September 25, 2013
When I got back from vacation the other day, I returned to a clean desk. Well, not actually clean, but every stack of paper was aligned. Not a sheet was askew.
This lasted about 20 minutes.
But rather than stare forlornly at the paper swirl building before me, this time I gave myself a big “attaboy,” because clearly I was getting my creative on.
When things get messy
That’s right, a messy desk is a sign of an innovative mind at work, not a chaotic one. At least that’s the sage suggestion from a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota.
Here’s how they reached this conclusion. First, they arranged a room to look either particularly tidy or especially messy and haphazard. Then they invited people in for what they were told was a “consumer choice study.” The study participants were shown a menu for fruit smoothies. Actually, there were two versions of the menu. On one, smoothies with a “health boost” of added ingredients, were labeled “classic.” On the the other menu, those same smoothies were promoted as “new.”
And here’s how it played out: When people were in the tidy room, they picked smoothies with a health boost twice as often if it was labeled classic. Conversely, when they made their smoothie choices while in a messy room, they opted for those described as “new”—again twice as often. In short, they preferred convention while in a clean environment and novelty when immersed in messiness.
Interesting, but it doesn’t feel like this is quite enough to declare that messiness fosters creativity. So the Minnesota researchers, led by Kathleen Vohs, ratcheted up the research. They used the same tidy and messy rooms, only this time, they asked subjects to propose as many different uses for ping pong balls as possible. Then they had a team of independent judges rate the ideas based on the level of creativity.
Suggesting that the balls be used for beer pong wouldn’t have impressed the judges. Recommending that they could be converted into ice cube trays would.
Once again, the messy room worked its magic. As Vohs explained recently in the New York Times, the people who spent their time there offered up five times as many ideas deemed “highly creative.”
Maybe it’s time to aim a fan at the papers on my desk and start thinking deep thoughts.
It’s all about connections
If only it were that simple. Turns out that even the way our brains produce creative thoughts appears to be a lot more complicated than long believed. The conventional wisdom that the right half of our brain handles creative thinking? Way too simple—at least according to a study published last week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A team of Dartmouth scientists found that human imagination is much more of a whole brain experience.
That’s what they observed after they hooked 15 participants up to an fMRI scanner and asked them to visualize specific abstract shapes, then told them to imagine combining those shapes into more complex figures. Large networks within the subjects’ brains became active as they conjured up the images. This included areas that deal with visual processing, along with others related to attention and executive processes. All of them worked together to make the imaginary images take shape.
While their findings didn’t provide a clear answer as to why some people are more creative than others, it did allow the scientists to speculate that it may come down to a matter of connections, that in truly creative people, the different brain regions needed to shape imagination are particularly well-connected.
Here’s other recent research on what may help make us creative:
- Still, they should not be encouraged to take apart the air conditioner: Researchers at Vanderbilt University say that a teenager’s ability to figure out how things work may be a better predictor of innovative thinking than more conventional math or verbal skills. The study found that students who did well on the Differential Aptitude Test, which measures the ability to manipulate two-and three-dimensional objects, often proved to be high achievers in math, science and engineering.
- I did it my way…and so should you: A study published by Northwestern University scientists challenges the notion that creative people can be a bit flighty. Instead, their research suggests just the opposite, that people who achieve creative success tend to cling to ideas, sometimes to the point where it keeps them from shifting focus.
- And you scoffed: A British psychologist commissioned by the music streaming service Spotify to determine what type of music benefits which topics of study came to the conclusion that listening to the music of Miley Cyrus can actually boost a person’s creativity.
Video bonus: Singer Annie Lennox offers her take on catching creative ideas and why it’s important to keep our internal critic out of the room at those moments.
Video bonus bonus: You gotta admit that there’s something creative about putting birds on hang gliders.
Also on Smithsonian.com
Working In a Creative Field? Despite What You Think, Coffee Is Not Your Best Friend
June 28, 2013
I’d be the first to concede that the image of Archimedes yelling “Eureka” as he ran naked through the streets of Syracuse makes one fine visual for the concept of discovery.
Which is a shame, not only because it most likely didn’t happen–the story first appeared in a book two centuries after the Greek scholar had died–but also because it has long fed the fantasy of discovery as a solitary and sudden experience. Both history and research tell us that it rarely is–most of the time innovation is an iterative process that fits and starts over months, years, decades. And way more often than not, invention is the result of human friction, of people with different backgrounds and skills and ideas bumping into one another, sparking fresh thoughts and collaborative visions.
One of the better examples of this messy, but fruitful dynamic played out after World War II in a nondescript structure at M.I.T known simply as Building 20. In his book, “Where Good Ideas Come From,” published in 2010, Steven Johnson wrote about how, because the building was used to handle overflow from fast-growing science departments, it scrambled together an eclectic mix of nuclear scientists, electrical engineers, computer scientists, acoustical engineers and even linguists.
And that resulted in hallway conversations and random exchanges that made Building 20 one of the more creative places on Earth, a place that incubated an amazing sweep of scientific breakthroughs, from the first computer video game (SpaceWar!) to major advances in both microwaves and high-speed photography to the earliest attempts at computer hacking.
The beauty of congestion
Social scientists will tell you it’s that same swirl of commingled ideas and constant interactions–albeit on a much larger scale–that makes cities founts of creativity. In fact, research published earlier this month by scientists from M.I.T. concluded that productivity and innovation in urban areas grow at roughly the same rate as population, largely because the greater density of people living in a city increases the opportunities for personal interactions and exposure to different ideas.
The research team, led by Wei Pan, analyzed all kinds of factors to tabulate the “social-tie density” of different cities–that’s the average number of people each resident will interact with personally. They looked at everything from the number of call partners with whom a cellphone user will end up sharing a cell tower to the number of people connecting through location-based social networks like Foursquare to the contagion rates of diseases spread only through personal contact. And they found that the higher a city’s social-tie density, the higher its levels of productivity and patents awarded.
“What really happens when you move to a big city is you get to know a lot of different people, although they are not necessarily your friends. These are the people who bring different ideas, bring different opportunities and meetings with other great people that may help you.”
His model doesn’t hold up, however, for some huge African and Asian cities that have even denser populations than cities in the West. But Pan has an explanation for that. Generally, those cities have terrible transportation systems. If people can’t get around, can’t have those serendipitous interactions, a city’s density has less impact.
It’s all about the friction.
Here’s other recent research on what makes us more–and less–creative:
- They are, however, extremely cranky: Lose the image of the creative genius so inflamed with inspiration that he or she can go days without sleep. Not likely. According to a study at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, people who don’t get enough sleep tend not to be all that creative.
- Does “Words With Friends” count?: On the other hand, if you are staying up late, it may do you good to read a little fiction. Research done at the University of Toronto determined that people who read fiction were more comfortable with disorder and uncertainty than people who read an essay and that fostered more sophisticated thinking and greater creativity.
- Do not disturb. Daydreamer at work: And it turns out that being bored at work may not be such a bad thing. A team of British scientists found that people who do tasks they find boring tend to daydream more and that can lead to more creative thinking. The question that needs to be answered now, says lead researcher Sandi Mann, is: “Do people who are bored at work become more creative in other areas of their work — or do they go home and write novels?”
- Take a hike: It may not come as such a big surprise, but now there’s more evidence that spending time out in nature and getting away from all your digital devices sharpens your creativity. Researchers from the University of Kansas and the University of Utah worked with a group of people going on Outward Bound excursions and found that those who took tests the fourth day into their trips showed considerably more creativity than those who did so before their journeys started.
- They also looked better: Meanwhile, in Germany, researchers concluded that people who were tested in a dimly-lit room exhibited more “freedom from constraints” and performed with more creativity than those who took the same test under bright lights.
- Pretend to smell the coffee: It was just a matter of time. Near the end of last year a team of researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign published a study reporting that people showed more creativity in an environment of ambient sound–such as a coffee shop–than in a silent room. And now, if you’re too lazy to go out for coffee, you can head right down to a website called Coffitivity and it will play a coffee shop soundtrack for you–minus the mindless cell phone chatter.
Video bonus: When it comes to how good ideas come to pass, writer Steven Johnson is a big believer in what he calls the “slow hunch” theory.
Video bonus bonus: But wait, there’s more. Creativity author and expert Ken Robinson shares on his take on the components of truly creative environments.
More on Smithsonian.com
May 17, 2013
When art meets neuroscience, strange things happen.
Consider the Museum of Scientifically Accurate Fabric Brain Art in Oregon which features rugs and knitting based on a brain scan motif. Or the neuroscientist at the University of Nevada-Reno who scanned the brain of a portrait artist while he drew a picture of a face.
And then there’s the ongoing war of words between scientists who think it’s possible to use analysis of brain activity to define beauty–or even art–and their critics who argue that it’s absurd to try to make sense of something so interpretive and contextual by tying it to biology and the behavior of neurons.
Beauty and the brain
On one side you have the likes of Semir Zeki, who heads a research center called the Institute of Neuroesthetics at London’s University College. A few years ago he started studying what happens in a person’s brain when they look at a painting or listen to a piece of music they find beautiful. He looked at the flip side, too–what goes on in there when something strikes us as ugly.
What he found is that when his study’s subjects experienced a piece of art or music they described as beautiful, their medial orbito-frontal cortex–the part of the brain just behind the eyes–”lit up” in brain scans. Art they found ugly stimulated their motor cortex instead. Zeki also discovered that whether the beauty came through their ears, in music, or their eyes, in art, the brain’s response was the same–it had increased blood flow to what’s known as its pleasure center. Beauty gave the brains a dopamine reward.
Zeki doesn’t go so far as to suggest that the essence of art can be captured in a brain scan. He insists his research really isn’t about explaining what art is, but rather what our neurons’ response to it can tell us about how brains work. But if, in the process, we learn about common characteristics in things our brains find beautiful, his thinking goes, what harm is there in that?
Beware of brain rules?
Plenty, potentially, responds the critics’ chorus. Writing recently in the journal Nature, Philip Ball makes the point that this line of research ultimately could lead to rule-making about beauty, to “creating criteria of right or wrong, either in the art itself or in individual reactions to it.” It conceivably could devolve to “scientific” formulas for beauty, guidelines for what, in music or art or literature, gets the dopamine flowing.
Although it is worth knowing that musical ‘chills’ are neurologically akin to the responses invoked by sex or drugs, an approach that cannot distinguish Bach from barbiturates is surely limited.
Others, such as University of California philosophy professor Alva Noe, suggest that to this point at least, brain science is too limiting in what it can reveal, that it focuses more on beauty as shaped by people’s preferences, as opposed to addressing the big questions, such as “Why does art move us?” and “Why does art matter?”
And he wonders if a science built around analyzing events in an individual’s brain can ever answer them. As he wrote in the New York Times:
…there can be nothing like a settled, once-and-for-all account of what art is, just as there can be no all-purpose account of what happens when people communicate or when they laugh together. Art, even for those who make it and love it, is always a question, a problem for itself. What is art? The question must arise, but it allows no definitive answer.
Fad or fortune?
So what of neuroaesthetics? Is it just another part of the “neuro” wave, where brain scans are being billed as neurological Rosetta Stones that proponents claim can explain or even predict behavior–from who’s likely to commit crimes to why people make financial decisions to who’s going to gain weight in the next six months.
More jaded souls have suggested that neuroaesthetics and its bulky cousin, neurohumanities, are attempts to capture enough scientific sheen to attract research money back to liberal arts. Alissa Quart, writing in The Nation earlier this month, cut to the chase:
Neurohumanities offers a way to tap the popular enthusiasm for science and, in part, gin up more funding for humanities. It may also be a bid to give more authority to disciplines that are more qualitative and thus are construed, in today’s scientized and digitalized world, as less desirable or powerful.
Samir Zeki, of course, believes this is about much more than research grants. He really isn’t sure where neuroaesthetics will lead, but he’s convinced that only by “understanding the neural laws,” as he puts it, can we begin to make sense of morality, religion and yes, art.
Here’s some of the latest news about brain scans:
- I see your pain: A study published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that scientists were not only able to “see” pain on brain scans, but also could measure its intensity and tell if a drug was helping to ease it.
- Don’t blame me, it’s my brain that hates calculus: A research team at Stanford University School of Medicine concluded that the size and connectivity of a child’s hippocampus, a brain area that is important for memory, is the key factor in how quickly he or she can learn math.
- There lies madness Researchers at Cambridge University in the U.K. say they will scan the brains of 300 teenagers and track how their brains evolve as they age. One thing the scientists want to see is how the brain’s wiring changes as teenagers become less impulsive.
- Trouble brewing: Brain scans may even be able to help detect if a recovering alcoholic is about to fall off the wagon. A study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry contends that alcoholics with abnormal activity in areas of the brain that control emotions and desires are eight times more likely to relapse and start drink heavily.
- Robots are people, too: And finally, German researchers say that based on their analysis of brain scans of subjects in a study, people reacted just as strongly to scenes of robots being treated kindly or being abused as they did to humans getting the same treatments.
Video bonus: Samir Zeki explains, in this TED talk, why he’s sure beauty is in the brain of the beholder.
Video bonus bonus: Brain scans can be funny, in a bizarre Japanese humor kind of way. And no, I have no idea why the men in this video are all dressed as female nurses.
More from Smithsonian.com
April 12, 2012
In two weeks Frankenstein returns…and this time it’s personal.
At least for you it could be. Mary Shelley’s tale of monstrous obsession and an obsessive monster is being revived as an interactive book, specifically an app for iPads and iPhones. What that means isn’t absolutely clear. But one of the people responsible for reconstituting the novel in digital form, author Dave Morris, says it’s not simply a matter of a reader making choices that change the story. It’s more nuanced than that, he insists.
While a reader of the interactive Frankenstein will make decisions that affect the story, they’re “part of the interaction with the main characters,” says Morris, and not just shifts in the narrative. Explains Morris: “As the plot unfolds, you will develop a personal relationship with the main characters. That’s why we’re describing it as interactive literature–it’s truly a new kind of novel for the digital age.”
That may sound like a lofty description of bells and whistles, but the London publisher, Profile Books, and inkle, the U.K.-based design firm that worked with Morris to interactivate Frankenstein, truly believe this will be a watershed moment in literature, the point at which readers will no longer be satisfied in going along for the ride with a book, but will start to want to brake and steer and maybe look under the hood.
Instant messages as dialogue
Now I’m sure many of you are asking, “Why would I want to work so hard?” Why reconstruct when so much joy can be had reading and imagining? A lot of people in the publishing business would agree with you. But they feel they have no choice. A recent Pew Internet study found that about one out of five Americans now say they’ve read an e-book. Last year U.S. consumers bought more than 48 million iPads, Android tablets or e-readers, twice as many as in 2010.
And even if the large majority of readers are still taking their e-books straight, publishers worry about falling behind the curve, particularly with a generation that embraces storytelling in tweets and IMs and expects lives to come with a mix tape. So Simon & Schuster plans to bring out 60 “enhanced” e-books this year; Penguin says it will release 50.
But “enhanced,” it seems, can cover a lot of ground. With the digital version of Chopsticks a young adult novel published by Penguin in February, “readers” can flip through a photo album, watch video clips, listen to the favorite songs of the book’s characters, see their instant messages. You even can consume the book in shuffle mode–that’s right, you’re able to change the order of content.
Why stop there? Other publishers are looking at ways to make book-reading more social than solitary. For instance, Panio Gianopoulos, co-founder of Backlit Fiction, speaks of a “literary Farmville.” (Now there’s a phrase I thought I’d never see.) That could mean readers voting to flesh out characters and storylines they like or they getting access to secret chapters if they encourage friends to read the book.
“Multimedia is more than a tie-in,” Gianopoulos told Wired in a recent interview. “Done right, it becomes a new type of product entirely, a hybrid of book and film, or Facebook page and TV show, or something no one has even thought of yet.”
Whatever it becomes, it’s likely to feel less and less like a book. Truth is, no one knows how long it will take–if ever–for hybrid storytelling to go mainstream. Many enhanced e-books do have a heavy scent of CD-ROMs, and we know how they turned out.
Writer Laura Miller got to the heart of the matter in a recent piece for Salon.com when she raised the question of whether we can immerse ourselves in a narrative and be interactive at the same time.
“Narrative constructs this alternate reality in your imagination and narrative sustains it,” she wrote. “What matters is not the story on the page–or the screen–but the story in your head. Interactive baubles pull a reader’s attention back to the screen, serving as a reminder of the thing you want to go on forgetting: the fact that all of this is just made up, words on a page.”
Miller, however, does see great potential in reinventing non-fiction books. There our aim is to understand more than imagine and so animations or videos that clarify concepts or illustrate a process really do enhance the experience. Who wouldn’t want a step-by-step video with a cookbook?
Yet no one in the publishing business is sure where all this is headed. They do know that it’s heading there fast and they’re still trying to figure out what works where and how. Or as Ana Maria Allessi, vice president and publisher of HarperMedia puts it: “We’re all still sort of creating radio for TV.”
Video bonus: Here’s the promotional video for the aforementioned Chopsticks. There’s a book in there somewhere.
March 20, 2012
Every so often, when I’m disappointed that I don’t have superpowers, I’ve found that it helps to watch a nature documentary. Not that it makes me fly or see through walls or fly through walls I’m seeing through, but usually it does let me speed up time or slow down motion and that’s not too shabby.
It happened again the other night when the latest BBC nature mega-series, Frozen Planet began airing on the Discovery Channel. It’s from the same team that brought us Planet Earth, which became the best-selling high-def DVD of all time. This time they’ve focused exclusively on life in Antarctica and the Arctic, and while neither is in my vacation plans, I have a new appreciation for both because I’m seeing them through time-tricked eyes.
This was a reminder of how filmmaking innovations over the past decade or so have dramatically enhanced our ability to perceive the imperceptible of the natural world. Thanks to cutting-edge time lapse filming and high-speed cameras, I was able to watch ice grow and caterpillars freeze and thaw and penguins skim through the surf with a sea lion giving chase. It was the ultimate reality show. It just hadn’t been part of our reality–until technological innovation let us see it.
Consider, for instance, what is probably the most remarkable image of the Frozen Planet series, one that has yet to air on Discovery, but has been on the Web since last fall when the BBC broadcast the program. The subject is brinicles, bizarre stalactites that form when heavy brine from sea ice on the surface freezes on its way down to the bottom. They’re referred to in the show as “icy fingers of death” because anything they touch become encased in ice.
Not surprisingly, no one had ever filmed brinicles in action. But the filmmakers took on the challenge and built, on site, a time lapse camera that was both watertight and able to withstand the ridiculously cold temperatures. Overnight, the camera captured the stunning scene of a brinicle growing downward until it reached the ocean floor where it spread out in an icy line, killing dozens of starfish unable to scramble out of the way.
Another groundbreaking device is the heligimbal, a camera mounted underneath the front of a helicopter and equipped with a gyroscope that keeps it stable during even the bumpiest of rides. Once the BBC crew added a powerful zoom lens, it was able to capture closeups from the air, but from far enough way that the animals weren’t frightened. For Frozen Planet they figured out how to attach it to a boat, allowing them to film polar bears at close range, no matter how rough the seas got.
“There are images in this series that feel like Narnia,” Alastair Fothergill, Frozen Planet’s executive producer, told an interviewer. “In a world where so much cinema is about magical places, it’s amazing that on our planet, in reality there are spectacles that match anything some crazy Hollywood guy can dream up.”
Shots in the dark
Turns out that someone who fits the description of a “crazy Hollywood guy” is doing his own nature film, one that will go where not even Fothergill and his team have dared to travel. This week James Cameron, best known as the director of Titanic and Avatar, hopes to dive solo to the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench in the South Pacific.
When Cameron drops almost seven miles under the sea in his specially-designed sub, the DeepSea Challenger, he will become only the third person to reach that depth. The other two, Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard and U.S. Navy Lt. Don Walsh, took the plunge more than 50 years ago, but strictly as explorers.
Cameron, naturally, will be making a movie, in partnership with the National Geographic, and so he’ll be taking with him not only customized 3-D, high-definition cameras, but also–because he’ll be filming in total darkness–an eight-foot tall array of LED lights.
Tricks and treats
Here are other examples of how cameras are letting us see the world in a different way:
- Slow down, you’re movin’ too fast: Filmmaker Ann Prum explains how a high-speed camera made it possible to enter the world of hummingbirds for the PBS special, “Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air.”
- Yosemite in motion: Photographers Sheldon Neill and Colin Delehanty spent weeks filming day and night throughout Yosemite National Park. The result is one heaping bowl of eye candy, especially the images of shooting stars in the night sky.
- Camera on board: Critter cams have been around for a while, but they’ve become more and more sophisticated. Watch as a sea lion, with a camera attached, takes on an octopus.
Video bonus: When Piccard and Walsh made their historic dive into the Mariana Trench, they took along a Rolex watch. Rolex was more than happy to make a little movie/ad to commemorate it.