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Social and Individual Components of Creativity

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

This is very good. And it is fast.

I have enjoyed several of Steven Johnson’s previous books, Emergence and Mind Wide Open and his latest one, Where Good Ideas Come From looks to be a must read, though I think those of you who have read Wikinomics or works like Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi will find some of Johnson’s points in the video to be familiar as will those long time readers who have seen my views on horizontal thinking   and  insight.

My students watched this and reacted by defining themselves as those who were creative mostly through social collaboration but a decided minority required solitude and an environmental filter to think clearly and creatively – not a catalyst of a series of  social-intellectual stimuli. For them, the cognitive load generated by the environment amounted to an overload, a distracting white noise that short-circuited the emergence of good ideas.

This suggests to me that there are multiple and very different neuronal pathways to creativity in the brain and a person’s predisposition in their executive function, say for example the classic “ADHD” kid at the back of the class, may have different requirements to be creative than a peer without that characteristic. It also means that creativity may be subject to improvement if we can cultivate proficiency in several “styles” of creative thinking.

Is Creativity a Social Product ?

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

Blogfriend Dan of tdaxp clearly thinks so:

Doing Artsy Stuff Isn’t “Creativity”

I’ve talked about creativity before, in the context of the OODA loop, purposeful practice (a form of metacognition that is the opposite of “flow”), and mental illness. Another part of creativity is being recognized as useful by the field of a domain. If you invent a new type of hot water heater, that is being creative. If you’re chess technique allows you to rise in international chess competitions, that’s creativity. If you cure cancer but don’t tell anyone, that’s just wasting your time.

So this article is somewhat off-base:

Why Do Men Share Their Creative Work Online More Than Women? | Scientific Blogging
A recent Northwestern University study has a surprising results – substantially more men are likely to share their creative work online than women even though both genders engage in creative activities at essentially equal rates.

As it confuses artsy-stuff (making music, taking photographs, etc.) with creativity. Certainly artsy-stuff can be a form of practice, therapy, or good old recreation. Perhaps it can lead to creativity one day when you share it with others. But if you sit on it, you’re enjoying yourself, not being creative.

This is more or less along the line of argumentation proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi  and Howard Gardner for “Big C” creativity being “real creativity” because it has a downstream societal impact. However, I’m hesitant to accept that social recognition should be a form of validation of creative merit.  To paraphrase my comment at tdaxp,  what if the people with whom you share your creative efforts are not able to accurately assess the intrinsic merit of what you have made or discovered?

For example, Vincent van Gogh’s paintings now sell for upwards of $ 80 million dollars but in his lifetime, despite a prodigious artistic output ,he often had to get by with financial help from his family. Many artists, scientsts, musicians and inventors found cold receptions from their contemporaries to later gain posthumous vindication – sometimes by chance. This is the old “starving artist” cliche and most artists who starve do so because they are mediocre talents but a number of the greatest artists, scientists, inventors and musicians starved with them – or at least were confounded in their hopes for recognition and acclaim.

In all likelihood, the more insightful and groundbreaking the creative act, the less likely the society of the time will be able to fully appreciate or understand it. At least for a time.

Knowledge Expertise as a Springboard instead of a Cage

Saturday, January 5th, 2008

Steve DeAngelis had an excellent and timely post on the cognitive diversity involved in the creative process of innovation, working off an article in The New York Times, Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike:

The Curse of Knowledge

“There is a lot of denial when it comes to the curse of knowledge. Nobody likes to admit that they are incapable of thinking out of the box. Entrepreneurs pride themselves on being able to envision the “next big thing.” Designers and inventors are always looking for better ways to do things. The good ones have learned tricks that help them break down the walls of knowledge. According to Rae-Dupree psychologists have conducted experiments that demonstrate that a person’s first instinct is to think about old things rather than new things. That’s not really surprising since we can only think about what we know.

‘Elizabeth Newton, a psychologist, conducted an experiment on the curse of knowledge while working on her doctorate at Stanford in 1990. She gave one set of people, called ‘tappers,’ a list of commonly known songs from which to choose. Their task was to rap their knuckles on a tabletop to the rhythm of the chosen tune as they thought about it in their heads. A second set of people, called ‘listeners,’ were asked to name the songs. Before the experiment began, the tappers were asked how often they believed that the listeners would name the songs correctly. On average, tappers expected listeners to get it right about half the time. In the end, however, listeners guessed only 3 of 120 songs tapped out, or 2.5 percent. The tappers were astounded. The song was so clear in their minds; how could the listeners not ‘hear’ it in their taps?’

….Rae-Dupree notes that there are ways to “exorcise the curse.” I have written about one of those ways before. Frans Johansson calls it “The Medici Effect” in his book of the same name. He argues in favor of creating a space in which people from diverse fields of expertise can get together to exchange ideas. The Medici’s, of course, were a wealthy and powerful Italian family who played an important role in the Renaissance. The family’s wealth permitted it to support artists, philosophers, theologians, and scientists, whose combined intellect helped burst the historical pall known as the Dark Ages. Getting people with different knowledge bases together means that none of them can remain within the walls of their own knowledge domain for long. As a result, good ideas normally emerge”

Read the rest here.

Acquiring disciplinary expertise typically takes approximately a minimum of 7-10 years for the student to master enough depth of knowledge and requisite skill-sets to become an expert practitioner. In many fields, notably pure mathematics, theoretical physics and musical composition, this period of early mastery is often the most fruitful in terms of significant contributions of new discoveries or the kinds of innovations that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Howard Gardner consider to be “Big C” creativity. Einstein’s papers on Relativity or Newton’s early exposition of the Laws of Motion being the great historical examples of paradigm-shifting innovators. If a practitioner remains entirely in that field for their career, cultivating an ever greater and rarefied depth of knowledge ( and thus having fewer true peers and more disciples) further contributions are likely to be of the “tweaking” and “critiquing” variety. Useful but not nearly as satisfying as the grand “breakthrough” moment.

I suspect that the reason for this decline in major creativity has to do with two realities of expertise:

First, the analytical-reductionist emphasis on vertical thinking; cognitively, for an acknowledged expert, there is a great deal more time spent on mere data retrieval, interpretation within accepted frames and scanning patterns for consistency than there is original problem solving, questioning premises, speculating, imaginative brainstorming, analyzing anomalies and thinking analogically. The latter are too often the tools of the novice, the student, the child, the layman trying to grasp in the process of learning what  they do not yet fully understand. Too often these powerful ( though tiring and time consuming) cognitive skills are set aside in favor of operating on “autopilot” once the student has achieved mastery. Unless consciously practiced, the hard thinking tends to stop when one is constantly confronted by the routine.

Secondly, disciplinary fields, like all forms of collective human endeavor generate their own cultures with accepted norms, rituals, in-group terminology, orthodoxies, implicit and explicit rule-sets, authoritative hierarchies, politics, and peer presssures. As one gains seniority it becomes harder and harder to rock the boat because challenging one’s peers brings professional risk, social ostracism and conflict while validating the community’s beliefs yields rewards, advancement and praise. A phenomenon of human nature that has been observed by thinkers as disparate as Thorstein Veblen, Thomas Kuhn and Howard Bloom. Vested interests are irrational in their own defense. It is here that knowledge can be come a “curse” and expertise a form of incompetency or blindness to the larger picture ( “educated incapacity” in Herman Kahn’s terminology).

The answer to this problem requires actively determining how we will think about our knowledge. Steve pointed to cultivating “the Medici Effect” of multidisciplinary interaction in his post, a highly effective practice for organizations who want a work force rich in “intellectual catalysts”. To this, I would add another important set of variables: freedom and time. Seemingly non-productive activities, when we are “fooling around” appear to permit an indirect processing of information that leads to a burst of insight about the problem we have failed to consciously solve ( the “idea came to me in the shower” effect). Time needs to be set aside to explore possibilities with acceptance that not all on them are going to pan out ( Frans Johnansson covers these points at length in The Medici Effect). Permitting employees autonomy strikes at the power and culture of American middle-level management, which is why inculcating such practices often founder, even when introduced support of organizational leaders ( “leadership” and “management” are entirely different outlooks) due to the passive or active resistance of those whose position or status in the organization depends upon exercising control.

On the individual level, novelty is an important stimulus toward horizontal thinking. New concepts and experiences stoke our curiousity and “wake” our brains out of the usual, habitual, patterns in which we operate. Attention levels increase as we begin to operate at the beginning of the learning curve and start to recognize parallels and connections between old and new knowledge. We can also make deliberate choices to think “outside the box’ by voluntarily changing our position, perspective and scale, reversing our premises, engaging in counterfactual thought experiments and other lateral thinking exercises. In this way, we are more likely to be behaving metacognitively, aware of both our own thinking and more alert to the nature of the information that we are receiving.

We have something of a paradoxical situation. An untrained mind, looking at a field with “new eyes” is the one most likely to notice that which has eluded the expert of great experience but is least able to make use of, or even assess critically, the importance of their insights. A trained, disciplinary, mind has the capacity to extrapolate/interpolate, practically apply new insights or think consiliently with great effect but is the mind least likely to have any insights that could conflict with the major tenets of their disciplinary worldview.

Having the best of both worlds means avoiding either-or choices in cognition in favor of both. Analytical-reductionism and Synthesis-consilience have to be regarded by serious thinkers as tools of equal value. Imagination and vision should be as important to the genetic microbiologist or physical chemist as it is to the artist but they should be regarded as a complement to the scientific method and logical, critical, analysis, not as a substitute. Looking for alternative choices to a course of action should be valued as highly as correctly identifying the likeliest outcome of the action. We can embrace intellectual curiousity and shun “paralysis by analysis”.

Crossposted at Chicago Boyz.

Saturday, March 31st, 2007


So much to try and speed-read through after my brief respite from the blogging treadmill…

One of several posts that caught my eye today was by Steve DeAngelis at ERMB on “Groupthink: Good or Bad?“; not simply because I am a regular reader of Steve’s and of Tom’s but because the premium put upon organizational and individual creativity in the next quarter century will put the high octane in the term ” information economy”. That an “edge” thinker, with the “insider” prominence of Steve, is paying attention to creativity as a subject, bodes well.

[Parenthetical aside: Creativity has two poles. Dr. Richard Florida, whose blog I also enjoy reading, represents analyzing the effects of creativity in the societal and global aggregate. The individual, cognitive processing, aspect of creativity studied by Dr. Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi is equally, important to understand. The two perspectives, in my view, need to be comprehended and integrated for creativity to be properly cultivated, as they are intimately interrelated]

Steve writes:

“When groupthink becomes the dominant paradigm in a business it can crush innovation. Innovators rarely worry about group cohesiveness or getting along. They might not all be clear-eyed pragmatists either. Janis notes that groupthink results in the lack of realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action. Innovators may be willing to take alternative paths but often those courses of action are not very realistic either. Since the invention of the Internet, critics have started to think about and define groupthink differently. They talk about the power of the many to outthink the few. Patti Waldmeir, writing last year in the Financial Times, discussed this other side of groupthink [“Why groupthink is the genius of the internet,” 9 August 2006]. She begins with a short history lesson and a question:

“Friedrich Hayek, liberal philosopher and economist, was born in the 19th century. Did he accidentally predict the genius of the internet? Back in 1973, when not even the average nerd knew about the net, Hayek was writing: ‘Each member of society can have only a small fraction of the knowledge possessed by all and?…?civilisation rests on the fact that we all benefit from knowledge which we do not possess.’ That certainly sounds like a manifesto for blogs and wikis and all the other smart collaborative tools of the information society. Like democracy, they are based on the wonderfully egalitarian notion that even the lowliest among us has something useful to contribute. But can that possibly be true?”

Of course, defining groupthink as “collective wisdom” is far different than defining it as everyone thinking alike. That, however, is how Waldmeir has chosen to define it.”

Interesting. I’m not familiar with Waldmeir but my two cents here is that “groupthink” and “collective wisdom” share the common trait of collectivity but are not otherwise the same cognitive phenomena. The latter, as a market-like function, relies upon the sum of socially atomized interaction; the former is socially integrated interaction, a network or a hierarchy ( or both) which are very different from a market, at least those markets with no or minimal barrier to entry.

The problem with “groupthink” is not the formal or ” official unwritten rule” requirement for everyone to march ideological lockstep. That characteristic is one easily recognized ( and cursed) by those participating within the system which enforces it. For relevant examples, read the historiography of Soviet Studies dealing with ” nomenklatura“, defectors and dissidents from Kravchenko forward, if not earlier. The real dilemma, the cognitive sticking point where the true damage is done, has to due with the institutional variety of what social historian Lawrence Goodwyn termed “the received culture“. Another useful but highly inexact set of terms might be “worldview” or “paradigm”, but writ small.

Any analytical journeymen who values his intellectual integrity is adept at spotting the ritual nonsense of their organization and compensating accordingly. A far more difficult task is self-awarenes in terms of discerning the implicit assumptions in which we have all been inculcated by experience and design. “The wisdom of crowds” functions primarily because anyone is able ( theoretically) to join the crowd at any moment. When that is no longer possible, the crowd grows increasingly stupid as the scenario upon which it is asked to pontificate, broadens and lengthens.

This has implications for America’s intelligence community. The Cold War has left a peculair counterintelligence legacy known as ” the background check”, if you aspire to certain positions in the national security, defense and intelligence communities. It is expensive and redundant and, in many cases, periodic. It served a purpose when the US squared off against the Eastern Bloc. Today, the economic effect of this CI legacy is to slow the velocity of ” new blood” into the IC and particular appointive positions to a crawl, which effectively ” dumbs down” the “crowd”, even in those instances in which the IC managerial hierarchy permits a “crowd” to function. Which, if you are a faithful reader of Haft of the Spear, you realize, ain’t much.

Here’s a wish, from a humble citizen out in flyover country, directed toward the uppermost G-somethings flitting around the new NDI: have someone with both real experience and political juice tackle revitalizing the creativity of the IC analytical process. I say ” process” because I do not see this as a ” people problem” but a bureaucratic one, the analysts have, as a group, good educations and fine brains.

Look for new ways to use them. Vigorously engage outsiders. Make the political case for novelty in methodology to both politicians and the public. Experimentation at this juncture beats cautious perfection.

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