Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

04 FEBRUARY, 2013

Neurologist Oliver Sacks on Memory, Plagiarism, and the Necessary Forgettings of Creativity

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“Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.”

“Memory is never a precise duplicate of the original… it is a continuing act of creation,” researcher Rosalind Cartwright reminded us in her fascinating treatise on the science of dreams. “The biggest lie of human memory is that it feels true,” Jonah Lehrer wrote shortly before being engulfed a maelstrom of escalating accusations of autoplagiarism and outright fabulation. Yet while we already know that memory is not a recording device, the exact extent of its fallibility eludes — often, quite conveniently — most of us.

In his recent New York Review of Books essay, legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks tackles precisely that, exposing the remarkable mechanisms by which we fabricate our memories, involuntarily blurring the line between the experienced and the assimilated:

It is startling to realize that some of our most cherished memories may never have happened — or may have happened to someone else. I suspect that many of my enthusiasms and impulses, which seem entirely my own, have arisen from others’ suggestions, which have powerfully influenced me, consciously or unconsciously, and then been forgotten.

One phenomenon Sacks argues is particularly common — if not adaptive — in the creative mind is that of autoplagiarism:

Sometimes these forgettings extend to autoplagiarism, where I find myself reproducing entire phrases or sentences as if new, and this may be compounded, sometimes, by a genuine forgetfulness. Looking back through my old notebooks, I find that many of the thoughts sketched in them are forgotten for years, and then revived and reworked as new. I suspect that such forgettings occur for everyone, and they may be especially common in those who write or paint or compose, for creativity may require such forgettings, in order that one’s memories and ideas can be born again and seen in new contexts and perspectives.

Citing a number of case studies where false memories of fictitious events were “implanted” in people’s minds, Sacks explores unconscious plagiarism, something Henry Miller poetically probed and Mark Twain eloquently, if unscientifically, addressed in his famous letter to Helen Keller. Sacks writes:

What is clear in all these cases — whether of imagined or real abuse in childhood, of genuine or experimentally implanted memories, of misled witnesses and brainwashed prisoners, of unconscious plagiarism, and of the false memories we probably all have based on misattribution or source confusion — is that, in the absence of outside confirmation, there is no easy way of distinguishing a genuine memory or inspiration, felt as such, from those that have been borrowed or suggested, between what the psychoanalyst Donald Spence calls ‘historical truth’ and ‘narrative truth.’

[…]

There is, it seems, no mechanism in the mind or the brain for ensuring the truth, or at least the veridical character, of our recollections. We have no direct access to historical truth, and what we feel or assert to be true (as Helen Keller was in a very good position to note) depends as much on our imagination as our senses. There is no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way, which is different in every individual to begin with, and differently reinterpreted or reexperienced whenever they are recollected. . . . Frequently, our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other, and ourselves—the stories we continually recategorize and refine. Such subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory, and follows from its basis and mechanisms in the human brain. The wonder is that aberrations of a gross sort are relatively rare, and that, for the most part, our memories are relatively solid and reliable.

Sacks concludes:

We, as human beings, are landed with memory systems that have fallibilities, frailties, and imperfections — but also great flexibility and creativity. Confusion over sources or indifference to them can be a paradoxical strength: if we could tag the sources of all our knowledge, we would be overwhelmed with often irrelevant information.

Indifference to source allows us to assimilate what we read, what we are told, what others say and think and write and paint, as intensely and richly as if they were primary experiences. It allows us to see and hear with other eyes and ears, to enter into other minds, to assimilate the art and science and religion of the whole culture, to enter into and contribute to the common mind, the general commonwealth of knowledge. This sort of sharing and participation, this communion, would not be possible if all our knowledge, our memories, were tagged and identified, seen as private, exclusively ours. Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.

In a rare act of defiant reliability, my own memory brought to mind a footnoted passage in Sacks’s mind-bendingly excellent recent book, Hallucinations, where he explores memory further:

We now know that memories are not fixed or frozen, like Proust’s jars of preserves in a larder, but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and recategorized with every act of recollection.

In a footnote, he adds:

For [researchers] in the early twentieth century, memories were imprints in the brain (as for Socrates they were analogous to impressions made in soft wax) — imprints that could be activated by the act of recollection. It was not until the crucial studies of Frederic Bartlett at Cambridge in the 1920s and 1930s that the classical view could be disputed. Whereas Ebbinghaus and other early investigators had studied rote memory — how many digits could be remembered, for instance — Bartlett presented his subjects with pictures or stories and accounts of what they had seen or heard were somewhat different (and sometimes quite transformed) on each re-remembering. These experiments convinced Bartlett to think in terms not of a static thing called ‘memory,’ but rather a dynamic process of ‘remembering.’ He wrote:

Remembering is not the re-excitation of innumerable fixed, lifeless and fragmentary traces. It is an imaginative reconstruction, or construction, built out of the relation of our attitude towards a whole active mass of organized past reactions or experience. . . . It is thus hardly ever really exact.

Could it be, then, that the very fallibility of memory is essential to our combinatorial creativity and to the mechanics of the slot machine of ideation? To steal like an artist might be, after all, the default setting of the brain.

Oliver Sacks portrait by John Midgley via Wired

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01 FEBRUARY, 2013

Ambiverts, Problem-Finders, and the Surprising Psychology of Making Your Ideas Happen

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“It is in fact the discovery and creation of problems rather than any superior knowledge, technical skill, or craftsmanship that often sets the creative person apart.”

Whether it’s “selling” your ideas, your writing, or yourself to a potential mate, the art of the sell is crucial to your fulfillment in life, both personal and professional. So argues Dan Pink in To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others (public library; UK) — a provocative anatomy of the art-science of “selling” in the broadest possible sense of the word, substantiated by ample research spanning psychology, behavioral economics, and the social sciences.

Pink, wary of the disagreeable twinges accompanying the claim that everyone should self-identify as a salesperson, preemptively counters in the introduction:

I’m convinced we’ve gotten it wrong.

This is a book about sales. But it is unlike any book about sales you have read (or ignored) before. That’s because selling in all its dimensions — whether pushing Buicks on a lot or pitching ideas in a meeting — has changed more in the last ten years than it did over the previous hundred. Most of what we think we understand about selling is constructed atop a foundation of assumptions that have crumbled.

[…]

Selling, I’ve grown to understand, is more urgent, more important, and, in its own sweet way, more beautiful than we realize. The ability to move others to exchange what they have for what we have is crucial to our survival and our happiness. It has helped our species evolve, lifted our living standards, and enhanced our daily lives. The capacity to sell isn’t some unnatural adaptation to the merciless world of commerce. It is part of who we are.

One of Pink’s most fascinating arguments echoes artist Chuck Close, who famously noted that “our whole society is much too problem-solving oriented. It is far more interesting to [participate in] ‘problem creation.’” Pink cites the research of celebrated social scientists Jacob Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who in the 1960s recruited three dozen fourth-year art students for an experiment. They brought the young artists into a studio with two large tables. The first table displayed 27 eclectic objects that the school used in its drawing classes. The students were instructed to select one or more objects, then arrange a still life on the second table and draw it. What happened next reveals an essential pattern about how creativity works:

The young artists approached their task in two distinct ways. Some examined relatively few objects, outlined their idea swiftly, and moved quickly to draw their still life. Others took their time. They handled more objects, turned them this way and that, rearranged them several times, and needed much longer to complete the drawing. As Csikszentmihalyi saw it, the first group was trying to solve a problem: How can I produce a good drawing? The second was trying to find a problem: What good drawing can I produce?

As Csikszentmihalyi then assembled a group of art experts to evaluate the resulting works, he found that the problem-finders’ drawings had been ranked much higher in creativity than the problem-solvers’. Ten years later, the researchers tracked down these art students, who at that point were working for a living, and found that about half had left the art world, while the other half had gone on to become professional artists. That latter group was composed almost entirely of problem-finders. Another decade later, the researchers checked in again and discovered that the problem-finders were “significantly more successful — by the standards of the artistic community — than their peers.” Getzels concluded:

It is in fact the discovery and creation of problems rather than any superior knowledge, technical skill, or craftsmanship that often sets the creative person apart from others in his field.

Pink summarizes:

The more compelling view of the nature of problems has enormous implications for the new world of selling. Today, both sales and non-sales selling depend more on the creative, heuristic, problem-finding skills of artists than on the reductive, algorithmic, problem-solving skills of technicians.

Another fascinating chapter reveals counterintuitive insights about the competitive advantages of introversion vs. extraversion. While new theories might extol the power of introverts over traditional exaltations of extraversion, the truth turns out to be quite different: Pink turns to the research of social psychologist Adam Grant, management professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania (my alma mater).

Grant measured where a sample of call center sales representatives fell on the introversion-extraversion spectrum, then correlated that with their actual sales figures. Unsurprisingly, Grant found that extraverts averaged $125 per hour in revenue, exceeding introverts’ $120. His most surprising finding, however, was that “ambiverts” — those who fell in the middle of the spectrum, “not too hot, not too cold” — performed best of all, with an hourly average of $155. The outliers who brought in an astounding $208 per hour scored a solid 4 on the 1-7 introversion-extraversion scale.

Pink synthesizes the findings into an everyday insight for the rest of us:

The best approach is for the people on the ends to emulate those in the center. As some have noted, introverts are ‘geared to inspect,’ while extraverts are ‘geared to respond.’ Selling of any sort — whether traditional sales or non-sales selling — requires a delicate balance of inspecting and responding. Ambiverts can find that balance. They know when to speak and when to shut up. Their wider repertoires allow them to achieve harmony with a broader range of people and a more varied set of circumstances. Ambiverts are the best movers because they’re the most skilled attuners.

Pink goes on to outline “the new ABCs of moving others” — attunement (“the ability to bring one’s actions and outlook into harmony with other people an with the context you’re [sic] in”), buoyancy (a trifecta of “interrogative self-talk” that moves from making statements to asking questions, contagious “positivity,” and an optimistic “explanatory style” of explaining negative events to yourself), and clarity (“the capacity to help others see their situations in fresh and more revealing ways and to identify problems they didn’t realize they had”).

For a taste of what makes To Sell Is Human worth picking up, here are some familiar faces and favorite voices:

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28 JANUARY, 2013

Science, Storytelling, and “Gut Churn”: Jad Abumrad on the Secrets of Creative Success

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On diving head-first into the unknown.

Since 2004, Radiolab has been sparking a singular kind of magic at the intersection of science and storytelling, redefining not only public radio but also the “role of scientific culture in modern society,” to borrow Richard Feynman’s words.

In this fantastic talk from The 99% Conference, Radiolab mastermind and MacArthur genius Jad Abumrad takes us behind the scenes to explore the tribulations and triumphs of building a novel paradigm from the ground up.

At the heart of it, he argues, is the notion of the “gut churn” — that scrambly, uncomfortable, anxious fight-or-flight feeling that comes with doing something uncontrollably new that could go uncontrollably wrong, at once an intensified version of Rilke’s comfortably philosophical notion of living the questions and a living testament to the idea that uncertainty is what fuels science.

Countering that — and sustaining the creative spirit through it — is the same kind of intuition about the right direction that guides great scientists. Staying the course requires constant creative rejuvenation — Jad recommends beloved graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister’s sabbatical strategy.

Listen and enjoy:

To whatever degree Radiolab represents change, we didn’t plan it. I don’t think change can be planned — I think it’s only something that can be recognized after the fact.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton for The 99%

Complement with Jad on sound, science, and mystery and his philosophy of “pointing arrows.” Radiolab, like Brain Pickings, is noncommercial and made possible by audience contributions — I proudly make mine monthly. Join me in supporting them with a donation.

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