Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

20 MARCH, 2012

How Creativity Works

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Inside the ‘seething cauldron of ideas,’ or what Bob Dylan has to do with the value of the synthesizer mind.

In his 1878 book, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, Nietzsche observed:

Artists have a vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration… shining down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects… All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.”

Some 131 years later, Elizabeth Gilbert echoed that observation in her now-legendary TED talk.

The origin, pursuit, and secret of creativity are a central fixation of the Idea Age. But what, exactly, does “creativity” — that infinitely nebulous term — really mean, and how does it work? This inquiry is at the heart of Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer — who, in my opinion, has done more for the popular understanding of psychology and neuroscience than any other writer working today, and who has previously examined such fascinating subjects as how we decide and why we need a “fourth culture” of knowledge.

Lehrer writes in the introduction, echoing Nietzsche’s lament:

The sheer secrecy of creativity — the difficulty in understanding how it happens, even when it happens to us — means that we often associate breakthroughs with an external force. In fact, until the Enlightenment, the imagination was entirely synonymous with higher powers: being creative meant channeling the muses, giving voice to the ingenious gods. (Inspiration, after all, literally means ‘breathed upon.’) Because people couldn’t understand creativity, they assumed that their best ideas came from somewhere else. The imagination was outsourced.”

He notes how the mysteriousness and hazy nature of creativity have historically confounded scientists, and how its study has become a meta-metaphor for creativity itself:

How does one measure the imagination? The daunting nature of the subject led researchers to mostly neglect it; a recent survey of psychology papers published between 1950 and 2000 revealed that less than 1 percent of them investigated aspects of the creative process. Even the evolution of this human talent was confounding. Most cognitive skills have elaborate biological histories, so their evolution can be traced over time. But not creativity—the human imagination has no clear precursors. There is no ingenuity module that got enlarged in the human cortex, or even a proto-creative impulse evident in other primates. Monkeys don’t paint; chimps don’t write poems; and it’s the rare animal (like the New Caledonian crow) that exhibits rudimentary signs of problem solving. The birth of creativity, in other words, arrived like any insight: out of nowhere.”

Reflecting David Eagleman’s insistence upon understanding the unconscious operations of the brain as a key to understanding ourselves, Lehrer counters the idea that imagination can’t be rigorously studied:

Until we understand the set of mental events that give rise to new thoughts, we will never understand what makes us so special. That’s why this book begins by returning us to the material source of the imagination: the three pounds of flesh inside the skull. William James described the creative process as a ‘seething cauldron of ideas, where everything is fizzling and bobbing about in a state of bewildering activity.’ For the first time, we can see the cauldron itself, that massive network of electrical cells that allow individuals to form new connections between old ideas. We can take snapshots of thoughts in brain scanners and measure the excitement of neurons as they get closer to a solution. The imagination can seem like a magic trick of matter — new ideas emerging from thin air—but we are beginning to understand how the trick works.”

Lehrer nods to the combinatorial nature of creativity:

Creativity shouldn’t be seen as something otherworldly. It shouldn’t be thought of as a process reserved for artists and inventors and other ‘creative types.’ The human mind, after all, has the creative impulse built into its operating system, hard-wired into its most essential programming code. At any given moment, the brain is automatically forming new associations, continually connecting an everyday x to an unexpected y.”

At the heart of Imagine is an important redefinition of “creativity”:

[T]he standard definition of creativity is completely wrong. Ever since the ancient Greeks, people have assumed that the imagination is separate from other kinds of cognition. But the latest science suggests that this assumption is false. Instead, creativity is a catchall term for a variety of distinct thought processes. (The brain is the ultimate category buster.)

[…]

For most of human history, people have believed that the imagination is inherently inscrutable, an impenetrable biological gift. As a result, we cling to a series of false myths about what creativity is and where it comes from. These myths don’t just mislead — they also interfere with the imagination.”

The opening of the book’s wonderful trailer winks at Steve Jobs’s famous quote that “creativity is just connecting things”:

Lehrer goes on to explore the workings of creativity through subjects as diverse as Bob Dylan’s writing methods, the birth of Swiffer, an autistic surfer who invented a new surfing move, the drug habits of poets, Pixar’s secret sauce, the emergence of collaborative culture, and a wealth more.

But what makes Imagine outstanding is that the book itself is an epitome of an increasingly important form of creativity — the ability to pull together perspectives, insights, and bits of information into a mashup narrative framework that illuminates a subject in an entirely new way.

This practice, of course, is centuries old, dating at least as far back as medieval florilegia. But Lehrer’s gift — or, rather, grit-honed skill — for connecting dots across disciplines and directions of thought, and gleaning from these connections original insight, is a true testament to the role of the author as a curator of empirical evidence, theory, and opinion. In the excellent Five Minds for the Future, Howard Gardner called this the “synthesizing mind” — and Lehrer’s is positively a paragon:

The synthesizing mind takes information from disparate sources, understands and evaluates that information objectively, and puts it together in ways that make sense to the synthesizer and also to other persons. Valuable in the past, the capacity to synthesize becomes ever more crucial as information continues to mount at dizzying rates.”

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19 MARCH, 2012

Einstein on Kindness, Our Shared Existence, and Life’s Highest Ideals

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“Without the sense of fellowship with men of like mind… life would have seemed to me empty.”

In times of turmoil, I often turn to one of my existential pillars of comfort: Albert Einstein’s Ideas and Opinions — the definitive collection of the great thinker’s essays on everything from science and religion to government to human nature, gathered under the supervision of Einstein himself. It’s been a challenging week, one that’s reminded me with merciless acuity the value of kindness and compassion, so I’ve once again turned to Einstein’s timeless “ideas and opinions” on this spectrum of subjects.

On the ties of sympathy:

How strange is the lot of us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he senses it. But without deeper reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people — first of all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness is wholly dependent, and then for the many, unknown to us, to whose destinies we are bound by the ties of sympathy. A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.”

On public opinion, or what Paul Graham might call prestige:

One becomes sharply aware, but without regret, of the limits of mutual understanding and consonance with other people. No doubt, such a person loses some of his innocence and unconcern; on the other hand, he is largely independent of the opinions, habits, and judgments of his fellows and avoids the temptation to build his inner equilibrium upon such insecure foundations.”

On our interconnectedness, interdependency, and shared existence:

When we survey our lives and endeavors we soon observe that almost the whole of our actions and desires are bound up with the existence of other human beings. We see that our whole nature resembles that of the social animals. We eat food that others have grown, wear clothes that others have made, live in houses that others have built. The greater part of our knowledge and beliefs has been communicated to us by other people through the medium of a language which others have created. Without language our mental capacities would be poor indeed, comparable to those of the higher animals; we have, therefore, to admit that we owe our principal advantage over the beasts to the fact of living in human society. The individual, if left alone from birth would remain primitive and beast-like in his thoughts and feelings to a degree that we can hardly conceive. The individual is what he is and has the significance that he has not so much in virtue of his individuality, but rather as a member of a great human society, which directs his material and spiritual existence from the cradle to the grave.”

On good and evil, creative bravery, and human value:

A man’s value to the community depends primarily on how far his feelings, thoughts, and actions are directed towards promoting the good of his fellows. We call him good or bad according to how he stands in this matter. It looks at first sight as if our estimate of a man depended entirely on his social qualities.

And yet such an attitude would be wrong. It is clear that all the valuable things, material, spiritual, and moral, which we receive from society can be traced back through countless generations to certain creative individuals. The use of fire, the cultivation of edible plants, the steam engine — each was discovered by one man.

Only the individual can think, and thereby create new values for society — nay, even set up new moral standards to which the life of the community conforms. Without creative, independently thinking and judging personalities the upward development of society is as unthinkable as the development of the individual personality without the nourishing soil of the community.

The health of society thus depends quite as much on the independence of the individuals composing it as on their close social cohesion.”

On life’s highest ideals:

[E]verybody has certain ideals which determine the direction of his endeavors and his judgments. In this sense I have never looked upon ease and happiness as ends in themselves — such an ethical basis I call more proper for a herd of swine. The ideals which have lighted me on my way and time after time given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Without the sense of fellowship with men of like mind, of preoccupation with the objective, the eternally unattainable in the field of art and scientific research, life would have seemed to me empty.”

Over the past week, I’ve been completely fascinated by the spectrum of responses to the Curator’s Code — a project at whose heart is not the urge to reward ego, as some warped interpretations have suggested, but the desire to invite a generosity of spirit and a recognition that we each build upon one another’s work and poetic vision. There have been some thoughtfully supportive responses, some balanced takes, and some heartbreakingly unkind, ungracious, and downright sinister reactions. (Addressing the factual inaccuracies of those is another matter, not the subject of this article, but some discussion here.)

I had a conversation about this with my studiomate and collaborator Tina, better-known as Swiss Miss, and we both lamented about how profoundly disappointed we were in a portion of the design community, who chose not only to misinterpret both the practical implications and, far more importantly and tragically, the spirit of the project, but also to respond to their own misconceptions with venom and mean-spirited derision* rather than constructive feedback. (*Update: After a private exchange with Paul Ford, referenced in the latter link, I understand his intent was one of friendly facetiousness, not derision. (Alas, the same cannot be said of the rest.) It’s nice to have an exchange of mutual respect.)

When did we, as a community, make this kind of behavior acceptable? I’ve gotten dozens of personal emails bemoaning these responses, their tone and their intention, but, publicly, we’ve been tacitly taking it in full stride. This — this bullying, these personal attacks, this sad case of ganged-up mob mentality — is not okay.

Let’s say this again. This is not okay.

At least not in my world — I refuse to live my life believing that the capacity for cruelty exceeds the kindness of the human heart. Allowing such hateful behavior, either as passive bystanders or by responding in kind, which I’ve taken great care not to do, is as heartbreaking as it is detrimental to the spirit of what I still consider, by and large, a talented, thoughtful, and considerate community.

Austin Kleon said it best: “Be nice. (The world is a small town.)”

There is a way to critique intelligently and respectfully, without eroding the validity of your disagreement. It boils down to manners.

As my dear friend Sharon wisely reminded me last week, and subsequently tweeted:

There are people who build things and people who tear things down. Just remember which side you’re on.”

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15 MARCH, 2012

No Science Without Fancy, No Art Without Facts: A Complete Theory of Love and the Emotional Mind

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Why, in love, “one must balance a respect for proof with a fondness for the unproven and the unprovable.”

I’ve been rereading the excellent A General Theory of Love. From a chapter entitled “The Heart’s Castle,” which opens with Denise Levertov’s beautiful poem “The Secret,” comes this eloquent articulation of the intricate osmosis of intuition and rationality in matters of the heart and mind:

If empiricism is barren and incomplete, while impressionistic guesswork leads anywhere and everywhere, what hope can there be of arriving at a workable understanding of the human heart? In the words of Vladimir Nabokov, there can be no science without fancy and no art without facts. Love emanates from the brain; the brain is physical, and thus as fit a subject for scientific discourse as cucumbers or chemistry. But love unavoidably partakes of the personal and the subjective, and so we cannot place it in the killing jar and pin its wings to cardboard as a lepidopterist might a prismatic butterfly. In spite of what science teaches us, only a delicate admixture of evidence and intuition can yield the truest view of the emotional mind. To slip between the twin dangers of empty reductionism and baseless credulity, one must balance a respect for proof with a fondness for the unproven and the unprovable. Common sense must combine in equal measure imaginative flight and an aversion to orthodoxy.”

A General Theory of Love is one of 5 essential books on the psychology of love and superb in its entirety.

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