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Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

17 OCTOBER, 2013

The Psychology of Getting Unstuck: How to Overcome the “OK Plateau” of Performance & Personal Growth

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“When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend.”

“Any sequence of mental action which has been frequently repeated tends to perpetuate itself,” William James wrote in his influential meditation on habit, ”so that we find ourselves automatically prompted to think, feel, or do what we have been before accustomed to think, feel, or do, under like circumstances.” As we’ve seen, one of the most insidious forms of such habitual autopilot — which evolved to help lighten our cognitive load yet is a double-edged sword that can also hurt us — is our mercilessly selective everyday attention, but the phenomenon is particularly perilous when it comes to learning new skills. In a chapter of Maximize Your Potential (public library) — that fantastic guide to making your own luck, the sequel to 99U’s blueprint to mastering the pace of productivity and honing your creative routine — science writer Joshua Foer explores the mechanisms that keep us from improving and the strategies we can use to disarm them. He sketches out the problem:

In the 1960s, psychologists identified three stages that we pass through in the acquisition of new skills. We start in the “cognitive phase,” during which we’re intellectualizing the task, discovering new strategies to perform better, and making lots of mistakes. We’re consciously focusing on what we’re doing. Then we enter the “associative stage,” when we’re making fewer errors, and gradually getting better. Finally, we arrive at the “autonomous stage,” when we turn on autopilot and move the skill to the back of our proverbial mental filing cabinet and stop paying it conscious attention.

And so we get to the so-called “OK Plateau” — the point at which our autopilot of expertise confines us to a sort of comfort zone, where we perform the task in question in efficient enough a way that we cease caring for improvement. We reach this OK Plateau in pursuing just about every goal, from learning to drive to mastering a foreign language to dieting, where after an initial stage of rapid improvement, we find ourselves in that place at once comforting in its good-enoughness and demotivating in its sudden dip in positive reinforcement via palpable betterment.

Color restoration of archival Einstein photograph by Mads Madsen

The challenge, of course, is that we can’t get better on autopilot. Fortunately, psychologists have found a number of strategies to help us overcome this stagnation by overriding our auto-mode — and it turns out the benefits of reflective failure and the art of making mistakes play a key role, something to which J. K. Rowling has attested. Foer writes:

Something experts in all fields tend to do when they’re practicing is to operate outside of their comfort zone and study themselves failing. The best figure skaters in the world spend more of their practice time practicing jumps that they don’t land than lesser figure skaters do. The same is true of musicians. When most musicians sit down to practice, they play the parts of pieces that they’re good at. Of course they do: it’s fun to succeed. But expert musicians tend to focus on the parts that are hard, the parts they haven’t yet mastered. The way to get better at a skill is to force yourself to practice just beyond your limits.

Foer first bumped up against the OK Plateau while working on Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (public library) — the fascinating record of his quest to dramatically improve his memory’s capacity using a combination of ancient wisdom and modern science. After spending several months learning to memorize a deck of playing cards, he rapidly plateaued, but his memory-mentor assured him this was the standard course of improvement. Intrigued, Doer dusted off the work of psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner, the researchers who had discovered those three stages of skill acquisition — cognitive, associative, and autonomous. The autonomous stage in particular was what interested Foer the most:

During the autonomous stage, you lose conscious control over what you’re doing. Most of the time that’s a good thing. Your mind has one less thing to worry about. In fact, the autonomous stage turns out to be one of those handy features that evolution worked out for our benefit. The less you have to focus on the repetitive tasks of everyday life, the more you can concentrate on the stuff that really matters, the stuff that you haven’t seen before. And so, once we’re just good enough at [something], we move it to the back of our mind’s filing cabinet and stop paying it any attention. You can actually see this shift take place in fMRI scans of people learning new skills. As a task becomes automated, the parts of the brain involved in conscious reasoning become less active and other parts of the brain take over. [This is] the “OK Plateau,” the point at which you decide you’re OK with how good you are at something, turn on autopilot, and stop improving.

Early psychologists, Foer tells us, used to believe the OK Plateau signified the upper limit of one’s innate capacity — in other words, they thought the best we can do is the best we could do. But Florida State University’s Anders Ericsson and his team of performance psychologists, who have studied the phenomenon closely, found that the single most important factor for overcoming the OK Plateau to become truly exceptional at a skill is the same thing that turned young Mozart into a genius and that drives successful authors to their rigorous routines. Foer writes:

What separates experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine, which Ericsson has labeled “deliberate practice.” Having studied the best of the best in many different fields, he has found that top achievers tend to follow the same general pattern of development. They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant immediate feedback on their performance. In other words, they force themselves to stay in the “cognitive stage.”

The Mozart family on tour: Leopold, Wolfgang, and Nannerl. Watercolor by Carmontelle, 1763 (public domain)

And yet, Foer is careful to point out, the mere amount of practice has little to do with improvement — it is, rather, its deliberateness that drives progress. In fact, studies have shown that in areas of expertise as diverse as basketball and chess the number of years one has spent honing the respective skill correlates only weakly with the degree of mastery and level of performance. What Ericsson found, rather, is that the best way to transcend the OK Plateau and reboot the autonomous stage is to cultivate conscious control over the thing we’re practicing and, above all, to actually practice failing:

Deliberate practice, by its nature, must be hard.

When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. … Regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.

Complement Maximize Your Potential and Moonwalking with Einstein, both excellent reads in their entirety, with philosopher Daniel Dennett on how to make mistakes that improve us and some of today’s most celebrated contemporary creators on how to break through your creative block.

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14 OCTOBER, 2013

The Art of “Creative Sleep”: Stephen King on Writing and Wakeful Dreaming

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“In both writing and sleeping, we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives.”

“Sleep is the greatest creative aphrodisiac,” a wise woman once said. Indeed, we already know that dreaming regulates our negative emotions and “positive constructive daydreaming” enhances our creativity, while a misaligned sleep cycle is enormously mentally crippling. But can a sleep-like state in waking life, aside from lucid dreaming, actually enrich and empower our creative capacity? According to Stephen King, yes: In On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft (public library), which also gave us his case against adverbs, the celebrated novelist explores the similarity between writing and dreaming. He considers the role of a daily routine — something many famous creators use to center themselves — in inducing a state of self-mesmerism that produces the paradoxical alchemy of disciplining our minds into unleashing their unrestrained creative potential, something King calls “creative sleep”:

Like your bedroom, your writing room should be private, a place where you go to dream. Your schedule — in at about the same time every day, out when your thousand words are on paper or disk — exists in order to habituate yourself, to make yourself ready to dream just as you make yourself ready to sleep by going to bed at roughly the same time each night and following the same ritual as you go.

King likens the creative process to a kind of wakeful dream state. Just like sleep shapes our every waking moment, King argues this dozing of the waking mind shapes our creative capacity by releasing our repressed imagination:

In both writing and sleeping, we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives. And as your mind and body grow accustomed to a certain amount of sleep each night — six hours, seven, maybe the recommended eight — so can you train your waking mind to sleep creatively and work out the vividly imagined waking dreams which are successful works of fiction.

Ultimately, this “creative sleep” is what allows us to cultivate our own worlds while writing — something stymied by the barrage of distractions that fill the spaces of everyday life. King offers some practical tips on warding those off in order to create the kind of still space necessary for wakeful dreaming:

The space can be humble … and it really needs only one thing: A door you are willing to shut. The closed door is your way of telling the world that you mean business. . . .

If possible, there should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with. If there’s a window, draw the curtains or pull down the shades unless it looks out at a blank wall. For any writer, but for the beginning writer in particular, it’s wise to eliminate every possible distraction. If you continue to write, you will begin to filter out these distractions naturally, but at the start it’s best to try and take care of them before you write. … When you write, you want to get rid of the world, don’t you? Of course you do. When you’re writing, you’re creating your own worlds.

King’s advice, of course, should be taken with a grain of salt: As E. B. White poignantly put it, “a writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper” — a sentiment Charles Bukowski echoed in his fantastic poem “air and light and time and space,” titled after all the conditions whose presence or absence he thought irrelevant for the true writer, an excuse rather than a necessity.

Still, On Writing remains an indispensable trove of wisdom on the craft and a fine addition to the collected wisdom of famous writers, including Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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09 OCTOBER, 2013

How Mind-Wandering and “Positive Constructive Daydreaming” Boost Our Creativity and Social Skills

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The science of why fantasy and imaginative escapism are essential elements of a satisfying mental life.

Freud asserted that daydreaming is essential to creative writing — something a number of famous creators and theorists intuited in asserting that unconscious processing is essential to how creativity works, from T. S. Eliot’s notion of “idea incubation” to Alexander Graham Bell’s “unconscious cerebration” to Lewis Carroll’s “mental mastication.” In the 1950s, Yale psychologist Jerome L. Singer put these intuitive observations to the empirical test as he embarked upon a groundbreaking series of research into daydreaming. His findings, eventually published in the 1975 bible The Inner World of Daydreaming (public library), laid the foundations of our modern understanding of creativity’s subconscious underbelly. Singer described three core styles of daydreaming: positive constructive daydreaming, a process fairly free of psychological conflict, in which playful, vivid, wishful imagery drives creative thought; guilty-dysphoric daydreaming, driven by a combination of ambitiousness, anguishing fantasies of heroism, failure, and aggression, and obsessive reliving of trauma, a mode particularly correlated with PTSD; and poor attentional control, typical of the anxious, the distractible, and those having difficulties concentrating.

In a recent paper titled “Ode to Positive Constructive Daydreaming” (PDF), published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, writer Rebecca McMillan and NYU cognitive psychologist Scott Kaufman, author of Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, revisit Singer’s work to deliver new insights into how the first style of Singer’s mind-wandering, rather than robbing us of happiness, plays an essential, empowering role in daily life and creativity.

My highlights from Anaïs Nin's diary, illustrated by Lisa Congdon. Click image for details.

One of the most fascinating aspects the authors explore is the seeming paradox of the high costs of daydreaming, which prevents us from wholly inhabiting the present moment, and the astounding frequency with which we engage in it. This is related to the default mode network (DMN), which neuroscientists discovered in the late 1990s and which Singer presaged by decades — a neural network that engages when our brain is at wakeful rest, as in meditation, rather than actively focused on the outside world. The authors explain:

While the costs of mind wandering are apparent and easily quantifiable, the benefits seem less obvious and tangible. They require us to dig a bit deeper.

Singer and colleagues report many of the costs associated with mind wandering, yet the central theme of Singer’s large body of work is the manifestly positive, adaptive role that daydreaming plays in our daily lives. We turn now to the benefits of daydreaming first described by Singer, then bolstered by recent studies exploring the adaptive role of the DMN and mind wandering on cognition.

Right from the start, Singer’s research produced evidence suggesting that daydreaming, imagination, and fantasy are essential elements of a healthy, satisfying mental life. His early research included studies looking at delayed gratification and the interaction of imagination and waiting ability in young children. In another early study presented evidence of correlation between daydreaming frequency, measures of creativity, and storytelling activity. … Singer explored the relationship between daydreaming, personality, divergent thought, creativity, planning, problem solving, associational fluency, curiosity, attention, and distractibility. Singer noted that daydreaming can reinforce and enhance social skills, offer relief from boredom, provide opportunities for rehearsal and constructive planning, and provide an ongoing source of pleasure. In later work, Singer describes those who engage in positive constructive daydreaming as “happy daydreamers” who enjoy fantasy, vivid imagery, the use of daydreaming for future planning, and possess abundant interpersonal curiosity.

Pointing to recent research, McMillan and Kaufman argue that Singer presaged the same four primary adaptive functions of positive constructive daydreaming that modern neuroscience has identified since the discovery of the DMN:

Future planning which is increased by a period of self-reflection and attenuated by an unhappy mood; creativity, especially creative incubation and problem solving; attentional cycling which allows individuals to rotate through different information streams to advance personally meaningful and external goals; and dishabituation which enhances learning by providing short breaks from external tasks, thereby achieving distributed rather than massed practice. All four functions are present in Singer’s work, though his terminology differs.

Lynda Barry watercolor over Freud's essay on creative writing and daydreaming. Click image for details.

The authors debunk yet another paradox in the study of daydreaming — the notion that mind-wandering is often bemoaned as a “mental mishap” or “cognitive failure,” yet it can also be, and often is, an act of volition:

Individuals can choose to disengage from external tasks, decoupling attention, in order to pursue an internal stream of thought that they expect to pay off in some way. The pay off may be immediate, coming in the form of pleasing reverie, insight, or new synthesis of material, or it may be more distant as in rehearsing upcoming scenarios or projecting oneself forward in time to a desired outcome. Projection backward in time to reinterpret past experiences in light of new information is also a possibility. All of these activities, which take place internally, sheltered from the demands of external tasks and perception, offer the possibility of enormous personal reward. These mental activities are, in fact, central to the task of meaning making, of developing and maintaining an understanding of oneself in the world. … Certainly a large share of mind wandering occurs without permission or awareness. But some mind wandering occurs because we actively choose to decouple from external tasks and perceptions and focus instead on an internal stream of thought with full awareness both of the choice being made and the contents of consciousness.

[…]

It seems likely that the ability to engage in volitional daydreaming, i.e., to switch easily back and forth between different streams of consciousness, might be sensitive to practice effects. Choosing to disengage from external tasks, decouple, turn attention inward, and follow an internal stream of thought with full awareness undoubtedly requires skill. The process can break down in a number of places along the way: at the decision point, decoupling, the switch from outer to inner streams of consciousness, or meta-awareness. But the more a person does it, the easier it is likely to become.

They cite Singer himself, who noted this cognitive dance:

Our human condition is such that we are forever in the situation of deciding how much attention to give to self-generated thought and how much to information from the external social or physical environment.

Though McMillan and Kaufman’s conception of mind-wandering does border on romantic idealism at times — there are, after all, some hard numbers on the matter — it does give one pause about the art of pausing and offers a necessary antidote to our cultural cult of extreme goal-oriented productivity:

We mind wander, by choice or accident, because it produces tangible reward when measured against goals and aspirations that are personally meaningful. Having to reread a line of text three times because our attention has drifted away matters very little if that attention shift has allowed us to access a key insight, a precious memory or make sense of a troubling event. Pausing to reflect in the middle of telling a story is inconsequential if that pause allows us to retrieve a distant memory that makes the story more evocative and compelling. Losing a couple of minutes because we drove past our off ramp, is a minor inconvenience if the attention lapse allowed us finally to understand why the boss was so upset by something we said in last week’s meeting. Arriving home from the store without the eggs that necessitated the trip is a mere annoyance when weighed against coming to a decision to ask for a raise, leave a job, or go back to school.

And yet, there’s something to be said for bridging these adaptive benefits of mind-wandering with an active intention to remain awake to the world before us — because, as Annie Dillard poignantly observed, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” and while spending some of those in daydreams might be delicious, the art of living, unlike the art of writing, is more than a guided dream.

The article, which you can read in PDF here, concludes by reminding us just how far ahead of his time Singer was, and how seminal his theories were for modern cognitive science:

Whatever aspect of mind wandering current researchers might wish to pursue, it is likely that Singer considered the question first and made as thorough an investigation as the technology of the day would allow. His research serves as a solid foundation and springboard for all who come after him and share his fascination with positive constructive daydreaming, mind wandering, and the imaginative capabilities of the human mind.

A used copy of Singer’s The Inner World of Daydreaming — sadly, long relegated to the lamentable cemetery of out-of-print gems — is very much worth the hunt. Complement it with this omnibus of cultural icons on what creativity is.

Thanks, Scott Myers

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