Imagine: How Creativity Works

August 6, 2012 at 3:07 pm

What do masking tape, unusual cocktails, musicals, and Pixar have in common? A flash of insight may have helped you find the answer.  Imagine:  How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer explores our ability to imagine what has never existed. To be inspired, generate new ideas, and combine associations to craft solutions to problems and challenges — all involve tales of creativity.

Lehrer discusses the brain science behind creativity, citing studies of how the right hemisphere excels at solving insight problems, and finding hidden connections between separate ideas and seemingly unrelated things. The left-brain looks for answers in all the obvious places. Once we are stumped after relying on literal associations, the brain needs to shift to the other side, forcing us to try something new. The left side sees the trees and the right hemisphere helps you explore the forest.

Try this challenge.  Move a single line so this false arithmetic statement becomes true: 
III = III + III (Answer at end of this review.) Here’s a hint.  People are not used to thinking about the operator in an equation, so most people quickly focus their attention on the Roman numerals.

Here’s another puzzle: A giant inverted steel pyramid is perfectly balanced on its point. Any movement of the pyramid will cause it to topple over. Underneath the pyramid is a $100 bill. How do you remove the bill without disturbing the pyramid?

Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist now at the University of California at Santa Barbara, presented a talk on moments of insight in 1993. His experiment used a series of difficult, creative puzzles such as the pyramid/$100 bill question. For most people, no workable solutions come to mind. As subjects became frustrated and started to give up, Schooler began giving them hints. He subliminally flashed a sentence with the word fire or told them to think about the meaning of the remove. Subjects wore goggles that allowed hints to be flashed to one eye at a time. These hints were more effective when selectively presented to the left eye, which is connected to the right hemisphere.

“It was startling how you could flash a really obvious hint to the right eye [hence to the left hemisphere] and it wouldn’t make a difference. They still wouldn’t get it. But then you’d flash the exact same hint to the other eye, and it would generate the insight. Only the right hemisphere knew what to do with the information,” said Schooler. (The solution is to set the $100 bill on fire. The bill just needs to be removed, not salvaged.)

Another example of imagination in action was the creation of masking tape. In the summer of 1925, Dick Drew was a sandpaper salesman with the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company. He demonstrated the effectiveness of his brand of sandpaper in auto-body shops, hoping to convince them to buy his product. Often he noticed during his visits that mechanics would apply two-toned paint to a car, first painting everything black and then taping sheets of butcher paper to the new coat to protect it. Then they would add the second shade. Once the paint dried, the paper was removed, but often stripped away part of the newly applied black paint in the process. The adhesive on the tape was too strong.

Drew thought about how sandpaper was simply a mixture of adhesive and abrasive. If the abrasive was left off, a moderately sticky paper remained, exactly what the mechanics needed. He imagined a long roll of a pressure-sensitive adhesive that could be applied to metal and then ripped away without damaging the paint. Thus, masking tape was created. By 1928, Drew’s company, now called 3M, was selling more masking tape than sandpaper.

Lehrer’s book offers entertaining stories of imagination and insight. He describes Don Lee’s journey from being a computer programmer to his second job at PDT (Please Don’t Tell Bar) where he concocts cocktails, including a bacon-infused old-fashioned which became an instant hit. PDT was voted the best cocktail bar in the world in 2009 at the Cocktail Spirit Awards. Lee’s success is a story of creativity coming from an outsider. He experimented with fat-washing for his bacon-infused bourbon cocktail, because he was bored and nobody told him not to. “I guess my only secret is that I didn’t know any better.”

“The moral is that outsider creativity isn’t a phase of life – it’s a state of mind,” explains Lehrer. “We need to be willing to risk embarrassment, ask silly questions, surround ourselves with people who don’t know what we’re talking about. We need to leave behind the safety of our expertise.” 

This concept leads to the Power of Q and the evidence that group creativity is becoming more necessary, according to Lehrer. He explains that the biggest problems we need to solve now require the expertise of people from different backgrounds who bridge the gaps between disciplines.

Lehrer describes the work of Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern who studied musicals.  Uzzi wanted to understand how the relationships of team members affected the end result. He came up with a way to measure the density of connections between the collaborators of musicals. He called this density of connections Q or the amount of social intimacy of people working on a play. Uzzi discovered that the best Broadway shows were produced by Ideal Q or intermediate levels of social intimacy. This mixture meant that artists could interact efficiently because they had familiar people and structure to fall back on, but also new people to incorporate novel ideas. 

Pixar also uses this concept when they realized that its creativity emerged from a culture of collaboration and its ability to get talented people from diverse backgrounds to work together. Pixar frequently brings in outside talent to write scripts, to inject fresh voices into the process.

Additionally, Steve Jobs designed the Pixar studio to be a single vast space with an atrium at its center and shifted the mailboxes to the lobby, moved the meeting rooms to the center, along with a coffee bar, cafeteria, gift shop – and the only set of bathrooms.  He wanted everybody to run into each other throughout their day. He believed the best meetings happened by accident, explained Darla Anderson, an executive producer on several Pixar films.

Brad Bird, director of The Incredibles and Ratatouille agreed with Anderson. “The atrium initially might seem like a waste of space…But Steve realized that when people run into each other, when they make eye contact, things happen. So he made it impossible for you not to run into the rest of the company.”

A similar lesson emerged from a 2010 study by Isaac Kohane, a researcher at Harvard Medical School. He wanted to know how physical proximity affects the quality of scientific research.  He found a correlation that when coauthors were located closer together, their papers tended to be of significantly higher quality. “If you want people to work together effectively, these findings reinforce the need to create architectures and facilities that support frequent physical interactions.”

Another study from the University of Michigan brought several groups of people together to play a difficult cooperation game.  One set of groups had to communicate electronically, using email and instant messaging. The groups meeting in person solved the problem quickly. In contrast, the electronic groups struggled to interact, missing the surprising exchanges that occur when people meet in person. As a result, their problem remained unsolved.

This may inspire us to rethink the nature of our online interactions, according to Lehrer.  He said that we have to ensure that our new digital contacts don’t detract from our real connections, but still we should continue to find ways to engage with strangers and strange ideas, understanding that knowledge leaks from everywhere. 

Lehrer believes the brain is only the beginning. Creativity is also an emergent property of people coming together and using constructive criticism (rather than brainstorming) in our collaboration to find effective solutions. We can notice incompleteness in our approach and imagine ways to complete it; to discover how the cracks in things become a source of light.

Answer:  III = III = III

Submitted by
Debbie L. Fuehrer, LPCC
Coordinator/Counselor
Mind Body Medicine

Entry filed under: Book Notes.

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