Neuroscience and Society Series: Creativity, Genius and the Brain

Neuroscience and Society Series: Creativity, Genius and the Brain


Actually, I was asked to talk about the cultural
environments that stimulate creativity. This isn’t so much for my own research as
it is really theoretical, historical. I’m gonna really talk about the environment
in Renaissance Florence and how great geniuses like Leonardo Di Vinci and Michelangelo were
nurtured. Of course, obviously, Leonardo is great universal
genius. Some of his accomplishments are summarized
there. What are the forces that create such great
creativity? A big question, and one that I think about
a lot is the role of nature versus nurture. Nature is something we’re born with. Is it inherited? Does it run in families? Can we enhance it? Can we suppress it? Almost certainly, we can do both. We can enhance, and we can suppress. Then, nurture, how much is creativity created
by environmental factors, and what factors enhance creativity? There have been some great cradles of creativity:
5th and 4th century Athens, Renaissance Florence, which I’ll primarily be talking about, Elizabethan
England, 18th century America — one can even say late 19th century America, 19th century
Paris are just a few of the great cradles of creative. This is really limiting us to European-type
creativity. So let’s start with Leonardo. He was the illegitimate son of a merchant
class father and uneducated peasant girl — no known creative talents in either parent. His mother raised him during his first five
years. When his father was unable to sire a child,
He had Leonardo move in with him. What was interesting was this little boy manifested
very great talent in both drawing and music, which was just striking. There was some kind of inherent creative nature,
but it didn’t seem to be inherited, because there was nothing in either parent, at least. His father took him and some of the drawings
to Andrea del Verrocchio, who was at that time, perhaps the foremost Florentine painter
and sculptor. And when Verrocchio saw with the boy was able
to do, he was hugely impressed, invited him become an apprentice in his studio. Now, Leonardo was in a nurturing environment. The interesting thing is that Leonardo was
so gifted that he soon surpassed his master, the greatest artist in Florence at the time. These are some of Verrocchio’s accomplishments
— very great sculptor. That equestrian statue is almost unbelievably
difficult to produce. The David is kind of wimpy, but so be it. His paintings were somewhat stylized compared
to what Leonardo was going to be achieving. So here’s what happened. Verrocchio was painted a baptism of Christ,
which you can see there above Verrocchio’s name. He asked Leonardo to do this little bit here. That shown in larger right over here. It may be evident to you immediately that
that’s easily the best part of the painting. Leonardo painted that angel, and as I said,
that was the best part of the picture. Verrocchio was so upset, that he never painted
again, because he was chagrined to be outdone by a mere child. Here’s another very famous Leonardo production
— the Last Supper. Now, it doesn’t look like that anymore. It’s really worn away. But the challenge that Leonardo faced was
to do a novel painting on was a very standard theme at the time. Very commonly in Renaissance, on down through
18th and even 19th century art, it was very common to have a topic like Madonna and Child
and to figure out what would be the new thing that you could do with that topic. Leonardo decided to paint the moment when
Christ said somebody was going to betray him. Now, with that, the most important faces were
those of Jesus and Judas. While working on the painting, Leonardo would
stop and think. Finally, the prior of the monastery complained
to Ludovico Sforza, who was his patron, Leonardo’s patron, about how he was lazy. Leonardo was lazy. Leonardo had this response. I’m going to read it. He made it clear that midogenius are sometimes
producing most when they seem least to labor, where their minds are then occupied in the
shaping of those conceptions to which they afterward give form. He told the duke that the two heads were yet
to be done: that of the Savior, the likeness of which he could not hope to find on Earth,
and had not yet been able to create in his imagination in perfection of celestial grace,
the other of Judas. He said, He wanted to find the features fit
to render the appearance of a man that so depraved as to betray his benefactor, his
Lord and the creator of the world. He said, he’d still search, But as a last
resort, he could always use the head of that troublesome and impertinent prior. This made the duke laugh with all his heart. The prior was utterly confounded and went
away to speed the digging in his garden. Leonardo was left in peace. From that we have an important message. People who are creative spend a lot of time
in kind of free-floating periods of thought. I do a lot of imaging, and this is a state
that we often referred to as random episodic silent thought or rest. During that kind of state, an inspiration
may come as the brain spontaneously self-organizes and new associative links are formed — the
uncompromising and obsessional perfectionism that seeks to achieve the ideal product. And Leonardo never finished the face of Jesus. He could not make it perfect enough. Leonardo was also a scientist. He had an extraordinary knowledge of anatomy,
both human and equine. His drawings are clearly based on anatomical
deceptions in a time when such activity was not allowed. Big industry and grave digging back then. This gave him the capacity to visualize extremely
well in three dimensions — an ability that was really relatively uncommon at that time. Here is one of Leonardo’s drawings showing
how he did tomography, slicing through at regular intervals. The principle is that you go through a structure,
an arm, a leg, a brain, at regular intervals in order to create in your mind the three-dimensional
relationships of the components. This is now what we used all the time in modern
biomedical imaging. The most famous used to be the CAT scan. Now it’s the MR Scan, which doesn’t emphasize
tomography, but certainly uses it. Here are some of my images slicing through
the brain, which we do all the time. Then we put the pieces back together, so that
we have something like this. Leonardo’s big competition was Michelangelo,
another great universal genius. Michelangelo was a sculptor, a painter, an
architect. I mean, he was really good at all of these
things. He was a good poet. He was an engineer. He designed St. Peter’s Cathedral. He was an anatomist and a scientist. We don’t make them like that anymore. That’s one of our problems. Here is one of his very first statues — an
amazing feat in marble chiseled away. You get faces like this and faces like this. I often think about when he did this finger. Imagine hacking away at a piece of marble
getting that one finger sticking out there and not breaking it off. What a feat of bravery was to do that. This very young man between ages 22 and 24
… in St. Peter’s and this beautiful statue got attacked at now, 20 years ago, and kind
of beat up. So, it’s now behind plexiglass and not as
easy to see. I can remember when I was a very young person,
being able to go in there and walk around it, and walk around it, and walk around it. There are things you can’t do anymore because
of the world we live in. Here’s another set piece, David. If you just look at Donatello onto Verrocchio
and onto Michelangelo, you see what a change there was and how the human body was understood
and how the character of David was understood and how people’s sense of masculinity changed
over time. The earlier ones are quite effeminate, whereas
Michelangelo’s David is this handsome young boy standing there with his ball trying to
plan his attack. What forces nurture this inherit but not inherited
creativity in both Leonardo and Michelangelo, two of the greatest geniuses of all time? This was the environment of the Renaissance,
but especially Renaissance Florence. What did Renaissance Florence have? It had the gate to paradise. All these people that are listed are Florentines
who were very creative. Those golden plates were done by Giotto. There was a competition. Competition was a big deal back then. People tried out to do various projects for
the city patrons. Several people did elaborate sketches. What did Giotto do? He walked in, said, “I’m going to draw a perfect
circle”, and then drew it. He won the competition. Some of the things in Renaissance Florence;
There was freedom, novelty, a sense of being at the edge. They had rejected scholasticism and discovered
classical ideals. They discovered humanism, the glorification
of the human form, the human mind in classical art. We certainly saw that in David. They had intellectual freedom, the spirit
of breaking out of old oppressive boundaries, doing what people had not yet done, thinking
new thoughts, finding new ways to express, experimenting with new techniques, exploring
new ways to proceed man, nature and religion. Must’ve been hugely exciting time. I like to go there in my brain. Then in addition, there was a critical mass
of creative people, which is very helpful. Interaction with others and intellectual exchange
of ideas is catalytic for the creative process. Art in Florence was created in studios and
shops where there are groups of young men, and they will all competing with one another. They were also looking at what others were
doing. Then there were the philosophers, the poets,
and back then, even the politicians. Should get at least a little laugh. Well, that was pretty weak. Let me do it again. Add to that, the philosophers, poets and even
the politicians. Good. Astonishly rich congregation of human beings
who created social networks that cross-fertilized one another, and from which new ideas could
emerge. Then there was the competitive atmosphere
that was fair and free. As I’ve already said, a lot of Renaissance
art was commissioned by local guilds or city authorities, and they asked artists to compete
for projects. Creativity thrives on individualism and open
competition such as this. The competition also occurred because as I’ve
said, they were also the set themes: Madonna and Child, Last Supper, David and Goliath. Artists worked within these themes and sought
to outdo one another. Then there’s economic prosperity. Almost all periods of great creativity involving
multiple people, have been times of economic prosperity. It provides the accumulation of intellectual
resources, in which ideas can be stimulated, in which they can bubble and ferment, the
collections of earlier art, the libraries, the salons and gardens where people can meet
and discuss and argue. Provides the financial resources to attract
the numerous people who form the critical mass. It provides the funds for raw materials. They weren’t cheap in those days. Marble, paint, paper, wood, glass and gold
provided the funds to commission artists and pay them. As great cities form and remodeled themselves
architecturally because of economic prosperity of visual atmosphere is created, that is itself,
inspiring. I often think about the development of Vienna
at the end of the 19th century, the development of Paris. Those cities were built on prosperity. What about the role of nurture? The environment onto which a person is born
makes a difference. This is a very important point and one I think
about myself often. Had Leonardo been born 200 years earlier or
later, we probably would never have had the body of work that he produced. I think about it myself, because I know if
I had been born in 20 years ago, I would not have been able to have an education, because
women were given them back then. Or if I had been born in Saudi Arabia, I wouldn’t
have. It makes a difference. Leonardo would not have had the mentorship
of Verrocchio in the studio system. Anatomical dissections would not have been
possible. Prosperity would not have been adequate to
support him. He would’ve had a creative nature, but it
might never have become manifest had he lacked the nurture of a supportive environment. What are the implications of this? This is the last slide, and it’s really is
an important one. We live in an era where art and science are
seen as separate pathways in life. Leonardo and Michelangelo sought them as the
same thing. I think we need to think about whether this
polarization is detrimental to our educational systems — to the development of our children
and even the health of our economy. I’m a strong believer in the unity of art
and science, not the polarity. So thank you very much. Two monks are talking to each other. The one says to the other one, “I’ve got a
big problem. I want to spend as much time as possible during
the day praying, but I’m a two-pack a day smoker, and I went to the monk señor. I asked him, ‘Can I smoke while I pray?'” He said, “Absolutely not.” The other monk said, “Wow, that’s a big surprise. I went to the monk señor and asked him, ‘Can
I pray while I smoke?’ and he said, “Sure!” That is actually the basis for a thesis I’m
going to share with you this evening about genius. To capsulate that thesis, I’m going to read
you just one very short paragraph from this book, Genius Unmasked, which I wrote a couple
of years ago. “Genius. It is a word that invokes much mystique. Such thinking is inscrutable, even though
its results are recognizable as creativity on a revolutionary scale. Although the product of genius is, by definition,
surprising, some of the routes taken were a series of predictable steps. Other courses seem to pop out of nowhere. Sometimes geniuses envision their terminus
far off in the distance. Other times, their destination was on unforeseen. To date, however no one, Not even the auto-biographical
accounts written by geniuses themselves has produce satisfying insights into their thinking
process. How did radical innovators think? Perhaps their minds prepared through the providence
of genetics were simply lucked upon by champs. Or perhaps, as it’s sometimes seen, their
visionary insights were attained through divine intervention. But could there be an entirely different explanation? Could there be a more knowable process underlying
genius?” Then I’m go on to say, “What I hope to demonstrate
in these pages is that genius is achieved through a thinking process that is less mystical
than it is systematic. I hope to show that even the greatest of innovative
minds has used a cognitive toolbox that can be opened and understood.” That’s my thesis for you this evening in extraordinary
brief. I’m going to very, very quickly run through
some of the components that I am convinced through writing this book, geniuses use some
of the tools in that toolbox. Then in other books that I have written, I
actually teach people how to use those tools. I teach it as a university professor. It’s actually currently available as a massively
online open course for free on the edX platform that will … Ran this past summer. 14,000 students participated and will start
running as a self pace course starting at the end of November. If you want to learn something about how to
up your level of genius, that might be a fun way to do it. Okay. The first thing to say is, “Is there any evidence
that genius can be taught?” In fact, the answer to that is absolutely
yes. We have this urban legend that genius is somehow
innate. As Nancy has just shared with you, that really
turns out to be empirically untrue. There have been these systematic methods that
have been used for 40 years now to try to increase creativity mostly in grade school
children. Consistently, what’s been found … and these
are just two meta-analyses that summarize some of that evidence, is that people who
engage in not a 20 minute lecture or a one-hour lecture, but a course, a number of weeks of
training, can achieve 2- to 3-fold increases in their fluency of generating thoughts and
the novelty and originality of those thoughts. In the small number of studies, in which professionals
have been trained, it’s been shown that when they go back into the workplace, they have
better problem-solving. They have better attitudes about work. Their performance actually improves. These results are actually across-the-board. In other words, one of the things that also
is urban legend and a misperception about genius is that you have to be very, very smart
to be very creative. It actually turns out, probably to be a genius,
you have to be very smart. But to be very creative, you really don’t
have to be. These programs work for people across the
IQ range. They also work for people at a multitude of
different ages. So you don’t have to be … there’s not an
age where you say well I’m too old to be creative. That just is not the case. There are three conceptual components to the
program that I teach. One is recognizing and finding alternatives
to our habitual-cognitive patterns. The second is learning to use tools that have
enhance generative ideation and then aligning all of that with the scientific process, because
I teach this in the context of science and the scientific creativity and innovation process. The absolute essence, the kernel of this is
exactly the joke that I just shared with you. There really were two components of that joke. The first one was, it’s surprising. All jokes are surprising. But they are surprising and very specific
way. Jokes, I actually like to say, our kind of
the highest form of creativity and innovation, because he do it very specific thing. What they do is they send you down a particular
cognitive path. You’re walking down that path, and then they
go, “Zoop!” They make this sudden right turn. There’s some relationships between the path
that you were on and the path that they suddenly take you down. So it’s not schizophrenia. It’s not completely unrelated. But in fact, it is what we call, “a frameshift”. And frame shifts are in fact, what I consider
to be the absolute essence of radical creativity, and in fact, the tool that was used most beautifully
by geniuses. This is what I call overcoming our habitual
cognitive patterns. Because what frames are is they are the way
in which we interpret new information. Basically, we have a set of assumptions and
expectations that we use in interpreting new information and making sense of it. Let me just give you an example of a frameshift. When you go to a restaurant, you have a large
number of expectations about what’s going to happen, and just think about it for one
second — all the things that you expect to happen when you go to a restaurant. You expect to be served food. You expect the food is going to be palatable. You expect that it’s going to be hot if you
order a hot dish. That it’s going to be enjoyable, on and on. Anyhow, let’s say that you go to a restaurant,
and you order a nice plate of steaming pasta. The lovely waitress brings it to you and kind
of steps back and says, “Is there anything more I can bring you?” You say, “Yes. Would you mind very much, bringing me some
Parmesan cheese?” She smiles and says, “Go to the kitchen and
get it yourself.” That’s exactly what you’re expecting. That’s no surprise. Actually, this happened to me when I was in
New York City. That’s why I tell the story. It’s not a joke. I wish it were a joke, but it wasn’t. In any case … again, what happened … What
happened? It was a frameshift. It was not what you were expecting. It didn’t meet your expectations and assumptions. It was a sudden right hand turn. Now there’s a fascinating thing that had happened. First of all, you laughed. Goes again, to show you what jokes are all
about. What happens to you at that moment, and what
happened to me, certainly in this New York City restaurant was I didn’t know what to
do. I did not know what to do. Okay, so, wow. Am I supposed to answer that? Am I supposed to actually walk to the kitchen
with her? Am I supposed to figure that there’s something
very, very wrong with her? How do I interact next? Is she dangerous? I mean, yeah. You really don’t know what to do. It’s a perfect example of the power of frames. Frames are the grease for society. They are absolutely ubiquitous. At any given moment in time we have gazillions
of them operating. You have all sorts of frames sitting right
where you are right now about what I’m gonna do, what other people are gonna do. If the person sitting next to you were going
to grab your sleeve and wipe their nose on it, you’d be taken aback. I mean, you wouldn’t know what to do. There are all of those things, and they’re
also emotional. You have a visceral reaction with somebody
breaks your frame. And they are also contextual. They are different in different countries,
for instance. You have different expectations when you go
to a new country, in terms of the way that people interact with each other, for instance. The bottom line is, however, that in order
to be revolutionarily creative, radically creative to change society, you have to break
frames in a fundamental way. It is very likely the reason that radical
innovation is so in acceptable. Typically, it takes 10 to 20 years, more likely
20 years for, for instance, a scientific innovation to be accepted as mainstream. Most often, and in many stories that I wrote
about in Genius Unmasked, those geniuses’ ideas were rejected across the board before
they were ultimately accepted. Another aspect of frames is that they are
articulated by metaphors. You can find … frames are very, very, very
hard to identify, because they are the air in the room. We breathe them. We need them. They are the grease of society, yet they are
so embedded in us. We literally don’t realize that they are there. They are so fundamental. Perfect example, the war on cancer. Okay? When we talk about any relationship between
man and disease, we talk about it as a war metaphor. We battle. We are irradicate. We eliminate, etc. Every metaphor that we use, basically, is
a war metaphor: the war on cancer. If I was going to say to you, “Okay. So I have a different metaphor. How about cancer is neighbor?” You’d say, “That’s a little crazy. What does that mean? I’m supposed to invite Cancer home and serve
him dinner? I mean, what does that mean, cancer is neighbor?” Well, I take that from Robert Frost’s famous
poem, Good Fences Make Good Neighbors. What did he mean by that? What he basically meant was you don’t have
to love your neighbor as long as you can fence them out. It actually turns out that this metaphor has
become absolutely central, probably the one most central and important area of research
in cancer science today. That is, basically that rather than focusing
on the cancer itself, you can focus on the fence around the cancer, which is basically
our immune system. An enormous amount of research now is being
done on buffering the immune system so that it can attack the cancer, rather than focusing
on the cancer itself. This has actually led to many important epiphanies. Okay, so extremely briefly, what are a few
of the tools that help us to identify our frames and overcome them? One, of course is observation. That’s no surprise. We all know that in science and art and writing,
whatever it may be, observations … … art and writing, whatever it may be. Observation is a critical feature of genius. It’s a critical feature of creativity. Every single genius that I reviewed in this
book, and this is kind of a story book of about 14 different geniuses from the 19th
and 20th centuries. But every one of them was the consummate observer. But here’s a great example about observation. Warren and Marshall won the Nobel Prize for
their discovery of Helicobacter Pylori. How many of you know what H. Pylori is? Probably many of you. Yeah. So it’s now thought to be the cause of about
85% of stomach ulcers. And Warren was a backwoods pathologist in
Perth, Australia. He was just a total run of the mill pathologist
doing normal clinical pathology in this unknown place. And he noticed. He was a great observer though. He noticed that in these slides that he was
looking at of stomach biopsies, there were these funny little anomalies. There were these weird little dots. And he tried everything to make them go away
because of course he figured, as anybody would, that there was a problem with his slides,
there was a problem with his stains, there was a problem with his microscope. But it wasn’t any of those things. He couldn’t make it go away. And in fact, the more he looked at them, the
more they were there all over the place. And in most of the biopsies. So he hooks up with this guy Barry Marshall,
who’s a newly minted resident. And by the way, that’s also important because
it’s usually young people that, Nobel Prize work is typically done within a dozen years
of academic training. So the two of them hook up. And Marshall says, “Well I think they’re bacteria.” And Warren says, “You’re absolutely out of
your gourd, because all the textbooks say that bacteria can’t grow in the low Ph environment
of the stomach. Of course they’re not bacteria.” So Marshall is convinced. They try to grow it on an animal model. They can’t. They can grow it in a Petri dish, maybe, but
it’s kind of weird. Anyway, bottom line is finally Marshall says,
“Well, I’ve had enough of this. And he swallows the content of one of these
Petri dishes,” and induces in himself an ulcer, has himself endoscoped, proves it, and that
was the proof of principle. No joke. And they won the Nobel Prize. So sometimes what you eat is what you get. It’s really important. Okay, so analogy is the second one. I’m not gonna go through this in any detail. All of you kind of know what analogy is. I’ll just give you one of these examples. Jenner famously was the inventor of the first
vaccine. It was the smallpox vaccine. Anybody know this story? Really cool story. Yeah, he basically, he observed, also a great
observer, that when a smallpox epidemic passed through a village or a town, that the milkmaids
never got smallpox. Woo, what was that about? Well what they did get is they got this very
benign disease from their cows called cowpox, that looked a little bit like smallpox. It had pustules. So he basically says, “Wow. I wonder what would happen if I took some
of the pus from this pustule, and I kinda put it under the skin of people who had never
come into contact with smallpox, and maybe that would actually protect them. Maybe being exposed to cowpox protects you.” Okay fine. So he does this experiment on some, this was
way before IRBs, some non-consenting individuals, including his one year old son. He really believed it. And when the next smallpox epidemic passed
through, guess what? You know what happened, right? None of them got smallpox. All right. But that’s an analogy because cowpox is to
smallpox, right? So you’re taking this analogy of what happens
in the one and moving it to the other. One of my favorite tools that is rarely used
in science, and really should be, is reversal. Now, we use reversal only when we’re kind
of slapped up against the head by it, in something that we call serendipity, which has been called
a happy accident. So Alexander Fleming, we call the father of
antibiotics, and we might call him the father of serendipity. Do you know what Alexander Fleming proved? He proved not only is eating good for you,
but he also proved that going on vacation is good for you. So here’s how this story goes. Basically, he was a bacteriologist, and he
had these plates of Staphylococcus aureus which he was studying, and he went on vacation. And when he came back, one of his plates was
contaminated with yeast. And so he was about to do the exact same thing
that every bacteriologist had always done through the course of time, which was he was
going to throw it out, right? I mean, ’cause it was contaminated, right? Except that again, he was a phenomenal observer,
and he took a really good look at it and he said, “Oh my gosh. There’s something fascinating going on here.” Around the yeast was a green ring, a zone
where no bacteria grew. So what had he done? He had basically taken the presence of something
which is what he was studying, Staphylococcus aureus. Now he’s focusing on the absence of something,
which is this ring where nothing grew. And he suddenly realized, he had this epiphany
that this was very, very important because there was something inhibitory going on. He instantly became a mold biologist, a mycologist,
and figured out that ultimately it was penicillinase, which makes penicillin. But the point is that reversal can happen
purposefully rather than accidentally. So there are two ways that reversal happens
purposefully. One is that you do things backwards. Rather than, it’s kind of like what we do
when we pack. Rather than kind of following the line of
logic forwards, when we pack we kind of think, “Okay, this is where we’re going. This is how many days we’re going. And so these are all the the things I need
to back up and have in my suitcase in order to have a reasonable vacation.” The other thing that you can do is you can
negate things. So that’s like what Alexander Fleming did. And you can even reverse things in the sense
of, we always think of science as being kind of exposure outcome. You can switch those two, which is a really
strange thing to do, but sometimes it works in a very interesting way. Now, in terms of reversal, I have to share
with you my favorite, because I’m a public health person. My favorite reversal is medicine versus public
health. Medicine is the presence of disease. Public health is the absence of disease. When we as public health people are successful,
nothing happens. That’s a real problem. I’ll tell you why it’s a problem. It’s called obliviousness to absence. It’s hard to get people excited about something
that’s not there. If you’re having a heart attack, you will
do anything to stop that heart attack. You will let some cardiovascular surgeon who
you’ve never met in your life crack your chest. On the other hand, you may very well not have
been taking your antihypertensives and your statins, and eating well, and exercising,
and doing all those things the public health people told you to do for years, and years,
and years, and years, right? That’s obliviousness to absence. That’s a great reversal. Okay. Reorganization and rearrangement. We all have what’s called functional fixedness. We think there’s a particular use for a particular
thing. Quick experiment. If I was to give you a candle, a book of matches,
and a box of thumbtacks and say, “Okay, what I want you to do is attache the candle to
the wall.” Unless you’d heard this before, many of you
would be hard pressed to figure out how to do that. I’ll tell you how to do it. What you do is you take the box of thumbtacks,
you take the thumbtacks out of the box. You use the box as a candle holder, put the
thumbtack through the back of the box, use that as a candle holder, and you’ve just attached
the candle to the wall. Use the box of matches to light it, or the
book of matches to light it. Okay, so but the thing that makes that hard
is that you had to take the tacks out of the box, which doesn’t sound like a big deal. But if I gave the experiment to you in a different
way, and I said, “A candle, a book of matches, a bunch of thumbtacks and a box,” you’d instantly
get it. If I gave it to you this way, the vast majority
of people can’t figure it out. This is a fantastic example of reorganization
rearrangement. This is a neonatal incubator built for the
developing world out of used car parts. I’m not gonna go into all of it. But Edison is the perfect example of the great
reorganizer and rearranger. I’m gonna tell you that he never invented,
out of his 1,000 plus patents … Well, not never, but almost never invented anything
that was truly novel. What he did, brilliantly, is he took other
people’s inventions and put them together in very unexpected ways. So finally, the power of groups. Now, we all kind of accept that these days. But we don’t, we think of groups as being
smart. We don’t necessarily think of them as being
more creative than an individual. But it actually turns out that in some circumstances,
especially over the internet, they are. And this is a great example. Some years ago, DRPA, which is the DOD agency
that funds a lot of creative research, amazing agency, put out this challenge. They said we’ll pay $40,000 to the first person
or individual that can find 10 fixed weather balloons, big red weather balloons, scattered
somewhere in the United States. How long do you think it took to find 10 weather
balloons somewhere, anywhere in the continental, outside, in the continental United States. How long do you think it took? One day. Five minutes. One day. I’m sorry, five-
Five minutes. Five minutes. What do you think they did? It took 8 hours. It took 8 hours. And you know who did it, right? It was a group of MIT students. Of course it was. So this was in the early days of the internet. It was before social networking and all that
kind of thing, but we did have the internet. And they instantly put up a website. Now, here’s the problem though. How did they get people to come to the website
fast enough? I mean, there are a gazillion websites out
there. They needed to do this as fast as possible. It was only gonna take 8 hours, right? So they had to find a bunch of balloon detectives
as fast as possible. How’d they do it? They used a pyramid scheme, literally. So here’s what they did. They said, “Look, if you go out and you find
a balloon, you get 1,000 bucks.” Well that’s great, but that still isn’t gonna
bring people in fast enough. It’s not gonna get people to recognize the
website fast enough. So then they said, “If you bring someone to
the website that finds a balloon, they get $1,000. You get $500, just for finding the person
who found the balloon. And if you’re two steps removed, you get $250. And if you’re three steps removed, you get
$125.” So now, not only did they have all these balloon
detectives, but they had people detectives finding the balloon detectives. Was that brilliant? That was pretty darn creative. Okay. So finally, harmonizing. This is basically the scientific process,
hypotheses, expectations, observations, inferences, and you can just imagine that these tools
and frame shifting can get embedded in every one of these different steps. Last thing is, I’m just gonna share with you
a piece of work that my students did. So when I teach this, I always assign a final
project, even in the massively online course, there’s kind of a final project. You have to find a problem. You have to come up with an innovative solution
using the tools. So this was, their problem was basically your
last will and testament, so what we call advanced directives. These are the decisions that you make about
what you want to happen to you at your end of life from a medical perspective. So the problem was that the frame of death
is, well, it’s pretty fixed. It’s pretty scary, and sober, and mysterious. Coming up on Halloween, this is a good story
to tell. So anyhow, we approach it with awe ad fear,
right? That is Halloween. And very few people have advanced directives. It’s a huge problem in the United States. It has massive costs, because we do all sorts
of things to people that they didn’t want, if they had just told us what they wanted,
but they don’t. So, my students thought and thought and thought
and thought because they couldn’t figure out how to break this frame. That is what death is. It’s nothing, that is what it is. Finally, finally, they had this epiphany. And the epiphany was what Ben Franklin once
said. This aphorism was, you might remember. “Nothing is sure but death and-”
Taxes. Thank you. Taxes. This is what they came up with. This is called the U.S. Individual Advanced
Directive Claim Form. And what happens is it looks exactly like
a tax form. You fill it out exactly like a tax form. It has little check off boxes. But the check off boxes say things like, “I
do or do not wanna be intubated under the following circumstances. Add your own. I do or do not wanna be tube fed. I want to have a surrogate. I wanna have,” and on and on. So it’s got all these things. And the way that it would work is it’s got
each year, when you electronically filed your taxes, you would have the option to also electronically
file this form. You’d get a little tax rebate for doing it. It would get hooked to your medical record,
and voila, everyone would know what your advanced directives are. They’ve actually published this. We’re waiting for the IRS to pick it up. It’s beautiful. So anyway, the way it works is you define
the problem, you gather the information in a very frame free way, separate these raw
inputs from the frames. You generate lots and lots of original ideas. I only shared with you a very small number
of the tools, ’cause I had so little time. But tons of ideas. Ultimately, you want hundreds of them, and
then you’re gonna converge on one or two that you can actually test, and that you develop
into hypothesis and a plan, and you can test that scientifically. So thank you for listening. Those are some of the books, and enjoy. Thanks. First, I’d like to thank the AAAS and the
Dana Foundation for organizing this wonderful event, and I wanna thank Mark Frankel for
inviting me and Bethany Spencer for her superb organizational work. Let’s see. Ah, okay. I’m gonna talk about the cognitive neuroscience
of creative insight. But first, we’re gonna start with a little
astronomy lesson. Galaxies come in all shapes and sizes. There’s the traditional spiral galaxy you
see in the upper left. There are elliptical galaxies. There are various structures and forms for
galaxies. And it may surprise you to know that as recently
as 1950, nobody knew what the shape was or is of our galaxy, the milky Way. The problem is, we can’t leave the galaxy,
turn around and look at it, and see what the shape is. So it’s a complicated problem. This is the great astronomer William Wilson
Morgan who was working one day in 1940. This problem interested him, but this wasn’t
what he was working on at the time. He was computing the distances of what are
called OB Associations, which there we go. They’re young, hot, bright stars. They cluster together. They’re star nurseries essentially, where
stars are born. He knew, and we still know now, that OB Associations,
in spiral galaxies, they cluster in the spiral arms, not in the center or in the other parts,
but in the spiral arms. In other kinds of galaxies, they exist in
other parts of the galaxies. So one day, or one night, he was working at
the Yerkes Observatory, and he was computing the distances from earth of a number of these
OB Associations, and he knew them well. He quit work for the evening, and he stated
walking home. And as he walked home, he looked up at the
sky and he saw some of the OB Associations whose distances he had been computing. He knew their distances. And then in that moment, he had a spontaneous
insight, a aha moment. He later described it as a flash inspiration,
a creative intuitional burst. In that moment, his knowledge of the distances
of these OB Associations merged with the flat two dimensional image you look at, you see
when you look up at the night sky. And he could see the start in depth. And when he saw that. He realized that these OB Associations, in
three dimensions, exist in a long strand in three dimensions, in depth. And as that happened, he realized that the
strand was a spiral arm of the Milky Way Galaxy. He, in that moment, directly perceived the
structure of the Milky Way Galaxy. He was the first to do that in a starling
sudden insight. He later collected data to verify his perception,
and he presented his data at a conference of his colleagues, to thunderous applause. And this is a great aha moment. I would say it’s one of the, it ranks up there
with Newton and the apple, and other great aha moments, although it’s not as well-known
as some of these more famous examples. So he had this epiphany, this sudden insight,
this sudden insight, this aha moment, eureka moment, whatever you wanna call it. At an instant in time, these different pieces
of information snapped together and he was illumined. He understood the structure of the Milky Way
Galaxy. Well, for a number of years, my colleagues
and I have been looking at what happens in the brain when a person has an aha moment? Now, we can’t chase around imminent scientists
and artists and anticipate when they’ll have aha moments, and then shove them in a brain
scanner or wire them up with electrodes. Can’t do that. And in fact, we wouldn’t really want to, because
once they’ve reached that level of imminence, their brains must be changed not only by the
creativity, but they must be changed by the success they’ve had, the fame they’ve had,
perhaps even riches and all that. So we don’t wanna be chasing around people
like Steven Spielberg or whatever, even if we could. We wanna use a more, try to get better control
over the situation and the people. So we’ve been using a series of puzzles to
study what happens in your brain when you have an aha moment. And we use various kinds of puzzles and problems. Some are visual. Some are verbal. One of the main ones we’ve been using, it’s
called compound remote associates problems. These are one type of problem from a test
of creativity that Sanford Mednic developed back in the early 1960’s but with some refinements. And we have, oh, about 200 of these things. And each one consists of three words. And you have to find, you have to think of
what is the fourth word that makes a compound or familiar phrase with each of the three
words. And these problems are pretty difficult. Our undergraduate subjects usually don’t solve
more than about half of them. In this case, the solution is dog. Hot dog. Dog food. Dog catcher. Now one of the things that’s interesting about
these problems is that it can be solved in two different ways. One way is you look at it and bang, the solution
just pops into your head. That’s a sudden insight. You can solve it with an aha moment, Or you
can solve it in a more deliberate analytical fashion. You might try hypothesis testing. So you look at dog. You say, “What goes with dog?” Well, cold goes. I’m sorry, what goes with hot? Cold goes with hot. Does cold go with food? Sure. Does cold go with catcher. Nah. Try something else. What else goes with hot, until you finally
hit on dog. You can do that systematic deliberate hypothesis
testing. And actually let me go back. When, in our neuroimaging experiments, we
use these problems, and we’re able to look separately at the problems that people solve
with a flash of insight and the ones that they solve in an analytical fashion. And this corresponds to a well-known distinction
within cognitive psychology. If you’ve read Daniel Connoman’s book, Thinking
Fast and Slow, he called it system one and system two. The more modern terminology is type one and
type two because they’re not really distinct systems. And type one processes are unconscious, associative,
effortless, spontaneous. This is what provides insights. Cognitive psychologists call them insights,
this outside the box thinking, the aha moment. Analytic thought is conscious, logical, effortful,
and strategic. That’s the so-called inside the box thinking. That’s idea for when you sort of already know
how to solve the problem, or at least have a general idea, and you’re using known methods
to do that in a conscious deliberate way. All right, so you might ask how do we know
when subjects or participants are actually solving a problem with a flash of insight
or solving it in analytic fashion. And there are several lines of evidence that
allow us to make that conclusion, but I’ll just describe one. Okay, here we go. This is from one of our behavioral studies. We’ve replicated this in a number of studies
as well. You see on the horizontal axis the percentage
of errors that are errors of commission. So there are two ways you can make an error. You can make an error by offering a solution
that’s wrong. The other way you can make an error is by
not offering a solution at all. We have a deadline. They time out. They have nothing to say. So some subjects, each dot is one subject
in the experiment. Some subjects make more mistakes. They give wrong answers. And others make more timeouts. They just draw a blank. On the vertical axis, we have percentage of
solutions that are insight. So of all the correct solutions you give,
what percentage of them are identified by the subject as being an insight, and what
percentage are identified by the subject of being analytic. So we just asked them, “Was that an insight,
or was that a deliberate methodical solution?” And as you can see, some subjects are way
at the top. And there we call them insightfuls. They solve, a lot of their solutions are due
to the self-labeled aha moments. And at the bottom we have people who are the
analysts. Most of their solutions are self-labeled as
due to hypothesis testing, logical thought. And what you can see here is that the people
who are the analysts, they tend to make more mistakes, more errors of commission. You can see them in the lower right hand corner. And the people who are the insightfuls, their
errors are timeouts. That’s the upper left-hand corner. They tend to draw a blank. And this makes perfect sense. You’re working on a problem. You know there’s a deadline. You’re in insight mode of thought. You’re drawing a blank. The deadline’s approaching. You wanna say something. You don’t wanna just time out. But you haven’t had your aha moment yet. You haven’t had your epiphany. You draw a blank. You time out. That’s an error of omission. But if you’re in an analytic mode of thought,
you’re doing deliberate hypothesis testing. Hot, what goes with hot? Cold goes with hot, et cetera. The deadline’s approaching. You don’t wanna time out, so whatever is in
your head at the moment, whatever that hypothesis is, you test it at the moment. You blurt it out. And it might be right. It might be wrong. If it’s wrong, it’s an error. It’s an error of commission. So you can see here that people are able to
very accurately identify when they’re making an insight, when they had an insight, and
when they solved a problem with deliberate analytical thought. Okay, so we used both high density EEG, electroencephalogram,
in the upper left, and FMRI, functional magnetic resonance imaging. We used these two techniques because EEG has
superb temporal resolution. It can tell you within a few milliseconds
when something’s happening in the brain. But it is less precise about where something’s
happening in the brain. FMRI has exquisite spacial resolution. It can tell you with great precision where
something’s happening in the brain, but it’s less precise about when it’s happening in
the brain. We use these two techniques in separate but
parallel studies. We’re able to localize in both space and time
the aha moment, the moment of insight. And the reason we wanna be able to do that
is if we use just FMRI alone, we would see all these brain areas lighting up when you
have an insight, but you wouldn’t know whether they’re coming before the insight or after
the actual insight. So we need the EEG for that temporal precision,
and we need the FMRI for the anatomical precision. And this is the basic paradigm. Time goes from left to right. You see a problem on the screen, in this case
the hot, catcher, food problem. The instant you have a solution, you press
a button. That’s the yellow R. And we tell the subjects,
“When you have the solution, don’t keep thinking about it. Just hit that button right away.” Then they get a prompt to solution, to verbalize
the solution. And then another prompt to press a button
ti indicate whether that solution popped into their minds as a sudden insight, or whether
it came from analytical thought, this deliberate methodical thought. Or we give them a third button if they’re
not sure. But almost nobody ever presses the third button,
because people have a very good intuitive sense. A few people, maybe on the order of one or
two percent of the solutions are unsure. And this is what we found. Again, on the horizontal axis, time goes from
left to right. You can see the R is the moment where the
press the button to indicate that they have the solution. The vertical axis is gamma wave, gamma power. It’s a measure of EEG activity, high frequency
brain activity. And you can see there are separate lines there,
one for solutions by insight, one by solutions that are analytic. And about 300 milliseconds before they press
the button, there’s a burst of this high frequency EEG activity. Now, that 300 milliseconds, once the solution
pops into your mind, it takes you about 300 milliseconds to actually press the button. So that 300 milliseconds before the R, that
is when the solution popped into awareness as a sudden insight. And to show where this occurs, this is an
EEG map. This is the right side of the head. Each of the red dots is the location of an
electrode. And this, we’re plotting here the difference. It’s the insight EEG activity minus the analytic
EEG activity. And you can see there’s a burst of activity
just above the right ear. With FMRI, we can see, this is the right anterior
superior temporal gyrus, the right temporal lobe. Actually, this was mocked in an episode of
30 Rock where Alec Baldwin explained that his right anterior superior temporal gyrus
just was lighting up and he was having a cognitive inspiration and all of that. So this kind of reverberated through the pop
culture. If we had more time I’d play you the clip. Anyway, so we have that right anterior superior
temporal gyrus. That right temporal lobe burst of activity
is the insight. What I don’t have time to explain much of
is that there are a series of brain states and brain processes that lead up to that burst
of activity in the right temporal lobe. You’re not aware of them, but there are these
processes. If you’re interested to know more about these
different intervening processes, you can check out our new book that I co-authored with Mark
Beeman, The Eureka Factor. It talks more about this and the different
factors that can selectively influence these brain states. But what I am gonna talk about now is the
first of these, resting state brain activity. Resting state brain activity is what occurs
when a person sits there quietly with no task to perform, no particular anticipation of
what’s gonna happen next. They just let the thoughts flow. So what we did in this study is we recorded
resting state EEG from subjects, each one in four sessions. And then we gave them a bunch of anagrams
to solve. So they had to unscramble letters to find
a word. And for each solution, they identified, this
one was an insight, or this one was an analytic, methodical solution, et cetera. We classified the subjects into the ones who
were the insightfuls, the ones who got most of the solutions from sudden insights, and
the ones who were the so-called analysts, the ones who figured out these anagrams in
a deliberate methodical way. And this is what we found. … methodical way. And this is what we found here, again, high
frequency EG activity, gamma waves, and this is a top view of the head, the nose is at
the top of the figure, the back of the head is at the bottom of the figure, the right
side of the head is on the right, et cetera. The so-called analysts have more activity
in the left frontal area of the brain, and the so-called insightfuls have more activity
in the right posterior part of the brain, the right parietal lobe. So insightfuls have reduced frontal lobe activity,
and analysts have reduced posterior brain activity. And this roughly corresponds, not even so
roughly kind of exactly, to the type-one and type-two processes. So we have the insightfuls, they use unconscious,
associative, effortless, spontaneous thought. Insights just pop into awareness. Whereas the analysts are using conscious,
logical effortful, strategic thought. So, your cognitive problem solving style,
how you attack the problem, is at least partly determined or influenced by your prior resting-state
brain activity. This prior resting-state brain activity is
partially trait like, because we measure their EG activity for four sessions over four different
days. Each session was about a week apart from each
other. So this is fairly stable. There are factors that can perturb this resting-state
brain activity, but it’s fairly stable. That brings us to the question, and this is
a really hot, controversial area in creativity research right now. What are the relative contributions of type-one
and type-two processes to creative production? There’s a lot of arguing going on among cognitive
psychologists and cognitive nurse scientists who are studying creativity right now. They have different definitions. Some argue that the type-one conscious deliberate
processes, that’s really what creativity is. Others argue that, no, it’s type-one processing
that’s really the creativity of the unconscious. I’m more in the type one camp myself, as you’ll
see why. Our final study … we had a hypothesis of
the role of expertise. How expert you are in a particular domain
will determine the extent to which you use type-one and type-two processes. The idea is that when you’re still a relative
novice, and you’re thinking about, whatever your area is, whether it’s physics, whether
it’s music, whether it’s sculpture, whatever it is, you’re thinking in a very deliberate,
methodical way. Should I try this? What if I do it this way? What if I change it and do it that way? That’s type two if you’re a novice. If you’re an expert, you don’t do all that. You don’t have to think things through in
that exquisite detail. What it is, you turn on the faucet and ideas
come out. That’s not to say that real experts don’t
think analytically also. Often what they do is they have a great insight,
and then they turn on their analytical thinking to refine it, critique it, adapt it, implement
it, et cetera. But it’s the insights, it’s the type-one processes
that produce the ideas. In this study, which has just been submitted
for publication, we used jazz pianists of different levels of experience. Now we couldn’t get the most experienced expert
master pianist. We got ones that ranged … They all have
played public performances, all have played public gigs. But they range from not novices but not very
experienced pianists to sort of moderate levels of experience. And we gave them … They had to improvise
to a specified chord sequence and rhythm accompaniment. And here’s the thing. There’s an interesting finding in the creativity
literature that goes back many years. Strangely, if you just tell people, “Now be
more creative,” they often are. Just the instruction, just that admonition,
“Be more creative,” often they can do it. It doesn’t always happen, but it happens in
a lot of different domains, and it happens fairly reliably. We used that … We had the pianists improvise
both before and after they got that admonition to be creative. And what that admonition does is it kicks
in type-two processing. Once you give a person a goal, “Be more creative,”
that kicks in these executive processes. It kicks in mental strategies they may have,
or they want to try, to be more creative. So we’re ramping up type-two processing, this
conscious, deliberate processing. We recorded all these performances, and then
we had jazz experts rate them for their quality, or in their creativity. And this is what we found. The horizontal axis is the logarithm of the
number of jazz gigs that they played. It’s a measure of their experience, their
expertise. The vertical axis is the ratings of their
performance. And you can see at the low number of jazz
gigs, these are on the left, those are the less experienced pianists. The neutral condition, their quality is fairly
low. But then when you tell them, “Be more creative,”
you can see they improve. And that’s a significant improvement. If you look at the far right side, it looks
like there’s a bit of a crossover. Now that difference on the right side is not
statistically significant, but it certainly is suggestive. What we can say is when you look at the people
who are moderate levels of expertise, and you tell them, “Be more creative,” it doesn’t
help them. It may hurt them a little, not significantly,
but it’s not helping them. And we hypothesize that if we had some really
expert pianists, some of the really best ones, that that crossover would be more complete. As it is, with the more experienced ones we
have, some of them, when we told them, “Now be creative,” they looked at us like, “What
do you mean? I’m always creative. I just turn it on. I don’t have to do anything special. That’s what happens.” So, you can see then, with the less experienced
pianists, you do something to kick in this type-two processing, this conscious, deliberate
processing, and it helps them. They use strategies. They spontaneously bring strategies forward
to try out to try to produce something that’s more creative. It doesn’t work, but you can see the level
of experience, there’s a big increase. The more experienced pianists do produce much
better products, more creative products. But the admonition to be creative does not
help. So, what Charlie Parker, the jazz great, says
you’ve got to learn your instrument. Then you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there in
the bandstand, forget all that and just wail. Thank you, Charlie. Okay. Enough Charlie. So what are the takeaways from this? First of all, creative insight is largely
spontaneous. It’s not a product of conscious strategies. If you look at the real masters, the real
experts in any domain, they don’t sit there and use conscious strategies. What happens is, often ideas just come to
them. It could be in the shower, it’s often while
taking a walk. And what’s really interesting about creative
insight is that often it produces an idea, which is a solution to a problem no one even
knew they had. In other words, you just had a great idea. It’s not necessarily solving a problem you
were thinking about, but ideas just happen. They’re spontaneous. This type-one, unconscious processing … These
things just bubble up sometimes. Deliberate strategies, these type-two processes
can be used to solve problems. They can simulate innovation, but they’re
not creativity in the sense of this unconscious type-one processes. These deliberate strategies work when you
know what to do already. So, for example, you could have a bunch of
conscious strategies you could use, but first of all, you have to recognize you have a problem
to solve, or need to produce something, and then you need to know which tool to use. And that’s not a straight-forward matter. Often that even takes a creative insight in
itself, to know what to select. But these strategies are mainly useful for
novices or students who are in the beginning of learning a particular domain. There are trait-like, individual differences
in the pattern of resting-state brain activity that are conducive to insight or analysis. Now we know, and I don’t have time to talk
about, there are factors that can influence that. Things like mood, deployment of attention,
and other things that can nudge you in one way or the another towards insightful or analytic
thinking. The way we like to think about it is that
this cognitive style, whether analytic or creative, it’s sort of like your weight, in
the sense that people have a genetically determined set point for their weight. Some people are naturally, genetically more
heavy. Others are genetically thinner, but there
are things you can do to slide around. If you’re naturally heavy, but you don’t eat
too much, you eat healthy food, you exercise a lot, and sleep a lot, you’re set point will
come down and you’ll get slimmer. If you’re naturally thin, but you eat a lot
of bad food, don’t exercise, and don’t sleep, your set point will go up. So, similarly, we believe that there is … And
this is something that we need to get some good data on … This insight analytic or
creative analytic dimension is partially genetically determined, but there are environmental influences
that can slide you temporarily one way or the other on the scale. But in the absence of those influences, you’ll
kind of snap back to whatever your set point is. There are factors that can nudge that brain
state in one direction or the other. And I’d like to thank the National Science
Foundation for funding much of the research that I describe, and I’d like to thank you. Well, we are running a bit over, but given
the fact that we’ve had such an interesting set of presentations, I’d like to call our
other speakers up, if they’d come up on the stage, and put the lapel mics on, and we’ll
have some Q&A from those of you who have been sitting patiently and want to ask them anything
that comes to mind about the presentations you heard or other things you might think
about the notions of creativity and genius. They’ll get their mics on. There are microphones on the side here, on
the both aisles. And I ask you to go to those microphones now,
get a place before too long, so that we’ll just run another five to seven minutes before
we break for our reception. [inaudible] Department of Commerce. My question is with mathematical genius. Is there any distinction in the processes
that go on that enable that? Is it basically interchangeable with, say,
artistic genius? We hear that some of that creativeness approaches
savant-type personality. What’s the connection between those? Who are you asking? I think any. I would ask all three of you. Who wants to take a crack at that first? I’ll take a first stab. I don’t have a lot to say about that. I think there is reason to believe that there
are some core processes that are common to different domains of creativity, but I just
don’t think the research has been done yet. That’s one of the key questions. What does mathematical creativity have in
common with musical creativity, with other kinds of creativity. And in terms of what these core processes
are, we have some good ideas about what they are, but in terms of reliance on left hemisphere
versus right hemisphere, ability to activate or deactivate frontal lobes, things like that,
we really just don’t know that much. Any of the other speakers want to respond? Just a random thought. I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity
in 19th-century physicists, and each of these people I’ve actually lived with for a couple
of months. And one of my favorites is James Clerk Maxwell,
who is the prototype of a gifted mathematician. He had, first of all, an amazing capacity
to think three dimensionally. Secondly, he had, like many mathematical geniuses,
an ability to see the solution to the problem without knowing how he got there, which is
often a problem with creative mathematicians. They get in trouble in school because they
see the answers, but they can’t show their work and they get punished for it, which is
a terrible outcome. The other thing about him was that he … And
I’m using him as a prototype, but it could be Richard Feynman, it could be a whole host
of other people. He thought geometrically in three dimensions
all the time, and had just this amazing ability to do three-dimensional geometric thinking. And there’s a cute story. He was a student at Cambridge, and there’s
the Tripos exam, which makes you or breaks you, or at least did, especially in the 19th
century. If you score well on it, you’re a senior wrangler,
second wrangler. And those were published publicly. And if you were senior, second, your career
was made for life. And they were trained by wrangler makers,
other mathematicians. And, so, he was getting trained by a guy named
Hopkins, who was the great wrangler maker of his era. And Hopkins was just scribbling all over the
blackboard with a solution to a problem, and Maxwell jumps up and says, “Wouldn’t it be
easier if you just did it this way?” And he draws a little geometric diagram that
solves the problem, and then he wrote out the algebra, solved the problem in like three
lines. Where does that comes from? I think in his case, in many cases, it’s just
innate genius. I’ll just make one very quick comment, so
we can get on to another question. The reason why I want to make this comment
is I think it kind of ties up these two concepts of insight versus a toolbox-based approach
to thinking about the cognition of genius. Einstein, very much like Maxwell, did exactly
the same things that Nancy was just talking about. He was very much a geometric thinker. He had what would be considered insights. He suddenly found solutions to these problems
where it was very unclear how he got there. I discuss him at length in the book “Genius
Unmasked”. The reality is he was using all these tools. It’s just that he didn’t know he was using
them. What happens with novices is they have to
do this very purposefully and very systematically, and they have to go through every tool and
think it through. When you’ve used the tools over and over and
over and over again and have gotten just so incredibly comfortable with them in your expertise,
you’re completely unaware that you’re using the tools. I believe that’s what we call insight. Okay. Well, let’s go on over there. Please. So, the first two speakers were talking about
genius … Leonardo, Michelangelo, Nobel Prize winners, and so forth. John, I think, was talking more about-
Could you speak into the mic a little more? Okay. John, I think, was talking about some more
everyday experience, the differences between experts and novices. I wonder how you see the relationship between
the geniuses and the experts, and the everyday property of all human beings, in the novelty
and creativity that every single member of our species has, whereby we are expressing
new thoughts on a minute-by-minute basis. It might be quite trivial. I’m going to get the bus that comes at 3:38
from across the road. It’s never been said by anybody before. We have no difficulties saying it. We have no difficulty understanding it. And it’s a fundamental property of human beings. I’m wondering how you see any relationship,
if any, between that kind of creativity and the creativity of geniuses. I’ll start on this one, since I was last on
the last one. I really, I just want to clarify, I was not
talking about just geniuses. I was very much talking about something that
anyone can be taught to do to enhance their creativity. So they’re directly related to each other
in my mind. Geniuses are just extraordinarily gifted at
using these tools. But when you dissect their thinking process,
which is exactly what I did in “Genius Unmasked,” I literally go through … They used this
tool when they went from step A to step B, they did this thing when they … It dissects. I think many reviewers have read it and find
it somewhat convincing that they were using this multitude of things. And, again, you can teach people. I do teach people. I have this massive online course that teaches
people to use these tools. I do want to go beyond your question just
for one quick second to say two things. One is, finding the right question is incredibly
important, and geniuses were geniuses at doing that. Einstein once said something to the effect
of if the end of the world was coming and somebody asked me to find a solution to it
and they only gave me 20 minutes, I would spend the first 19 minutes trying to figure
out what’s the right question. But the other thing to say is that the current
generation, one of the things that worries me, as I am a teacher … I teach graduate
students. One of the things that worries me enormously
is that in addition to finding the right question, in order to really be creative, like John
said, you have to give people the space to be creative. And Nancy said it, too. But you have to really engage people in their
curiosity. And one of the things that worries me a lot
is, the first thing that I ask my students when I walk into a classroom is, “What are
you curious about?” And always the answer is a blank stare from
all of them. They’re dumbfounded by that question. So the next thing that happens is they start
telling me about their thesis or their dissertation project, and I say, “I really don’t want to
hear about that. I want to know something that you are just
curious about, having nothing to do with science. How about that?” And after they’ve been kind of, I’ve sat there
for about another five very, very, very uncomfortable minutes, finally some bold person will say
something fairly crazy, and then they’ll all start jumping in with all this stuff that’s
just wacko. And it’s fantastic. But the fact of the matter is, in the educational
process today, we do not engage people in their creativity, and that is a real problem. Anybody else on the stage want to chime in? I’d like to say, there are several things
that are similar and different. For one thing, when a genius has a great idea,
there is a difference of scale. Often these geniuses are experts. They have a vast storehouse of detailed, expert
information about that topic. So, when they have an idea, sometimes it can
be a very complicated idea because they have the information, or the knowledge, to do it. However, the processes by which they come
up with these solutions may be very similar to those when people solve little problems. And, in fact, if you think about it, some
of the great ideas of history are great because they’ve been so valued by society. Now if we lived in a society in which people
valued, equally, solutions to little puzzles, then some of those people would be considered
great geniuses, or compare, for example, Russia and the United States. In Russia, people who are chess champions
are gods. I mean, they are huge celebrities. Forty years ago, when Bobby Fischer was playing
in the United States, maybe that was true to a little extent, but nowadays, I think
most Americans off the street can’t name a single professional chess player, chess master. So, some of it has to do with what’s valued
by society, what’s practical, what’s useful, what’s considered beautiful, but the processes
by which ideas are generated, there’s no reason to think that those are really qualitatively
different in everyday creativity. My auto mechanic is a genius the way we can
figure out things that stump other mechanics, but that ability is not valued as much as
Feynman’s ability to solve problems in physics. Okay. How about over here? Why don’t we just make these the last two
questions? I do Child Psychology with [inaudible] biology. And this question is for Dr. Andreasen. In your imaging research, have you seen any
difference in localization or activity in the brain between people who are considered
genius and the common people? And, also, throughout development, have you
seen any difference in the physiology and the activity of the brains in your imaging
research? So, what was the question? I can’t hear. The question is, is there a difference in
brain imaging between geniuses and people who are not geniuses? Okay. First of all, I don’t like the word genius. I would call people who are often called geniuses
” highly creative people”. We are doing a study right now of highly creative
people. You didn’t like Steven Spielberg, but I have
George Lucas. Oh, I like them. I love them, but I’m not sure how much I would
learn from studying their brains. You know, I learned a great deal from George
Lucas. What I do in this current study is interview
them for four, five, six hours and hear all about how they get their ideas, and their
early life, and all of that stuff. And it’s just an absolute gold mine of information
about the nature of creativity, what nurtures it, and what diminishes it, the nature of
the creative process, and so on. So, the question was, can we learn something
about the brain in highly creative people? And in this current study I’m doing, it’s
a group of people like George Lucas who are highly creative, Nobel prize winners, and
so on. And it’s mid-stream, but so far we’re finding
that people who are highly creative activate, basically, the association cortices, the association
cortex, or the regions of the brain where we make connections. One of my theories about the nature of creativity
is that it’s an enhanced ability to see connections, to see relationships. And, indeed, these highly creative people
are activating their association cortices more intensely than the less creative people,
because we have a comparison group of people who are matched on gender, age, education,
but are not known to be highly creative in art once we interview them. So, yeah, we’re learning a little bit about
the brain regions that are more active in highly creative people. And that’s turning out to be, to me not surprisingly,
association regions in the brain. Okay. Last question. My name is Rick Lempert. [inaudible] University of Michigan. Following up on David Lightfoot, who preceded
me, his question. I heard, John, you say the geniuses are, to
a large extent, socially constructed. I agree with that. Anecdote. When I was five years old, I invented the
over-easy egg. My father used to fry me eggs, sunny side
up, all the time, and one day I said, “Turn it over.” And he did, it was delicious, and I was so
proud of myself for this invention. It was only later when I found out at the
local diner that someone had preceded me. And I expect everybody in this room could
come up with a similar anecdote of something which, with no background, in a flash of genius,
if you will, they invented only to find out it wasn’t original. And I guess my question I’m using this to
take off from is, is there any research or any planned research that might try to evaluate
among a range of ordinary people what one might call the density of creative thinking,
the degree to which different people in their day-to-day lives, in fact, from where they
start come up with ideas that are original and creative to them? We know the geniuses because they take problems
that are out there, and they’re equipped by their prior knowledge, almost always, to come
up with the insightful solution. But what about the rest of us? What kind of research is going on, not just
on the very interesting neurological research and how it works, but on what I would call
the range of creativity in normal populations? Yes, Teresa Amabile at the Harvard Business
School did, for many years, a study where she went into various corporations and had
the workers keep diaries on their work and their moods or emotions, everything they experienced. And she looked at when and what kinds of creative
ideas people have, when they have them, the sequencing, what was going on in their lives
at the time. That’s one very good source. Right now, Jonathan Schooler at the University
of California Santa Barbara is in the middle of a study where … he’s not looking at everyday
people, but he’s not looking necessarily at people who are at the level of Leonardo or
people like that. He’s looking at scientists and people in other
disciplines as well, and I believe he’s actually buzzing them on their Smartphones and asking
them at any given moment, “What are you doing now? What are you doing now? What are you doing now?” And getting records on … it’s pretty disruptive
… when they get ideas, what the circumstances were as well. So, yes, there has been work like that. Not enough. We need to have a lot more work like that
done. It’s very complicated and very expensive to
do, which is part of the problem. Would any of the other speakers like to react
to that question as well? No. Okay. Food and beverage awaits us outside the auditorium.

1 Comment

  • Joshua L says:

    The first speaker makes the assumption that Leonardo was a polymath his entire life which is false. Yes, there is no question he manifested and developed astonishing abilities in differing fields as he began his independent work from under Verrocchio, but he was trained with rigor as a painter an sculptor. It was a specialized trade that Leonardo received from Verrocchio not some scholastic education under a model of standardized testing. My point is that these are not comparable in so far as they're not the same things, and the polymath ideologist seem to ignore that profound skill doesn't just emerge, and that some skills have greater universal utility inherent to them which make the spine of the skills for the specified domain of knowledge. The specific is a subset of the general. Education has many issues, but I don't believe that it's issues stem from a profound emphasis on excellence in a specific domain of knowledge, and that individual's know so much about their subject that they become one-sided living encyclopedic texts that are so robust that they're inert creatives.

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