal-temporal-parietal regions in language expression (Petersen, Fox, Mintun, Posner & Raichle 1989).

 

Some support for this position may come from a line of research studying parts of the brain by measuring the brain's regional flow of blood (rCBF). This research (Risberg 1994) has found that various types of tasks, linguistic as well as spatial, engage both hemispheres. A typical result is if the most active hemisphere's flow of blood increases with six units, the less active hemisphere increases with four. The conclusion is that both hemispheres are activated but most one rather more so. Wendt and Risberg (1994) have demonstrated that the extent of rCBF-asymmetry during spatial problem-solving was related to skillfulness and that task effectiveness was facilitated by hemispheric dominance. In another study (Wendt, Risberg, Stenberg, Rosén & Ingvar 1994) the participants watched alternated square-patterns which normally activate primarily the right hemispheric posterior parietal-occipital lobe region. This was also the result when the participants were sober. When the same participants were tested again after consuming a moderate amount of alcohol the flow of blood increased just as much in both hemispheres. Ingvar, Ghatan, Risberg, Wirsén-Meurling, Stone-Elander, Rosenqvist, Thurfjell and Ingvar (1995) claim that normally there are functional hemisphere asymmetries both at rest and mental activation. This asymmetry disappeared following a moderate intake of alcohol (see also discussion below on neuropathology).

 

 Bergström has also been interested in creativity and alcohol (Bergström 1983). He suggests that alcohol weakens the control that the cerebral cortex maintains over the subordinate centers, for instance the mesolimbic structures and the thalamus. This is evidenced on the psychological plane as less control of the conscious behavior. The consequence, according to Bergström, is that the knowledge-generator‘s function decreases. Conscious programs and the brain‘s lasting, stable information are not fully functional, which may be seen in a person's movements and speech. The weakened effect of the knowledge-generator also means, according to Bergström, that evolutionary more primitive levels of the brain start to take control of behavior. It is now that information which has not been fully selected, according to the selection-pressure, enters the behavior-channel (which means that certain inner mental processes are manifested in noticeable behavior). The superior principles of selection were the same as the brain's knowledge-generator, whose effect now is weakened, repressed.

 

This is, according to Bergström, the cause of an intoxicated person‘s 'typical' behavior: his goals often change illogically and unexpectedly, there is a loss of order. The different stages of the behavior are, through the eyes of the onlooker, contradictory. In this stage, creativity, which was a part of the information fighting a Darwinian struggle for perfection, can be at its best, especially with those who (like artists/authors) normally have this ability. For a person whose job presupposes creativity, an appropriate use of alcohol may break the routine, strengthen and improve vital background processes. However, as Bergström implies, many individuals are able to find more natural stages of “intoxication“ in their lives than those provided by alcohol: “The open air, love, enthusiasm, friendship and so on, liberate  creativity without loss of value-capacity“ (Bergström 1983, p.148). Here, Bergström seems to call upon the unpredictability-inducing property of alcohol to induce a "more creative state".