Jun 12

5 Key Points from SCIAM’s “The Mad Science of Creativity”

The Scientific American Special “The Mad Science of Creativity” is an overview of selected studies and previous articles into the fields of psychology, biology and neurological science to try and determine how some people are more creative than others – or to learn if this really is actually the case.

I bought this SCAM special edition issue as creativity as a subject is an interest of mine. This is in addition to being a previous biological scientist now working as a designer. Consequentially I’m fascinated by neurobiology and is relationship to the creative arts.

This post is an overview, providing five key points which I think represent the magazine and provides a sifted form of the information that can be utilised by the readers of this article. I hope you enjoy this synopsis and that it benefits your ideas or general thinking now and in the future.

1. The Origins of Creativity have been represented by cavemen using tools over 40,000 years ago. However it’s reported that humans may have been creatively active earlier as a result of biological and social factors. Several identified “flashes” of creativity by our predecessors are related to the extent of how grey matter evolved over time. This evolution relates to the volume available in the skull and the degree of connectivity of the neurons.

The concept of ratcheting is introduced as essential to how humans differ from other intelligent creatures. As chimpanzees can learn new ideas from older chimpanzees however they don’t improve upon them as humans do. Social skills, communication and higher cognitive ability sets us apart from other species.

Artistic children were the focus of one article within which children capable of “endurance, concentration and commitment to effortful practice” were viewed to be more creatively capable than other children. These traits were called “the rage to master”. However even though art was the focus of the article it was stated that it’s possible that several other areas can become an area of focus for children such as: maths, science, language, chess and sport.

Overall three factors were said to be important. These were Autonomy: selecting a course of action for its own sake that you find important. Value: the activity chosen is seen to be important for the person and its participation or results deemed positive. Finally Competence: feeling that you bring something important to the activity you’ve chosen to participate in. So if you’re forced into, don’t really see the point and don’t think you’re actually good at doing a specific task then it’s highly likely you won’t pursue it for long – and certainly not for the 10,000 hours thought required to master a specific skill.

2. Creative Qualities and Traits are thought to be boiled down to the practise of blind variation and selective retention. The first part of this statement is trial and error which is a typical phrase heard in the sciences and the arts. But not so typical is selective retention: the ability to know when you have something good. Even though creative people are typically known for a specific expertise, creative geniuses typically have a diverse range of interests and a mastery of more than one domain of expertise.

Creative individuals have been studied and there are commonalities. It has been found openness to different experiences is typical among creative people, which related to their cognitive disinhibition that them to have ideas and associations that are less typical that those of others. A higher intelligence and greater working memory are also found and seem likely for the processing of normal day life while also being open to other stimuli and processing that information efficiently.

The range interests and openness to ideas, images, words or experience and the ability not to be overwhelmed by these stimuli all work to make people more creative. I can second this as I think creative people as well as other inventive people have an openness and a fitness for uncertainty not typically found generally. And this lies at the heart of blind variation and selective retention; or as Picasso said: creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes and art is knowing which ones to keep.

3. Daydreaming and Sleep was given a large number of pages. Lucid dreams are thought to be a creative window into the sub-conscience mind. Examples of people solving difficult problems or having key insights when falling asleep or during dreams were sighted. An example was Don Newman at MIT who was struggling with a maths problem. He was consumed by the problem and one night when reflecting on the problem, went to sleep, and woke with the solution in his mind. It’s thought that sleep or lucid sleep improves cognitive disinhibition, which was mentioned earlier. This was also said to be the case for day dreaming with some people unable to stop themselves from falling into their own minds several times a day – almost like an addiction.

[pullquote align=”right” type=”simple”]Creative qualities and traits are thought to be boiled down to the practise of blind variation and selective retention.[/pullquote]

Day dreaming and sleep was considered a great way in which we can all have better ideas and methods were even proposed on how to maximise this creative opportunity we all do. A key recommendation would be to hold a specific problem in your mind, meditate on it, then put it out of your mind – then go to sleep a little earlier the usual. Furthermore keep a note pad near to hand to record any insights or ideas that arise so as to write these down as soon as possible. Doing this repeatedly can train the mind to trust that ideas will be listened to, thus more will come as a result.

4. Mental Health and Intelligence are two factors indicative of creativity. However it’s widely indicated that people who are more creative than others have a higher risk of mental health issues than the rest of the population. The ability to perform evil behaviours can be the result of greater cognitive disinhibition and a greater capacity to creatively rationalise the consequences. These relationships are casual but there is a known tendency for people who are more creative to be able to become dishonest should the environment encourage it and their own rationalisation fail to stop it.

Intelligence can relate to a person’s general mental health as creative people do have an above average incidence of mental health issues – and these in some cases may help their creativity. Nevertheless over time the mental illness can overcome the person and seriously disrupt their lives and the lives of those around them. In the publication Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys was referenced as such as person. As in his early 20’s he suffered psychotic disorders, social discomfort, depression, paranoia that led to hallucinations and delusions.

Mental health of this sort is characterised by the loss of executive functions which are listed as: abstract thinking, attention shifting, information manipulation, planning and foresight, monitoring and error correction, decision making, inhibition and social functioning. These executive functions are also sensitive to brain disease, psychiatric disorders and substance abuse.

5. Cultivating Creativity is probably the reason you’re reading this article and have continued to read this article thus far. This is a subject of great interest to me too and the main reason I purchased the SCIAM publication. Firstly it’s stated that cognitive disinhibition, intelligence and a greater working memory are thought the basis of origin for the serendipity of ideas.

Highly creative people typically has a wide array of interests and hobbies that can lead to the exhibition of eccentric behaviours and they often contribute to more than one area of expertise. Remember that psychopathic systems are observed to be higher in creative people compared to others. And as also mentioned decoupling consciousness through daydreaming and the early part of sleep can get the critical and inhibiting processes of the brain out of the way for original thought to flourish and hopefully be remembered. Recalling good ideas can be bolstered by having a notebook and pen handy at all time – even on your bedside cabinet. In fact many of the creative people I know do this as a matter of habit for idea capture, concept generation and sketching. And many testify that getting ideas down makes way for more.

The need for play was also a key aspect for cultivating creativity in the aim of braking the routine processes of the mind and introducing irreverent actions to help the mind make new connections and marry different ideas together. So making time for non-constructive activity would be a key point. This point hasn’t been lost on business with many companies using “away days” and “blue sky meetings” to encourage or bolster creative thinking and new ideas. As psychologists loosely define creativity as: generation and implementation of novel ideas.

Taking a break, from a task or problem, is shown helpful in generating new ideas or fresh perspectives as it interrupts routine thinking processes. Becoming an expert will help the creation of ideas by providing a knowledge base that can be connected to new stimuli. Observation of others can break mental routines by highlighting other methods of approach or execution to a problem. Stepping outside your comfort zone, challenging yourself to start something new and talking to others from different social circles can all help to disrupt and inform you to new ideas and thoughts. Putting distance from the required deadline was also mentioned to improve creative qualities; as if people were required to have ideas to be used the following day, the ideas were poor. However those that were asked for ideas for sometime into the future provided a far more diverse and daring selection of idea suggestions.

The creation of cities were also mentioned favourably in regards to the creativity of humans. As the concentration of diverse cultures and social groups typically led to more ideas and level of innovation. Additionally increased connectively through telecommunications and social media by those in cities compared to rural populations also contributed to the combination of thoughts and the spreading of ideas, which in turn led to new ideas and so on.

In conclusion creativity is not something people are born with. It’s not a sole genetic trait enjoyed only by those successful in the arts. It’s really a way of thinking not typical to a routine life. Great artists can be eccentric and that’s directly a result of them living outside of the typical or the routine as that’s already being done. Creative people have a lower threshold to trying something new, throwing something out there for others to make of it what they will – in essence they let go easier.

I hope this article has been of interest to you and I can only suggest that you search out this SCIAM special edition for yourself and learn to let go of the routines you maybe holding to dear to enjoy new ideas and fresh perspectives.

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