Thursday, 28 March 2013

Lightbulb Moments: a cognitive neuroscientist talks about creativity

Anish Kapoor's mirror: a problem solved?

There is a fundamental problem with bringing people together to talk about creativity, which is that we rarely agree on what exactly it is. Personal definitions are likely to be shaped by the domain in which we are creative ourselves, or our areas of interest; start by picturing a painter, musician, writer, sportsman, or scientist, and your description of creativity or the creative process will be different for each. Whatever is happening as a violinist improvises to a chord sequence, or a poet finds a unique expression for a universal, or a scientist suddenly makes a new connection between ideas, these processes do not at first glance look the same.

Despite the talk I attended being named ‘Lightbulb Moments,’ neuroscientist Vincent Walsh said he saw creativity as a process. That in itself is not a problem, but sat uncomfortably beside his admission that current techniques in neuroscience can only examine moments in the brain. Also causing some discomfort in an audience that was clearly dominated by creative people was Walsh’s focus on sportsmen and scientists for his examples to back up his notion of creativity as a kind of problem-solving-by-experts. He settled upon the following components: years of practice and experience in a given field, the opportunity for a breakthrough, and the moment of unique problem-solving by an individual. The key example, for Walsh, was Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope strategy to beat George Foreman in their Rumble in the Jungle. Not, perhaps, the best way into this subject for a musician or writer.

Kenan Malik, chairing, asked some excellent questions in the face of Walsh’s mix of definitions, ideas and science (he was open about his instinctive lay ideas about creativity not fitting with the science he does). For example, was Ali being creative, or just clever? We might add to this: does creativity have to be about a big breakthrough? Can’t creativity be continuous? In what sense is musical improvisation a form of problem-solving? If creativity is just a form of problem solving, are creative people better problem solvers generally?

It is possible, I think, to shoe-horn some kinds of creative practice into a problem-solving description. With writing, then, we might say that the writer continuously attempts to solve the problem of how best to express ideas, stories, or moments, in a way that achieves some other goal: emotional reach, originality, concision, or whatever.

However, many people associate imagination with creativity, which is no accident (in my non-scientific opinion). Even if an excellent writer solves the problem of verbal expression in astonishing new and original ways, they have set themselves that problem in the first place by having (a) an idea, and (b) the desire to express that idea using words. If the image, or character, or sentence, never pops into one’s head, and if the receiver of this idea has no desire to express it in a particular way, then the problem solving part never even begins. It seems to me that creativity for a writer must include all these things.

Some excellent questions came up right at the end of the talk, which Walsh did not really answer. One was about creativity in play – something we think we see children demonstrating, but many artists and even businessmen argue that play is critical to producing new ideas and solutions. Another was about group creativity – do many brains together create in a different way from one; can they do better; and in such a setting, can creativity become contagious?

These are exactly the kinds of fascinating subjects that unfortunately Walsh’s cognitive science lab is not equipped to address, limiting experiments to word association tests whilst stimulating various parts of the human brain. It would have been great to have a panel for this talk, made up of other kinds of experts on creativity alongside a neuroscientist. Even with Malik’s excellent interjections, it rather felt as though Vincent Walsh was getting away with narrowing creativity down to fit his own evident interests: science and sport.

Having said that, Walsh produced some interesting insights into the importance of downtime to the creative process, be that a nap, a change of activity, or simply allowing time to pass. These are the times when, instead of neural connections being reinforced, new ones can be forged. The next time you get the answer to a crossword clue halfway through washing up, that is what is happening. So for writers, the message is: don’t work too hard, take a rest! Though it doesn’t have to be by doing the dishes.

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