The Human Guide to Our Creative Brain

On February 1, 2015, the Nova Institute (known as The Institute for Integrative Health at the time) partnered with the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) to present a fascinating dive into the wonders of the creative mind.

The afternoon of public visionary learning celebrated unexpected moments of creative inspiration with presentations by noted artists, altered-state experiencers, and scientific researchers, including Institute Scholars George Brainard and Richard Hammerschlag, and Nova Institute President Brian Berman.


The keynote speaker was author, inventor, and entrepreneur Dr. Martine Rothblatt, the founder and chairman of United Therapeutics Corporation, and creator of both GeoStar and SiriusXM Radio.

The conference also featured visionary artist and math savant Jason Padgett, whose fractal artwork was part of an AVAM exhibition. Padgett spoke about his life-changing experience fueled by a brutal beating that left him with both a severe brain injury and an inexplicable transformation into a “mathematical genius.” Padgett’s art explores the geometry and fractals that he now sees embedded throughout everyday life, and raises the question of whether extraordinary abilities like his lie dormant in us all.

Other presenters included:

Andrew Newberg, MD, a pioneer in the neurological study of religious and spiritual experiences, a field known as “neurotheology.” Dr. Newberg is the director of research at the Jefferson Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine, a physician at Jefferson University Hospital, and has served as a past AVAM collaborator in its All Faiths Beautiful exhibition.

Robert R. Provine, PhD, an internationally renowned author, neuroscientist, and a Professor of Psychology Emeritus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Dr. Provine has studied the development and evolution of the nervous system and is an expert in behaviors such as laughter, hiccupping, yawning, and more. Dr. Provine was also a key content partner in AVAM’s popular exhibition What Makes Us Smile?

Nova Institute Scholar George Brainard, PhD, director of the Light Research Program at Thomas Jefferson University. Professor Brainard has studied the effects of light on the biology and behavior of animals and humans for more than 30 years and is a prime designer of lighting to enhance optimal astronaut function, sleep cycles, and overall human health. 

Thomas McNear, Lieutenant Colonel, US Army (Ret.), the first member of the Army’s Stargate program to be personally trained in Coordinate Remote Viewing (CRV) by legendary remote viewer, psychic, and artist Ingo Swann. Swann’s cosmic paintings were featured in AVAM’s current mega-exhibition The Visionary Experience, and part of the museum’s growing permanent collection. 

Nova Institute Scholar Emeritus Richard Hammerschlag, PhD, who became founding director of research at Oregon College of Oriental Medicine after an accomplished 25-year career in neurobiology research. Dr. Hammerschlag studies the physiological mechanisms through which biofield therapies, such as reiki and healing touch, produce a therapeutic effect.

Meredith Davies Hadaway, retired professor from Washington College, musician and harpist participating in Music for Healing & Transition, a nonprofit organization that trains practitioners to provide live, acoustic music to create a healing environment to serve the ill, the dying, and those who care for them.

Nova Institute President Brian Berman, MD, a pioneer in integrative medicine, tenured professor of family and community medicine, founder and former director of the University of Maryland School of Medicine Center for Integrative Medicine. Dr. Berman shared his early use of Kirlian photography of bio-energetic fields to help in the diagnosis and treatment of chronic diseases including pain and addiction.


Healing is facilitated through safety, persistence, and trust.

  • Persistence: “People did not simply progress through this sequence and experience healing. The healing journey was a recursive, back and forth process. They found helpers, used the skills/resources that those helpers provided, found other helpers that provided more resources and used those skills and resources. As this process continued, people experienced a gradual amelioration of their suffering. Although many despaired at times, all demonstrated the quality of persistence—they refused to give up.”
  • Safety & Trust: “To connect to helpers, it was essential for people to feel safe in those relationships and able to trust that the person would be a helper and not a barrier to healing. Persons whose wounds included a violation of trust were especially careful about testing the safety of new relationships.”

Resources support us as we heal. They include reframing, responsibility, and positivity. “Making connections enabled participants to acquire and refine resources and skills that were essential in their healing journey. People also brought their own personal strengths to the journey.”

  • Reframing: “A particularly important skill was the ability to reframe—that is to look at suffering through a different lens.” This does NOT mean minimizing trauma or pain, but rather it often means the opposite: understanding what happened was wrong, unfair, or uncontrollable and that we are not to blame for it.
  • Responsibility: While we don’t have control over what happened to us, we are the only ones who can help ourselves heal. “A third essential resource that people acquired or refined was the ability to take an appropriate amount of responsibility for their healing journeys. They participated actively in the process of healing. Once again, some participants already had developed this skill, and some acquired or refined it from their helpers.”
  • Positivity: “Another resource that people acquired or refined during their healing journey was choose to be positive—that is to have some optimism about their situation.” People have varying predispositions to positivity. In the study, positivity was important in helping people heal. This doesn’t mean a toxic positivity, but rather simply finding some good in life and feeling hopeful about our situations.

“Connection to others was an essential part of all the healing journeys.” Humans are social creatures, and even the most introverted of us need close relationships. Friends and family add meaning and value to life and help support us, in good times and bad. 

When we experience relational trauma, relationships can feel scary, but reestablishing safety and trust in relationships is where the healing happens. (To be clear, we do not mean reestablishing safety and trust with abusers, but rather finding other healing relationships.) 

“When safety and trust had been established, people were able to connect with helpers. The nature of the behaviours of helpers that fostered healing ranged from small acts of kindness to unconditional love.”

  • “Moving from being wounded, through suffering to healing, is possible. It is facilitated by developing safe, trusting relationships and by positive reframing that moves through the weight of responsibility to the ability to respond.”
  • “Relationships with health professionals were among these but were not necessarily any more important to the healing journey than other kinds of helpers, which included family members, friends, spirituality and their God, pets, support groups, administrators, case workers and supervisors.”

Healing probably means different things to different people, but one definition that emerged from the study is: “The re-establishment of a sense of integrity and wholeness.” 

Healing was an emergent property that resulted from each individuals’ complex healing journey, a result of bridged connections between resources and relationships. “…they gradually found relief from suffering and began to exhibit emergent characteristics: a sense of hope, self-acceptance, and a desire to help others—the immediate precursors to healing.”

 In varying degrees, “they were able to transcend their suffering and in some sense to flourish.” 

  • Helping Others: We find meaning in helping others. “Understanding that suffering gives the strength and experience to help others in similar situations.”
  • Hope: We begin to have hope that we will not always feel this bad. A Crohn’s patient said, “I think gradually I realized that I was going to feel better. I did have days when I actually didn’t vomit, when I did feel better. And I think gradually I came to believe that maybe I could have a normal life again.”
  • Self-Acceptance: We see our inherent value and understand that we are not to blame for our suffering. A participant living with HIV said, “I’m really proud of myself. I think that now I still want to live. I don’t want to die, and I really love myself a lot. I have a lot of comfort in myself.”

Suffering is the ongoing pain from wounding. 

There is some debate about whether people always experience suffering on the path to healing.

Wounding happens when we experience physical or emotional harm. It can stem from chronic illness or by physical or psychological trauma for which we do not have the tools to cope, or a combination of those factors. 

“The degree and quality of suffering experienced by each individual is framed by contextual factors that include personal characteristics, timing of their initial or ongoing wounding in the developmental life cycle and prior and current relationships.”

Characteristics: How predisposed someone may be to wounding/how many tools and resources someone may have to deal with trauma/illness.

Lifestages: Developmental timing plays an important role in the impact of trauma — young children often do not have the same resources as older adults.

Relationships: Relationships can provide solace and support for those suffering, while lack of healthy relationships can prolong suffering.