kitchen table math, the sequel: creativity, knowledge, and the project method

Thursday, July 26, 2007

creativity, knowledge, and the project method

For reasons that escape me now, I came across three separate articles on the subject of creativity yesterday, each one quite good, or at least interesting.

The contradictions amongst the three (and within the text of one) are interesting as well.

The one tenet upon which all 3 agree: high levels of knowledge are essential to creativity - knowledge meaning knowledge stored in longterm memory, not on the internet.


    Carson had long been struck by the idea that creativity is marked by a bringing together of seemingly unrelated ideas, memories, images, and thoughts. Cubism is creative, for instance, because it juxtaposes images of living things with the hard edges and sharp angles of geometry. Might it be the case, she wondered, that creative people have a slightly leaky mental filter? If so, then perhaps they do not dismiss as easily as the rest of us “irrelevant” ideas that pop into their heads, but instead entertain them long enough for one of them to connect with another thought that is kicking around – giving birth to a novel, creative idea.

    There is little doubt that screening from conscious awareness that which is irrelevant to your immediate needs helps focus concentration. It may also be good for mental health, since paying attention to every little sight, sound, and thought can drive you batty. Indeed, reductions in this filtering mechanism, called latent inhibition, have long been linked with a tendency to psychosis. But Carson wondered whether that “failure” might also spur original thinking. To find out, she and colleagues had 182 Harvard students undergo tests in which they listened to repeated strings of nonsense syllables, heard background noise, and saw yellow lights on a video screen. The students also filled out questionnaires about their creative achievements (which is how Carson identified all those composers, scientists, and the rest), and took standard intelligence tests.


    Comparing the measures of the students’ latent inhibition (how many of those noises and lights they noticed) with their IQ scores and creativity, the scientists found that the more creative had significantly lower scores for latent inhibition than the less creative.


    “Getting swamped by new information that you have difficulty handling may predispose you to a mental disorder,” Carson says. “But if you have high intelligence and a good working memory, you are more likely to be able to combine bits of new information in creative ways.”

    The “high intelligence” part of Carson’s statement is key. Studies going back to the 1980s have shown that an inability to filter out extraneous perceptions and thoughts is linked to mental illness, in particular schizophrenia. Says Carson, “Highly creative people in our studies showed the same latent-inhibition patterns found in other studies of schizophrenics.” But if creative individuals are often characterized by an eerie ability to see connections and make associations that are beyond the rest of us, how do they manage to do so while staying sane?


    Carson’s answer: high IQ. There is no dearth of intelligent people who lack any spark of creativity, or of creative people who are not, by conventional measures, particularly brilliant. But some minimal level of intelligence is required for creativity. The reason is that in order to generate novel combinations, it helps to have a wealth of mental elements to work with. Without a sufficient supply of elements that can be combined in an original way, creativity is impossible. Since intelligence is generally associated with a large store of such knowledge, the greater the intelligence the larger the potential supply of elements that can be combined in an original way.

    “We saw creativity increase as IQs climb to 130 and even up to 150,” Carson says. But in those with average IQs, around 100, reductions in latent inhibition did not boost creativity. High intelligence, she adds, “should help you to better process the increasing information that goes along with low latent inhibition. To be creative, you can be bright and crazy, but not stupid.”

    Why Mad Scientists Are Mad: What's Behind the Creative Mind?
    by Sharon Begley
    In Character

    In Character: How would you define creativity?

    David Gelernter: The ability to see a relation between two seemingly unrelated ideas, and to draw conclusions. This is the standard definition in cognitive psychology and philosophy of mind; it’s the definition I used in my book about thought and creativity (The Muse in the Machine). But we also need to include visual and musical creativity – the ability to invent and manipulate images or musical phrases. These seem to well up by themselves out of mental freshwater springs, so to speak. But I suspect that if we studied them minutely, we’d discover that new visual or musical ideas are suggested by something or other – they do have something to do with unsuspected relations between thoughts.
    The mind is more supple when you’re young; you’re more apt to hit on novel combinations. But there’s a countervailing process: as you get older, you know more and you’ve experienced more. You don’t move through the branches as nimbly as you once did, but the forest is larger, which makes the possibilities greater.


    We can encourage creativity indirectly by stocking the human brain (like a trout pool) with the information it needs in order to exercise whatever inborn creative faculty it was born with. I’m not sure I’m in favor of encouraging creativity, but I’m definitely in favor of education.


    Creative children are born with the ability to swing like chimpanzees through the branches of the “memory forest”; they’re able to travel far and fast through the canopy. But they need a large enough forest to travel through. . If they live in a puny forest, their remarkable gift for branch-swinging won’t ever come out. A good education creates a large, lofty forest.

    David Gelernter, interview
    In Character

    Around the same time, psychologist Joy Paul Guilford of the University of Southern California noted that intelligence did not mirror the totality of a person's cognitive capacity. In the late 1940s Guilford developed a model of human intellect that formed the basis for modern research into creativity. A crucial variable is the difference between "convergent" and "divergent" thinking. Convergent thinking aims for a single, correct solution to a problem. When presented with a situation, we use logic to find an orthodox solution and to determine if it is unambiguously right or wrong. IQ tests primarily involve convergent thinking. But creative people can free themselves from conventional thought patterns and follow new pathways to unusual or distantly associated answers. This ability is known as divergent thinking, which generates many possible solutions.


    Convergent thinking is also required for a creative breakthrough. Inspirational thunderbolts do not appear out of the blue. They are grounded in solid knowledge. Creative people are generally very knowledgeable about a given discipline. Coming up with a grand idea without ever having been closely involved with an area of study is not impossible, but it is very improbable. Albert Einstein worked for years on rigorous physics problems, mathematics and even philosophy before he hit on the central equation of relativity theory

    Unleashing Creativity
    Scientific American Mind
    by Ulrich Kraft

    another 21st century skill that isn't

    Working collaboratively in groups is the last thing you should be doing if you want to solve problems creatively.

    In many cases, creativity seems to emerge unconsciously, often when you are thinking of something else. That may explain the responses people gave to a survey about where and when they are most creative. Nearly 20 percent of American adults say they think most creatively in their cars.... Respondents also said the ideal conditions for their creative thinking were solitude and quiet. When asked to complete the sentence, “My most creative ideas come when ... ,” 66 percent chose “I am alone,” with 47 percent opting for the closely akin “it’s quiet and there are no disruptions.” Interestingly, given the culture’s infatuation with brainstorming, only 24 percent chose “I’m working with others.”


    ...[C]reative people ... more likely to be introverted than extroverted, independent, enthusiastic, and hard-working.... Introverts are more likely to tolerate the long hours of solitary thought necessary for creativity. (Despite the popularity of brainstorming and group problem solving in corporate America, study after study has shown that these techniques produce fewer workable creative ideas than does solitary problem solving. In fact, people working alone generally hit upon better ideas than do the same people working together.) People who are independent or even iconoclastic are less likely to reject a novel idea without first giving it some thought.

    Sharon Begley

    When was the last time you heard anyone say a camel is a horse designed by a committee?


    Gelernter says conversation is essential to creativity.

    Certainly true for me.

    Conversation on a blog - even better!


    SteveH said...

    "The ability to see a relation between two seemingly unrelated ideas, and to draw conclusions."

    I see a lot of creativity as extrapolation, rather than serendipity. Most inventions are based on extrapolation. Put enough extrapolations together and it can appear to be a major creative leap.

    SteveH said...

    (I think I've mentioned this before.)

    I'm very creative. You should see all of the ideas I come up with. I have notebooks filled with ideas. Creativity is cheap. Creativity is easy. Show me a person who is not creative in some way. I might know one, but I think I just don't know him well enough.

    How can you talk about creativity without implementation or results? Now we're talking knowledge and mastery. Creativity is easy if you have a big budget behind you.

    Catherine Johnson said...

    I see a lot of creativity as extrapolation, rather than serendipity. Most inventions are based on extrapolation.

    What does that mean?

    I'm used to the idea of novel combinations; I think that's almost entirely what I do, writing books... for some reason I'm not understanding "extrapolation" in this context.

    Catherine Johnson said...

    How can you talk about creativity without implementation or results?

    Begley's article is the best of the three, I'd say. She talks about results from the get-go.

    The Sci-American article doesn't get to that point until the end.

    Catherine Johnson said...

    The Scientific American idea also discusses the fronto-temporal dementia folks, who are very interesting.

    I'd say their experience (they suddenly become artists as their language faculty is progressively destroyed by disease) is consistent with the ideas of Llinas & Hawkins.

    John Wills Lloyd said...

    Consistent with steveh's first comment, there were wonderful studies of creativity published in Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. I've posted a sampling of them on Teach Effectively!.

    SteveH said...

    "I see a lot of creativity as extrapolation, rather than serendipity. Most inventions are based on extrapolation."

    Perhaps this is not true in some areas, but in science and engineering, one usually starts on the shoulders of many others who are working very hard. In some ways, it can be very competitive. The top people in a field read all of the latest technical publications and go to lots of symposia.

    Someone might come up with a completely new approach to a technical problem, but that's rare. Most creativity is on a smaller scale. Someone reads a technical paper and figures out the solution to a particular problem. It's an extension or extrapolation of someone else's work. They publish their findings and the race is on for the next improvement.

    Sometimes the development paths split and there is what you might call a technical race to see which way turns out to be better. There is a great incentive to publish small leaps rather than wait until you can publish a whole tome, especially for new ideas. Otherwise, someone else will publish the idea first.

    But, technical people are very good about giving credit where credit is due. Publishing makes sure this happens, but I've seen some cases where references are listed as "personal correspondence". I've also seen cases where people have published papers on the exact path of a noteworthy technical development.

    One approach to studying a new technical area is to find the latest technical papers and work your way back through the references. There may be a few milestone works, but most of the development is incremental.

    This is not like writing where the whole thing has to be your creation. That can't happen in science and engineering.

    Catherine Johnson said...

    John - thanks!!

    Catherine Johnson said...

    What do you know about "transfer of learning"???

    (I realize that's a larger-than-Comment-size question.)

    Catherine Johnson said...

    This is not like writing where the whole thing has to be your creation.


    The "whole thing" isn't a writer's creation (nonfiction writer).

    I think it's exactly what you're talking about.

    Creativity in nonfiction writing is all about taking various ideas from various fields, scientists, or authors and finding the logical thread that connect them into a novel combination.

    The combination is what's new, and you make the combination out of "other people's" elements, which are novel combinations in and of themselves.