Serendipity and the Creative Process


“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!

Traffic Fluid Dynamics


I drove from Oregon to Washington a few days ago, at the end of the Fourth of July weekend. Naturally, traffic was worse than normal. The jams came in waves, and lasted 20-30 minutes each. These sorts of jams are, practically speaking, guaranteed to create themselves in dense enough traffic and for no good reason. Whenever a car breaks, the cars behind break, sending a shock wave of stopped cars through the highway. If you’ve ever seen traffic jams that stop your car for ten seconds, then move forward for ten seconds, and then stop again, you know what I mean.

An electrical engineer named William Beaty knows what I mean, too. He’s dedicated a website to the phenomenon, and on it, he explains how to prevent the process:

Once upon a time, years ago, I was driving through a number of stop/go traffic waves on I-520 at rush hour in Seattle. I decided to try something. On a day when I immediately started hitting the usual “waves” of stopped cars, I decided to drive smoothly. Rather than repeatedly rushing ahead with everyone else, only to come to a halt, I decided to try to move at the average speed of the traffic. I let a huge gap open up ahead of me, and timed things so I was arriving at the next “stop-wave” just as the last red brakelights were turning off ahead of me. It certainly felt weird to have that huge empty space ahead of me, but I knew I was driving no slower than anyone else. Sometimes I hit it just right and never had to touch the brakes at all. Other times I was too fast or slow. There were many “waves” that evening, and this gave me many opportunities to improve my skill as I drove along.

I kept this up for maybe half an hour while approaching the city. Finally I happened to glance at my rearview mirror. There was an interesting sight.

It was dusk, the headlights were on, and I was going down a long hill to the bridges. I had a view of miles of highway behind me. In the neighboring lane I could see maybe five of the traffic stop-waves. But in the lane behind me, for miles, TOTALLY UNIFORM DISTRIBUTION. I hadn’t realized it in the past, but by driving at the average speed of the traffic around me, my car had been “eating” the traffic waves. Everyone ahead of me was caught in the stop/go cycle, while everyone behind me was forced to go at a nice smooth 35MPH or so. My single tiny car had erased miles and miles of stop-and-go traffic.

~William Beaty

I tried out the process during my drive. It’s tougher than it sounds. The main problem is that the flow of the traffic picks up and slows down even when the cars are moving, not just when they’ve stopped. This makes it difficult to measure the average speed of the traffic, and so I found myself going too fast or too slow. Secondly, cars in the lanes next to me would constantly slip into the large gap that I left before me, forcing me to stop again. Cars behind me decided I was moving to slowly, and pulled around me solely in order to be the first ones to enjoy stopping at the next jam.

This joke really ... tanked. Heh. Get it?

A secondary cause of traffic jams.

It’s funny that Beaty also lives in the Seattle area, since that’s where the jams were worst. The drivers in that area are not known for their skill and understanding. Or, as John Vance, a commenter on the Boing Boing post that brought this traffic pattern to my attention, said, “It’s another one of those beautiful practices that relies on human kindness and rationale to succeed on any appreciable scale–so it is doomed to failure.”

New phrases I’ve recently learned

He's a doctor, but he can't heal that leg. And he hates the people he saves. Double whammy.

He’s a doctor, but he can’t heal that leg. And he hates the people he saves. Double whammy.

Vocational Irony Narrative

Def. A story in which a character’s problems are those typically solved by his/her entire profession. E.g. a doctor has a disease.

Where it’s from:

I’m referring to the story of the travel writer who hates to leave home or the relationship guru who can’t have a relationship herself or the podiatrist who suffers from horrible bunions.

It’s a genre that writers adore because there’s a set formula that can be reproduced in any of a hundred professions, almost in your sleep. There’s the lawyer who suddenly finds himself charged with a crime! There’s the doctor who gets ill and gets sucked into the morass of the American health care system. There’s the fake medium who suddenly starts seeing real ghosts.

The Vocational Irony Narrative works well for television, because it’s a set-up for a character-driven workplace series. The Vocational Irony Narrative also works well for indie filmmakers because it makes your premise really easy to pitch to financiers, actors and distributors.

~Daniel Fienberg, of Hitfix

Where I saw it: The AV Club’s review of episode one of Ray Donovan.


Cute Aggression

Def. The strange urge to give something cute a giant squeeze. Ex.”I could eat you up.”

Where I saw it:

New research by two Yale University psychologists details how the sight of something cute brings out our aggressive side. Rebecca Dyer and Oriana Aragon investigated “cute aggression” by showing study participants slide shows of either cute, funny or normal animal photographs. As they watched, the participants held bubble wrap. The researchers, attempting to mimic the common desire to squeeze cute things, told subjects to pop as many or as few bubbles as they wished. People watching the cute slide show popped significantly more bubbles than those viewing the funny or control pictures, according to results presented at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology annual meeting in New Orleans. “Some things are so cute that we just can’t stand it,” Dyer concludes.

Cute aggression’s prevalence does not mean that people actually want to harm cuddly critters, Aragon explains. Rather the response could be protective, or it could be the brain’s way of tamping down or venting extreme feelings of giddiness and happiness. The scientists are currently conducting additional studies to determine what drives the need to squeeze.

~Carrie Arnold, of the Scientific American.

via Wikimedia.

via Wikimedia.


This is more of a usage than a definition, but it’s been brought to my attention that the term is used in cook books as a figure of speech designed to make that act of cooking a meal seem more action-packed.

Where I saw it:

“In [Eliza Acton's] recipe for whitebait I noticed that odd usage still favored by cookery writers: throw the fish into a cloth, and then throw it into deep fat. I cannot be the only cook with remarkably poor aim. Why do we have to keep throwing things about?”

~Liza Picard, in the physical book Victorian London: The Tale of a City 1840–1870That’s right, I read dead tree books sometimes.

“Author Quest”


“Author Quest” is an official contest to pick the author of a Dark Crystal prequel.

The newly established webpage and Facebook page for the “world of Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal” has created the contest to rustle up a new series of prequel novels for the franchise. It makes sense… fantasy and science fiction have been going strong for the last decade, and so has resurrecting past commodities. The rules, furthermore, make it clear that it’s a work-for-pay situation. I’ve copied the most interesting section:

4. Each entry will be the sole property of the Sponsors. By competing in the Contest and/or accepting a prize, each entrant (including the prize winner) grants to Sponsors the right to edit, adapt, publish, copy, display, reproduce and otherwise use their entry in connection with this Contest and in any other way, in any and all forms of media now known or hereafter devised, throughout the world, in perpetuity, including publication on Further, each entrant (including the prize winner) grants to Sponsors the right to use each entry and the winner’s name, likeness, and biographical information in advertising, trade and promotional materials, without notice, review or approval, or further compensation or permission, except as set forth herein, and except where prohibited by law. Sponsors are not obligated to use, publish, display or reproduce any entry.
5. LIMITATION OF LIABILITY. By competing in this Contest and/or accepting a prize, entrants release Sponsors, their parent, subsidiary and affiliated companies, the agencies of any of them and the authors and/or editors of any books promoted hereby from any and all liability (including legal fees and expenses) of whatever nature or kind arising out of or relating to participation in this Contest or the awarding, acceptance, use or misuse of the prize. You understand that Sponsors may already be exploring, may have already explored, or may in the future explore programs and ideas generated by employees or others that resemble your idea. Therefore, you hereby forever waive, and release Sponsors from, any claim that you may at any time have that Sponsors misappropriated your idea or any portion of your idea in any present or future programs or activities of Sponsors.  By entering, you hereby forever waive, and release Sponsors from any claim, including any claim for injunctive relief, that you may have at any time in the future related to your entry and/or Sponsors use of your entry. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHALL THE RELEASED PARTIES BE LIABLE FOR INDIRECT, INCIDENTAL, CONSEQUENTIAL, SPECIAL OR EXEMPLARY DAMAGES, ATTORNEYS’ FEES, OR ANY OTHER DAMAGES.

~The rules.

They’ve thrown in an entertaining introduction to the world, also, written from the viewpoints of several different races of the muppet-like creatures that populated the 1982 film: it’s titled The Gelfling Gathering.

To enter, fans must submit a 7,500 – 10,000 word manuscript of “the first chapters, final chapters, a collection of middle chapters, or a short piece that would form the inspiration for a novel-length story.” It’ll be judged based on storytelling, characters, creativity and originality, and writing ability. I think I’ll look into submitting an entry. The reward if it’s chosen is 10,000 dollars, and the only thing I stand to lose are a few cool ideas.