Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘creativity’

Is Too Much Familiarity Bad For Creativity?

Originally posted on BigThink.com

Several years ago University of California at Davis professor Dean Simonton conducted a study that examined more than three hundred creative geniuses born between 1450 and 1850. The list included thinkers Liebniz and Descartes, scientists Newton and Copernicus and artists Vinci and Rembrandt. He compared the relationship between their education and eminence, a metric he determined by an array of criteria. He plotted the graph and found an inverted U sparking the following conclusion: “The most eminent creators were those who had received a moderate amount of education, equal to about the middle of college.”

Simonton’s research highlights a commonly held notion: too much familiarity can be detrimental to creativity. The problem, Simonton hypothesizes, is that creativity benefits from an outsider’s mindset. “Too much experience…” on the other hand, “may restrict creativity because you know so well how things should be done that you are unable to escape to come up with new ideas.” It seems reasonable, then, to suggest that, “if you want a creative solution to a problem, you’d better find someone who knows a little about the situation but not too much.”

Consider the clever website InnoCentive.com. The premise is simple: ‘Seekers’ go to post problems for ‘Solvers.’ The problems range from “Recovery of Bacillus Spore from Swabs,” to “Blueprints for a Medical Transportation Device for Combat Rescue.” They are usually posted by large corporations, so the rewards can be lucrative – sometimes millions of dollars.

There are two things remarkable about InnoCentive, each brought to light by astudy conducted by researchers at Harvard Business School. The first is that it works; about 33 percent of the problems are solved on time. The second is that solvers tend to solve problems that are at the fringe of their expertise. If a biochemistry problem only attracted biochemists it tended to remain unsolved. But if the same problem was tackled by, say, a molecular biologist or an organic chemist the chances were greater that the problem would be solved. Outside thinking was vital.

Think about the failures of expertise, as the author of Talent is Overrated Geoff Colvin does: “Why didn’t Western Union invent the telephone? Why didn’t U.S. Steel invent the minimill. Why didn’t IBM invent the personal computer? Over and over, the organizations that knew all there was to know about a technology or an industry failed to make the creative breakthrough that would transform the business.”

Is too much expertise killing creativity?

Well, not exactly. Colvin goes on to remind readers that the greatest innovators of any field share a few characteristics in common: years of intensive preparation and technical competence. Great innovations, he says, are roses that bloom after long and careful cultivation.

He considers James Watson’s and Francis Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA. Colvin cites the research of Robert Weisberg, who showed that several other distinguished scientists were trying to solve the same problem at the same time. Colvin argues that, “if we presume that too much familiarity with a problem is a disadvantage, then we would expect to find that Watson and Crick came at this one unburdened by the excessive data that clouded the thinking of the other researchers. But in reality, the story was just the opposite.”

The larger point is that creative breakthroughs require about 10,000 hours or ten years of deliberate practice within a given field:

The most eminent creators are consistently those who have immersed themselves utterly in their chosen field, have devoted their lives to it, amassed tremendous knowledge of it, and continually pushed themselves to the front of it. Zero evidence supports the conclusion that too much knowledge might be a hindrance in creative achievement.

And what about the success of InnoCentive? What’s important is not to be an outsider, but to have an outsider’s mindset. People at the fringe of their expertise solved problems on InnoCentive, but they were still solving problems within their general field of expertise. Indeed, innovation occurs at the boundary of disciplines, but you’ll never hear about a novelist winning a Nobel Prize in physics.

As for Simonton’s study, it’s important to remember that during the period that his subjects existed – 1450-1850 – many fundamental principles of the scientific method were still unknown. It was still possible – especially in the first half of that 400 year stretch – for someone to be an expert in multiple disciplines. Moreover, a high-level degree in, say, 1650, didn’t confer much.

Today’s landscape is much different – all the low hanging fruit is good. A breakthrough in any field requires exclusive preparation in that field; even experts don’t know everything about their field. So it’s important to maintain a skeptical point of view and think like an outsider. But when it comes to creative breakthroughs, the more familiarity the better.

Environmental Cues That Boost Creativity

Originally posted on BigThink.com

For most of human history creativity was something that came from the muses; it was about flashes of insight from another world. Today we know that creativity is something that happens in the brain; many psychologists and neuroscientists are working to identify cognitive mechanisms and processes active during the creative process. However, the public still believes that creativity is a “gift” applicable across many fields even though research shows that creativity is improvable, contingent on upbringing and societal circumstances and domain-specific. Particularly interesting are studies of the last few years that suggest that subtle cues in our physical environment significantly influence creative output.

Consider a study published in Science by Juliet Zhu and a team of researchers from the University of British Columbia. The psychologists recruited six hundred subjects and tasked them with several basic cognitive tests that required either an analytic approach or a more creative mindset. The key part of the experiment was that the tests were conducted on computer screens with red, blue, or neutral backgrounds. Did the color of the screen matter?

The differences were noticeable. Computer screens with a red background boosted performance on analytical tasks including memory retrieval and proofreading. Blue computer screens, on the other hand, improved performance on creative tasks such as coming up with uses for a brick and brainstorming. Why? Zhu argues that red unconsciously motivates us to think more deliberately and analytically because it’s associated with things such as stop signs, emergency vehicles and danger. In contrast, blue is associated with the sky, ocean and peace and tranquility – things that influence a more free-flowing and exploratory mindset.

This brings me to a brand new study by Zhu and her colleagues Ravi Mehta and Amar Cheema released in the Journal of Consumer Research. The psychologists were interested in looking at how various levels of sound affect creativity. In one experiment they assigned 65 undergrads Remote Associate Tasks (RAT). In a RAT participants are given stimuli words (shelf, read, end) and asked to determine a related target word (book).

There were four conditions: low-noise (50 dB), moderate-noise (70 dB), high-noise (85 dB) and no-noise (the sounds of the room the participants completed the tasks). For the three noise conditions the researchers blended sounds from a cafeteria, roadside traffic and distant construction noise to create an ambient sound typical of consumption contexts such as a shopping mall or grocery store. The participants listened to the noise, which came from speakers in the room, while they solved the RAT. The psychologists found, “a significant main effect of noise level on RAT performance such that respondents in the moderate-noise condition generated more correct answers than those in the low-noise high-noise or control conditions.”

The study involved four other experiments. As predicted by Zhu and her team, each demonstrated similar results. Here’s what the authors conclude:

We find that increasing levels of noise induce distraction, leading to a higher construal level. That is, both moderate and high noise levels lead to more abstract processing as compared to a low noise level. This higher construal level then induces greater creativity in the moderate-noise condition; however, the very high level of distraction induced by the high-noise condition, although it prompts a higher construal level, also causes reduced information processing, thus impairing creativity. In other words, while a moderate level of noise produces just enough distraction to induce disfluency, leading to higher creativity, a very high level of noise induces too much dis- traction so as to actually reduce the amount of processing, leading to lower creativity.

Zhu et al. also conclude that further research will be needed to determine what exactly their research means. They expressed interest in how different types of noise might affect creativity.

The larger point of this research is that there are simple things we can do to boost our creativity: blue rooms and a moderate amount of ambient noise for instance. It also suggests that creativity doesn’t arrive to us from the muses; it’s a skill carried out by certain parts of the brain that are influenced by certain aspects of the physical environment. Moreover, creativity is improvable; it’s not reserved for certain people.

Perhaps one advantage creative people have, then, is an ability to find environments that maximize their output. Maybe. At any rate, it’s worth keeping these studies in mind the next time you need to supplement your creative output.

Thinking Laterally In A Linear World: Why More Education Isn’t Important

For the British social psychologist Liam Hudson, IQ as a measurement for achievement is a lot like height in the NBA, past a certain threshold, it doesn’t matter. In the NBA, that threshold is about 6 feet. Baring a few exceptions, nearly every player in the NBA Hall of Fame is at least 6 feet tall. For IQ, the threshold is around 120. Geniuses like Isaac Newton and Blaise Pascal sported IQs well over 150. But Richard Feynman, winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics and widely considered one of the greatest physicists of all time, did just fine at 120. A high IQ correlates with things like good health, high salary and high academic achievement, but it guarantees little in terms of personal success. Indeed, scores of people with an IQ above 120 go on to accomplish next to nothing.

Malcolm Gladwell brings this research to light in his 2008 book Outliers. In addition, he examines the relationship between Nobel Prize winners and the colleges they graduated from. We tend to think that a Nobel Prize requires a diploma from an elite university, but a degree from elite institution does not matter as much as one might think. Gladwell looked at winners of the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Chemistry and found that they represented a wide range of colleges including Hope, Hunter, Holy Cross and Antioch. He concludes that a good education, not an elite education, is sufficient.

Yet, would knowing this change anything? Would anybody turn down a few free IQ points? Would someone turn down Harvard for the University of Florida? No. Despite what the data suggests, we’re still obsessed with being the smartest and getting into the best school.

This is why education in the United States is thought of as an ascent: we progress upwards from 1st grade; a 4.0 is better than a 3.0 which is better than a 2.0; the valedictorian is at the top of his class; we move up in class rankings but not down.

The drive to be at the apex of society is a good attribute in the competitive world. But creativity isn’t linear; it’s about thinking laterally. It’s about reaching across domains to bring two seemingly unrelated ideas together to create one original idea. It’s about what exists at the periphery. It’s about, as Steve Jobs said, “connecting things.”

Just think about the traits creative people possess. As New York Times columnist David Brooks explains:

[They] don’t follow the crowds; they seek out the blank spots on the map. Creative people wander through faraway and forgotten traditions and then integrate marginal perspectives back to the mainstream. Instead of being fastest around the tracks everybody knows, creative people move adaptively through wildernesses nobody knows.

Now think about the competitive environment that confronts the most fortunate people today and how it undermines those mind-sets. First, students have to jump through ever-more demanding, preassigned academic hoops. Instead of developing a passion for one subject, they’re rewarded for becoming professional students, getting great grades across all subjects, regardless of their intrinsic interests. Instead of wandering across strange domains, they have to prudentially apportion their time, making productive use of each hour.

Is competition trumping creativity?

Not exactly. Creative output is the product of its social and intellectual environment. There’s a reason ancient Athens was home to the best philosophers, Elizabethan England had the best playwrights, Silicon Valley harbors the world’s top tech entrepreneurs and North Korea doesn’t produce the same amount of Nobel Laureates as the United States. Certain circumstances favor creative expression.

Capitalism is one of those. When people are given the chance to pursue self-interest they usually do. They also tend to cluster: poets hang out with poets; fashion designers hang out with fashion designers; cognitive science professors hang out with cognitive science professors. The byproduct of our natural tendency to seek out likeminded people is improvement; being surrounded by the best makes us better. This is why, in a larger sense, competition is good for creativity.

Brooks would agree. However, his worry (and mine) is that on the path to improvement we’re ignoring the side roads. That is, competition should be thought of as a means to a niche – a place people go to create a creative monopoly. In today’s hyper competitive world, however, competition is a means to an end; we’re competitive just for the sake of it, and what’s lost is a willingness to be creative just for the sake of it.

This brings me back to Outliers. The lesson from the research that Gladwell highlights is that after a certain point in one’s academic career it’s important to focus less on better grades, test scores, acceptance letters and more on thinking laterally and seeking out original ideas. Indeed, understanding society only as a competitive myopia is a real creativity killer.

Relaxation & Creativity: The Science of Sleeping on It

A new post up at Big Think!

Sigmund Freud postulated that dreaming is a reflection of the unleashed id; it represents one’s deep sexual fantasies and frustrations implanted during childhood. But what happens when we fall asleep is usually much less dramatic; we dream about the problems of everyday life. Now scientists understand dreaming as an integral part of the creative process – it’s not just about the problems of everyday life, it’s about solving them.

In 2004, the neuroscientists Ullrich Wagner and Jan Born published a paper in Nature that examined the relationship between sleep and problem solving. In one experiment, they tasked participants with transforming a long list of number strings. The task required participants to apply a set of algorithms that would scare off most save a handful of math geeks. However, the researchers integrated an elegant shortcut that made the task easier. How many people, Wagner and Born asked, would catch it?

Continue reading here

What Improv Teaches Us About Creativity

My latest at my Big Think Blog. I explore improv and the idea of agreement.

The most important rule in improvisation comedy is the idea of agreement, the notion that a scene flourishes when all the players accept anything that happens to them. Improv isn’t about wisecracks and one-liners. It’s about creating a structure where characters and narratives are quickly created, developed, sometimes forgotten and other times resolved. With just a tip-bit – usually a one-word suggestion at the beginning of the show – good improvisers generate compelling and captivating stories that engage the audience. Comedy is the natural byproduct.

The question, of course, is how do they do it?

Consider a study conducted several years ago out of Johns Hopkins University by neuroscientist Charles Limb. Limb designed a clever experiment that measured the brains’ of jazz pianists using an fMRI machine as they improvised on a MIDI keyboard. His study focused on two parts of the brain: the medial prefrontal cortex (MPC) and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). The medial prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain associated with self-expression; it’s a mental narrator that keeps tabs on the story of your life. The DLPFC is closely associated with impulse control. It’s a part of the brain that makes you think twice before you eat a slice of pizza or gamble – a sort of mental shackle that keeps your neurons in check.

The key finding involved the DLPFC. Limb found that the musicians “deactivated” their DLPFC once they began improvising. That is, the musicians turned off part of their conscious brain to let the unconscious mind do the work. As Limb says, “musical creativity vis-à-vis improvisation may be a result of… the suspension of self-monitoring and related processes that typically regulate conscious control of goal-directed, predictable, or planned actions.” In other words, the pianists were inhibiting their inhibitions. (Watch Limb’s TED lecture here)

Continue reading here.

Blogging At Big Think

Starting today I will be a blogger for BigThink.com. For those of you who are not familiar, Big Think is a wonderful website with great content. Here’s what they’re all about:

In our digital age, we’re drowning in information. The web offers us infinite data points—news stories, tweets, wikis, status updates, etc—but very little to connect the dots or illuminate the larger patterns linking them together. Here at Big Think, we believe that success in the future is about knowing the ideas that allow you to manage and master this universe of information. Therefore, we aim to help you move above and beyond random information, toward real knowledge, offering big ideas from fields outside your own that you can apply toward the questions and challenges in your own life.

My blog is called Moments of Genius. Here’s a quick summary of what it will be about.

Everybody has their own pet theory about how to generate ideas and be productive: some chug caffeine, others relax; some work in groups, others work alone; some work at night, others in the morning. This blog draws from recent findings in cognitive science to inform and answer these questions and others like it. It’s for the creative professional, the businessperson or the artist who seeks to create new ideas and work efficiently. It’s about translating findings in psychology and neuroscience so we can be more productive, make better decisions, be more creative, collaborate efficiently and solve problems effectively.

My first post went up today. It’s an expansion of a previous Why We Reason post on childhood and creativity. Here’s the gist:

The Monster Engine is one of the best ideas I’ve come across. It’s a book, demonstration, lecture and gallery exhibition created by Dave Devries. The premise is simple: children draw pictures of monsters and Devries paints them realistically. According to the website, the idea was born in 1998 when Devries took an interest in his niece’s doodles. As a comic addict, Devires wondered if he could use color, texture and shading to bring his niece’s drawings to life.

But Devries had a larger goal: he wanted to always see things as a child. Why? In many ways, children flourish where adults fail. Children are more creative and are natural inventors. Their worldview is incomplete and demands discovery. They prosper because they embrace their ignorance instead of ignoring it. And they are willing to explore, investigate and put their ideas to the test because they are willing to fail. Unlike adults, they don’t care how other people perceive or evaluate their ideas, and they’re unconcerned with the impossible or what doesn’t work.

So what does this mean for Why We Reason? In short, Why We Reason will remain for the time being. I still have a few WWR posts in the works and they need to see the light of day. However, some changes will be made in the near future. In the mean time, I encourage my readers to bookmark, tweet, share, etc., my posts on Big Think.

Produce First, Sharpen Second: What Dylan’s Vomit Teaches Us About Creativity

For Dylan, “Like a Rolling Stone” began as a long piece of vomit, at least that’s what he told two reporters back in 1965. As the story goes, Dylan, who was at the tail end of a grueling tour that took his pre-electric act across the United States and into Europe, decided to quit music and move to a small cabin in upstate New York to rethink his creative direction. He was sick of answering the same questions over and over again. He was sick of singing the same song over and over again. He wanted to liberate his mind.

This is why “Like a Rolling Stone” began as a twenty-page ramble. It was, as Dylan described it, a regurgitation of dissatisfactions and curiosities. What came next was Dylan’s true talent. Like a wood sculpture, he whittled at his rough draft. He cherry picked the good parts and threw away the bad parts. He began to dissect his words to try to understand what his message was. Eventually, Dylan headed to the studio with a clearer vision, and today, “Like a Rolling Stone” stands as one of the very best.

What’s interesting is how Dylan approached the writing process. The song started as a splattering of ideas. Dylan wasn’t even trying to write a song; initially, he didn’t care about verses or choruses. He compared the writing process to vomiting because he was trying to bring an idea that infected his thinking from the inside to the outside of his body.

His strategy isn’t unique. In fact, it resembles the approach of many other artists throughout history. For example, in the Fall 1975 issue of The Paris Review, the Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel laureate John Steinbeck gave this piece of advice about writing: “Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.” As the saying goes, perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

This principle doesn’t just show itself in art. Economies, too, succeed and fail by continuous innovation and wealth followed by unvaried ideas and bankruptcies. The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter popularized the term creative destruction to describe the simultaneous accumulation and annihilation of wealth under capitalism. As Schumpeter saw it, for every successful entrepreneur dozens of failures followed. But this was a good thing; capitalism was to be understood as an evolutionary process where good ideas prevailed over bad ones.

With these thoughts in mind, consider a study released this month conducted by Simone Ritter of the Radboud University in the Netherlands with help from Rick B. van Baaren and Ap Dijksterhuis. For the first experiment, the scientists recruited 112 university students and gave them two minutes to come up with creative ideas to solve relatively harmless problems (e.g., improving the experience of waiting in line at a supermarket). Next, the subjects were divided into two groups: the first went straight to work, while the second performed an unrelated task for two minutes to distract their conscious mind.

The first thing the psychologists found wasn’t too eye opening. Both groups – conscious and distracted – created the same amount of ideas. But the second finding was slightly more intriguing. Here’s Jonah Lehrer describing the results:

After writing down as many ideas as they could think of, both groups were asked to choose which of their ideas were the most creative. Although there was no difference in idea generation, giving the unconscious a few minutes now proved to be a big advantage, as those who had been distracted were much better at identifying their best ideas. (An independent panel of experts scored all of the ideas.) While those in the conscious condition only picked their most innovative concepts about 20 percent of the time — they confused their genius with their mediocrity — those who had been distracted located their best ideas about 55 percent of the time. In other words, they were twice as good at figuring out which concepts deserved more attention.

When it comes to writing an essay for college, pitching a business plan or creating a work of art we are hard wired to believe that our output is above average. As a result, we are blind to what needs improvement. It’s not just that we can’t see any holes and errors; we don’t think they exist. What’s interesting about Ritter’s findings is that they give us a strategy to overcome our overconfidence. The lesson from her research is that in order to recognize our imperfections we must step back and be dilettantes. In other words, get distracted and don’t marry the first draft.

And this brings me back to Dylan’s vomit and Steinbeck’s advice. The reason we should “never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down” is because we initially don’t know which of our ideas are worthwhile. It’s only after we get everything down that we are able to recognize what works from what doesn’t. This is the lesson from Ritter’s research: we need to give the unconscious mind time to mull it over so it can convince the conscious mind to make adjustments. Or, as Nietzsche said in All Too Human: “The imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects…. All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.”

Read more

Creativity & Childhood

Growing up has its benefits. As we age, our intellect sharpens and willpower strengthens. We come to control out thoughts and desires; we identify goals and hone our skills.

However, growing up comes at a cost: we lose our natural desire to discover and invent; we become more self-conscious and less willing to fail. A study conducted between 1959 and 1964 involving 350 children found that around 4th grade our tendency to daydream and wonder declines sharply. In other words, Picasso was right: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

Age doesn’t necessarily squander our creative juices – creative geniuses like Steve Jobs and Steven Spielberg somehow managed to maintain a sense of wonderment through their adult years – but when we make the leap from elementary school to middle school our worldview becomes more realistic and cynical. The question is: what did Jobs and Spielberg do differently? How do we maintain our naiveté?

A study conducted several years ago by Darya Zabelina and Michael Robinson of North Dakota State University gives us a simple remedy. The psychologists divided a large group of undergraduates into two groups. The first group was giving the following prompt:

 You are 7 years ago. School is canceled, and you have the entire day to yourself. What would you do? Where would you go? Who would you see?

The second group was given the same prompt minus the first sentence. This means they didn’t imagine themselves as seven years olds – they remained in their adult mindset.

Next, the psychologists asked their subjects to take ten minutes to write a response. Afterwards the subjects were given various tests of creativity, such as inventing alternatives uses for an old tire, or completing incomplete sketches. (As well as other tasks from the Torrance test of creativity.) Zabelina and Robinson found that, “individuals [in] the mindset condition involving childlike thinking… exhibited higher levels of creative originally than did those in the control condition.” This effect was especially pronounced with subjects who identify themselves as “introverts.”

What happens to our innate creativity when we age? Zabelina and Robinson discuss a few reasons. The first is that regions of the frontal cortex – a part of the brain responsible for rule-based behavior – are not fully developed until our teenage years. This means that when we are young our thoughts are free-flowing and without inhibitions; curiosity, not logic and reason, guides our intellectual musings. The second is that current educational practices discourage creativity. As famed Ted speaker Ken Robinson said: “the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized.”

No matter the reasons, the authors stress, adults can still tap into their more imaginative younger selves. The useful cognitive tools that come with adulthood tempt us to inhibit our imagination from wondering about the impossible, but as so many intellectuals and inventors have remarked throughout history, challenging what’s possible is a necessary starting point. As Jobs said, “the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

To be sure, it’s often beneficial to approach life with an adult mindset – you probably don’t want to get too creative with your taxes – but when it comes to using your imagination, thinking of oneself as a child facilitates more original thinking.

To Speed Up The Creative Process, Slow Down

It was Sunday in church, 1973, when Arthur Fry had his moment of insight. Fry, a member of the choir, was having trouble marking pages for the hymnals. Whenever he opened the book his makeshift bookmarks fell out or got caught in the seams. The problem was innocent enough, yet it persisted. What Fry really needed was an adhesive strong enough so his bookmarks stuck to the pages but weak enough so he wouldn’t damage the pages when he removed the bookmarks.

He recalled a seminar given by his 3M colleague, Spencer Silver, a few years ago. Silver described a new adhesive he discovered during his talk and Fry had been wondering how it could be applied ever since. That’s when the answer came to him: why not use Silver’s adhesive for the bookmark?

He called his idea the Post-It note.

Fry, of course, isn’t the only person to experience a moment of insight. Henrí Poincaré is famous for thinking up Non-Euclidean geometry while boarding a bus. “At the moment when I put my foot on the step the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it…. I did not verify the idea; I should not have had the time, as, upon taking my seat in the omnibus, I went on with the conversation already commenced, but I felt a perfect certainty.” Einstein, moreover, is known to have thought up Special Relativity after glimpsing at Bern’s famous clock tower.

When we think about eureka moments Rodin’s The Thinker comes to mind, maybe Newton’s famous apple inspired insight (as the story goes). We associate insights with deep concentration and contemplation. But surprising new research is demonstrating another side to the story. This is what Fry’s story tells us, that breakthroughs occur when we are relaxed, when the mind is not focused but at ease. An insight requires a lot hard work; it is often the peak of years of work. But on the path to discovery it’s important to let the mind wonder.

A recent experiment by Mareike Wieth and Rose Zacks demonstrated this nicely. They recruited 428 undergrads who identified themselves as either night owls or morning larks. Next Wieth and Zacks asked them to attempt 6 problem-solving tasks; half the problems were insights-based while the other half was analytical-based and they were given four minutes to solve them.

Here’s where things got interesting. Half of the students were tested between 8:30am and 9:30am while the other half were tested between 4 and 5:30pm. The researchers found that the undergrads were better at solving the insight problems when they tested during their least optimal time of function. This means that owls did better in the morning while larks did better in the afternoon. The BPS Research Digest explains the details:

When larks were tested in the evening and owls were tested in the morning, they achieved an average success rate of 56, 22 and 49 per cent, for the three insight tasks, compared with success rates of 51, 16, and 31 per cent achieved by students tested at their preferred time of day. By contrast, performance on the analytic tasks was unaffected by time of day.

Their findings are counter-intuitive but consistent with other recent research. Mark Jung-Beeman is a psychologist from the University of Northwestern who studies what happens in the brains when it has a moment of insight. A few years ago he teamed with John Kounios to try to understand the neuroscience behind problem solving. To do this they used EEG and fMRI to measure subjects while they completed Compound Remote Associate Problems (C.R.A.P problems, as the joke goes). Here’ an example: What word fits with “pine,” crab,” and “sauce?” The correct answer is “apple” (pineapple, crabapple, and applesauce).

They found that participants went through several phases as they tackled the problems. First was the preparatory phase where the prefrontal cortex was hot with activity. Next was the search phase where many parts of the brain were active. After that subjects either gave up or solved the problems. Jung-Beeman and Kounis found that the successful ones showed a burst in gamma rhythm, which is generated when neurons bind to each other. They also found a spike of activity in the anterior superior temporal gyrus (aSTG) moments before the insight. The aSTG is a fairly mysterious brain region but it is has been linked to the processing of metaphors. This makes some sense. C.R.A.P problems are, after all, about linking seemingly unrelated ideas.

What does this mean? One New Yorker article explains that, “the insight process… is a delicate mental balancing act. At first, the brain lavishes the scarce resource of attention on a single problem. But, once the brain is sufficiently focused, the cortex needs to relax in order to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere, which will provide the insight.”

Research by Joy Bhattacharya of University London, Goldsmith confirmed this. Bhattacharya found that EEG data accurately predicted if a subject was going to solve a problem up to eight second in advance. What tipped the subjects off were alpha waves, which are electrical neural oscillations that show up when you are about to fall asleep, when you’re getting out of bed or when you’re taking a warm shower. “Sleeping on it” turns out to have some neurological merit.

The British Comedian John Cleese also confirms this research with an enlightening talk about his early day at Cambridge:

If I was trying to write a sketch at night and I got stuck… I would go to bed. And when I woke up in the morning and made myself a cup of coffee and went back to my desk and looked at the problem not only was the solution to this problem immediately apparent to me, but I couldn’t even remember what the problem had been the previous night.

In a Red-Bull driven society it’s believed that intense focus, determination and willingness to never give up are vital, but Cleese and this informing research remind us that a clenched state of mind is sometimes counter-productive. Indeed, caffeine might be our best friend when it comes to solving problems, but certainly not always.

The important role relaxation plays in problem solving, insights, aha-moments and the so-called creative process is receiving a lot of attention. In a recent article on Time.com the science writer Annie Murphy Paul described the study by Wieth and Zacks and reminded readers that, “by not giving yourself time to tune in to your meandering mind, you’re missing out on the surprising solutions it may offer.” Similarly, “when you have to be creative,” says University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock on PsychologyToday.com, “working at your non-optimal time of day is actually optimal.” (There is even new research suggesting that being sleepy and drunk is good for creativity!)

To be sure, empirical results from the science of insights are confirming, not discovering, what many have known for centuries. The Austrian born physicist Fritjof Capra has a wonderful quote that captures this point. In his book The Tao Of Physics he explains the following:

Rational knowledge and rational activities certainly constitute the major part of scientific research, but are not all there is to it.  The rational part of research would, in fact, be useless if it were not complemented by the intuition that gives scientists new insights and makes them creative.   These insights tend to come suddenly and, characteristically, not when sitting at a desk working out the equations, but when relaxing, in the bath, during a walk in the woods, on the beach, etc.  During these periods of relaxation after concentrated intellectual activity, the intuitive mind seems to take over and can produce the sudden clarifying insights which give so much joy and delight to scientific research.

So it was with Fry, who, on the fateful Sunday morning, was innocuously singing hymnals when he had his insight. He wasn’t thinking about Silver’s research; he probably wasn’t thinking about much at all. But that was the important part. It was the calming presences of his fellow choir members, the congregation and warming resonance of the hymns that allowed his neurons to relax and form brand new synapses. And with his new neural network he left church to change the world, one Post-It note at a time.

Read more

Why Intellectual Diversity Is Important

Below is my latest column at The Creativity Post in its entirety. I argue that good ideas benefit from intellectual diversity. Incidentally, I came across this wonderful NYTimes article on the same subject at Farnam Street blog this morning. It discusses Scott Page’s The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies.

A few years ago Brian Uzzi of Northwestern University and Jarrett Spiro of Stanford University set out (pdf) to answer this question: What determines the success of a Broadway musical? Uzzi and Spiro began by poring through a data set that included 2,092 people who worked on 474 musicals from 1945 to 1989. To determine how good each production was they considered metrics such as reviews and financial success. They also controlled for things like talent and economic and geographic conditions to ensure that the big New York City musicals didn’t flub the data.

What they found was that successful productions relied on two components: “The ratio of new blood versus industry veterans, and the degree to which incumbents involved their former collaborators and served as brokers for new combinations of production teams.” In other words, productions that worked found a balance between strong social ties and weak ones, rookies and veterans, familiarity and novelty. They weren’t flooded with a group of likeminded people but neither was everyone a stranger to each other. Uzzi and Spiro hypothesized that the reason intellectual diversity was important is because “small world networks that help to create success or failure in Broadway musicals… face liabilities in the realms of innovation and collaboration that impede their creating new, successful musical hits… too much small-worldliness can undermine the very benefits it creates at more moderate levels, due to a decrease in artists’ ability to innovate and break convention.”

What’s alarming about their conclusions is that a plethora of psychological data suggests that most of us balk when we are given the chance to connect with people who might not share similar intellects. Consider a study (pdf) done back in 2007 by Paul Ingram and Michael Morris at Columbia University. The psychologists gathered a group of executives and had them attend a cocktail mixer where the psychologists encouraged the executives to exchange ideas, network and meet new people. Like good behavioral scientists, Ingram and Morris weaseled microphones on all the nametags to record what was said. Prior to the “mixing” the executives stated that they wanted to “meet as many different people as possible” or “expand their social network,” but the Ingram and Morris found just the opposite. “Do people mix at mixers? “ they asked in the concluding remarks of their study, “The answer is no… our results show that guests at a mixer tend to spend the time talking to the few other guests whom they already know well.” Or, as Jonah Lehrer somewhat sarcastically puts it in a recent post, “investment bankers chatted with other investment bankers, and marketers talked with other marketers, and accountants interacted with other accountants.”

Ingram and Morris’ study should be taken as a warning: If we want to broaden our intellectual horizons it’s important to remember our natural tendency to drift towards and eventually connect with only likeminded people. Stories of innovation and discovery throughout history illustrate how important this point is. My favorite, which doesn’t get told enough, is the discovery of Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMB), a key piece of evidence that changed our understanding of the origin of the universe forever.

The story begins in Holmdel New Jersey at Bell Labs where Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were experimenting with a horn antenna originally built to detect radio waves that bounced off of echo balloon satellites. After spending some time with the antenna they ran into a problem. It was a mysterious hissing noise – like static on the radio – that persisted all over the sky, day and night. The duo went to great lengths to eliminate the hiss – they even washed bird droppings off of the dish – but it was all to no avail. Meanwhile, at Princeton University just 60 miles down the road, Robert Dicke, Jim Peebles and David Wilkinson were trying to find evidence for the Big Bang in the form of microwave radiation. They predicated that if the Big Bang did in fact take place it must have scattered an enormous blast of radiation throughout the universe much like how a rock thrown into a lake creates ripples that broadcast outwards. With the right instrumentation, they believed, this radiation could be all over the sky, day and night.

It was only a matter of time before serendipity set in and a mutual friend at MIT, professor of physics Bernard F. Burke, told Penzias about what the researchers at Princeton were looking for. After that, the two teams exchanged ideas and realized the implications of their work. It turned out that the hiss that Penzias and Wilson were trying so hard to get rid of was precisely the radiation that the Princeton team was looking for. A few calculations and a published paper later landed Penzias and Wilson the 1978 Noble Prize in Physics; the rest of us are still repeating the benefits of a more complete understanding of the universe.

The story of CMB reminds us that when it comes to solving difficult problems a fresh set of eyes, even one that comes from a different field, is vital. The CMB story shows itself in one form or another many times throughout history. The world’s great ideas are as much about other people as they are about the individual who makes it into the textbook. As Matt Ridely explains in a TED lecture in a slightly different context, “what’s relevant to a society is how well people are communicating their ideas and how well they are cooperating not how clever the individuals are… it’s the interchange of ideas, the meeting and mating of ideas between that [causes]… innovation.”

There is a wonderful website called InnoCentive.com that facilitates what Ridley calls the meeting and mating of ideas. The framework of InnoCentive is quite simple: “seekers” go to the website to post their problems for “solvers.” Problems range from the “Recovery of Bacillus Spore from Swabs,” to “Blueprints for a Medical Transportation Device for Combat Rescue,” and multi-billion dollar companies like General Electric and Procter and Gamble often post them with cash prizes up to $1 million.

The amazing part is that it’s working. A study (pdf) by researchers at Harvard Business School found that about 33 percent of problems posted on InnoCentive were solved on time. Why does InnoCentive work? The same reason that successful Broadway plays do and CMB was discovered: intellectual diversity. If an organic chemistry problem only attracted organic chemists it tended to be troublesome. However, if a biologist got involved with that same problem then the chances were greater that the problem was solved. The implications of this should make you think: solvers were at their best when they were at the margins of their fields of expertise.

Maybe it sounds obvious to suggest that a proper mixture of minds is important for accomplishing tasks, but remember the lesson from Uzzi’s and Spiro’s cocktail party study: it’s really hard to not surround yourself with people like you. Don’t hang out with too many opposites though, we don’t want another Spider Man: Turn Off The Dark.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 333 other followers

%d bloggers like this: