Last Thursday, around five hundred people gathered in Arminius for the last lunch lecture in the Brain Power series. Dick Swaab, the Netherlands’ most famous neurobiologist and author of the bestseller We are our brains, closed the series. Over the course of an hour, he provided insight into the theme “Our creative brain”.

“Obviously, creativity is a brain process and nothing more”, emphasised Dick Swaab. “There’s nothing mystical about it: creativity is just combining old building blocks and making something new”, he continued. Using examples from the animal kingdom, he showed that even art as a phenomenon can be explained in terms of evolution. For example, music is related to sexual selection and also promotes solidarity in a group.

New book

The creative brain is also the subject of his latest book that is due to be published in February. His last bestseller We are our brains has already sold 400,000 copies, in fourteen languages. Until 2005, Dick Swaab was director of the Netherlands Institute for Brain Research, and was described by Jasper Scholte, audience member and for twenty years a former organiser of such lectures, as “the nicest professor in the Netherlands who still looks great in jeans”.

After the lecture, there was some lively discussion, which quickly moved from the creative brain toward the eternal question of free will. “Do you or don’t you agree that, for a small part, we can make our own decisions about our life?”, asked one visitor. In response, Swaab quoted several studies which show that the brain had taken a decision several seconds earlier before it thought up a story, making it appear that it was our decision. So not free will. Nevertheless, Juliette Mattijsen, student of medicine and philosophy, was not entirely convinced and the discussion continued, even after the official end of the session.

Even the balconies were packed

The huge interest in the lecture meant that it had to be moved. The last in the series of lunch lectures, traditionally held in the Education Centre, had to move to a larger auditorium. In this case, it was the Arminius, where even the balconies were packed. “We eventually stopped advertising this lecture”, said Martijn Vos, president of the Capita Selecta committee of the Medical Faculty Association Rotterdam and organiser of this event along with SG Erasmus. Otherwise, there might have been six or even seven hundred people trying to get in.

“It was only logical to invite Dick Swaab to speak in this series of lectures about Brain Power”, remarked Willem Scholte from SG Erasmus. The event had already been planned seven months ago. Will we be seeing Swaab again soon? Perhaps in a year’s time. Still, he left behind “a happy audience”.