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Life’s Creative Recipe

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Posted on Jul 17, 2012

By Deniz Erezyilmaz

(Page 2)

At times Coen’s arguments for the seven underlying principles of life’s creative recipe may seem to be semantic, but the synthesis of these ideas builds progressively throughout the book and comes together near the end. The reader should labor through the detailed lesson on the physiology of learning to reach a beautiful treatment of the mechanistic basis of creativity. Here, Coen breaks down the process to reveal a double feedback loop in which variation and persistence are tempered by reinforcement and competition. Creativity, he asserts, is another transformation within the biological world.

“Imagine Cézanne working on a canvas. After placing some initial patches of color, he may feel that some meet with his expectations, while others are not quite right or create surprising effects. He may then react to this mixture of expectations and discrepancies by adding more brush strokes, building the picture up, leading to further judgments and comparisons. The painting proceeds in this way as a critical dialogue between Cézanne and what he sees in front of him. He may be conscious of some of this dialogue, but much of it may also be happening nonconsciously—he may instinctively feel compelled to add some color here or there, or feel that a brush stroke works well or is not quite right.

“This creative dialogue involves a complex interplay between all the processes we have encountered—predictions, actions, and interpretations. Cézanne did not simply mix and place colors at random; based on his experience as a painter he predicted what sort of effect they were likely to have and used this knowledge to guide his actions. He then interpreted the colors he placed on the canvas, exploring their relationships and comparing them to the subject he was painting. The matches and discrepancies he found then led to further predictions and actions, and so the process continued. The painting emerged through a neural dialogue that wove together predictions, actions, and interpretations at multiple levels. By painting a picture, Cézanne may also have increased his skills, modifying his neural models so that he approached a painting in a slightly different way next time round. The result is not only a painting, but the propulsion of Cézanne’s brain through neural space.”

book cover


Cells to Civilizations: The Principles of Change That Shape Life

By Enrico Coen


Princeton University Press, 322 pages


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In contrast to the baseball metaphors of Stephen Jay Gould, or the classic rock lyrics of Sean Carroll, Coen’s metaphors and examples are taken almost entirely from the world of visual art. His previous book, “The Art of Genes,” likened embryonic development to the process of painting. In “Cells to Civilizations” the metaphors include the prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux to the cubist paintings of Picasso. To illustrate the process of reinforcement in learning to recognize the proportions used by painters, he invokes a “Modigliani neuron.” To show that the world we perceive is limited by the mechanisms that have evolved to perceive it, Coen concludes the book with a lithograph by M.C. Escher, “showing a man looking at a picture of which he is part. Like Escher’s man we can never step out of our picture, but this does not mean that we cannot contemplate and try to understand the fascinating world of which we are an inseparable part.”

Deniz Erezyilmaz is a research assistant professor at Stony Brook University in New York. She is the author of several papers on evolutionary developmental biology, which have appeared in the journals Nature and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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