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ON HOWARD GARDNER AND CREATIVITY

Preface Links:

The Eide Neurolearning Blog:

Switch! – Cross-Disciplinary Learning

Neural Activity When People Solve Verbal Problems with Insight” -PloS Biology

Brain of the Blogger

The Creativity Conundrum

Dan of tdaxp:

Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Coherence

Csikszentmihalyi the Pseudoscientist?

“Extraordinary Minds” by Howard Gardner: Notes…

The tdaxp Interview of Thomas PM Barnett

Colonel John Boyd:

Destruction and Creation

I’m finishing up Harvard Professor Howard Gardner‘s Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century . As with his Extraordinairy Minds, Intelligence Reframed has much to recommend it alongside sections that appear to me to be inadequately considered or less well expressed relative to the stronger parts of the book. On the plus side, Gardner’s evident willingness to reconsider, amend or improve MI theory in light of the findings of brain research is commendable and an indicator that Gardner’s books are more like steps along a journey than they are final destinations in themselves. That is a positive strength, not a weakness, in a theorist.

I take issue however with Dr. Gardner’s section on creativity, which for me was most interesting yet also intellectually frustrating -hence this post. Gardner’s work will be in bold, my comments will be in regular text:

” My definition of creativity has revealing parallels with, and differences from, my definition of intelligence.”

Puzzlement begins with this premise. Having acknowledged earlier that brain research has produced evidence of the modular nature of cognition, something that supports Gardner’s MI conceptual framework, Gardner now seemingly ignores research on creativity that has a physiological-modular link, such as that on insight. I’m not really seeing why creativity would be less an aspect of intelligence than ” kinesthetic” or, as Gardner speculates ” moral” categories of reasoning.

“People are creative when they can solve problems, create products or raise issues in a domain in a way that is initially novel but is eventually accepted in one or more cultural settings…The acid test of creativity is simple: in the wake of a putatively creative work, has the domain subsequently been changed?”

Well, in essence, Gardner is arguing that measurements of creative behavior of a certain order magnitude constitute real “creativity”. Aside from the implicit rejection of creativity as an intrinsic cognitive capacity ( again – why ? ) this is odd given Gardner’s twenty years of studied disinclination to develop or accept standardized measurements for MI theory. There is nothing wrong with arbitrarily designating the top 1 % of human efforts as genuinely creative, based on their longitudinal impact; but the irony of Gardner accepting the same position of Charles Murray goes unacknowledged.

The issue of vertical bias will be addressed momentarily.

“Let me underscore the relationship between my definitions of intelligence and creativity. Both involve solving problems and creating products. Creativity includes the additional category of asking new questions- something that is not expected of someone who is”merely” intelligent, in my terms. Creativity differs from intelligence in two additional respects. First, the creative person is always operating in a discipline or craft. One is not creative or noncreative in general; even Leonardo da Vinci, perhaps the Western World’s ultimate Rnaissance man….was creative in certain domains, like painting and invention, and not nearly as creative in others. Most creators stand out in one domain or, at most, in two”

A clearer a priori rejection of synthesis, horizontal thinking and consilience could hardly be written. One that is profoundly weird, in my view ,given that some of the more highly significant acts of scientific discovery were precipitated by seemingly trivial observation of mundane events that yielded a moment when a sweeping insight crystallized. A history that begins with Archimedes of Syracuse and works forward to the present day.

Gardner is correct that highly creative people are not able to be equally creative in all fields in which they have no reference or skill mastery as where they have demonstrated expertise but that is akin to saying that because Michael Jordan could not hit a baseball as well as he could a jump shot, therefore he has no intrinsic athletic ability. Put Jordan up against a couch potato in a sport neither have ever played or seen before and lay odds on who will have the best initial performance. How can kinesthetic intelligence be intrinsic but not creativity ?

Finally, Gardner’s bias against horizontal thinking across domains conflicts with the nature of intellectual creativity itself which struggles against the constraining rules that constitute the definitional borders, official orthodoxy and received wisdom of the domain’s vertically trained experts. How, for example, was Einstein’s ” Big C ” creativity ( to use Gardner’s term) possible when relativity theory and quantum mechanics violated the precepts of the long established scientific world of Newtonian physics ? Creative people work not merely in domains but, especially, across them. Something Howard Gardner ought to know better than most.

Intelligence Reframed is a worthwhile read, in which Gardner has many useful and, indeed, insightful things to say but his efforts to wall off “creativity” from “intelligence” are simply wrongheaded and, I suspect, ultimately futile, as brain research into the biological mechanisms of insight and creativity will continue.

UPDATE:

Dan of tdaxp informs the debate with a look at EP and logical thinking.

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6 Responses to “”

  1. Dan tdaxp Says:

    Mark,

    Excellent post! (And thanks for the links!) It deserves more comment than this, but here are my initial thoughts before I go to bed:

    Howard Gardner appears to be adopting an Evolutionary Psychology view of cognition. In particular, he admires EP’s “massive modularity hypothesis” and wants to integrate it with his Multiple Intelligences. Indeech, each of his intelligences can be seen as a statistical cluster of related modules. Going forward, new intelligences can be proposed and tested as similar collections of modules.

    Massive Modularity reserves logical thinking, synthetic thinking, etc, as modules. EP assumes that the logical thinking module is extremely weak as indicated by widespread failure on the Watson selection task (are you familiar with this)… Further, the failure of logical thinking is notable when one considers near-universal success on the logically equiavent Cheater detection task.

    In other words, EP/MM/Garder/etc assume that the human mind is composed of a large number of special-purpose components that have only limited access to each other. This makes synthesis as we understood it very hard, just as it is very hard to “synthesize” solitaire and internet explorer on your computer.

    Instead of synthesis, however, MM gives us mash-ups. Modules can be connected together in useful ways, and “creativity” comes from organizing a useful network of modules. Physically rewiring the brain is done through purposeful practice and repiton.

    However, the rewiring only makes sense for a set of related tasks. Michael Jordan’s brain is almost certainly neurologically optimized for physically demanding sports involving a quickly moving ball in a confined, crowded space. This makes him creative at basketball and somewhat skilled at baseball, but we shouldn’t expect this superior mental ability to translate to, say, blogging. Likewise, an experienced blogger would be creative at his art and rather talented at newspaper column-writing, but completely non-creative at basketball.

    Whether or not this means that Modularity has a vertical bias depends on what one means by veritcal. I think it’s clear that there’s a lot of room for transfer between Political Science and Educational Psychology, say. In a sense this is horizontal, and these are two seperate scholarly domains. But in a neurological sense the skills for academic discussion in one are very close to the skills for academic discussion in the other, so it would be variation within a vertical domain.

    Again, excellent post.

  2. mark Says:

    Testing comment function….

  3. mark Says:

    Hi Dan,

    And thank you for such an informative comment – they were great!

    Brief bursts of remarks (multitasking):

    * Gardner is sympathetic to EP, I agree, as am I.

    *My caveat is that while have learned more about the brain in the last 10 years than the last 10,000, we still know relatively little on it’s actual functions. Some current EP assumptions ( and Gardner’s and mine, quite frankly)while logical and informed speculation may be significantly revised in less than three years.

    * not sure what you mean by ” weak” (little cognitive influence? Difficult to master?)

    * Looked up the Watson test last night – the percentages of successful logical thinking correlate with what you might expect from a general population bell curve.

    *So social context would be a highly uuseful (adaptive) reasoning crutch for most of the population as logic does not equate with reality (it’s simply a tool to order it and identify causation and effect)

    * Modularity does not require limited access to be modular, just specialized functional coherence – I’m not certain we should generalize so broadly. I’ll bet that a spectrum of accessibility exists with some functions on the hard to connect end and others which are hyperconnective. I freely admit that this is an unsupported guess, however.

    * I think part of the problem here with Gardner is twofold

    a) insufficient clarity as we hop between physiological modules, intelligences and conceptual, socially constructed, domains

    b) He’s working too hard to predetermine the outcome where evidence is very fuzzy on a variable (creativity) for which there are multiple mechanisms

  4. Dan tdaxp Says:

    Mark,

    Over at tdaxp, I highlight the difference between cheater detection and logical thinking.

    An example of “black box modularity” might be language. The language module lets us quickly pick up human tongues. However, we don’t have the ability to figure out how it works just by thinking about it. In other words, just knowing something doesn’t mean you have any knowledge of how you know it — which is a serious problem if one believes in rationality (and the requirement that one’s knowledge be justified in words).

  5. montana urban legend Says:

    Hi Mark,

    What’s up with the Kabbalistic diagram at the top? Is it indicative of more direct lower-order associations between some of the intelligences or was it not intended to be specifically diagrammatic?

  6. mark Says:

    Hi Montana,

    I swiped the graphic from a university website simply because I’m not sure my fair number of .mil type readers know much about Gardner’s multiple intelligences. I wanted a quick visial that didn’t look too jarring and that one fit the bill. Not sure what the artist meant by the connecting lines or if Gardner would agree with them.

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