Serendipity and the Creative Process

Smarter

“This Will Make You Smarter,” a 2012 book edited by John Brockman, consists of a series of around 150 short essays from intellectuals in a variety of disciplines, all answering the question “What scientific concept will improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” The text is online in its entirety, since it was originally published there. Here’s a little of one essay that I recently browsed through and enjoyed.

 

Structured Serendipity
by Jason Zweig
Journalist; Personal Finance Columnist, The Wall Street Journal; Author, Your Money and Your Brain

Creativity is a fragile flower, but perhaps it can be fertilized with systematic doses of serendipity. Sarnoff Mednick showed decades ago that some people are better than others at detecting the associations that connect seemingly random concepts: Asked to name a fourth idea that links “wheel,” “electric,” and “high,” people who score high on other measures of creativity will promptly answer “chair.”

More recently, research in Mark Jung-Beeman’s lab at Northwestern has found that sudden bursts of insight — the Aha! or Eureka! moment — comes when brain activity abruptly shifts its focus. The almost ecstatic sense that makes us cry “I see!” appears to come when the brain is able to shunt aside immediate or familiar visual inputs.

[…]

I do this remote-reading exercise on my own time, since it would be hard to justify to newspaper editors during the work day. But my happiest moments this autumn came as I reported an investigative article on how elderly investors are increasingly being scammed by elderly con artists. I later realized, to my secret delight, that the article had been enriched by a series of papers I had been reading on altruistic behavior among fish (Lambroides dimidiatus).

If I do my job right, my regular readers will never realize that I spend a fair amount of my leisure time reading Current Biology, the Journal of Neuroscience, and Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. If that reading helps me find new ways to understand the financial world, as I suspect it does, my readers will indirectly be smarter for it. If not, the only harm done is my own spare time wasted.

In my view, we should each invest a few hours a week in reading research that ostensibly has nothing to do with our day jobs, in a setting that has nothing in common with our regular workspaces. This kind of structured serendipity just might help us become more creative, and I doubt that it can hurt.

Read the entire essay.

 

Job Boom

Baby boomers had a strong job market in their time. But because of their size, they are now an important demographic. That’s why we’ve got movies about old people — Red, Red 2, and Last Vegas. It’s geezersploitation, to coin an admittedly terrible phrase. And elderly con artists are still active, since their targets are just as old as they are.

I’m not going anywhere with this. I just thought it was interesting. Culture is a democracy.

The problem with Popular Science

At least he didn't use a red and white color scheme. That's even worse than academic dishonesty.

At least he didn’t use a red and white color scheme. That’s even worse than academic dishonesty.

Malcolm Gladwell, popular author of collections of counter-intuitive factoids, recently published a new book, and it’s catching a lot of flack. As the AV Club puts it:

Malcolm Gladwell has made a mint taking true-life stories and statistics, then wrapping them up together into an easily digestible whole. Like the writers of Freakonomics, he trades in counter-intuitive arguments, showing how conventional wisdom is, more often than not, wrong. It’s a good hook, and he’s been successful with it over and over again. But every hook can become overused, and Gladwell’s latest, David And Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, And The Art Of Battling Giants, fails to recognize that rather obvious lesson.

Wall Street Journal reviewer Christopher Chabris has even harsher words:

To make his point about the general benefits of difficulty, Mr. Gladwell refers to a 2007 experiment in which people were given three mathematical reasoning problems to solve. One group was randomly assigned to read the problems in a clear typeface like the one you are reading now; the other had to read them in a more difficult light-gray italic print. The latter group scored 29% higher, suggesting that making things harder improves cognitive performance. It’s an impressive result on the surface, but less so if you dig a bit deeper.

First, the study involved just 40 people, or 20 per typeface—a fact Mr. Gladwell fails to mention. That’s a very small sample on which to hang a big argument. Second, they were all Princeton University students, an elite group of problem-solvers. Such matters wouldn’t matter if the experiment had been repeated with larger samples that are more representative of the general public and had yielded the same results. But Mr. Gladwell doesn’t tell readers that when other researchers tried just that, testing nearly 300 people at a Canadian public university, they could not replicate the original effect. Perhaps he didn’t know about this, but anyone who has followed recent developments in social science should know that small studies with startling effects must be viewed skeptically until their results are verified on a broader scale. They might hold up, but there is a good chance they will turn out to be spurious.

This flaw permeates Mr. Gladwell’s writings: He excels at telling just-so stories and cherry-picking science to back them.

Gladwell is probably figuring out the same thing Jonah Lehrer did: it’s tough to come up with entertaining articles, and counter-intuitive facts can quickly run out. There isn’t a good solution.

Popular science articles need plenty of elements to truly become popular — catchy titles; punchy analogies; a fast pace; evocative descriptors; a high concept topic; a fetish-level focus on facts or otherwise seemingly quantifiable accomplishments; and, most importantly, the subversive topic, which must confront the audience with a conclusion that seems to contradict commonly-accepted sense but it shown, through fact and analogy, not to.

Not that that isn't a good name, too.

They’re called test tubes, not crazy theory tubes.

The act of subversion is subversive. No, that’s not a tautological statement; rather, it should be obvious. If expectations are around to be subverted, than there must be a reason behind their existence. This reason, as decreed by Occam’s Razor, is typically because the expectation is a decent reflection of reality. As a result, academic articles live an arcadian existence, eking out the occasional 2000 words of fodder from among the cracks between reality and an audience’s expectations of reality. The struggle for an innovative topic, understandably, drives authors to ever more tenuous tricks.

One of the questionable methods of capitalizing on a breakthrough is to jump on one before it’s been properly confirmed. Academia skillfully sidesteps this problem, allowing less refined news services to spew click-bait about the latest particle to exceed the speed of light. Still, articles try to have their cake and consume it too, reporting on speculation while reminding the audience that speculation is all it is. Scientific studies are a grey area sensational enough to be acceptable: the implications of a study proving ______ is proportional to _____ are free to run wild as long as the requisite chestnut that “correlation isn’t causation” gets tossed in there somewhere. Accuracy might not be upheld with both hands, but darned if the topic isn’t entertaining.

Personally, I’ve found a different solution to the problem: I write fiction.

How To Pick Your Pseudonym

Pictured: a pseudonym

JK! It’s Rowling.

One of my projects this summer was to self-publish three old novels I have lying around. They’re the sort that I consider good enough to enjoy, but not good enough that my hopefully ever-improving writing style should be associated with them. On top of that, they’re all more or less in the high fantasy genre, one that I hope to avoid in the future. The solution, naturally, is to put them up as ebooks under a pseudonym. However, that choice involves the difficult task of picking a fake name for myself.

Here’s a list of the considerations that I took into account when deciding on my very own pseudonym. Continue reading

Why You’re Creative: Deep Thinking

Unless you're Jack Handy

You have to have white hair to have deep thoughts.

As I mentioned earlier, the problems that hold people back from creativity are all fairly mundane. It’s nothing special. ‘Deep thinking’ is one of those mundane things that can really help you be creative. It refers to consciously focusing on your inner thoughts, as opposed to breezing past them in focus on the next task before you, such as eating that poptart or organizing those magnets.

Bogger Julie McCutchen explains this concept as deep listening, in a guest post about enhancing writing by accessing intuition:

One of the keys to unlocking intuition is deep listening. There are two components of this complete approach:
Outer listening involves listening to the world around you with curiosity about life, people and relationships …
Inner listening requires turning your focus inwards to what is going on deep inside you.
Take a few moments before you write to listen deeply.

Well, duh, you may say. It seems simple, right? But it can have genuinely useful results. It’s a truism because it helps. Truisms are cliched by definition, and can be a problem among advice websites. But with a little deep thought, you can get past the obvious state of a cliche and wheedle your path down to the truth beneath. Reshape it, and you’ve become a true creative.

 

Why You’re Creative: Be a Sports Commentator

sports to commentate on

“The ball appears to have stopped directly in front of the pins. There’s no movement at all. Still nothing. Nothing. Nothing… hey, wait a second. Is this a still? It’s a still shot! What’s with this screen?!”

To be creative, you need to emulate the sports commentator. Why? Here’s Gene Perret, a comedy writer since the 1960s, on the subject:

“I’ve always been fascinated in watching sports on television at how sharp-eyed some of the commentators are. When I watch bowling, I just see the pins “explode.” The commentator, though, tells you exactly where each pin went. When I watch diving, I don’t know how many turns and spins that diver took. My eye can’t follow it. But the commentators know.

It’s not that their eyes are sharper and quicker; it’s just that they know what to look for, how to look for it, and where to look. They’re tuned in to that sport.”

Gene was talking about the importance of tuning in to comedy in order to write it, but the same principle applies to creativity in general. After all, comedy is about creativity: you need to catch the audience off-guard in order to surprise them into laughing, and unexpected connections are the mainstay of creativity.  Don’t worry about your quality at first, because it’ll be terrible. But the more you focus on making connections, the better you’ll get at it.

Why You’re Creative: The Series

Creativity doesn't really look like much of anything, really

Creativity looks like a light bulb.

There are certain basic problems in life that everyone tends to face. They seem obvious, yet trip up millions of people all the time. This is particularly true in the realm of creativity, as most people are convinced that they can’t be creative.  In reality, they’ve just gotten tripped up on issues that should be clear, but are a little more tough to unearth than people think. Creativity is possible for everyone, and it’s like a muscle. The more you focus on training it, the bigger and better it becomes.

There are several misconceptions about creativity: that it requires special knowledge; that descends on people from above, in a manner similar to Dr. House suddenly realizing the root of his patient’s disease seven minutes before the episode ends; that it alone with bring success in life. In reality, determined people can be creative, and slackers won’t be. Everyone should be at least a little creative. Adding creativity to your interpersonal interactions makes you a fun, engaging personality, and that will help everyone in any walk of life.

I’ll be starting a series of posts here about the problems that keep everyone from being creative. Pay attention to them, and look for them in your life. With a little constant effort, you can be creative, too!