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.

 

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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.

Film NoiARRRRR excerpt

Yo Ho

NoiARRRRR, my film noir/pirate/buddy cop mashup film, has hit a snag: I’ve been too busy with this semester to plan out the entire thing, and it needs to be filmed by the end of this month. There’s not much time. It’s looking likely that I’ll have to rewrite the thing into a spoof trailer, rather than an actual film, and try to get that shot.

Regardless, I figured it couldn’t hurt to give you the first scene. Here’s the excerpt.

Continue reading

Infinite Jam

Lewis Carroll's Alice drawing, via Wikimedia

Lewis Carroll’s Alice drawing, via Wikimedia

Lewis Carroll is famous for just one story (and its sequel, which is usually lumped in with the first), but he wrote a number of other works. They’re all worse, which explains why they aren’t as famous. But in several of them, the fun math-and-wordplay that Alice in Wonderland is known for comes through. Here’s an excerpt from A Tangled Tale, a 1885 collection of funny stories built around math puzzles, in which a little girl points out a flaw in her governess’s reasoning:

“And what made you choose the first train, Goosey?” said Mad Mathesis, as they got into the cab. “Couldn’t you count better than that?”

“I took an extreme case,” was the tearful reply. “Our excellent preceptress always says, ‘When in doubt, my dears, take an extreme case.’ And I was in doubt.”

“Does it always succeed!” her aunt inquired.

Clara sighed. “Not always,” she reluctantly admitted. “And I ca’n’t make out why. One day she was telling the little girls — they make such a noise at tea, you know — The more noise you make, the less jam you will have, and vice versa.’ And I thought they wouldn’t know what ‘vice versa’ meant: so I explained it to them. I said, ‘if you make an infinite noise, you’ll get no jam: and if you make no noise, you’ll get an infinite lot of jam.’ But our excellent preceptress said that wasn’t a good instance. Why wasn’t it?” she added plaintively.

Her aunt evaded the question. “One sees certain objections to it,” she said. “But how did you work it with the Metropolitan trains? None of them go infinitely fast, I believe.”

“I called them hares and tortoises,” Clara said — a little timidly, for she dreaded being laughed at. “And I thought there couldn’t be so many hares as tortoises on the Line: so I took an extreme case — one hare and an infinite number of tortoises.”

“An extreme case, indeed,” her aunt remarked with admirable gravity: “and a most dangerous state of things!”

“And I thought, if I went with a tortoise, there would be only one hare to meet: but if I went with the hare — you know there were crowds of tortoises!”

Here’s the rest: A Tangled Tale

Recent Happenings – October

Spoon River

I just published a post on HackCollege:

6 Halloween Costumes for the Terminally Lazy

“When I talk about last-minute Halloween costumes, I don’t mean costumes that take a solid night’s (or week’s) work right before the Halloween parties start up for the weekend. Those guys who put entire hours of work into their costumes are too hard-working for me.

Besides, all the blog posts giving them advice were up yesterday. Now that it’s the eleventh hour, it’s time for the truly lazy costumes ideas — the ones that you can spend five minutes on, but still qualify for a party with.”

Read the rest

Also, my college’s fall play opens tonight, on Halloween. Which is nice, since it’s about a group of dead citizens of a small town sharing their life stories. Here’s an ad for it:

And I also wrote an opinion piece on feminism and Christianity:

“We all agree that women are people and should do people things, like vote. There’s very little controversy over this. And therefore, ‘feminism’—which is technically defined as the belief that men and women are equal in worth—is something that everyone can agree on. But we don’t.”

Read the rest.

Mix and Match Innovations

This is what my brain looks like inside, constantly.

This is what my brain looks like inside, constantly.

I’ve created a system, in my spare time, to invent the next big innovation. Simply pair a word from column A with one from column B. It’s almost too simple. With luck, it might even be too simple.

 

Column A:

Crowd-sourced

3D-printed

Retro

Hyperlinked

Curated

Microscopic

Randomized

Dynamic

Column B:

Bowling Alley

Webcomic

Planetarium

Bicycles

Inspirational Quotes

Listicles

Petition

Miniature figures

Comic book script

I Just Wrote My Epitaph

spoon river

I’m in the play this semester, a production based off of Edgar Lee Master’s 1915 collection of poems Spoon River Anthology.  It’s set in a graveyard, featuring the monologues of the deceased inhabitants of a small town. So for our bulletin, we’re doing something new: instead of a short bio, we all get to write our own epitaphs. I composed this gem of lyrical grace:

 

Here’s Adam Rowe
As dead as sin
‘Twas finals week
That did him in.