Neuroscientist and Fiction Writer, An Interview with Ashok N. Hegde

by Lynn S. Schwebach


Writers often work day jobs in addition to clocking evening hours on their writing. If they’re lucky, those daytime jobs include skills that nurture the creative seeds needed to develop original works of art.

Ashok N. Hegde is one of those lucky individuals.

By day, Hegde is the William Harvey Endowed Professor for Biomedical Sciences at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Georgia. He is a neuroscientist and an expert in learning and memory.

But he also is a published creative writer.

During his undergraduate days of pursuing a bachelor’s of science in agricultural studies, Ashok N. Hegde published his first story called “The Strangers of Andromeda.”

This work of science fiction centered on human cloning—and he wrote it 18 years before the first successful cloning of an organism called “Dolly” the sheep. But then he pursued his master’s degree and PhD, and he put his writing life on hold.

Yet his love of writing kept its intensity, and after establishing himself as a neuroscientist, he once again started writing short stories.

I conducted an e-mail interview with Hegde about his dual life as a writer and scientist, the parallels between the creative process in both spheres, and his thoughts of how the brain enables creativity. Scientists today describe creativity as a combinatory process. In other words, individuals assimilate new experiences into what they already know, broadening ideas and generating new combinations. The more information stored in memory, and the more cognitive flexibility an individual possesses, the better able an individual is to create new, original combinations.

Since a significant amount of your neuroscientific research concerns memory and brain plasticity, do you agree with this theory of creativity? Do you see this theory at work in your creative writing?

Ashok N. Hegde: Yes, I do tend to agree that creativity is a combinatory process and it’s the result of a complex interaction between many things—some of which you pointed out in your question. I think I can go along with the idea of stored information and cognitive flexibility. But this pushes the question(s) only one step further. Because we need to know answers to questions such as, “Why are some people capable of better memory than others?” and “What is the basis of cognitive flexibility?”

Lots of research suggests memory requires the interplay of many things inside the neural circuitry underlying a specific type of memory. Cognitive flexibility must come from the way different neurotransmitter systems interact in the brain.

But I can tell you something about my own creativity based on introspection. I am at my most creative self when I am relaxed. I also let things incubate a little in my head. For example, I get an idea for a story but I don’t start writing it until I have a broad idea of the structure of the story. However, I don’t make outlines or detailed plans before tapping the keys on my computer. Once I am convinced I have a story, I start typing and let the story take me wherever it takes me. I have been surprised at things I wrote when I am in the middle of a story. This is how I write my first draft during which I don’t edit what I write. Editing comes later.

This is a copyrighted photograph by Lynn S. Schwebach. To purchase this photograph, see Schwebach Arts. Do you see parallels between the creativity required to being scientist, and the creativity required to be a fiction writer? If so, what are those parallels? What is different about the creativity required for each of these processes? Do you see one process “informing” the other?

Ashok N. Hegde: Certainly. I have come up with answers to scientific problems, sometimes even technical problems when I am least expecting it. But then preparation for this insight would have occurred because I was thinking about it a lot.

Similarly with respect to writing, sometimes I have a vague idea for a story but the story doesn’t quite gel in my head but then suddenly it comes. I got the idea for a short story I wrote — “The Tiger” — after waking up in the middle of the night.

The parallels are that in both fields one has to work within the confines of some rules. In science, you need to make sure the idea fits with what is already known about the subject. In writing, you need to make sure the story is believable and it makes sense in the fictive world you have created. What I call “internal consistency” is common to both.

There are differences as well. In writing you have a little more freedom to imagine things and you don’t necessarily have to justify things. Even so, some people don’t “get” certain things because they want everything to be realistic. Because I have to be realistic and logical in science, I tend to let my mind wander free when I write, and I try to blend the magical with the real. Describe your dual life as a writer and scientist. How does your daily work unfold? Do you spend a certain number of hours of your day on writing, and a certain number of hours as a neuroscientist?

Ashok N. Hegde: I work on neuroscience during the day and do my fiction writing in the evenings and weekends. Mostly, it has to be only weekends and holidays because a career in science is extremely demanding. Also, it’s not like neuroscience is just my day job; it’s a vocation and I am deeply passionate about neuroscience and science in general.

See Hegde’s blog about issues related to brain/neuroscience and society. What led you into neuroscience?

Ashok N. Hegde: I came to neuroscience through a circuitous route. I grew up in India. My father owned land that grew spices like black pepper, cardamom and so on. When I was a boy, I wanted to be like my dad, so I went to an agricultural college and got my BS and MS in agriculture. My master’s thesis was based on research on a fungal disease of black pepper. I discovered a microorganism antagonistic to the fungus, but my college did not have the wherewithal to identify the chemical nature of the antibiotic. Even though it was disappointing, I realized I wanted to understand the mechanisms that underlie biological processes.

So I went ahead and did a PhD in molecular biology working on liver cancer. While doing cancer research I learned that a lot of things in mammalian cells depend on signaling molecules that tell a cell what to do – for example, when to divide and when to stop. Based on my readings, I realized that similar things operate in the brain especially in learning and memory. Neuroscience, to me, had the appeal of the great unknown and being the final frontier in biology. I switched to neuroscience at the post-doctoral level. What led you into creative writing? Had you considered becoming a writer earlier in your life?

Ashok N. Hegde: Even though soon after high school I used to write bits and pieces in my mother tongue Kannada, I didn’t write any stories. During my agricultural college days, I wrote “The Strangers of Andromeda” that won a first prize in a contest.

My writing lay dormant until after I finished my PhD. When I was a post-doctoral fellow at Columbia University in New York, the interest resurfaced. This time, I wanted to write in English. I don’t know why but I had developed a love for the English language since about 11th grade, which hasn’t ever waned.

I took a creative writing course at Columbia to hone my writing skills. Again, I had put my writing on hold because, as an independent scientist, I had to establish my lab, obtain funding for my research, and so on. A few years ago, I felt I had my neuroscience career under control, so I went back to writing on a regular basis. Do you consider yourself a “creative” individual?

Ashok N. Hegde: Yes. In fact I take pride in my creativity and originality. This sometimes gets me into trouble in science because scientists like new things but they don’t like extremely new things. When I come up with an idea that is drastically different from current thinking, I often meet with a lot of resistance. Having said that, scientists are reasonable people and they eventually come around and accept a new idea. What inspires you in your creative writing? Do you think your inspiration comes from outside of yourself (external factors) or does it come internally from your unconscious? Or a combination of both?

Ashok N. Hegde: It’s a combination of both. When I see something, hear something or sense something through any of my senses it evokes something from my memory or experience and inspires me to write.

To give you a recent example, a strange line had come to me in a dream. I had written it down in my notebook which is what I usually do. Or these days, I write the ideas as Notes in my smartphone. I thought I could use that strange line as a title of a story. But for a couple of years, I didn’t have a story to go with that line. Then I went to Atlanta for a day trip. While there I visited the Coke World. After I came back home, that evening the story just came to me. Everything fell together. I haven’t published this story yet but I read it aloud to a discerning audience in Andalusia, the 500-acre farm in Milledgeville which was the home base of the writer Flannery O’ Connor. After the reading, many in the audience came to me and told me that they liked the story. As a scientist, do you think that we can empirically study creativity, or is there some “mystery” or “otherworldliness” to it that scientists will never be able to completely measure or quantify?

Ashok N. Hegde

Ashok N. Hegde: I think it’s difficult to study creativity because of its complexity. My sense is that creativity depends on many parts of the brain. Also, there are many factors that affect creativity, resulting in many variables.

Because creativity is finicky and unpredictable, it’s hard to study it in an experimental setting. For example, you can’t stick a writer in an fMRI machine and ask him/her to summon inspiration for writing a story. Even if you are able to do this, you need to be able repeat the feat many times over with matching genders and ages across study groups.

At present, what science can do is to study elementary forms of creativity and find out what brain areas are active during the time when a person is doing a “creative” task or what chemicals in the brain might increase or decrease. This type of research can find things that are correlated with creativity. Because correlation doesn’t mean causation, one cannot be definitive about creativity.

In my opinion, the enormous degree of complexity is what makes measurement or quantification of creativity elusive. I think this is the reason why creativity might seem mysterious or otherworldly. Please share with us your publications and what you are currently working on.

Ashok N. Hegde: “Pursuit of Happiness” published in Black Lantern Publishing.

“The Tiger” published in Gemini Magazine.

As an experiment, I recently published a story “The Day I Hit the Right Button” directly on Facebook.

I have just finished the first draft of a novel, and I am currently working on a short story collection.

All prints and photographs on this page and blog are copyrighted images by Lynn S. Schwebach (except the photograph of Ashok N. Hegde.) To purchase the purple print at the top of the page, see Schwebach Arts.

To see more of my art, see my Etsy shop.

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