How did you come up with that? Good ideas and creativity, in a nutshell.

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Now you can feel better about spending hours on Facebook!

The creative process, first hinted at by Wallas (1926), consists of four stages: preparation, incubation (as talked about in the video), illumination, and verification. The first step could be found in normal non-creative thinking. The second step lacked coherent theories concerning its construct. Illumination and verification could occur between the linked minds, as suggested in the video, but the possible brain process involved in such activities is poorly understood by neuroscientists. While it is possible that interconnected minds could lead to creativity, the 'how' of this process needs to be understood before creativity can be claimed - or properly employed.

There's a new literature review (Dietrich & Kanso, 2010) examining divergent thinking, artistic creativity, and insight, as tested by EEG, ERP and neuroimaging studies. While I hardly think something as complex and context-based as creativity could be mapped out by picturing brain activities in a confined setting, the conclusions regarding these studies are nevertheless noteworthy.

Divergent thinking - or, the ability to come up with as many solutions as possible - does not seem to be a domain of either left or right brain hemisphere alone (laterality effect), as previously postulated. The majority of studies did not find activation from specific brain areas (other than the expected prefrontal cortex), even though some have pointed to the cerebellum, striatum, and hippocampus. Findings were scattered and dependent on the tasks used to test creativity, so perhaps these tests were too crude to measure the concept properly.

As for artistic creativity, the authors suggested that there were different types that required either an engagement or disengagement of the prefrontal cortex. In other words, creativity can come with trying really hard to think; it can also come when you just 'let go' of metacognitive thinking (or over-thinking) and use your intuition. This must be what the zen masters in all those Kung-fu or Wuxian films talked about, letting yourself be the flow of water and you're going to solve the problems that plague you the most (e.g., Drunken Master, 1978).

Studies on insight yielded much more consistent results. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC, see figure above) was particularly activated by insight problems. It was found to be important in getting you 'unstuck' from the wrong solution space. In addition, the superior temporal gyrus (STG, see figure below) apparently played a role in solving insight problems that involved verbal associations. These activities aside, there was no definite brain hemisphere being solely responsible for insight, as it was found by imaging studies.

Because of the lack of cohesive findings with regards to the localization of creativity, the authors also dismissed the notion that creativity could be linked to psychological disorders (e.g., bipolar disorder, autism) or altered state of consciousness (e.g., meditation). That is not to say there could not be subsets of creativity with viable links to these different mental states; rather, the authors argued that the notion of 'creativity' would have to be redefined in a way that allows for the multifacet components of 'creativity' to be captured. Sometimes divergent thinking may be linked to creative solutions, and sometimes defocused attention brings about an aha moment.

If there is one thing social networking and the internet can help with, it's the opportunity to come across ideas that could stimulate your own. Some studies suggested a need for suppressing stereotypical responses in order for creativity to occur, and the sprouting of various responses could help with such processes. However, the existing data on creativity would caution and contest the idea that more information would lead to creativity. It would certainly depend on what the consumers do with such information, and even so, it's difficult to predict if their engagement or disengagement of their network would lead to creativity. Coming up with different ways to insert a sad Keanu in every picture may not indicate a generalized creative current that would help with solving a company's third quarter crisis. It may help with gaining greater notoriety or expanding one's network, and perhaps that's an aspect of creativity put to good social use for now.

Dietrich, A., & Kanso, R. (2010). A review of EEG, ERG, and neuroimaging studies of creativity and insight. Psychological Bulletin, 136(5), 822-848.

Wallas, G. (1926). The art of thought. New York, NY: Harcort Brace and World.


Casey Affleck: Phoenix's melt down constructed

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According to the New York Times, Joaquin Phoenix's meltdown - the subject of I'm Still Here (Affleck, 2010) , screened at TIFF - was staged. From Casey Affleck, who directed the film:
Mr. Affleck, who is married to Mr. Phoenix’s sister and has been his friend for almost 20 years, said he wanted audiences to experience the film’s narrative, about the disintegration of celebrity, without the clutter of preconceived notions.

So he said little in interviews. “We wanted to create a space,” he said. “You believe what’s happening is real.”

As the film progresses, Mr. Affleck explained, subtle cues were supposed to provide hints of his real intention. Camera techniques, extremely raw at the beginning, become more sophisticated as the film goes on, for instance.

“There were multiple takes, these are performances,” Mr. Affleck said of unsettling sequences in which Mr. Phoenix appears to snort drugs, consort with hookers, and hunt to the ground an assistant who has betrayed him to the press — again, mostly actors.

But the movie never quite showed its hand. “There was no wink,” Mr. Affleck said.
Scathing reviews aside, having yet to see the film and no prior interest in seeing a mockumentary about Joaquin Phoenix's supposed downward spiral, I'm now intrigued that it was a staged event for a fictional film. I'll reserve my judgment of the film's worth until I've seen it, but in theory, this sounds like a brilliant way to examine the celebrity culture in the new media age (as I'm sure Phoenix and Affleck thought it did). A potential pitfall of performance arts of this kind lies in the gap of its disconnection. To experience a film properly is to suspend disbelief in order to engage in a story of fictional characters or non-fictional characters portrayed by appropriated figures. The double layers of falsehood presented by I'm Still Here may prove too challenging for the audience to engage in. Without engagement, the film's message may become inconsequential, thus failing its ambitious aim of meta cultural commentary. Nevertheless, it could still be a fascinating exercise in staging grand-scale performance art. Has Affleck been in talk with Lady Gaga?


TIFF review, Day 3: Little White Lies, in friends we trust

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Title: Les petits mouchoirs (Little White Lies)
Director: Guillaume Canet
Language: French
Year: 2010
Critical Reception: TIFF 2010 entry
Psych Index: Homosexuality, Intimate, Family Relations
In Brief: The story centered around a tightly knit group of well-to-do but troubled friends shaken by an accident befalling one of its members. The actors fully inhibited the picture, creating an aura of warmth and sentiments while trying to keep their darker corners in check. At times, the director (and writer) gave into personal indulgence and made the film overly sentimental (and long) when it did not need to be. Nevertheless, Lies was a sweet little film about friendship and, though the director thought differently, the little white lies that greased it along the way.
Comment (SPOILERS ALERT): Les petits mouchoirs (Little white lies; Canet, 2010) made its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival to much chaos: the initial program ran into the second subtitling problem I encountered at the festival, much to the cast-on-hand's dismay. Canet, invoking the film's friendship theme, persuaded his captive audience into forgiving the technical difficulties that led to hours of waiting in line for the film. While the audience ultimately was soothed by the film's character charms, the dramedy, like the screening schedule, depended too much on the audience's good will and ran on way longer than it should have.

The gently told story centered around a tightly knit, mostly thirty something group of friends attempting to get on with their pre-planned vacation - and their life - at a beach-side cabin owned by its eldest member, Max (Francois Cluzet), after an accident that left one of their own (Jean Dujardin) in a life-threatening condition. Their friendships were tested by secrets and the revelations thereof, the most severe (and effectively handled) of which was Vincent's (Benoit Magimel) confessed feelings for the tightly wound and possibly homophobic Max. Other characters struggled with their own heartache, blinded by self interests and deceptions, until the weight of their drama, like Max's little weasels, broke their wall (Max literally did that in a fit of rage, as obvious a metaphor as it comes). Lies may be necessary at times, but as these characters found out, there comes a time when the consequences of living a white lie get a little too costly (perhaps a slight commentary on the closeted homosexuals out there). And it was practically impossible to contain consequences once personal lies become shared secrets.

Canet did not shy away from courting the English-speaking audience looking for a little crowd-pleasing foreign title to feel good about: he scored his entire film with well known English songs at opportune times. It was perhaps not surprising that he chose the English-subtitled screening for his Q&A when given the choice to speak at length with either a French audience or an English-speaking one. Unfortunately, his ambition - or, as he confessed at the Q&A, his affinity for songs in the English language - detracted from the cast's terrific ensemble work. Having a character (Marie's musician boyfriend) belting out a couple of English songs on the acoustic guitar for his French-speaking group of friends rendered a rather delicate moment false and trying.

While the script fell apart in the maudlin final act, the film as a whole was lifted by the strength of its well-observed characters. There was a sense of a natural, easy camaraderie that helped burrow the group in the audience's emotional space. They had the sort of friendship that people could fantasize about - having intimate connections with really attractive people, aided by a touch of drama and deception, well within the safe confines of ready forgiveness. Despite the obvious privileges that threatened to distant much of the group from the sympathetic viewers, their genuine portrayal humanized their struggle and saved the film from being completely swallowed by wishful sentiments. Canet may have written the film as a love letter to his friends, but as confessional cinema, it felt a little too wanting to truly convey the depth of its universal theme.



TIFF review, Day 1: Film Socialisme, the anti-socialism film

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Title: Film Socialisme (or Socialism)
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Language: French and others
Year: 2010
Critical Reception: 2010 TIFF entry
Psych Index: Social Relations
In Brief: Godard's experimental film's real experiment is his audience, in this purposefully oblique piece of work. Subtitles are optional, and sometimes omitted altogether, depending on the screening. Be warned.
Comment (SPOILERS ALERT): This is not a proper review of the film itself; this is a rant about the experience of its first screening presentation at the Toronto International Film Festival. I could talk about what I saw but it is impossible for me to write a review on something I don't understand (for a very good reason, as you'll see from the following account). I've attributed its poor presentation to Godard when it really should've been directed to the organizers of the fest - I was mislead into believing it was Godard's wish to present it in this comprehensible fashion by the staff at the screening. I've since then been confirmed by TIFF customer relations that it was their error. I'm sorry for blaming Godard all this time. I'm leaving this rant up but please note that it was written in erroneous belief about Godard's intent. As a consequence, the film came off very poorly in the sections that required some understanding of dialogue and text, and it may change with proper screening later.

I chose Film Socialisme to kick off my 2010 Toronto International Film Festival because it was by an old master and it was unlikely to have a wide release. I was curious to see what it was like seeing the film with a live audience, as I've never seen a Godard film during its first run (or in a theatre, period). I knew going into the experimental film that it was going to be a challenge; I was prepared for the distance, figuring that I could always rely on images - the basic language of cinema - for a rich, if not cohesive experience. I understood that Godard was interested in the form of films. The experience was the show. Unfortunately, it was a frustrating show that served to highlight only how social cinema - unlike music - does not transcend verbal communication, especially when verbal communication was the only way to piece together fragmented visuals and make sense of dialogue.

The film was supposedly divided into three parts. The first section relied on images to tell some symbolic relationship between America and Europe, and maybe capitalism versus meowing cats. The second section cut to a drama involving reporters and a family at a gas station. There were some four legged animals thrown in for good measures. The final part broke lose of all structure and resembled a student film done with some serious intent.

Could I tell you that I gathered all that from my first screening? No. Did I care for anything that happened in the film? No. But it wasn't an actual failing on my part: there was no subtitle to be found on the screen. If it was a visual-focused film, I probably would have been able to deal with it much better. There was something especially grating about being presented with speaking parts and having their meaning withheld, literally. The only part of the film that came across fine without subtitles was the comedic showing of animals being, well, cute animals. I felt like I was watching an edited youtube video in French (a character who bore some resemblance to Anna Karina was shown looking at a youtube video of talking cats - metacommetary?).

With its complete omission of any subtitling, I had to wonder why I was made to endure a film in which I was purposefully prevented from understanding the basics of the film (I've never walked out of a theatre without finishing the film I was watching, and I was not prepared to make this an exception). Was it to experience what it was like to be a non-English speaker trying to see an English-speaking film? Was it to flaunt the French language's superiority? Was it a show of contempt towards the English-speaking North American audience (Canada has French listed as one of its official languages so I guess it's my own un-Canadianness that failed me?)? Or was it, as some sources claimed, an experiment that forced the audience to pay attention to other visual cues? Judging from his showing the most verbal section in close ups and more conventional dramatic framing, I'd beg to differ with this last point.

Art is meant as a tool to communicate expressions or ideas in whatever form. However, if one was to use cinema as a platform, it would be mean to just take away basic verbal communication without supplementing it with some sort of cohesive cinematic language (the visuals), as he did with the film for the most part, without warning. It probably would have been more effective to confine this part of the experiment to a section of the film only - it would still have made the point and not detract from other (possible) points of the film. Godard combined language and visuals in a way that eliminated the use of language for the English-speaking audience altogether. You don't learn what you can't understand. What I took away from the screening instead was severe annoyance - I should've been warned of something as basic as not having subtitles so I could make a choice to endure it. This act of bad manner was completely, absurdly unnecessary, and ensured the only message to be received was that films can be ridiculously alienating. Was this the point of Film Socialisme? I wouldn't know. I hope it was about camel love. At least that would have been a more social affair.



Recently Seen (out of *****)

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