What Drives Play and the Motivation of Playing Just to Play? Joys of play we share with some young little creatures

Who’s there? Source: Rolf Dietrich Brecher via Wikimedia Commons

 

Doing something for the sheer joy and playfulness of it – just because it is fun and feels good in and of itself – is a key impetus behind many of our creative and life projects.

But what, really, is this elusively powerful driver of our playful activity?  How does the urge to play arise? What’s happening differently in our minds-brains-bodies when our urge to play is burning bright and strong, compared to when it’s gone, or has diminished to a mere dull flicker?

How might we study play and begin to piece together parts of these deep puzzles?  Although there are many places we could look, a team of ingenious behavioral neuroscience researchers recently rigged together a new way to let us peer into brains and bodies at play, of interacting creatures small, and large.  But before we take a closer look at their animal study, and their findings, we first need to take a small detour, into the surprisingly complex playworld of hide-and-seek.

Let’s play hide-and-seek

Playing hide-and-seek is complicated.  To sometimes assume the role of the one who is hiding, but at other times to take on the role of the seeker, draws on a surprisingly large and complex array of cognitive, social, motivational, and physical skills.

For example, if a child is playing the role of the hider she must remain quiet and hidden even while the seeker closely approaches her or passes nearby her hiding place, inhibiting any urges to move, burst into giggles, or otherwise reveal her hidden presence.  When playing the role of the seeker, the child must wait and fully and loudly count out the required time, keeping her eyes closed or her back turned, and not peeking while her playmates steathily find and slide into their hiding places.  Other flexible perspective-taking abilities are also needed.  For example, the hiding child needs to know that just because she can see the seeker, it does not necessarily mean that the seeker can also see her.

Some of this complexity is revealed by the age at which young children first begin to fully succeed at the game.  A laboratory-based study conducted by researchers from Canada and Italy found that only a few 3-year-olds could successfully play hide-and-seek, but children who were a little older, including most 4-year-olds and nearly all 5-year-olds, were adept at the game.  The mistakes the youngest children made were often ones of not alternating the role of hider and seeker (for example, telling the experimenter to hide, but then also themselves hiding) or not really “hiding” (as in telling the experimenter where he or she was going to hide, not trying to hide from view, or not remaining physically hidden, or not remaining quiet).  The children’s skill at playing hide-and-seek was strongly positively correlated with another ability related to understanding another person’s perspective and knowledge – that of keeping a secret.

Given this complexity – and the clear challenges the game poses to young human children – could other creatures really learn to play hide-and-seek?  And, if they could, might this provide some insights into the deep motivational and rewarding origins of play?

Small creatures with big play urges

Behavioral neuroscience researchers have known for some time that young adolescent male laboratory rats are eager and enthusiastic playmates.  They jump into lots of rough-and-tumble play with their adolescent peers, and joyfully engage in all sorts of hand-and-finger chasing and tickling exploits with their human handlers.  But what are the neural underpinnings of the drive to play in these small young creatures?  And could such play urges extend to more complex and rule-based games requiring them to take on different roles at different times, such as those in hide-and-seek?

To begin to examine the neural correlates of these small furry creatures’ big motivation to play researchers at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience and Humboldt University in Berlin devised a novel two-player rat-and-human hide-and-seek game.

Placed around a large nearly 100-square-foot (5 x 6m2) dimly lit lab room were several smaller hiding places (two transparent and two opaque boxes), three large human-size “cardboard” hiding places, and a shoebox-sized “start box” with a remote cable-controlled opening mechanism.

At three weeks of age, each animal individually began a five-to-ten-day familiarization with the room and with the experimenter – starting with lots of gentle handling, touching, and carrying, and later more vigorous and energetic tickling and hand games.  Next, the rats were successively first trained to either hide or to seek.  Crucially, throughout the training the animals only ever received “social play rewards” – touching, and hand games and playful interactions with the experimenter. No food or other tangible rewards were offered.

In “seek” trials, the experimenter closed the lid of the start box, and hid at one of the larger hiding places.  In “hide” trials, the experimenter left the start box open, and the experimenter assumed a very still posture next to the start box, and began counting out loud. When the experimenter hid, the sounds made while she moved to her chosen hiding place were masked with white noise. There were also multiple decoy “cables” to each of the possible hiding places so the animals could not simply follow the cable that provided the hidden experimenter remote control for opening of the start box.

Of the six animals initially trained by one experimenter, all six learned to seek, and five learned both to hide and to successfully switch between the hiding and seeking roles.  Of four additional animals, trained by a different experimenter in the same setting, all four learned to seek, hide, and also to switch roles.

But, you may ask:  What did the animals actually learn?  Were they really playing the game?  Did the animals actually enjoy the game?  Were they actually playing just for the fun and joy of it?

Play, laughing at play, and let’s play more please!

Many aspects of the animals’ activity suggested that they had really learned something about “hiding and seeking” and had developed some appropriate game-playing strategies.  For example, when the experimenter hid in random (non-predictable) locations from one trial to the next, the rats took longer to find the experimenter than when the experimenter consistently hid in one location across a series of five trials.

In such consistent trials, the animals searched for the experimenter increasingly quickly and directly – making a beeline toward where she was hidden with scarcely a pause – showing that they remembered where the experimenter had hidden on the previous several trials.  Also, when they were the hiders (but not as seekers), the animals showed a clear and significant preference for the opaque and cardboard boxes over the transparent “see-through” boxes.

In the wild, rats are most active during the night and so most of their play will occur in darkness.  Rather than a visual cue to signal that they want to play, such as a puppy’s “play bow” or a monkey’s “open mouth,” adolescent rats of the type the researchers studied (the Long-Evans hooded strain) give a variety of different vocal chirps or calls. These calls are ultrasonic vocalizations at a frequency of close to 50 kHz, and are emitted during social play with peers, and during other positive affective states, such as when they are being “tickled” by human handlers.

Such “calls to play” or play signals are especially frequent in juvenile or adolescent rats. The chirping calls, and their specific timing – such as anticipatory calls given just before launching a playful nape attack or chase – seem to help maintain a playful mood or motivation, and to promote cooperative play.

A close look at the vocalizations of the rats during the researchers’ hide-and-seek sessions showed that, for both seek and hide trials, the animals’ calls (all of which were inaudible to the experimenter but visible on the Audacity recordings) sharply increased at those times when the rats were enthusiastically darting away from the start box.  There were also many such calls during the tickling and finger-chase-play interactions with the experimenter but fewer when the animals were quietly choosing where to “hide” and also during their hiding time.

The timing and patterns of the animals’ chirping calls suggested that the animals were indeed enjoying the hide-and-seek game.

And – like young toddlers who often exclaim “do it again, do it again!” or “more, more!” when they love the playful motions or sounds that their parents or adults are making – so the adolescent rats often seemed to want to prolong the hiding portion of the game, darting away from the experimenter to a new “hiding place” even when they’d clearly been found out in their hiding place. These and other behavioral indicators, such as their quick and lively search, and springy “joy jumps,” all converged in an impression that this was all good fun.

Motivational and reward systems in the brain

What, then, was happening in the brains of these small creatures as they enthusiastically played this complex socially-interactive rule-based game?  To find out, the researchers focused their attention on a region at the front of the brain – the medial prefrontal cortex – known to be involved in social play and reward-based play motivation in rats.  After the animals had learned the hide-and-seek game, the experimenters implanted electrodes (tetrodes) in the medial prefrontal cortex of five of the anesthetized animals.  Then, after they’d recovered from the surgery and were again happily playing hide-and-seek, the researchers tracked the patterns and changes in the firing activity of individual neurons as the rats now took on the role of the seeker, and then that of the hider.

The electrode recordings revealed that the patterns of brain cell firing differed markedly depending on specific timepoints and the animals’ particular role in the game.  Firing of neurons increased strongly in nearly 30% of the 177 neurons the researchers were able to record from at the timepoint when the start box lid was closed – the environmental signal that the rat was, on the next trial, to be in the “seeker” role.

Analyses of the patterns of firing showed that some clusters of neurons were mostly active during the seeking phase of the game.  Other groups of neurons were most active during hiding.  Still other clusters of neurons were especially active during the brief periods of intense experimenter-rat interaction (touching and hand games) that ended each seeking or hiding trial.

The play-to-play hypothesis

Despite the central role that play and play-like activities have in our own lives and those of other animals, probing and fully charting out the complex social, cognitive, motivational, and neurobiological bases of such activitites in many animals has been challenging.  There has been extensive research on some sorts of play in a few species – for example, play fighting has been much studied in adolescent rats, but many other types of play, such as object play, have been less often studied.

The initial findings reported by the Berlin-based researchers – using a creatively ingenious playful format that gives small creatures the opportunity to themselves make choices about where and how they will hide, or where and how they will seek out a hidden playmate – open new opportunities and challenges for researchers of play.  Their findings suggest that by using experimental procedures that give other animals more room for choice, and more room for play, we might be able to learn much more about what “drives play” and the motivation of playing just to play.  Hide-and-seek anyone?

To think about

  • The particular strain of rats used in the hide-and-seek study (Long-Evans) has, in other research, been characterized as typically “bold” or exploratory rather than shy and reticent (e.g., they quickly raise themselves up on their hind legs to look about them, and move more quickly into the center of an exposed field).  Would comparatively “shy” rats also learn the hide-and-seek game and learn to quickly switch their roles between hiding and seeking?
  • In this study, adolescent playful rats learned to play hide-and-seek with the human experimenter. Would older rats also successfully learn the two different roles required during hiding and seeking? Could they enjoy the game as much as the younger animals?  Or could the game be changed in ways that would increase their playfulness and playful enjoyment?
  • We often learn from watching others.  How much could younger or older animals learn by observing other animals in the game?
  • Why do we so often focus on extrinsic rewards in thinking about what moves us, rather than also intrinsic rewards, such as our desire for play?
  • A recent report on “the power of play” in the clinical journal Pediatrics affirmed, “Play is not frivolous; it is brain building” (p. 5).  Much of the evidence for substantial brain changes related to the opportunities for play has been found using juvenile rats.  For example, rats that were denied the opportunity to play as pups (kept in sparse cages without any toys) were less adept problem-solvers later and showed markedly impaired (immature) medial prefrontal cortex development.  Why do we tend to downplay the many social and health-promoting roles of play, not only for children but also for youth and adults of all ages?  What playful counter-moves can we let loose, hoist, or heave against such heavy anti-play sentiment?

References

Bell, H. C., McCaffrey, D. R., Forgie, M. L., Kolb, B., & Pellis, S. M. (2009). The role of the medial prefrontal cortex in the play fighting of rats.  Behavioral Neuroscience, 123, 1158–1168.

Panksepp, J., & Burgdorf, J. (2003). “Laughing” rats and the evolutionary antecedents of human joy?  Physiology & Behavior, 79, 533–547.

Pellis, S. M., Pellis, V. C., Pelletier, A., & Leca J-B. (2019). Is play a behavior system, and, if so, what kind?  Behavioural Processes, 160, 1–9.

Peskin, J., & Ardino, V. (2003). Representing the mental world in children’s social behavior: Playing hide-and-seek and keeping a secret.  Social Development, 12, 496–512.

Reinhold, A. S., Sanguinetti-Scheck, J. I., Hartmann, K., & Brecht, M. (2019). Behavioral and neural correlates of hide-and-seek in rats. Science, 365(Sept. 13), 1180–1183.

Weiss, A., & Neuringer, A. (2012).  Reinforced variability enhances object exploration in shy and bold rats.  Physiology & Behavior, 107, 451–457.

Yogman, M., Garner, A., Hutchinson, J., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2018).  The power of play: A pediatric role in enhancing development in young children. Pediatrics, 142, 1–16.

 

 

Combatting the creative barrier of precrastination: Bringing time onto your side in the creative process

When to decide? Source: WomEOS via Wikimedia Commons

Postponing a decision or an action – putting it off until a later time or a different day – is sometimes both wise and necessary.  Despite this, we all know that sometimes we postpone too long; we put off making a needed decision, or taking a required action, repeatedly, over and over.  Tomorrow, we say, tomorrow, I’ll do that tomorrow.  Or later, I’ll decide.  And this postponing postponing can land us in the troubled ensnaring deeps of procrastination, where we rob ourselves of the needed time to fully and thoughtfully realize our creative aims or other goals.

Yet – painful and ensnaring as procrastination can be, had you ever thought that we might be prone to an opposite form of time-based error:  when we make decisions or take actions too soon, over-hastily and immediately, before we should?

Precrastination:  It’s a thing

Although we’re all familiar with procrastination, research has uncovered that in many situations we may engage in a form of “precrastination”– getting something done quickly just to get it done – that can be surprisingly contrary to “good sense.”

First discovered in research looking at the decisions that people made in a simple weight-carrying task, the researchers couldn’t quite believe what they observed.

In their first experiments, participants in a long lab room were asked to carry one of two plastic beach buckets to a platform farther down the room from them.  The two buckets were placed by the researchers in positions such as those shown in the diagram below.

The bucket carrying task. Source: Koutstaal, adapted from Rosenbaum et al. (2014).

Participants were instructed to pick up one of the two orange buckets (pictured with orange dots) and to carry it to the platform at the end (grey dots).  They were asked to walk down the room without stopping and to “do whatever seemed easier” – either to pick up and carry the left orange bucket to the left platform with their left hand, or to pick up and carry the right orange bucket to the right platform with their right hand.  Each of the orange buckets was situated such that its handle was upright and readily grasped.

The researchers had anticipated that participants would choose to pick up the bucket that was closest to the platform, so that they’d need to carry the bucket forward the shortest distance.

But this was not what they found.

Instead, participants most often picked up the first bucket that they passed (regardless of whether it was on their left hand or their right hand) – and so they ended up having to carry the bucket farther.

It wasn’t that participants didn’t know how heavy the buckets were.  All participants were given the opportunity to lift the buckets at the start of the experiment, so they knew how heavy they were (empty, or filled with 3.5 pounds or even 7 pounds of pennies in different experiments). They also took part in 16 different trials with the buckets in 16 different arrangements.  Still, this pattern, of most often choosing to pick up the first bucket they passed and therefore having to lug the bucket a longer distance, was repeatedly found.

Why did participants most often choose to pick up the bucket that they first approached, rather than the one farther down the room, so that they ended up carrying the bucket farther than was necessary?

Asked by the experimenters after they had completed all of the trials, the participants nearly always gave the same answer, saying something to the effect of, “I wanted to get the task done as soon as I could.”  They gave this reason when, in fact, the task would require the same amount of time regardless of whether they picked up the first and closest bucket after they started (then having to carry it farther) or picked up the second bucket (then having to carry it a shorter distance).

But then:  Why would participants feel that they were getting the task done sooner?  Hastening to complete one part or subgoal of their task – that of grabbing and lifting the bucket – seemed to make completion of the full task closer.  Grasping and lifting the first or nearer bucket also allowed the participants to clear their working memory of that subpart of their overall task.

Remembering to do an upcoming task (what is called “prospective memory”) is mentally demanding.  It seemed that the relief of clearing from working memory even the small subtask of picking up one of two objects was sufficiently attractive (throwing off a small mental load) that it offset the additional physical effort required to carry the picked-up object a farther distance.  Participants precrastinated even though it cost them greater physical effort.

But if there were noticeably greater cognitive demands linked to the carrying task then a different outcome was observed. When, in a new experiment, participants were instead asked to carry cups filled with water that could be easily spilled, and were asked to prevent any spilling (placing high demands on their attention), then participants rarely chose to pick up the nearest object.  Now participants most often chose to pick up the farther cup, minimizing the amount of cognitive effort they needed to expend to carry the brim-full cup with minimal spillage to the final platform.

Deferring decisions in creative endeavors

In more complex creative endeavors it can be challenging to wait, and to defer taking a decision on how a subtask should be completed, because deferring a decision feels like we’re not making progress.  Yet – as data from both self-reports of creative individuals and an in-depth case study of a musical composer suggest – deferring a creative decision (that is, avoiding precrastination) can sometimes allow us to take in new knowledge, expanding our creative problem-solving mindset, and, in turn open the opportunity for a new influx of creative ideas.

Let’s take a closer look at the in-depth case study of a professional Finnish composer (let’s call him Composer Z) creating a novel musical composition.

Early on, Composer Z had a broad sense of what his new extended musical piece should be, but his central creative idea was still vague and fuzzy.  It did not offer him straightforward guidance in the many immediate compositional decisions he needed to make.  Yet despite his uncertainty and despite deferring more global or overarching decisions, Composer Z did not stop working entirely.

Rather, “leaving an increasing number of empty bars in the score along with unanswered problems,” Composer Z moved ahead to different parts of the musical score, as he “persistently invented and experimented with his musical materials; he tested, associated, theorised, juxtaposed, applied and developed his ideas into new situations” (p. 224).  All the while he was continuously trying to relate what he was now learning to what he already had learned about the evolving musical piece, and trying to use it to further clarify (learn, see, feel) where he wanted it to go in the future. “The composer learned as he composed and composed more as he learned more.” (p. 224)

After this extended process of deferred decisions, Composer Z suddenly reached a critical point where his working and writing changed.  Rather than hesitation and confused and fragmented moves, his creative working now became highly fluent.  He made quick and effortless decisions, that seemed to him “surprisingly intuitive.”  These were not arbitrary choices, but appeared to be – from a music analysis point of view – “logical deductions based on nearly all the composer’s actions from the very beginning of the process” (p. 224).

Putting it all together

In your creative process and innovative endeavors, do you allow yourself (and your team) to engage in “purposeful decision deferral” – as Composer Z permitted himself to do during the creation of a new and challengingly innovative work – so as to avoid early stage commitments that are poorly grounded in your understanding of what a project could be?  Are you (sometimes) too eager simply to “do” subtasks, rather than to “fulfill them” (that is, “fully fill” them, with all the new understanding and knowledge that you will have gained by deferral)?

Purposeful decision deferral is not an excuse to “do nothing.”  Deferring the moment of decision is, rather, a way to gain a welcome window of time during which we can further explore and experiment with adjacent or alternative aspects of a problem space.  Purposeful decision deferral – that is the opposite of precrastination – is a way to give ourselves (and our mind/brain) time to reconfigure how we’re thinking, and time to inadvertently and often indirectly learn more about what our creative problem (really) needs.  Yet it’s tricky:  if we’re not fully attuned to where we are in our thinking/experimenting/exploring, purposeful decision deferral could be protracted beyond what is needed, to become the troubled ensnaring deeps of procrastination.

To think about

  • If you’re feeling a sense of urgency to get something done, where is that urgency coming from –is it real? Is it something that you’re generating – out of habit? Out of a wish to keep your mind and thinking space uncluttered? Or out of a desire for that “small burst of positive reward” you feel when you (mentally, or physically) check another item off of your to-do list?
  • If one of the reasons that you precrastinate is that you find it rewarding that something is “just done” (now scratched off your to-do list), could you change your take on what is rewarding and instead find rewarding experience in a different way, for example, finding reward in being thorough, thoughtful, and creative?
  • Are you assuming that you have to work on a project in a set order, from beginning to end?Could you switch it up a little and work on a different part of your project so as to let new information in, and give yourself some more room for further experimentation and exploration?
  • In your past creative endeavors have you more often regretted postponing doing something (procrastination) or doing something too hastily, without sufficient forethought or integrated understanding (precrastination)?
  • On the to-and-fro swing of a creative endeavor, when should you give yourself an extra push, and when should you let yourself glide, absorbing more of where and how you are, in your experience or creative endeavor?

References

Cohen, J. R., & Ferrari, J. R. (2010). Take some time to think this over: The relation between rumination, indecision, and creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 22, 68–73.

Fournier, L. R. et al. (2019). Which task will we choose first? Precrastination and cognitive load in task ordering. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 81, 489–503.

Pohjannoro, U. (2016). Capitalising on intuition and reflection: Making sense of a composer’s creative process. Musicae Scientiae, 20, 207–234.

Rosenbaum, D. A. et al. (2019). Sooner rather than later: Precrastination rather than procrastination. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 28, 229–233.

Rosenbaum, D. A., Gong, L., & Potts, C. A. (2014). Pre-crastination: Hastening subgoal completion at the expense of extra physical effort. Psychological Science, 25, 1487–1496.

 

 

Where do flexibly new creative options come from? Dopamine helps us walk the flexibility-fluency tightrope

Navigating the flexibility-stability tightrope . . . Source: Adam Jones via Wikimedia Commons

 

Imagine that you’re trying to think of alternative ways to creatively address a thorny problem. What’s your best approach?

Should you place your bets on idea quantity: simply spouting and pouring forth with as many ideas as you can, hoping that in the fast flood of your ideas, among the many rather mundane ideas and a few silly ones, there may be one or two insightful gems that will illuminate your way forward?  Or should you, from the outset, more closely channel and focus your idea generation efforts, placing your bets on idea quality: telling yourself that it’s not just any ideas that you’re looking for, but that you’re looking to find creative ideas, ideas that are novel, inventive, ingenious, innovative…?

The proposed answers to this question – should you place greater emphasis on the quantity versus quality of ideas generated – have varied across time, and labs, in part because idea quantity and quality are clearly associated with one another.  For example, there is often a positive correlation between the number of ideas that people generate and both the originality of their ideas and the variety (or flexibility) of their ideas.  And it is often the case that later generated ideas are more creative than earlier ones.

A different approach

A team of eight researchers in the Departments of Experimental Psychology and Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Oxford recently tackled the issue of the fluency (quantity) versus uniqueness (quality) of responses from a very different approach. They set their sights on the question of what might be the biological basis of varied responses, choosing to focus particularly on the neurochemical dopamine.  Dopamine (especially the dopaminergic nigrostriatal network) has long been implicated in creativity and cognitive flexibility, but direct evidence for how dopamine influences fluency and flexibility has so far been lacking.

Aiming to ask the question in a way that was minimally influenced by differences in individual’s background knowledge or learning, the Oxford research team adopted a markedly simple visual-spatial task.  Participants were shown a 23″ touchscreen computer screen.  On the screen were two small red circles, one directly above the other, with the two circles vertically separated by about 8 inches. Participants were told to “Draw as many different paths as you can from the bottom red circle to the top red circle in 4 minutes.’’

These direct and simple task instructions allowed for fine-grained quantitative assessments of how many paths the participants drew (a measure of quantity or fluency) and how varied they chose to make each of their paths (a measure of quality, originality, or uniqueness).

Equally important, the simple task also allowed testing with participants who have known deficits in dopaminergic function – that is, individuals with Parkinson’s Disease.  The researchers could test patients both when they were on medications to supplement their dopaminergic function (referred to as being in an “on” state) and when temporarily off those medications following an overnight abstention from their medication (referred to as being in an “off” state).  The researchers could then assess how participants performed the task depending on the level of dopamine present.

To further probe the effects of dopamine on the fluency of responses versus variation (uniqueness) of responses the researchers also tested a group of older adults, both when the participants were only given a placebo pill (control condition), and when they were administered a drug that is known to enhance D2 dopaminergic function (cabergoline, experimental condition).  Like for the individuals with Parkinson’s Disease, the researchers could then assess how participants performed the task depending on the level of dopamine present.

Examples of participants’ responses to the drawing task

Example 1:  Non-fluent & Non-unique

Source: Ang et al. (2018).

In the image above, there are relatively few paths from the bottom red dot to the top red dot, and the paths mostly look the same.  All of the drawn paths are slightly curved outward, either to the right or to the left, but otherwise essentially follow the same trajectory.

Example 2: Fluent & Unique

Source: Ang et al. (2018).

In example 2, there are a large number of paths from the bottom red dot to the top red dot, and the drawn paths take many different trajectories, sometimes looping and swirling this way or that way, with some taking quite varied curved paths and others more direct or smooth-cornered paths.

So, what did they find?

Across each of three studies, with different age and participant groups, the findings were the same: Increased availability of dopamine increased the fluency (quantity) of responding (that is, the number of lines drawn) compared to the control conditions. This was observed both for individuals with Parkinson’s disease tested when “on” their dopamine-promoting medication (compared to when they were off their medication), and in older adults tested after being administered cabergoline (compared to being given placebo).

But this was not the only finding.  Although dopamine, overall, decreased the uniqueness of the responses, for any given number of responses, the uniqueness of responding was also higher at that same level of fluency.  So: dopamine strongly bolstered the quantity of responding, and also the uniqueness of responding.  Stated differently, dopamine shifted the trade-off line between fluency and uniqueness, so that participants were more unique for a given level of fluency.

The researchers also carefully considered possible confounding factors and designed additional experiments to examine them.  For example, could it be that dopamine influenced not the ability to simply think of (generate) different options, but rather the ability to plan them, or the ability to actually make the movements needed?

The researchers were able to show that the effects of dopamine really were on the process of generating different options rather than following through on a planned action or making the movement.  For example, when the iPad display showed many different end points, rather than only one, and the participant only had to choose one of the end points, then there was little influence of dopamine status on performance. Other findings showed that the differences were not due to the contribution of motor tremor, and also not due to differences in drawing speed (which can influence the movements of individuals with Parkinson’s disease).

The results of this study nicely converge with those of another recent study­, from a research team in Israel, that compared the creative performance of 27 individuals with Parkinson’s Disease, when “on” their dopaminergic therapy with the creative performance of 27 control participants, matched on age and years of education.  In agreement with the Oxford team’s drawing-task findings, the Parkinson’s Disease group outperformed the control group in both the fluency (number) and the quality of their creative responses on a visual task that required interpreting the meanings of lines.  This bolstering of creative visual responses was significantly greater in a subset of the participants with Parkinson’s Disease who were receiving a higher daily dose of dopaminergic-supplement (higher L-dopa equivalent daily dose) compared with a lower dose.

What does this all mean?

The line-drawing study shows that the neurotransmitter dopamine is an important modulator of how we flexibly self-generate or autonomously produce varied options for our behavior. The research provides direct evidence – based on convergent and analytically-careful experimental methods with both patient groups and healthy controls – for the important role of dopamine in how we imaginatively and flexibly generate new opportunities for action.

The exact mechanisms by which higher levels of dopamine might lead to increased creativity remain to be tested.  One possible mechanism relates to how availability of the neurotransmitter dopamine (especially in the striatal brain system affected in Parkinson’s disease) boosts our tendencies to seek out novelty.  Novelty-seeking is an important contributor to creativity and creative flexibility. Novelty-seeking is also an important aspect of enduring personality traits related to creativity, such as openness to experience.  Increased dopamine is also known to be associated with good feelings or positive affect, such as how we may feel when we are unexpectedly or unpredictably given a small gift.

To be more creative, should we all, then, be looking to find ways of increasing dopamine, perhaps through engaging in these or other “happiness-boosting” activities?

The answer to this is likely neither a simple “yes,” nor a simple “no,” but rather – as for many questions about behavior and the brain – “it depends.”

A certain level of flexibility is good and often desirable.  But too much flexibility can lead us to be distractible, taking away our ability to concentrate or persist in our goals.  Whether bolstering our flexibility will also boost our creativity depends on our starting or baseline level of flexibility.  It’s all a delicate balancing act, a tightrope between being aptly flexible and being appropriately persistent or stable.

References

Ang, Y.-S., Manohar, S., Plant, O., Kienast, A., Le Heron, C., Muhammed, K., Hu, M., & Husain, M. (2018). Dopamine modulates option generation for behavior. Current Biology, 28, 1561–1569.

Boot, N., Baas, M., van Gaal, S., Cools, R., & De Dreu, C.K.W. (2017). Creative cognition and dopaminergic modulation of fronto-striatal networks: Integrative review and research agenda. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 78, 13–23.

Faust-Socher, A., Kenett, Y. N., Cohen, O. S., Hassin-Baer, S., & Inzelberg, R. (2014). Enhanced creative thinking under dopaminergic therapy in Parkinson Disease. Annals of Neurology, 75, 935–942.

 

How Re-Playing Can Help Us Reach Our Goals: Realizing the many creative values of iteration

Often some whoosh is just what we need.
Source: Margalob via Wikimedia Commons

 

For some of us, iteration has a bad name.  We may think that returning to a problem multiple times, re-visiting it, coming back to it and thinking it through yet again, is a waste of time and energy.  Couldn’t we just move forward, or settle everything on one go through?  Why all this cycling back, and reconsidering what we’ve already discussed, and made plans for.  Why can’t we just do it?

True, not every instance of iteration is helpful.  Sometimes iteration can be a sign that we’re in a muddle or lack clarity in our goals. Yet in many cases iteration is precisely what is needed.  By realizing the broad – and deep – values of iteration and re-play, we can give our creative problem solving a great deal of “whoosh.”  And often some whoosh is just what we need.

Benefits of iteration

Research suggests that iteration may be beneficial – and even necessary – for the success of a creative project in situations where the project we are embarking on is unfamiliar, poorly defined, or complex.

Iteration in these sorts of situations, when we don’t initially really know what the constraints, limits, or opportunities for a project are, can allow us to gradually learn more about both the problem and possible solutions.  We can integrate what we learn from earlier plays through with our later insights, leading us to a more creative, and creatively interconnected, outcome.

Staying open to re-plays may also enable us to more flexibly and effectively deal with a changing context. Having a clear understanding of our goals for each iteration also may make the process especially productive.

What’s your mental picture of iteration? 

 How do you think of the process of iteration?  Although re-playing can seem quite straightforward, we can have quite different underlying pictures or mental images of what iteration is.  And the mental images we are using may shape both what we expect of the process, and why we may become frustrated with it.

Let’s take a look at five different ways of picturing iteration.  The five mental pictures are based on a detailed and systematic analysis of the ways “iteration” is really used, and talked about, by people working in design and development.  As the researchers in the study remind us, “Iteration is a fact of life in any project” (p. 153).

Given it’s unavoidable, it’s best for us to understand that we can have different mental pictures of what iteration is and what it’s meant to do.  The researchers identified five different mental pictures we might have. I have elaborated their pictures with verbal analogies.

Depending on the creative circumstances, any one or more of these pictures may fit best.  And it may be that the best-fitting picture itself changes as a creative endeavor moves forward, getting closer to completion.

Picture 1 –  The Home Cook.  Imagine a home cook, trying to decide what’s possible for a tasty meal using only the ingredients already on hand in the pantry and refrigerator.  Here he explores many possible ideas, going back-and-forth, forward-and-back, narrowing in as he gathers greater knowledge of what’s actually on hand, and this guides his various ideas of what delicious options there might be.  There could be lots of variation in what comes to mind, and where he ends up may not be anywhere close to where he started.  This form of iteration is exploration, or “iterating around problem and solution while elaborating them concurrently” (p. 167).

Picture 2 – The Crime Detective.  Bring to mind a detective as she conjures up different possibilities at a crime scene.  Here she looks for clues, successively drilling down from broad and vague possibilities into the specifics of just where, when, and how the crime may have taken place. Once she has arrived at a strong initial hypothesis, she tries to fill in any missing pieces to test it and home in on what really happened in full detail.  This form of iteration is concretization, or “revisiting elements of the design while increasing their levels of definition, ensuring consistency” (p. 167).

Picture 3 – The Digital Photographer.  Envision a photographer working on a photograph of a desert landscape for an exhibition.  The scene is set, but in her computer graphics editor she can slightly adjust the color, nudge the contrast, and tweak the exposure, each time getting closer and closer to a setting of parameters that is just right for her aesthetic aims.  By the time she is finished, it is not that she has arrived at a completely new photograph; it is, though, a meaningfully different work.  This form of iteration is convergence, or “point-by-point improvement of parameters and details, at a fixed level of definition” (p. 167).

Picture 4 – The Interior Decorator.  Imagine an interior decorator, who has already decided on what the largest pieces of furniture are for a particular room, and where they should go, but is rearranging the smaller accents and decor, trying this, trying that, making minor tugs and refining tweaks after the central decisions have been made.  There is nothing amiss with the primary design, but the adjustments improve secondary aspects such as reducing the cost of the redesigned room.  This form of iteration is refinement, or “adjusting, improving, perfecting once primary objectives are met” (p. 167).

Picture 5 – The Long-Distance Runner.  To your mind’s eye, bring a resolute long-distance runner, counting down the miles.  Here, the runner is gradually increasing the information she has gained, first along one part of the route, then another part, then the next, until the run is complete.  This form of iteration is incremental completion, or “repeating a task on different information to incrementally arrive at a goal” (p. 167).

Which “picture” of iteration we’re working with has implications for how we expect the process to unfold.  And it may be that the picture of play/re-play/re-play that we have itself needs to change, as we move forward on a creative or change-making endeavor.

For Picture 1 – the home cook – it may be that any single suggested idea is quite different from the prior proposed idea, so it can feel as though there’s no progress being made, or that the progress is chaotic and unpredictable at best.  But if we stick with it, a delightful meal may soon be on offer!  For some of the other pictures it can seem that the iterations leave little room for surprise or newness.  But not all forms of surprise are welcome.  And sometimes even quite subtle adjustments or refinements make a big positive difference.

Reference

Wynn, D. C., & Eckert, C. M. (2017).  Perspectives on iteration in design and development.Research in Engineering Design, 28, 153–184.

The Unique Value of Perspective-Taking: Innovative uses of technology to see how toddlers creatively explore the world

What can we learn through seeing the world from a child’s point of view? Source: Matthias Süßen via Wikimedia Commons

 

Learning new words by a toddler is not a simple matter.  They hear unfamiliar words uttered in a cluttered, complex, dynamically changing scene. How are they to know, from the vast number of options, just what it is that an unfamiliar word is supposed to point toward?

Yet, despite the myriad number of potentially “pointed-to” alternatives, learning new words is something that many toddlers do surprisingly well.  Not too long after they utter their first few words, most toddlers begin to acquire new words at an astounding rate, hungrily absorbing them like a tiny purpose-built learning-machine.

How does the toddler accomplish this remarkable word-learning feat? It’s a long-standing puzzle that many cognitive and developmental scientists have taken up. The immense number of possibilities seem so potentially overwhelming that it may even seem that some sort of specialized language-based wizardry must kick in to propel the toddler’s remarkable spurt of word learning.

Bringing in some technological magic – to capture another point of view

Would it be easier to understand this mysterious language spurt if we could somehow get closer to the child’s point of view?  What if we were able to see the world as it appears from the toddler’s own unique perspective – as seen from their specific child-size bodies, their particular opportunities for action (with their smaller fingers, hands, and arms), and their more limited chances for moving about.  What might we learn?

An innovative way to get closer to the child’s perspective on the world is to ask the child to wear a mini “head camera.”  Embedded low on the toddler’s forehead, in a custom-made soft headband, is a mini head camera.  The head camera now can track what – from the child’s particular vantage point – is “out there” for the toddler to see, touch, or reach.

One team of developmental researchers in a pioneering study using such a head camera uncovered a finding that sharply spurred the team’s curiosity. The team found that the child’s play world – when discovered through the head-band camera – was highly dynamic and changing. Many objects remained in view only for seconds or split seconds, before disappearing.  But interspersed among all the rapidly moving images that formed the usual turbulent “visual diet” of the active toddler, there were occasional brief moments of a different sort.

Every once in a while, despite the constant variation and dynamic changes and tremendous clutter of objects closely surrounding the child, there were occasional moments during which “there was just one object stably dominating the head camera image, being much larger in visual size because it was closer and un-occluded” (p. 179).

Make us some novel objects to play with!

The researchers wondered: “Are these periods of stable, clean, nearly one-object views optimal sensory moments for the early learning of object names?” (p. 179)  Could there be something especially important about these rare moments when an object looms large and alone and dominates a toddler’s point of view?

To try to answer this question about stable one-object views, the researchers themselves first enlisted the creative help of an artist adept in making novel objects from hardened clay.  To ensure that the children had not already encountered any of the objects, they wanted to conduct the experiment with purposively-constructed novel objects, so every child would be equally unfamiliar with the objects.

The artist created six novel objects, each with a unique shape and texture.  These novel objects were then painted, either blue, red, or green, two objects for each color, forming two sets of three differently-colored objects.  And then each object was randomly paired with one novel name:  zeebee, tema, dodi, habble, wawa, and mapoo.

Next, parents and their toddlers (at a mean age of 20 months) were invited to a play session in the research lab.  They were asked to sit across from one another at a small white table, in a white room, with a white floor. The parent was told the names of the six novel objects, and the objects were placed in small boxes. On the side of each box, was a picture of the object, and a reminder of the object’s name.

Parents were instructed to encourage their toddler to interact with the clay objects in as natural a way as possible.  Parent and toddler then engaged in play with the objects over four toy play periods; each play period lasted just under two minutes, and each set of three toys was used twice.

The instructions did not tell the parents to try to teach their child the names of the objects, and parents were not told that their toddlers’ ability to remember the names of the objects would later be tested.  All of the play period was video and audio recorded.

After the play periods, the toddlers were given a surprise memory test for the names of the novel objects.  The experimenter entered the room, holding high a tray with three of the objects, each of a different color, one on the right, one to the left, and one in the middle. Looking steadfastly into the infant’s eyes (as confirmed by a later review of the video), and never at the objects on the tray so as not to unintentionally guide the child to the answer, the experimenter said, “Show me the ___!  Get the __!”  The experimenter then moved the tray forward for the infant to select the object.  This test was completed twice for each of the six object names, each time with different distractors.  The toddlers correctly reached for the novel objects more than would be expected by chance, with a few of the toddlers even learning all six novel names.

Looming visually large and alone

Now the researchers looked back at the videos of the play periods between the toddlers and their parents.  And they found a clear answer to their question.  In precisely those moments when parents named a novel object for their child, the child’s head-camera video revealed that the object loomed large and centered in the child’s visual field.And the more this was true, the more likely it was that the toddler later showed that they remembered the name of the object.  So: the more that the object filled the center of the child’s viewpoint at the moment of the parent’s naming (e.g., “zeebee”), the more likely the child was to correctly choose the “zeebee” from the tray.

These results show that, at least in this miniature table-top “play world,” parents most often chose to name unfamiliar objects at precisely those moments when their child was already visually attending– and often also touching– an object. And the more strongly the child’s visual attention was centrally and predominantly focused on that object, the more likely the child was to later recognize that name.

Once we get closer to the child’s perspective, at least a little of the mystery of how children so adeptly learn to correctly map words to the intended parts of the world is dispelled.  It turns out that, at these moments of naming, rather than there being a teeming multitude of competing items to which the unfamiliar label might apply, there is often only a single object in central view.

Perspective-taking and another developmental mystery

Concretely and specifically trying to see the world through a young child’s eyes may help to explain another developmental mystery – that is also closely connected to exploration.  Why do toddlers learn to walk? Why do children move from a form of locomotion that they have fully mastered and even become experts at – that of crawling – and embark on the decidedly difficult (and not infrequently painful) task of learning to walk?

A partial explanation may be that what they can seewhen they walk (rather than crawl) is very different.  Data from a head-mounted eye-tracker worn by fifteen 13-month old children who were still crawling as their primary form of locomotion compared with fifteen 13-month old children who had begun to walk, revealed many differences.  For crawlers, the “scene camera” revealed that on about 25% of their “steps” the only thing in view was the floor.  Lifting their heads while crawling was an awkward, gravity-defying move.  Compared to crawlers, walkers could see many more enticing toys, and could see their caregiver’s face twice as often.

It may, in part, be the tantalizing promise of getting to see and to experience more – a world that is richer, more varied, more social, and more extended – that motivates the young infant to stand up and begin to walk.

By literally and concretely trying to see “what’s in view” for a child, we can begin to understand how children creatively explore and learn about the world.  The transition from crawling to walking is a developmental “cusp” that completely changes the options and opportunities open to the child.

What “cusps,” akin to those that confront the toddler who is first learning to walk, might we, as adults, be over-cautiously stepping back from – and so needlessly limiting much of our view?  How can we be encouraged to reorient our own perspective to explore the farther reaches of what we can’t even now see?

References

Kretch, K.S., Franchak, J.M., & Adolph, K.E. (2014). Crawling and walking infants see the world differently. Child Development85, 1503–1518.

Pereira, A. F., Smith, L. B., & Yu, C. (2014). A bottom-up view of toddler word learning. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 21, 178–185.

Smith, L. B., Yu, C., & Pereira, A. F. (2011). Not your mother’s view: The dynamics of toddler visual experience. Developmental Science, 14, 9–17.

What keeps us going creatively when the going gets tough? The motivational value of both long-term and short-term goals

Taking our goals in stride . . . Source: Yftaheco via Wikimedia Commons

 

Many of our important projects and goals require extended effort – effort stretched out over long periods of time, from months, to years, or even decades.  What keeps us going on these projects, pursuing our long-term goals, even when, in the short-term, the road ahead seems riddled with bumps and potholes, steep hills to climb, or unanticipated setbacks? you are embarking on an ambitious new creative project – say you want to launch your first solo artist exhibit of paintings or sculptures, or your first interactive video+sound installation, or to publish a substantial written work such as a novel, or an extended theoretical or historical analysis.  Should you set yourself highly specific and concrete attainable goals for each day, or for each week?

But we have many aspirations and hopes – should you be able to tell yourself just why this project is the one you should be taking on right now?  Should you ask yourself what it means for you, or why you’re taking on this big project rather than another one?

There is no single easy answer to these questions.  Most of our goals do not exist on their own, in isolation from other goals, and we can think of our goals in several different ways, each of which can help us with different aspects of our thinking and motivation.  Still, there are some pointers and guidance that research has uncovered.

Let’s look at two common ways of thinking about our goals, and the benefits and possible drawbacks of each. We’ll draw first on the insights from a team of three researchers at the University of Bern, in Switzerland, and then on findings from recent work by researchers working in Canada, at the University of Waterloo.

Goals as hierarchies, or trees

One way we can think about our goals is as trees or structured hierarchies of interconnected aims, with some goals being highly overarching or “superordinate” and others being more narrow, specific, or subordinate “stepping stones” (routes) to other goals.  Superordinate goals often capture the meaning or importance of what we are doing, that is, why we seek to do what we do.  They are often closely linked to our values, or our very broadest aims that span many different contexts or circumstances across our lives and steer our attention, feelings, and choices.  Subordinate goals often delineate the specific methods we need to take to reach a given goal, that is, how we can achieve the desired aim.

So, if we reflect on why we want to launch a new large creative project, we may bring to mind our deep-seated beliefs about why we think creativity is an important or core value for us, such as that we believe we should try to help ourselves and others experience – and make – surprising and beneficial forms of newness in the world.

Some of the ways that bringing to mind our superordinate goals can shape and benefit our thinking and motivation, are pictured below.

Hierarchical goal processes. Source: drawn from Hochli, Brugger, & Messner (2018, Figure 2)

Thinking about our values and our sense of who we are, could strengthen our sense of the meaning and the importance of what we are doing.  Bringing our superordinate goals to mind could also foster a steadying sense of patience – no great creative work of art or science or culture was accomplished without forgoing some shorter-term rewards that loomed alluringly large and attractive in the moment.  It also may encourage us to stay resilient and flexible because we realize that any one concrete shortcoming, any one specific setback, is only that – one among many situations and circumstances.

These may be some of the cognitive and motivational processes that lead to the often-observed beneficial buffering effects of the social-psychological intervention, called “values affirmation” or “self affirmation.”  In values affirmation, individuals under chronic stress or stereotype threat are asked to think about and write about their core values.

Values affirmation has been found to counteract the harmful effects of negative stereotypes on cognitive performance measures, academic outcomes, and health behaviors.  Especially relevant here, values affirmation has also been found to bolster verbal insight problem solving and also boosts nonverbal insight problem solving and abstract relational reasoning.  Several interrelated mechanisms have been proposed to undergird these benefits, including increased resilience, constructively orienting to errors, and regulating negative emotions while staying attuned to big-picture goals.

But does thinking about our goals as hierarchies, ranked by how important they are to us, capture everything we need?  What might it leave out or lead us to overlook?

Goals as networks, or interconnected maps

The importance of a goal is not the only characteristic of our goals that we may want to consider. Exclusively taking a strictly hierarchical picture of our goals, based on their importance, may make it difficult to see other significant interrelations between them.  For this reason, it may also be valuable to think of our goals as forming a network, or an interconnected map.  In this network, goals that are closely related to one another would appear next to each other, and goals that are important to us would have more connections than other goals.

 

Schematic network model of goals. Source: Wilma Koutstaal

Take the goal of doing well as a student.  Some of a student’s goals will relate to the courses and coursework she has, when each assignment is due, how complex the assignments are, and how much uncertainty she has about the time and effort required to complete them.  Other goals of the student will focus on her relationships with family, peers, or roommates and activities she engages in with them.  In addition, the student may have goals related to leisure, volunteer work, sports activities, or other extracurriculars; and also her daily living arrangements relating to shopping, cooking, cleaning, sleeping, etc.

Thinking of your varied and various goals in this way, and placing them next-to-next in an association-based networked map, may call your attention to subtle or nonobvious interconnections that you hadn’t noticed before.  Indeed, researchers have suggested that this way of picturing our goals may be especially beneficial for sparking what they call “integrative” creative thinking.  This form of thinking draws heavily on associative processes, and may be a form of creativity that involves especially frequent and repeated shifts between divergent and convergent creative processes.

To test this goal-network idea in relation to integrative creative thinking, the researchers asked 191 undergraduate students to complete a paper-and-pencil booklet visualizing their goals for university success.  The students were randomly assigned to sketch out their goals for succeeding at university in one of three ways:

(1) using a hierarchical map – with a clear ordering structure, where the higher-order goals are superior to, and encompass, the lower-order ones, and where lower-order goals may be the means to achieve higher-order goals

(2) using an interconnected network – with goals that are closely related to one another forming clusters, and goals that are more important having more connections

(3) using a series of steps – with goals organized along a timeline, such that achieving a goal at a later point in time depends on achieving goals at earlier points in time.

To test the students’ “integrative” creativity, they were challenged with a creative story re-writing task.  In the story re-writing task, students first read a short summary of the fairytale about Snow White, and then were asked “using their wildest imagination” to rewrite the story – developing an entirely new version of the story.  Four raters, blind to the participant’s condition, rated the creativity of the stories.

As they had hypothesized, the goal-network approach gave the greatest boost to creativity.  The goal-network group showed the highest amount of integrative creativity on the story re-writing task.  Other analyses suggested that this boost did not seem to come about because of differences in the number of goals generated for the different goal-mapping groups or other factors.

What should we make of all this?  Some questions to think about…

We must not draw strong conclusions about creative processes from any one empirical study or any one theoretical perspective on the nature of goals.  Still, there are reasons to think that there are benefits to both thinking of our goals in terms of our values and a hierarchy of their importance, as well as in terms of how our many goals interrelate with each other.

Putting together these recent exploratory forays into how we can and do think about our goals, seems to give rise to many new questions:

  • How often are we aware of the ways in which we are picturing our goals? If we find ourselves “creatively stuck” (or otherwise stuck in our thinking) can we intentionally prompt ourselves to try adopting a different model of our goals to propel ourselves forward both cognitively and motivationally?
  • What type of goal model do you most often assume when thinking about your aims and aspirations?How do your different ways of picturing your goals shape or channel your creative processes?
  • How might you change the structure, or content, of how you think about your goals to more strongly foster your patience and persistence when the road ahead looks steep, or steeped in uncertainty?
  • If you were asked to draw three different network maps of your goals, each showing different interrelations, or different vantage points on your goals, what goals would appear as important in each of the different networks?
  • Are there any goals that are no longer “really yours” – that have become disjoined from other goals, or replaced, or merged into new aims?
  • What are your “F.I.R.S.T” goals — For the long-term, Individualized, Recurring,Superordinate, and Thematic?

 

References

Cohen, G. L., & Sherman, D. K. (2014). The psychology of change: Self-affirmation and social psychological intervention. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 333–371.

Creswell, J. D., Dutcher, J. M., Klein, W. M. P., Harris, P. R., & Levine, J. M. (2013). Self-affirmation improves problem-solving under stress. PLoS ONE, 8, Article e62593, 1–7.

Höchli, B., Brügger, A., & Messner, C. (2018). How focusing on superordinate goals motivates broad, long-term goal pursuit: A theoretical perspective. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, Article 1879, 1–14.

Kung, F. Y. H., & Scholer, A. A. (2018). A network model of goals boosts convergent creativity performance. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, Article 1910, 1–12.

Wen, M-C., Butler, L. T., & Koutstaal, W. (2013). Improving insight and non-insight problem solving with brief interventions. British Journal of Psychology, 104, 97–118.

 

Play, Playfulness, and Permission: When and why do we give ourselves a go-ahead to play?

 

Into the play . . . Source: cjuneau via Wikimedia Commons

Is playfulness available on demand?

Suppose that you have just been asked to engage in a small task of some sort – say making some toy animals out of Lego blocks for a new children’s window display in a hospital.  Imagine that you’ve been given several mixed assortments of six Lego bricks, and the coordinator of the display has also made an example of the sort of thing she has in mind:  perhaps a small duck.  She sets the sample toy in front of you, and then gives you some further instructions.

Imagine that she says to you,

“I would now like you to build five LEGO ducks out of these sets. You can rebuild the prototype you see on the table or just build any duck or duck-like creature you like – that is up to you. The only thing that is really important for us and this experiment is that you do it in a non-playful manner. Please find a way of doing it, so that it feels not playful at all.”

How would you feel? What thoughts, images, or feelings would come to mind as you set about making the requested Lego ducks?  Would you start to feel pressured and tense, a bit keyed up, narrowing your focus, giving yourself some “straight talk” about getting down to business (come on… let’s focus now!) or would you begin to wonder: What did she mean about being non-playful?  Am I supposed to be efficient here?  Does she want me to make lots of those same ducks?  Exactly the same?  Just copy them and get on with it?

Now imagine instead that there’s a second coordinator of the new window display.  She comes into the room, just as the first coordinator is leaving, and thinks that maybe you’ve not yet been given any guidance on what the task is.  So, not knowing what you’ve just been told, she walks across to you, smiling, and says,

“I would now like you to build five LEGO ducks out of these sets. You can rebuild the prototype you see on the table or just build any duck or duck-like creature you like – that is up to you. The only thing that is really important for us and this experiment is that you do this as playfully as you can. Please find a way of doing it, so that it feels playful and nothing but playful.”

Imagine that these were the only instructions you had received.  How would you feel?  What thoughts, memories, feelings would spring to mind?  How do you do something playfully? Can we simply be asked to take on a playful approach?

Is playfulness an “experiential stance” that can be called up on demand? 

Setting out to explore these questions, two researchers from Denmark asked 22 young adults to take part in precisely these playful versus nonplayful Lego duck-building exercises. Then, right after they finished making their Lego ducks, the researchers asked each participant to take part in an in-depth video recorded interview in which each duck-builder was asked to freely and fully describe what they had experienced as the exercise unfolded.

Looking through detailed transcriptions of the interviews, the researchers coded if – and also when – each participant spoke of different experiential aspects, such as their perceptions, or their actions, memories, feelings, or changes in the focus of their attention.

Most of the participants spoke about how they consciously asked themselves about the meaningof the task.  In the playful condition, many mentioned that the requirement to be playful meant that they were set free to do whatever they wanted to do.  They had time and space to creatively make something inspired by their own ideas and intuitions, rather than something that was already spelled out for them.

When they actually starting making the ducks, the participants in the playful condition often took a “let’s just mess about with this” sort of attitude, reminding themselves that “it’s not a competition,” fiddling with the pieces to see what might come about, and even sometimes making animals other than ducks. They spoke of how they liked the look and the soft satisfying sound the bricks as they firmly nestled into place, and of feelings of pleasure and surprise when they looked at what they’d made.

The stark opposite was true for the non-playful condition.  Now most participants reported feeling pressed and pressured.  They felt they were pressured by time – they had to be efficient, to work as quickly as possible, often just by repeatedly copying the prototype duck – and also by concerns about evaluation, worrying if they were they making what was expected, in “the right way,” and if they were being sufficiently systematic and focused. They were more likely to notice a feeling of tedium or boredom, of not being asked to use their imagination, and just needing to produce the toys in the same way, so there shouldn’t (and wouldn’t) be any surprises along the way.  They’d even admonish themselves, “Come on… make ducks!”

Overall, 19 of the 22 participants said they were successfully able to take on a playful stance when they were asked to do so.

It seemed that being prompted to play set in motion a positive cycle.  The cycle was kicked off with a feeling of freedom from specific constraints and goals. This brought into a play an exploratory, curious, and open-ended “look-and-see” interactive approach to the materials at hand.  This cycle was both accompanied by, and further activated by, positive feelings of sensory, aesthetic, and reflective pleasure.  In turn, there were feelings of autonomous and intrinsic motivation, that opened the way to unexpected and surprising outcomes.  The unexpected creative outcomes fostered expanding feelings of competence, which “looped back,” sparking further exploration and interactions.

So where does that leave us? It seems, in principle, possible to simply and directly ask ourselves to become more playful, spontaneous, and exploratory.  By prompting ourselves – and giving ourselves permission – we can creatively surprise ourselves.  We can draw upon an untapped resource of playfulness to prompt a self-reinforcing perception-action cycle of making-and-finding.

Intrinsic motivation can emerge from action.
Source: Figure 4.4 from Koutstaal & Binks (2015, p. 152), Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change. New York: Oxford University Press.

To think about:

“Come on… make ducks!”

  • What voice in your own head is ordering you to just make ducks? Is it a voice that you’ve chosen for yourself?
  • Or is it an inner voice that just autocratically takes over, and automatically plays and re-plays itself at different times?
  • If the voice isn’t yours, or isn’t fully yours, or plays through your mind unbidden at times you wish it wouldn’t, how could you counter that voice?
  • What other voices could you imagine to give yourself the space – and the time and the permission – to be more playful?

 

References

Heimann, K. S., & Roepstorff, A. (2018).  How playfulness motivates: Putative looping effects of autonomy and surprise revealed by micro-phenomenological investigations.  Frontiers in Psychology, 9,Article 1704, 1–15.

Koutstaal, W. & Binks J (2015). Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change. New York: Oxford University Press.

—> Also posted at “Our Innovating Minds” Psychology Today.

 

Are you giving sound enough space in your creative world?

The many places and spaces of sound. Source:Victor Talking Machine Company; Right: Dnoahg via Wikimedia Commons

 

Given our (often) tremendous visual capacities, it’s easy to just let vision habitually take the reins, and assign other senses to lower rungs in our sensory hierarchy. For example, sounds and hearing often play “second fiddle.” What would it mean to place a higher priority on other senses, especially the roles of sound, in our sensory repertoire?

—> For more, including a Q & A with vocalist, musician, and Resonance Box founder Aida Shahghasemi see: Exploring and Expanding our Auditory Horizons 

 

Creativity: What’s privacy got to do with it?

An open-plan aquarium. Source: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta via Wikimedia Commons

 

How might a lack of privacy influence our creative thinking?  Our general common sense might suggest a number of reasons that being constantly “on view” for others to see us, as in an open-plan office, could bring with it cognitive costs.  Considerable mental effort may be needed to stay focused on one’s own work, and not be distracted by nearby sounds, movements, happenings, the coming and going of others.

But are we fully aware of all the different ways that lack of privacy might influence our thinking?  And, apart from simply asking people for their self-reports, how might we get a clearer and evidence-based understanding of how a lack of privacy impacts our thinking and making?

Let’s take a look at two highly creative experimental approaches – and the unique insights they provide – on the creativity-privacy connection.

—> For more see Wilma’s post: “Does an Open Office Plan Make a Creative Environment?: New support for the value of privacy at work.”

Why do we experience the urge to be creative?

Source: A-Durand via Wikimedia Commons

 

Why be creative?  Often the answer to this simple question is couched in terms of how creativity can bring us and others a bountiful bevy of better things:  better products, better services, better ways of doing.  Creativity brings with it, it is true, a host of instrumental advantages –– improvements in how we work, play, think, and live.  A better this, a better that _______ (you fill in the blanks).

But is this answer the full story?  Might there be more to be said?  Might being creative (often) be something desirable just in and of itself?  Is being creative itself rewarding?  Does being creative feel good?

There are many reasons to think so. . . .

—> To read more,  see Wilma’s “Creativity Feels Good!”

Are we hard-wired to be curious?

Source: Nilay pati via Wikimedia Commons

 

Resolving our curiosity is both something we’re willing to pay a cost for and that has a clear and understandable signature in the brain.

Curiosity has been said to be a form of intrinsically motivated search for information or knowledge. But how could we test this out?

What if you were shown a brief preview of an upcoming event, and you couldn’t in any way influence the outcome: would you be curious to know what happened? Would you be more curious if the preview was more ambiguous?

Five cognitive neuroscientists recently teamed up to tackle this question. The approach they used was at once surprisingly simple, and surprisingly elegant.

The preview image that the researchers used was a picture of a “lottery vase.” For example:

Source: W. Koutstaal based on van Lieshout et al, 2018

—> For more please see Wilma’s: “Why do you ask?”

 

What’s your metaphor for creative change?

The gracefully powerful pivot.: Source: Matt Duboff via Wikimedia Commons

 

Embarking on an ambitious new creative endeavor is fraught with perils.  But so is being too doggedly persistent.

Given what we see “out there” –– should we persist in the direction our project has been taking? Or is it time to switch-up the direction of our efforts, pivotingto a different focus?

—> For more see: Mastering the Creative Pivot.

Pivoting in our creative endeavors involves shifting the direction of our efforts and attention. Source: Wilma Koutstaal

How does asking yourself action-related questions catapult creativity?

Source: Moh tch via Wikimedia Commons

 

What questions or ways of thinking could you adopt to give some fresh lift into your ideas –– like the bubble-blowing device –– expanding them and letting them take flight?

Coming up with good new ideas can seem like a mysterious and mysteriously murky process.  Where do good ideas come from?  Are there any tips, or tricks, or strategies, that we can draw on to help us generate good ideas –– or more of them, more often?

It might seem that we could just begin by asking people who come up with lots of good ideas:  How do you do it?  Tell me!

But that approach presupposes that such “good idea generators” know what it is that they do.  It presupposes that the good idea generators know how they think when they’re thinking creatively.  It also presupposes that a good idea generator can articulate (convey or tell us) what it is that they are doing.

Sadly, neither presupposition is often met:  The processes that a good creative idea generator uses are often somewhat obscure and opaque (perhaps subconscious) even to themselves.  So precisely and clearly telling us what they’re up to during their innovative idea discovery process may not be at all easy, or even possible.

But all is not lost. . .

—> For more see: “Using Action Ideas to Boost your Creative Idea Search

What makes for good creative feedback?

Pliable Feedback?  Source: Tequask via Wikimedia Commons

 

We’ve all been there.  Imagine it with me now.  You’ve been working and thinking hard, and now that first version of your latest work or creative effort is done.  Now it’s time to put it out there to show it to your coworkers, or to your friends, or to the rest of your team.  It’s time for someone else to comment on your work, giving their impressions on what you’ve done.  It’s time to ask for feedback.

How does the process of asking for feedback on our drafts and our emergent ideas shape our creative process?  And what, exactly, makes for “good” feedback?

—> For more see: “Are You Using Open Questions as Springboards to Creativity?”

Chasing creativity in the workplace –– what’s ambiguity got to do with it?

Source: Loliloli via Wikimedia Commons

 

Creative ideas sometimes emerge because someone directly and explicitly asks us to come up with a new idea. It could be we’re asked to help solve a pesky problem, or to generate suggestions for how to make the most of a recently discovered opportunity. At other times, creative ideas have a more spontaneous birth –– they emerge impromptu and are freely volunteered, though no one explicitly called for them.

Creativity of the first “directly requested” kind reflects what a researcher, back in 2001, called “responsive creativity.” This occurs when people are directly challenged, required, or otherwise externally tasked with coming up with ideas to address the requirements of a situation. For example, an organized focus group or a planned brainstorming session would mostly lead to responsive creativity.

Creativity of the second kind reflects a more “proactive creativity.” This could be when suggestions for an innovative process or a new procedure are volunteered, from someone’s own internal initiative and observations, without any direct external prompting.

Two kinds of creativity — at work

Responsive and proactive creativity can strongly shape our own and our collective welfare, whether it be at home, at play, or at work. But what factors foster and fuel each of them?

—> For more, see Wilma’s Psychology Today blog post here: Ambiguity at Work: Friend, Foe, or a Bit of Both?

What helps us to recognize good novel ideas?

Source:Flickr: Smelling the Roses via Wikimedia Commons

 

Not every good new idea gets the recognition it deserves. Promising novel ideas are often overlooked, ridiculed, or dismissed. But why?

Read more at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/our-innovating-minds/201712/seeing-the-creative-value-in-new-good-idea-isnt-easy

What’s Your Innovation Mindset? Gaining new creative traction through changing how we think

Market vendors in Niamtougou, Togo
Source: Grete Howard via Wikimedia Commons

 

Are there different routes to learning how to be more innovative and entrepreneurial?  And, which might you expect would work best:

  1. teaching good business skills, such as accounting and marketing, or
  2. being taught to adopt an adaptively flexible, opportunity-seeking mindset?

To answer these questions, an international team of researchers from the U.S. World Bank and universities in Singapore and Germany compared the effects of two different multi-week training interventions on the business performance of some 1500 small business enterprises in Togo, West Africa.

—> For more see Wilma’s Psychology Today blog post.

Where is your sweet spot for coming up with good creative ideas?

Finding your creativity sweet spot. Source: W. Koutstaal

 

Imagine that you have just been invited to take part in an online experiment in which you will be asked to generate as many creative ideas as possible.

Imagine, too, that you are given the opportunity to first read the instructions for the creative challenge you will be set, and that you can choose between one of two sets of instructions, A or B.

Both versions outline your responsibilities.  Version A says you’ll be asked to take part in “an idea-generating task involving various commonly found household items” such as “a 14-inch nonstick-cooking pan or wooden door stoppers.”  Version B is slightly more general, saying that you’ll be asked to take part in “an idea-generating task involving household items” such as “cooking pans and door stoppers.”

You are also told that exactly 25% of the responses will be reviewed (Version A) or, instead, that some –– no percentage specified –– will be reviewed (Version B).  Additionally, you are told “You will receive your compensation within 48 hours of completing this task, in your PayPal account” (Version A) or “You will receive your compensation within 2 days” (Version B).

Which of the two versions of the instructions do you prefer:  Version A or Version B?  Do you think you’d be likely to come up with more creative ideas if given Version A or if given Version B?  Why?

On testing it out see: “Finding and Making Sweet Spots in your Creative Process.”

 

How’s your robot feeling today?

Two poses of the robot Nao.

 

Soon social and assistive robots will become ever more a part of our lives. They could be in our homes, our hospitals, and our schools, helping us with childcare, elderly care, in rehabilitation from injury or disease, and as social and assistive aids in all sorts of capacities.

But how much do we know about the psychology of our interactions with robots? What should any one social or assistive robot look like? How should it move and react to us –– and to what sorts of information? Should it appear to show “emotions” and be responsive to our own emotions? How much like a person should an assistive robot be? How innovative can we be in designing robots to be responsive assistants and sure supports including in times of stress or in tension-fraught situations?

Let’s take a look at two different recent research studies that explore how we understand and respond to expressions of emotion in robots. . . .

—> See: How do we Read Emotions in Robots: Of social robots, innovation spaces, and creatively finding things out.

Are inquiring minds creative minds? Does curiosity catalyze creativity?

Source:Ronald Keith Monro via Wikimedia Commons

 

We all have likely seen them, at one time or another:  the job advertisements calling for curiosity as part of the desired “package of qualities” of the successful applicant.  The ways in which curiosity is described might differ.  But the message is much the same:  what is needed is (choose the one that most resonates with your past encounters) –– a passion for learning; a thirst for knowledge; an inquiring mind; hands-on curiosity –– paired with innovative and creative thinking, and an ability to think “outside the box.”

The connection between curiosity and creativity seems so clear and obvious, that we scarcely notice that these two different qualities have been linked together.  But what is the empirical evidence for their association?  How closely connected are they, really?  And, if they are associated, what is the direction of their connection:  Does curiosity fuel creativity?  Or does having a creative cast of mind catalyze curiosity?

Despite our intuitive sense that there should be a strong association between curiosity and creativity, only recently has the nature of the connection between them begun to be systematically probed.

For more see: Creativity –– What’s Curiosity Got to Do with It?

Can we be sad and creative too?

Putting sadness in creative focus.
Source: pdpics via Wikimedia Commons

 

Sometimes in trying to understand creativity and emotion we draw hard and fast rules. We are quick to see the potential of positive moods for creativity and for helping us see the big picture. But we underplay the role of negative moods — seeing them as leading us to narrowly focus on the trees, and miss the forest.

Can it be that the human mind, and the human mind when it meets with the messy complexities of emotion, is altogether that simple and tidy? What might happen if (for whatever reason) our thinking processes were predominantly detail-focused and our mood was quite positive? Or if our thinking processes were broad and abstract but our mood was somewhat sad?

—> For more, check out our latest Psychology Today post: “When Emotion Meets Thinking.”

 

Are you recognizing what really energizes your creative making?

Source: m-louis via Wikimedia Commons

Ideas in your head.

Ideas on paper.

Asked which one is better for carrying your creativity forward:  conjuring and imagining ideas in your mind’s eye, or physically sketching them on paper, it’s a fair bet that we’ll say sketching.  Put your ideas on paper.  Capture them.  Put those representations out there –– physically –– in the world.  Grab a pen, a pencil, it doesn’t too much matter, but get those ideas on paper, out there, in the world, not just in your head.

We’ve read this, heard this, been told (and maybe even told ourselves) this many times.  But why?

—For more see:

Making creative headway through attentive looking

Source: smerikal via Wikimedia Commons

Suppose you are searching for a new approach to a pesky but important creative problem.  You’re casting about for any sort of hint, or even the whisper of a hint, as to what you might do.

Scrounging about on the internet one morning you come across an unfamiliar but somehow arresting abstract line-drawing.  Intently looking at the strange drawing, and not even sure of what the image means, you suddenly decide to copy it.  With pencil in hand, you set to work, looking up and back at the unfamiliar drawing again and again, trying your best to faithfully and accurately reproduce the image on the sketching paper in front of you.

Would this intense copying exercise help you with your creative problem?  Or would it, instead, get in the way, obstructing you from making any creative headway?  Could copying an unfamiliar drawing help your own subsequent creative generation?  Or might it, instead, dampen your creative insight and expressiveness?

Tackling just this question, two researchers at the University of Tokyo recently found that copying an unfamiliar art work significantly enhanced the subsequent independent creative drawing of participants.

—> For more see: Speeding Up Your Creativity by Slowing Down: How to use examples for creative inspiration

Hang in there! Creative persistence pays off big!

Source: U.S. Navy photo by Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist Gary Ward via Wikimedia Common

Source: U.S. Navy photo by Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist Gary Ward via Wikimedia Common

How do you feel during those moments when you are being most creative?  Do you confidently and surely know, in the moment, that creative ideas are emerging and forming in your mind?  Is there a smooth, easy, and ready flow of your ideas?  Or is your creative process rather more bumpy and uneven?  Is it more akin to moving –– in small stuttering spurts and starts –– down a pot-hole filled country lane than to gracefully gliding along in a canoe?

What are your assumptions about how the creative idea generation process “should” feel?  How do you know if you should persist in your search for inspiration, or if you’d best turn your mind and efforts to other things?

For recent recent research seeking to answer these questions, see WK’s Psychology Today post, “The Under-Recognized Inspirational Value of Persistence.”

What helps us as inspiration seekers?

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikipedia

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia

Notice the intense look of quietly attentive search on the upturned faces of the boy and of the man in the photo above.  What are they looking for?  Do they know — exactly — what they are attempting to see, or to learn?  Or are they — at least in part — discovering what it is that they are seeking through their looking itself?

Searching for information, or seeking for ideas, can often be like this.  We may have a sense of the general direction in which we should be looking, yet not quite know exactly what it is we seek.

For more see —>  Seeking Idea Sparks: Understanding where and how we seek for inspiration.

What objects or “things” could you bring into play, to help you reach a fresh new view of what’s possible?

Source: Usien via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Usien via Wikimedia Commons

Asked where does thinking take place, maybe we’d answer “in our heads” –– within the internal reaches of our minds.

But is this the full and true story?  Or does it perhaps give too much credit to our mental prowess and powers?  And too little acknowledgment of the many sorts of concrete support that our thinking gets from our physical environment and our ability to physically move and tinker with things?

Does thinking depend not just on how we play with ideas, or thoughts, but also on how we interplay with physical objects — concrete tangible things — existing out there in the world?

—> For more see: Creative Thinking in Action: Sparking insights by using our hands — and things

Getting your creative pacing right

Mountain bikers descending a ridge in the steep hills of the English Lake District. Source: Mick Garratt via Wikimedia Commons.

Mountain bikers descending a ridge in the steep hills of the English Lake District.
Source: Mick Garratt via Wikimedia Commons.

 

What pacing best allows your creative process the space and freedom it needs?

What is the pace of your creative projects?  When starting a new project, do you dive in right from the start, intensively working on it?  Is there a steep climb in your efforts followed by a lull, during which you direct your efforts elsewhere?  Then is it back uphill again as the next project milestone approaches?  Or do you take a slow-but-steady approach, regularly working on the project until it’s done and the deadline arrives?

What might be some of the benefits of an intense start, followed by a lull, when working on a creative project?

For more see: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/our-innovating-minds/201612/deadlines-and-the-pacing-creative-projects

Too perfect: Inviting creativity through improvisable gaps

Take a look at these two images:

icons_finished_unfinished

Source: Jonathan Binks, adapted from McGrath, Bresciani, & Eppler (2016)

How do they make you feel? How are they different?

For some recent research exploring how images that you use can invite you and others to playfully and creatively elaborate on ideas see: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/our-innovating-minds/201611/too-perfect-no-room-newness

Of Puppies, Play, and the Pursuit of Creative Insights

Puppy is to dog, as colt is to . . . .  Source: Jonathan Kriz via Wikimedia Commons

Puppy is to dog, as colt is to . . . . 
Source: Jonathan Kriz via Wikimedia Commons

Awakening our creativity with a few simple words. . . .

How much do you think creativity is something enduring and permanent that remains constant across time, that is, you either have it or you don’t?  Or how much do you think creativity depends on the situation or context you are in, and so fluctuates up and down?

This is the topic of Wilma’s latest Psychology Today blog post. For more please see.

When to detail step? Learning from young minds making things

Source: Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons

 

At any time that we’re making something, there are the big picture goals of where we’re trying to get to and the smaller detailed “how-tos” of actually getting there.

But if we’re helping someone who is creatively learning, which of these (larger goals or how-to details?) should we emphasize? And how much should we directly spell out? What sorts of things might people best learn in the thick of action itself — based on their own observations or noticings of what helps them sidestep snags and stumbling blocks?

Here’s a compelling example of when to stand back and let incidental learning take the reins. It’s an excerpt from a blog post by Kartik Agaram about teaching computer programming to a young student:

“As the exercises he worked on became longer than a screen or two, though, he started noticing for himself that there was a problem: he was having a hard time explaining his solutions to me, or getting help when he got stuck. I’d often ask, “where is the matching counterpart to this bracket?” Or, “where does this loop begin?” Often he wouldn’t know either, and more than once figuring out the answer would also help figure out why his program wasn’t working. One fine day last week I showed up to a lesson and found him imitating my indentation.

I continued to ignore this and focus on the specific problem we were working on, but I’ve been finding myself increasingly reflecting on this one seemingly trivial evolution. Did the fact that he picked up indentation automatically suggest that it was in fact more important than I think? On reflection, I think the lesson is something else: my student magically managed to learn how to indent code, without learning a bunch of undesirable habits and heuristics:

That indentation is more than an incidental detail.

That good programming is about following a set of rules.

That aesthetics matter in code beyond the behavior being implemented.

Basically, my student now indents just like any other programmer (to the extent that anybody should care about it) but knows why he does so, the concrete benefit he derives from it. He is open to changing his habits in the face of changing circumstances. Most important, he doesn’t dwell overly on minor local details compared to the prize: understanding what this program does.”

To think about:

  • What are the parallels to “indentation rules” in your making universe?
  • How do you and your team foster and respond to incidental learning?
  • Are there ways for you to better structure your thinking/playing spaces to take advantage of affordances, and so sidestep things that get in the way?
  • How can you introduce more vicarious learning into your creative worlds?

Play, Newness, and You: How our environments help sustain – or squelch – innovation

KidTribe hula hoopers photographed by Pete Souza via Wikimedia Commons

KidTribe hula hoopers photographed by Pete Souza via Wikimedia Commons

What leads us to try new things? Although there are clear individual differences in our openness to novel experiences, an often overlooked factor that shapes –– and either propels or stalls ­­–– our readiness to explore and to innovate is our day-to-day environment. 

The powerful ways in which daily environments can shape responses to newness and innovative behavior are strikingly revealed in the contrasting behaviors of animals living in the wild compared to their zoo-living peers.

—> For more, and some questions for you to think about, see Wilma’s full Psychology Today blog post here.

Our ongoing tug-of-war with abstraction: ways to use — and not use — abstraction

U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Dan Neely via Wikimedia Commons

Lifting and moving 100-pound sacks of coffee beans is back-breaking work.  Repeatedly grasping, hoisting, and piling the sacks ­­— heavy and awkward with their shifting contents — is a significant health issue for workers.  How might the unloading of these and similar sorts of cargo be made automatic, and ease the burden on workers lugging such heavy loads?

Joining up with a colleague in an interdepartmental research center, researchers in civil and industrial engineering at the University of Pisa in Italy decided to take up this challenging problem.  Specifically, they set themselves the task of developing a “gripper” that could grasp coffee sacks made of a porous material (jute), ranging in weight from 50 pounds to 170 pounds.  The gripper needed to work quickly (grasping or releasing in less than 3 seconds), and without excessively tearing or damaging the jute material.

But the enterprising researchers weren’t just on the quest of a new gripper:  they were using this challenge to test-drive a new “creativity support” method they were developing.  Meant to help designers reach into unexplored idea territory, the multi-step method provides a structured guide for using abstraction and analogy to more effectively generate innovative design concepts.

—> For more see Wilma’s Psychology Today blog post.

How You Think of Creativity Matters! — What are your creativity assumptions?

Source: Marco Consani via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Marco Consani via Wikimedia Commons

What sorts of moves are possible when catching a Frisbee?   And how might our beliefs about flexibility and improvisation limit what we see as attainable?

Beliefs are powerful shapers of who we are, and of the aims, small or big, that we strive to realize in our lives.

Some of our beliefs are familiar to us: they are clear, we know we have them, they come readily to mind, and are easily expressed. But not all of our beliefs are so familiar. Some of our beliefs have a more implicit existence. They are intricately interwoven with our experiences and what we have inferred or assumed, sometimes with little or no conscious awareness.

Where do our beliefs about creativity and the creative process reside on this continuum of explicit versus implicit beliefs? What do we hold to be true about how new insights and new ways of acting come to be? Do we think of creativity as something that is fixed and stable and “trait-like” — such that we either have it, or we don’t? Or do we see creativity as something that can be learned, developed, and improved with practice, guidance, or experience?

For more on creativity beliefs, including some research findings see Wilma’s July Psychology Today post.

Step this way — innovating with virtual reality

Sometimes the concepts of detail stepping and goal synergy can seem somewhat abstract. We thought we’d try to make them concrete through a recent example.

You’ve decided you’d like to check out and test drive the latest Cadillac. So you head to your local Cadillac dealer. Except, that when you get to the lot, there’s no car there and you’re asked to take a seat and don a virtual reality headset. The dealer walks you through virtual options as you vividly explore now one interior/exterior and now another.

So goes a new retail strategy soon to be rolled out in some Cadillac dealerships. Dealers will have the option of one of 5 levels of “reality”— spanning from fully real-world on the lot inventory to entirely virtual vehicles (except for test-drive and service-loaner cars).

This goal synergistic approach doesn’t undermine existing advantages of Cadillac’s many dealerships situated in larger towns and cities. There’s less need for excessive inventory management and logistics. Car buying becomes a more customized, flexible, individual experience, especially suitable to luxury brands.

To think about:

  • Something that seems like a roadblock—could it be a stepping stone?
  • Might you mix and match possibilities—blend the real and virtual where appropriate?
  • Why not pilot test—try out on a smaller scale first?
  • Can this invoke a mutually reinforcing innovation cycle where using virtual reality in one context spurs new innovations in virtual reality itself?

Insights into the creative process: A Q&A with illustrator/writer Mike Lowery

Q&A_image

The lines between author and reader are maybe not as sharply drawn as they used to be. Book 1 of Mike Lowery’s Doodle Adventures is a great example. “You draw the story!” the book’s cover tells us. And so we do…

But what’s the story behind the story?

Just as Lowery asks his young readers to pledge to “finish this book to get our heroes home safe at the end,” I asked him to pledge to freely improvise answering questions about his own creative journeys.

Lowery_oath

Each of the 8 questions I posed to him draw upon the science-based way of thinking about innovative thought and action that we develop in Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change. You can find the Q & A here.

New ways to think about how to turn limitations into helpful guides and goads

All of us have deadlines and limitations on how much money, time, and other resources we have for our creative projects.

We can see these constraints as irksome or anxiety provoking, and this they sometimes are! But is this our only option?

In the words of musician Joe Henry: “You don’t have endless resources and endless time. I don’t see that as an obstruction. Instead, I see it as something else that’s guiding us.”

Sometimes what we see as blocking our way can be just what we need to creatively guide us forward. . .

For how constraints can be both guides and goads, see Wilma’s Psychology Today blog post: Corner Flags, Constraints, and Creativity.

Our constraints can be seen as "corner flags." Image source: Idlir Fida via Wikimedia Commons

Our constraints can be seen as “corner flags.” Image source: Idlir Fida via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

When to go with the tried & true and when to reach out for something new?

Our Innovating Minds Mar 1

Congratulations!  You’ve just won a prize: $2,000 to go on a weekend trip for two. There is a catch, though.  You need to decide where you want to go, and who would go with you, in just one hour.

A simple answer might be to travel to the place you went last year for a short time.  You know a perfect spot to stay, you know your way around well, and the scenery, climate, and the food were superb.

But wait!  This is an unprecedented opportunity for you to take a leap in a different, never-before-explored direction.  It beckons you with unexpected and unfamiliar sights, sounds, and sensations.

What to do?

Should we “dwell” or should we “roam”?

Even though you’ve never previously faced this particular — and imaginary — scenario, you’ve encountered many like it in different guises.  We face this dilemma all of the time.  We regularly have to “scout out” different options, within time and financial or other limits, choosing whether to delve more deeply into what we already know or instead to jump across into unfamiliar territory.

—>For more see Wilma’s Psychology Today post “When to go and when to stay: Creativity needs both ‘novel reachings’ and ‘wise repeatings.’

“Let’s find our own thing”

cafe

A recent interview with the award-winning chef and restaurateur Alex Roberts was rich in wisdom on the creative process. The long-time owner of Twin Cities-based Restaurant Alma and Brasa and the forthcoming Café Alma spoke with the Star Tribune’s Rick Nelson.

Here we interweave some of Alex Roberts’s thoughts (in bold italics) with a few of our own (in regular text).

“I’m trying to create a new definition of what a cafe is.”

A café is a category of possible things, and like all categories somewhat pliable. Categories aren’t completely rigid, so that’s our invitation to play with them and give them new slants of meaning. And the categories we use to think about objects, places, and events can go through cycles of re-envisioning and revisiting, based on meldings of other — real and imagined — times and places.

“. . . that’s one of my disciplines, to choose the thought that’s more about the possibility.”

Even though there’s nearly always a more conventional or negative interpretation available to us, we’re not compelled to choose that interpretation. We can choose to give optimism a place to grow and thrive.

“The relevancy and resiliency combination are maybe the biggest challenge for restaurants.”

How do restaurants stay relevant — across the entire day and throughout the year? And how do they, at the same time, maintain their resilience across setbacks, recessions, shifting demographics, or fluctuating trends? Staying both relevant and resilient is a large part of an organization’s so-called absorptive capacity.

Whether large or small, organizations need to be receptive to changes and emerging new knowledge and capabilities around them in order to stay relevant. By constantly learning, an organization stays resilient, bouncing back better from setbacks, and turning what would otherwise be liabilities into assets.

“To be honest, the constraints around the [small kitchen] space have forced us to be creative and collaborative to make it work.”

Constraints and creativity go hand in hand. Indeed, one group of neuroscientists recently defined creativity as “novel generation fitted to the constraints of a particular task.”

“The good stuff in life comes from between the lines. It’s about enjoying the process and not just the end result. That’s what we try to foster here, otherwise you’re always living in the future, and not in the moment.”

So wise! We can always ask “so what?” but very often much of the true meaning of our projects and endeavors is in the concrete doing and making itself.

“I was looking for inspiration, but I realized that I was losing this thread that was running through me. That is, my own vision. For better, or worse. So I started sitting down with a blank piece of paper — or an old menu, since they reflect our past — and try to create from there.”

What’s being described here is, in part, what the pioneering dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp calls “scratching.” Others call it searching or scouting. Whichever term you prefer, it’s important to experiment to uncover those methods of search that best work for you — more often leading you to high caliber ideas.

Turning to an old printed menu or two from the restaurant, is also, in part, what we in Innovating Minds call “wise repeating.” The best ideas are not always completely new but can be variations on, or contain traces of, your own earlier tried and true ideas.

“I’m trying not to be so inward that I’m stuck in my own world, but you want to have this authentic process. Let’s find our own thing.”

Yes, yes, “let’s find our own thing” and our own “authentic process(es)” for getting there. . . .

 

“for anyone with an interest in how the creative process works . . . ”

cultivating creative thinking

A strong review of Innovating Minds — just out in the American Psychological Association’s journal PsycCRITIQUES (February 2016). Written by Professor Liane Gabora, an expert in creativity research, here are a few of her review comments that really popped out for us:

  • “. . . an exciting new framework for thinking about creativity and fueling innovative change in the world.”
  • “Although the basic concept of adaptively moving in abstraction space is not new, the authors do an unprecedented job of exploring its implications for fostering creative thinking and bringing about innovative change.”
  • “. . . the authors do an excellent job of coming up with interesting and potentially effective exercises for altering and playing with the way in which you think about creative problems and tasks.”
  • “. . . because of its readability, I would also recommend it highly for anyone with an interest in how the creative process works or for someone who wants to kickstart his or her own creative juices.”

“A mosaic of creative approaches” — our book recommended in CHOICE.

We just heard from our publisher that our book Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change was reviewed — and recommended — in the February 2016 issue of Choice, published by the American Library Association.

Professor Bernard Beins of Ithaca College began his review: “In judging whether creative problem solving is inborn or learned, Koutstaal (Univ. of Minnesota) and Binks (a specialist in organizational innovation) come down firmly on the side of learned.” And he concludes: “Ultimately, this book is useful for identifying a mosaic of creative approaches rather than suggesting that there is a single simplistic, but unrealistic, formula.”

We’re pleased that he captured both the key insights and nuances of our book such as the “complex dynamics” involved in creativity, especially with its “simultaneously moving parts.”

Can we train ourselves to be more mentally flexible?

There is not one single master key for sustaining mental agility. Source: Dinkum via Wikimedia Commons

There is not one single master key for sustaining mental agility. Source: Dinkum via Wikimedia Commons

 

What keeps us mentally agile? Can we train ourselves to be more mentally flexible?

There is continued debate on whether more narrowly focused forms of “brain training” on specific tasks are actually beneficial. Often the training simply enhances performance on the trained-on task itself, with little effect carrying over to unrelated tasks. And some claims for the benefits of narrowly focused brain training are exaggerated and misleading. However, it’s not all pessimistic.

There is growing hope, based on a wide range of theoretical and empirical findings in humans (e.g., Karr et al., 2014) and other animals (e.g., Kempermann, 2012)) that creatively combining different types of cognitive training can work — especially if the training includes novelty and variety.

Creativity packets

Consider what seems to be a relatively simple and straightforward task. You are given a few dozen multi-colored pipe cleaners, and asked to use them to create a small vase filled with flowers. . . .

For more see Wilma’s Psychology Today blog post: “Being Creative about Staying Creative.”

Staying the course

Korean traffic detour sign. Source: P.Ctnt via Wikimedia Commons.

Korean traffic detour sign. Source: P.Ctnt via Wikimedia Commons.

Take a look at this Apple web page describing ways producer/musician Greg Kurstin, in working with the singer/songwriter Adele, anticipates — and eludes — likely detours during their creative process.

  • What are the materials that are ready to hand/ready to mind for Kurstin? How did they get there?
  • How does he clear the path to capturing ideas? What different ways does he use to make sure his ideas don’t escape?
  • How do gaps in time contribute to their creative process?
  • How does the thinking-making process repeatedly interweave between singer/songwriter and producer/musician?

With these insights in mind, what possible obstacles are detouring you on your creative path — and how could you better elude them?

Salt and sharing

Situated on the Lower Manhattan waterfront, near Hudson River Park, the new Spring Street Salt Shed can hold up to 5,000 tons of de-icing road salt.

But it’s no ordinary “shed.”

Taking inspiration from the crystalline form of salt itself, the 69-foot tall building evokes other analogies. As David W. Dunlap of The New York Times describes it: “Folded, creased, dimpled and chamfered, its windowless, enigmatic facade is like a monumental work of origami.”

A macro shot of salt crystals taken in the Natural History Museum of Vienna. Source: w?odi via Wikimedia

A macro shot of salt crystals taken in the Natural History Museum of Vienna. Source: w?odi via Wikimedia

And it doesn’t stand alone.

Partnered with a five-story, 425,000-square-foot New York City Department of Sanitation garage, also designed by Dattner Architects with WXY Architecture + Urban Design, the two buildings share more than proximity.

The buildings share a palpable sense of responsibility for their role in their neighborhoods. Let us count (some of) the ways:

  • the garage has a sound-blocking curtain wall for noise reduction
  • to stay in tune with surrounding buildings, the garage’s height was kept low, retaining the character of the neighborhood
  • topped with a “green roof” the LEED-certified garage offers, along with energy and environmental benefits, visual pleasure for those who overlook it from nearby buildings
  • along the street, the Salt Shed’s walls gently taper in, providing ample pedestrian space
  • inside, too, there’s consideration for multiple stakeholders as the garage includes a gym for employees and a central staircase invites them to opt to take the stairs rather than energy-intensive elevators (it’s part of the NYC Active Design program)
  • from a broader perspective, the integration of important utility buildings throughout the city reduces undue burdens on any one area, while also minimizing vehicle miles, with corresponding improvements in air quality

Similarly, how could your next creative project synergistically incorporate the values of “sharing” across a range of dimensions and constraints: aesthetics, sustainability, health and well-being, efficiency, collective responsibility and “neighborliness”? . . .

Brains, bridges, and creativity boosts

bridges_four

Picturing a swing-bridge in action. Source: adapted from Y tambe, Wikimedia Commons

“Truly, one of the most joyous things that I do in preparing for a performance is the warming-up part.” 
– opera singer Jessye Norman (from her 2014 book Stand Up Straight and Sing! p. 53)

Dancers and drummers, singers and swimmers, all regularly warm-up before their performances. Should we, too, sometimes be warming up before diving into a creative endeavor? If so, how might we better ready ourselves to innovatively think and make? And why might it work?

For creativity boosting suggestions and for how creativity might relate to swing-bridges and brains, see Wilma’s latest Psychology Today post.

Creative change in a century-old company: A video case study

We invite you to watch an insightful 60-minute video of Stanford professor Haim Mendelson talking with Dr. Leonard Lane of the Fung Group. The Fung Group traces its origins back more than 100 years, and has successfully embraced changes of many shapes and kinds.

As you listen to their conversation on business model innovations across time, consider how these three concepts might work in tandem:

(1) Aims in view/goal tuning (Innovating Minds, pages 212 – 231).

How does the Fung Group’s three-year (non-rolling) plan allow for a longer-term view and provide for crucial “temporal slack,” with room to experiment and gather feedback?

(2) Motivating exploration and purposefully learning to vary (Innovating Minds, pages 146 – 159).

How does the Fung Group’s new “Explorium” facilitate prototyping and making/finding?

(3) Absorptive capacity (Innovating Minds, pages 181 – 188).

How does the Fung Group’s “70/30 rule” have implications for learning, experimentation, and how they extend what they know—and can do?

Seeing and being seen: Process innovation at work

We wrote, in an earlier post, about an experiment that showed that employee innovation improved when employees on an assembly line were hidden (by a privacy curtain) from constant higher-level managerial supervision. Does this mean that privacy is always best? Or does it depend? Are there cases when, rather than being curtained off, it would be better to open up and be more transparent?

In a recent series of real-world and online experiments, now using food service as an example, researchers Ryan W. Buell & Tami Kim of Harvard Business School and Chia-Jung Tsay of University College London pitted two possibilities against one other.

When a chef is preparing simple grilled food for a customer, in full view of the customer, maybe that seems to the chef that she is being monitored and this brings with it an undesirable defensiveness. Or — alternatively — does knowing who the food is being prepared for lead to an increased sense of the meaningfulness of the work and a greater sense of the value of the work being done?

To answer these and other questions, the researchers used an ingenious placement of iPads with videoconferencing software as silent “virtual windows” in a cafeteria. The tablets were set up in one of four configurations: (1) the chef could see the customer, but the customer couldn’t see the chef; (2) the customer could see the chef, but not vice-versa; (3) they mutually could see each other; or (4) neither could see the other.

When both the customer and the chef could see one another using the “virtual window,” customers were significantly more satisfied (22.2%) with their food, compared with baseline observations. And this customer satisfaction improvement was not accompanied by any slowdown in service; instead service speed tended to increase.

But this raises yet another question. Was the customer more satisfied because they received preferential treatment in how their food was prepared? To answer this, the researchers devised a new “sandwich purchasing” experiment. Customers who had just purchased a sandwich at a university dining room were offered a special opportunity to preorder online a custom-made sandwich for the next day.

When they arrived the next day, one-half of the participants (randomly assigned) who had chosen the preorder option were met by an experimenter who directly led them to the preordered sandwich storage area and gave them their order. The remaining participants were also met by an experimenter, but here they were asked to join a line and watch while the chef prepared sandwiches (although not their particular preordered sandwich) before they, too, were escorted to the sandwich cooler where they were given their preordered sandwich. In this case the customer could see the chef but the chef could not have influenced the quality of the sandwich because it had already been prepared before the customer had arrived.

Even though they had to wait, the participants who saw the chef at work perceived the sandwich-making service as significantly more valuable than those who retrieved their sandwiches directly.

These two real-world experiments suggest that process transparency can be beneficial in multiple ways. But both of these experiments involved students at a  university in the northeast United States — how generalizable might these results be? To address this issue, the investigators turned to a broader range of participants available via Amazon’s online Mechanical Turk.

Participants (including a subset from rural Kenya) were asked to watch a 2-minute video of a service interaction at a cafeteria sandwich counter. They were randomly assigned to watch one of three different videos. They saw: (1) a customer hand an order to a non-chef who then relayed it to the chef (here neither the chef nor the sandwich-making process were visible); (2) a customer hand the order directly to the chef who then made the sandwich out of view; or (3) a customer hand the order directly to the chef who then made the sandwich while in full view.

Participants who watched the third video, in which both the chef and process were in full view throughout, perceived more effort by the chef and appreciated the chef significantly more than either of the other groups. Using path analysis, the researchers found that observing the chef at work led to increased perceived effort, which was in turn associated with enhanced appreciation, which in turn led to higher perceived value.

In a follow-up Mechanical Turk experiment, the researchers offered the same set of encounters as above — except this time filmed from the point of view of the chef. Those who saw the two videos, from the chef’s perspective, interacting directly with a customer whether or not the customer saw the sandwich-making process, reported significantly higher intended effort and job satisfaction on the part of the chef, even though they also felt more monitored.

So what can we learn from this series of experiments, taken in conjunction with the earlier “privacy curtain experiments”?

Here are some thoughts:

  • there are sometimes subtle ways that our environments enter into our thinking and making
  • not one size fits all: the benefits for innovation of privacy and visibility are context-dependent
  • when we think of what fosters innovation we need to keep in mind that we are meaning-making, meaning-seeking beings
  • whereas privacy can promote experimentation, risk-taking, and improvisation, transparency can prevent over-abstraction by making visible, that is concretely real, tangible, and perceptible, who the work is for and who is doing the work, benefiting both.
  • process innovation comes in many forms including how, specifically, we are aware of one another. Or as the researchers Buell, Kim, & Chia-Jung Tsay conclude their paper: “In a culture where speed and automaticity often trump other values, we suggest that seeing and appreciating the people who help us, and allowing them to see us in return, can lead to experiences that are objectively better and more fulfilling for everyone involved.”

How do we (really) keep our creative momentum?

We often like to simplify things but — let’s face it — creativity is a messy business. It’s filled with trial and error, trying this and trying that. It reaches across time (minutes, hours, weeks or months, sometimes years) and space. It’s rife with unpredictable spurts forward and sudden stops or detours as unforeseen obstacles loom on the horizon. How then can we ever see “inside creativity” — peering into this dynamically changing thinking-making process to learn what works well, and what doesn’t?

One promising approach is to generate a sort of “creative micro-world” —setting out a creative challenge that can be taken up in a somewhat limited period of time (say a few hours), with specific constraints and goals. Then the entire thinking-making process of creative designers or engineers can be observed (perhaps videotaped and audiotaped). The designers might also be asked to “think aloud” — telling us, moment by moment, what they’re thinking, what problem they’re facing, what options they see, or what next steps they’re mentally testing out (or ruling out). . . .

For more please see WK’s Psychology Today post “Inside Creativity: Charting Innovation as it Happens.”

A Book Review of Innovating Minds

We thought we’d let you know that Susan K. Perry recently reviewed Innovating Minds on her Psychology Today blog. We think she really “gets it.” She talks about the need for adapting our cognitive control on a moment-to-moment basis to best meet our current creative challenges. And she underscores that our goals need “elbow room.”

Here’s some of what she wrote in her post “5 Fresh Ways to Meet the Challenge of Creativity”:

“Another book about how to be more creative? There’s always room for a good one. . . . This isn’t by any means a simple self-help-ish sort of book, but rather a scientifically sound system for enhancing creativity.”

She then deftly summarizes five key take-away points. Here’s her point number one:

“1. ‘Detail stepping’ is the process by which we move up and down in our levels of abstraction as we develop and expand our unfolding ideas. Avoid the risk of overvaluing abstraction. That is, particulars and concreteness are at least as important as getting the big picture and seeing larger patterns.”

For more, see her blog post here.

Seven ways to start and keep your writing going

Beginnings are tough. But if we’d only get started, our marks and words on the page can bootstrap our next moves. Marks and words on the page feed what in neuroscience is called our brain’s “perception-action” cycle. Through this biologically fundamental mechanism, we repeatedly act on the world, and then look to see what our actions have wrought in the world. The world talks back to us, telling us how close we are, or how far we are, from what we’d hoped to achieve (our goals).

Once the words are on the page or on the screen, they’re physical objects (out there in the environment) that we can see and move. Now we’ve embarked on a three-way conversation of mind-brain-environment. We’re in a making-finding cycle, in which we are partnered with the world, rather than being isolated in our own head.

Continue reading WK’s OUP blog post for the 7 pointers here

The continuing cycle of making and finding. Adapted from: Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change.

The continuing cycle of making and finding. Adapted from: Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change.

.

What’s your creative destination?

In launching any new endeavor, much depends on how creatively and flexibly we spell out—and interpret—our shorter and longer-term aims. This is a crucial process that tests our imagination, inquisitiveness, and purposefulness. It’s a process that we explore throughout our book, Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change.

Here we offer an essential starting point—flexible problem definition—for discovering your creative destination, illustrated by two recent examples.

Example 1: IBM’s efforts to incorporate more design thinking

From The New York Times: “At a course in New York recently, a group of IBM managers were given pads and felt-tip pens and told to sketch designs for “the thing that holds flowers on a table” in two minutes. The results, predictably, were vases of different sizes and shapes.

Next, they were given two minutes to design ‘a better way for people to enjoy flowers in their home.’ In Round 2, the ideas included wall placements, a rotating flower pot run by solar power and a software app for displaying images of flowers on a home TV screen.”

Example 2: Jeanne Gang, of Studio Gang architects, on goals and values

From a talk by architect Jeanne Gang: “It’s about balancing and trying to find out what the question really is of a project. So if we were doing something that seemed like something that didn’t automatically or obviously have a social approach, we would try to pair it with something else. It’s about designing your own projects. What do you want the project to be about? . . .

It’s always a dilemma, it’s always something that you have to work at trying to create, to make a project more than what you are given on a brief. Because if you just took the brief at face value, then you wouldn’t be contributing . . . . Some projects are very hard to re-engineer in terms of their brief and others lend themselves to it well. That’s really the creative process right there, I think, for me.”

What do we learn from these two examples? We see that it’s not just the clarity of our objectives that matters. It’s also: How expansive should our “goal net” be, and what’s our “net” letting in—or keeping out? How does our destination intersect with our longer-term values and aims in view?

 

Sources:

Steve Lohr, “IBM’s Design-Centered Strategy to Set Free the Squares.” The New York Times, November 14, 2015

Jeanne Gang, “Expeditions in the Contemporary City.” Talk at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, February 12, 2015.

Keep Moving . . .

Asked to conjure up a mental image of someone who is thinking, many of us will envision a seated figure.  Perhaps we imagine something like Auguste Rodin’s famous statue of “The Thinker” — he leans over, resting his chin on his hand, still, silently lost in thought.

But opposing this sedentary image there may be other images or recollections that come to mind instead.  Prompted by our associations, we may bring to mind, instead, the prodigious walking habits of such diverse thinker/creators as Charles Darwin, Ludwig van Beethoven, or more recently, the intense walking-meetings of the late CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs.

. . . For more on “tracking down how and why physical activity boosts creative thinking” see Wilma’s Psychology Today post here.

New ways of listening

How can we creatively enhance our musical experiences? Are there ways we can make spaces for more intimate close listening—benefiting both performers and audiences?

One new worldwide movement is known as Sofar (Songs From A Room) Sounds. Originating about 5 years ago in London, Sofar Sounds describes their intimate living room concerts like this:

“We ask that 100% of your attention is given to the music. That means no talking/texting during the performances. We strive to create an environment where music is respected. Come on time and stay until the end.”

Here is how singer-songwriter Kate Davis tells it:

“I’ve had qualms with ‘performances’ before, within many genre types. Sometimes performances can be circus-y. Calculated. Emotionally reserved. Perhaps even a situation where the audience feels alienated. . . . However, my main intention is to communicate, share my art, and offer some kind of message. . . . With an experience like Sofar Sounds, the opportunities for sharing and communication are endless. You sit right in front of someone who is listening to your every word, feeling your every harmonic move, and thus truly committing themselves to your musical moment.”

And then, taking a slightly different approach, there’s The Bugle Boy with its 80-seat listening room, in La Grange, Texas. Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, The Bugle Boy offers:

“a space where you go to listen. Talking is not permitted during a performance. A Listening Room environment creates the best and most intimate experience that an artist can share with an attentive audience. It’s like having a personal, live concert in your own living room!”

Creatively enhancing our musical experiences can take other new forms. The Bugle Boy partners with the online performance provider Concert Window. Self-described as “passionate about bringing live music online, in a way that helps musicians, venues, and fans,” Concert Window uses contemporary digital technology to re-present intimate live music into our own “living room” listening spaces.

Singer-songwriter John Fullbright recently playing at The Bugle Boy—and more broadly shared via Concert Window—epitomizes these new/old ways of experiencing music:

“Goal tuning” at Apple, Inc.

How do Apple’s major products relate to one another in a logical and practical way? And how does Apple seek to ensure compelling functions for each of their devices, large and small?

In a recent interview Phil Schiller, senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing, spelled out a deceptively simple logic for how Apple’s products all work together—almost like a set of inter-nested Russian dolls:

“The job of the watch is to do more and more things on your wrist so that you don’t need to pick up your phone as often. The job of the phone is to do more and more things such that maybe you don’t need your iPad, and it should be always trying and striving to do that. The job of the iPad should be to be so powerful and capable that you never need a notebook.”

Following the logic through, the function of the iMac desktop computer must then be to surpass the roles of its smaller siblings: “Its job is to challenge what we think a computer can do and do things that no computer has ever done before, be more and more powerful and capable so that we need a desktop because of its capabilities,” said Schiller.

How might we think of this approach in terms of what we, in Innovating Minds, call goal tuning?

The Five Interrelated Components of Goal Tuning

The Five Interrelated Components of Goal Tuning

 

Clearly, it’s an example of goal synergy—purposefully pursuing multiple goals as interconnected. The addition of new players such as the Apple Watch and the iPad Pro are instances of “goal making/goal finding” and “goal updating” as the new products emerged, in part, from concrete insights gained from using the other devices. Their approach also helps with knowing which future and long-term goals should be endorsed (and articulated).

—> For additional background

Steven Levy, “The Inside Story of Apple’s New iMacs,” Backchannel

“Ever-Renewing Goals and Keeping Our Aims in View,” in Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change, pages 212—231

Innovating Minds is now available!—A few book updates

Our book, Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change is now available from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Oxford University Press, and other booksellers.

Innovating_Minds_book_image

Here’s some advance praise for the book:

“I love this book. It is intellectually satisfying, eminently practical, and beautifully presented. I cannot think of another book that appreciates how much of creativity is due to individual and institutional choice. That choice is to engage in specific, well-founded strategies that increase the chances of success. Instead of succumbing to the belief that creativity is the province of exceptional individuals, the authors deliver scientifically tested strategies we can all use. Even better, they explain why the strategies work. Readers will be able to generate their own creative ways to increase their creativity. It is hard to do better than that.”
DANIEL SCHWARTZ, Nomellini and Olivier Professor of Educational Technology, Stanford University

“Innovation is central to implementing corporate responsibility, sustainability, and change leadership. Societies and organizations direly need new theories and action to make real progress on persistent wicked problems. The new integrative framework in this stimulating book, incorporating the latest insights and research from fields ranging from neuroscience to empathic design, will be as useful to start-up and multinational businesses as it will be to non-profits and governments searching for creative solutions to ongoing challenges. I could have used it in my own prior leadership activities, and certainly will use it in my current activities and teaching.”
CHIP PITTS, Former Chief Legal Officer of Nokia, Inc. and Former Chair of Amnesty International, USA

A “TALENT” for creativity

Here’s our interpretation of what it means to have a “TALENT” for creativity:

TALENT=

Tenacity (revealed through iterative prototyping, experimenting, resilience)

Absorption (staying in the present, avoiding distraction)

Long-term goals (stretching ourselves, endorsing creativity as an explicit goal—in line with our enduring values)

Emotions (recognizing emotions as providing valuable guiding information, maintaining a balance between eager optimism and cautious skepticism)

Noticing (paying attention to small details and general patterns, heedfully “taking care” in our creative contexts)

Telling (giving and receiving feedback, communicating verbally, visually, gesturally)

Berries and bubble wrap

Let’s look together at “Strawberries (fresh forever).” It’s a recent work by the photographer Lucas Blalock, and is part of the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Ocean of Images: New Photography 2015.

What do we see?

16 variously ripe red strawberries are laid out in 4×4 grid on a layer of bubble wrap, itself spread out upon what looks like a wooden table. Accompanying each strawberry is a small superimposed or overlaid/overlapping photographed image of a wrapped strawberry candy with its tightly folded wrapper itself conveying a stylized image of a strawberry. Just as each fruit is slightly different, so too is each candy partner. The bubble wrap too is far from uniform—we notice a tear, a crease, it looks a bit worn atop the (apparent? symbolic?) wood-grained table.

What might be going on here? What might this intimately subtle photograph be telling us about representation and re-representation—especially about how we use and live with abstraction? How might it help us to understand detail stepping and the value of zooming in and out?

Think again of the photo’s depicted candy wrappers. Wrappers separate the candy and preserve and protect and identify it. But what does the “actual” candy hidden within its tidy wrapper look like, or smell like? And how does the highly homogenized image of the strawberry on each wrapper relate to its (photographed) companion fruit? And then there’s the 4×4 “grid”—or is it 8×8?

Among other things, the deceptively simple “fresh forever” strawberries photograph takes us on a wonderful detail-stepping journey by inviting us to explore varying levels of abstraction.

As we point out in Innovating Minds (on page 52):

“We have a choice in the abstractions we use. From moment to moment we can move up or down one or more levels, or stay at a given level of abstraction, moving along a level laterally. Often our experiences in themselves do not conclusively indicate which abstractions we might best use. Exchanging or alternating between the abstractions we are using can help us to see events—and relations between events—in a new way. Trying out a new abstraction may reveal connections to previously overlooked concrete particulars and also significant cross-connections between our more abstract readings of a situation.”

Strawberry

Agile music-making

We may have encountered the term “embodied cognition” in recent research showing the surprising interrelations of our minds and brains with our bodies—but here’s a twist.

How might the tuxedo and formal apparel of a violinist in a symphony orchestra detract from their freedom of movement, active expression, and basic physical comfort?

Although creating an experience of ethereal beauty, performing classical music can be sweaty work. In the words of one concert violinist after playing Berlioz’s epically passionate Symphonie Fantastique: “We were sweating through our undershirts, through our tuxedo shirts. My bow tie was completely soaked.”

agile_music_making

Must this be in the 21st century?

By evening a concert violinist, by day an entrepreneurial Dallas businessman, Kevin Yu after his morning run found himself wondering why couldn’t formal concert garb be more like athletic wear?

That was the start of an idea whose time had surely come. Yu soon began prototyping new forms of tuxedo shirts made of fabric that was accommodating, moisture-wicking, and flexible just like his running gear. Although he tried to keep his prototypes under wraps—word soon spread and orders and requests poured in.

As Yu’s friend a Dallas Symphony Orchestra co-concertmaster mused: “You kind of wonder why it didn’t exist in the marketplace to begin with . . . A lot of us just took it for granted: that that’s the way it had to be because that’s the way it always was.”

What else in our worlds might be just like this. . . .

 

—> For more background and the quotations cited above see:

Michael Cooper, Taking the starch out of concert attire, The New York Times, August 18, 2015.

Guinness beer, “absorptive capacity,” and innovation

In its everyday sense, to absorb something refers to our ability to take it in or soak it up or learn it well. But how do organizations absorb new knowledge or skills?

In Innovating Minds (p. 183), we explore what has been called the “absorptive capacity” of an organization. Absorptive capacity refers to:

“the ways in which teams and organizations evaluate, receive, and integrate new ‘external knowledge.’ [It] depends on their dynamic ability to recognize the value of new external information, assimilate it, and apply it. This capacity of an organization to productively absorb new information . . . applies not only to concepts but also to skills and meta-skills or ‘skills of skills,’ such as learning to learn. Appreciating the potential value of new information is something that may not come easily or automatically and needs to be fostered.”

So what’s this all got to do with Guinness beer and innovation?

Let’s travel back in time—to October 1899—in Dublin Ireland. The Guinness Brewery has just hired the young William Gosset, fresh out of New College, Oxford. Gosset’s stellar academic performance in math and chemistry has brought him to the attention of the company and he is recruited as a junior brewer. He will be joining four other recent recruits—all selected to spearhead a newly launched “scientific” approach to brewing.

Gossett soon is confronted with the very practical problem of what to make of the results of their many experiments with samples of malt and hops and plots of barley. Because of financial and other constraints, all of their experiments are based on very small sample sizes. It’s difficult to reach firm conclusions with such small samples because the numbers bounce around so much from one sample to the next.

He begins to see that standard practices won’t work and writes an internal company report suggesting a way forward. The report is well received.

But he and the company’s leadership realize that they need greater expertise and exposure to the very latest statistical methodology—that is only available outside the company. With this in mind, the company grants Gosset a one-year leave to go to England to study at University College London (UCL) with the pioneering statistician Karl Pearson.

Once at UCL, and working collaboratively with Pearson, Gosset recognizes that his small sample problems will require their own unique approach. This heralds the development of foundational insights that allow sound inferences to be drawn even from small sample sizes and a publication leading to what is now known as Student’s t-test. (If you have ever encountered this statistical test to compare two means, “Student” is a pseudonym adopted by William Gosset—see below.)

The fact that the company directly encouraged Gosset to leave Dublin to acquire deeper knowledge underscores that the organization understood the value of purposefully “absorbing” new knowledge and meta-skills into their idea landscapes. The company realized it needed to reach beyond its considerable internal expertise to draw on the insights and novel methods of others—extending its absorptive capacity.

Gosset_paper_1908

—> For further background see:

Phillip J. Boland (2011). William Sealy Gosset — An Inspiring ‘Student’,’ Proceedings of the 58th World Statistical Congress (Session STS028), pages 2650-2655.

When sometimes it helps to forget

Sometimes to make progress in our creative thinking we need to forge ahead in a new direction, setting aside and even forgetting what we’ve tried in the past. But just how intentional does that forgetting need to be?

Redirecting our focus to something entirely new will change our idea landscapes. It can make our previous ideas less accessible to us. This can be a good thing if those ideas were stale or were misleading us.

In a series of experiments, researchers provided participants with a list of several common objects (newspaper, spoon, paperclip, etc.). Each object was accompanied by a list of 4 alternative uses for that object that the participant was asked to study. Here, for instance, are the 4 alternative uses for “bucket”: music amplifier, seat, wear as a hat, small bathtub.

Asked a short while later to generate new uses for the same common objects participants often showed that they had unintentionally forgotten many of the alternative uses they had studied earlier. This “thinking-induced forgetting” was apparent even when participants were given specific cues to help them to remember the studied items.

When the researchers evaluated the creativity of the suggested alternative uses that the participants had generated they found something intriguing. The thinking-induced forgetting was greater for those who were the most creative.

As the researchers explained: “by inhibiting or in some way setting aside the studied uses, participants were able to explore a more diverse and original search space, leading them to generate more creative uses.”

In another experiment, though, the researchers found that if the participants were instructed to use the provided 4 uses as hints to generate additional alternative uses—then there was no thinking-induced forgetting. The same information, now used as hints, for possible uses for a bucket (music amplifier, seat, wear as a hat, small bathtub) was now no longer forgotten and acted to associatively cue ideas that were less creative.

The fate of the provided uses was different depending on how the participants were asked to treat them—either as something to avoid or as something to prompt their idea generation. In the hint condition there was less forgetting—but also less creativity.

conceptual search spaces

From a broader perspective, this illustrates ongoing and adaptive changes in our dynamic idea landscapes with some ideas becoming more reachable and others less accessible. In our idea landscapes thoughts are always forming and re-forming, with some ideas rising to peak awareness and others receding.

 

—> For more on the experiments described above see:

Benjamin C. Storm and Trisha N. Patel (2014). Forgetting as a consequence and enabler of creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, volume 40, number 6, pages 1594-1609. The quotation is found on page 1603.

Cycling Change

According to a recent article in The Guardian, more than one-quarter of trips in the Netherlands are made by bicycle (this rises to 38% in Amsterdam) versus only 2% in the UK. Yet, this wasn’t always so in Holland, especially in the 1970s—how did such a change come about?

As we read the article, we learn that the change was driven and carried by both bottom up and top down factors. Parents in neighborhoods were galvanized into action by the large number of child injuries and deaths caused by the influx, increasing dominance, and unquestioned prerogative of car traffic. The introduction of car-free Sundays in Amsterdam (a form of experiential variation) concretely reminded residents of what it had been like before the reign of the car.

Some obstacles to promoting the use of bicycles on city streets were not as unbudgeable as expected (e.g., even early on there was police receptivity and cooperation). External events and circumstances also played along, including steeply rising gas prices during the 1970s energy crisis. There was, too, a prescient recognition of the cumulative adverse health effects of air pollution from automobiles.

City-wide experimentation yielded new insights and provided crucial data. A pioneer city in the Netherlands tested the idea of a single bike route coursing through the city. Disappointing results from this approach prompted another city to successfully explore a more varied and networked multiple set of bike paths.

Even once new bicycle paths and infrastructure for cyclists were successfully implemented, change called for other changes—how to find spaces to park so many bicycles, the need for wider lanes to accommodate the increased number of cyclists, etc.

Change takes many forms. Sometimes we edge forward, sometimes we leap forward and at other times we need to step back. As we observe in Innovating Minds (page 171), “Change in organizations [and society] may concurrently arise from multiple sources, ranging from the planned to the emergent and from the internally to the externally driven: ‘In most organizations, transformations will occur through a variety of logics.’ ”

—> The quotation on the many logics of change is found on page 67 of: Orlikowski, W. J. (1996). Improvising organizational transformation over time: A situated change perspective. Information Systems Research, 7, 63–92.

The Magic of “Inside Out”

If you’ve just seen, or are about to see, the magically profound and profoundly magical Pixar film “Inside Out,” here are a few questions we invite you to think about:

  • What might it mean to have a control console in your head?
  • Fear, sadness, anger, joy, disgust… each is so identifiable and tangibly distinct, so affectionately near yet far. Why is caricaturing these emotions so helpful?
  • If memories aren’t really little crystal-ball-like orbs, what are they?
  • If we touch a memory (recall it), how and why do we modify it?
  • In order to grow and meet changing circumstances, how important is it to forget (or to re-characterize) our past?
  • How can all of our emotions work better together as team players—integrating and tempering each other, in ongoing interplay with our changing goals?
  • If you could add to the console team other emotions, beyond the five, what would they be, and why?

 

 

Jumping in—to get ideas

Recently, talking to an experienced designer, we heard that her colleagues often intentionally waited a long time before they actually got started on a new project. By delaying and deeply mulling creative options over in their minds they felt that their work would be stronger and more creative.

But is this “working entirely in our heads” the best approach? What might be gained if we just got going sooner?

Some of the difficulties that we imagine may fall away once we actually start putting our ideas out there into the world. Our idea landscape quickly changes once we get started. What we are looking at and working with associatively cues new ideas, our well-learned procedures kick in, we start to experiment with ideas—trying out, shifting, and reconfiguring possibilities to discover novel promising options.

“There is a much (much!) wider range of information and many more possibilities that will be ‘ready to mind’ once [we become] immersed in the appropriate problem-solving context, which allows processes such as automatic reminding and the triggering of ‘if-then’ rules and so on to come to the fore and ‘share the load’ of thinking with our conscious and deliberate efforts at control.” (The Agile Mind, p. 595.)

Part of the benefit of getting started arises through the “co-evolution” of our understanding of a problem’s requirements with its possible solutions. Creative problems and their solutions often mutually inform each other. We’ll expand on this in an upcoming blog entry where we will talk about the vital role of our working environments in prompting us to bridge to significant insights. These “bridges” emerge especially during our actual hands-on, interactive, individual and team-based collaborations.

To take a concrete example, John Lasseter, co-founder of Pixar, has some wise words about the value of just getting started and getting feedback as soon as possible:

 

—> For additional discussion see: Wilma Koutstaal, The Agile Mind, (New York, Oxford University Press: 2012), especially pages 594-595.

What makes some teams smarter than others?

How could we answer this question? To find out what makes some teams smarter and work better than others we could look separately at the characteristics of individuals in the team (e.g., how intelligent they each are or how open to experience they each are). Or, instead, we could look at how the team as a team worked and problem-solved together.

To answer what enabled teams to work well collectively, researchers looked at newly formed teams (of four members each) who were asked to think together to perform a wide range of tasks. They were asked to generate ideas, solve puzzles, detect patterns, and make evaluative judgments.

Groups that collectively showed greater intelligence, as shown in higher performance across this wide range of tasks, were distinguished by two factors:

(1) They communicated more often and their communications were more evenly distributed across the team.

(2) Individuals on the team excelled on a test that measures social/emotional perceptiveness (“Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test”). This test asks you to judge someone’s mental state (e.g., curious, preoccupied, interested) from a photograph of just that person’s eyes.

These two factors were earlier established as important to effective team collaboration in experiments using small face-to-face teams. A more recent study (published in late 2014) asked a new question—would the collective intelligence of groups that met solely online or only virtually be influenced by these same two factors?

Newly formed teams of four people were situated in a room. There were two types of teams, and two types of rooms. For face-to-face teams, the members met in a small room, each team member with a laptop, and they could all see one other, talk directly, and they knew who was on their team. For the online teams, the team members were randomly co-located with other team members in a large room interspersed with other similarly scattered teams, where they did not know or see each other and could communicate solely on laptops using text-based chat online.

If directly reading subtle interpersonal cues (e.g., facial expressions, tone of voice, body language) during face-to-face interactions is a critical team mechanism then it would be expected that online teams would perform more poorly. But that wasn’t what was found—the online teams, who scored high on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, did just as well as the face-to-face groups who also had high abilities on that test. This suggests that the virtual teams could still perceive subtle interpersonal cues in the text messages they shared, perhaps conveyed through sentence structure, phrasing, word choice, timing, or tone.

Equally important, the effects of conversational turn taking also were the same in both groups. In online teams where participation was more equally shared, and not dominated by one or two individuals, online teams performed a wide range of tasks just as well as their face-to-face peers who also had a democratic approach to group problem solving.

So, it’s not just your cognitive ability or how smart as an individual you or your team members are—it’s also how well you can coordinate and be “heedful” of others in your group and the situation you jointly find yourselves in (whether working virtually or face-to-face). Part of the key to better team performance is also making sure that each team member shares in communicating within the group.

Sharing in communication and noticing interpersonal cues, whether in the eyes or “between the lines,” may contribute to a broader group characteristic of heedfulness. As we observe in Innovating Minds:

 “In heedfulness the actions and thinking of a group or team emerge based not entirely on habit but on a ‘heedful’ monitoring and comprehending of an unfolding dynamic situation. Each person acts in a way that converges, supplements, or assists with the overall collective effort.

Heedfulness is not solely an effort at paying attention. Rather it is this, combined with an active taking care and staying in touch with new information and its immediate and broader implications—for ourselves, for others, and for a collective envisioning of a larger unfolding joint enterprise.”

—> For more see also:

David Engel, Anita Williams Woolley, Lisa X. Jing, Christopher F. Chabris, & Thomas W. Malone (2014). Reading the Mind in the Eyes or Reading between the Lines? Theory of Mind Predicts Collective Intelligence Equally Well Online and Face-To-Face. PLoS ONE, 9, e115212, pp. 1-16.

Anita Williams Woolley, Christopher F. Chabris, Alex Pentland, A, Nada Hashmi, & Thomas W. Malone (2010). Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups. Science, 330, pp. 686–688.

An example of the Reading of the Mind in the Eyes test can be found here.

 

Innovating Minds – coming mid-September 2015!

Innovating Minds Cover

We expect our new book, based on the latest information from our publisher, to be published and available by mid-September 2015!

You can preorder the book at, for example, Amazon here.

Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change will be published by Oxford University Press (ISBN: 9780199316021) and is designed to be valuable for readers coming from a variety of different backgrounds, including practitioners as well as students from such fields as the arts, design, education, engineering, management, and the social sciences.

As we explain in the opening sentences of Innovating Minds:

“This book invites us to discover how we can all become more creative thinkers and doers. A central question at the heart of this book is: How can we more flexibly and responsively bring about positive change in our world and in ourselves?

We will ask you to actively work through ideas as, together, we explore a new way of understanding our own and others’ thinking. The science-based ‘thinking framework’ that we will learn can help each of us—as individuals and as groups, teams, or organizations—to be more creative, innovative, and mentally agile.

A primary message of our book is that positive change and creativity can be encouraged through gaining a better understanding of the ways in which our thinking really works.”

We’ll post updates as we get closer to the publication date.

Here’s more about the book from our publisher:

A groundbreaking, scientific approach to creative thinking

From entrepreneurs to teachers, engineers to artists, almost everyone stands to benefit from becoming more creative. New ways of thinking, making, and imagining have the potential to bring about revolutionary changes to both our personal lives and society as a whole. And yet, the science behind creativity has largely remained a mystery, with few people aware of the ways we can optimize our own creative and innovative ideas.

Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity To Inspire Change offers a perspective, grounded in science, that allows us to achieve both individual and collective creative goals. Wilma Koutstaal and Jonathan Binks draw upon extensive research from brain, behavioral, and organizational sciences to present a unique five-part “thinking framework” in which ideas are continually refined and developed. Beyond scientific research, Innovating Minds also describes the everyday creative challenges of people from all walks of life, offering insights from dancers, scientists, designers, and architects.

The book shows that creativity is far from a static process; it is steeped with emotion and motivation, involving the dynamic interactions of our minds, brains, and environments. Accordingly, the book challenges readers to put the material into use through thinking prompts, creativity cross-checks, and other activities.

Vibrant and engaging, Innovating Minds reveals a unique approach to harnessing creative ideas and putting them into action. It offers a fascinating exploration of the science of creativity along with new and valuable resources for becoming more innovative thinkers and doers

Exploring at the edges of what we know

Sometimes when we are exploring for ideas or information online, using a search engine, we have a general sense of what we’re looking for—but we can’t put it precisely into words. Yet, we would readily recognize promising outcomes or directions if we saw them.

Some of our online searching goals are more open ended and multifaceted. Here, getting an answer quickly is not our top priority. We’d rather embark on a somewhat slower search that got us closer to where we ultimately would like to be. The journey itself is part of the learning. We make and find as we go along, with each step providing us with new pathways.

How might our search tools themselves better enable us to truly explore? What if our search tools allowed us to fluidly and rapidly express our changing sense of where we really wanted to go?

One recent example that actually registers and iteratively acts upon our search intent in an interactive fashion—repeatedly inviting our feedback—is called SciNet. Imagine you have a research question about gestures. You enter the search term “gestures” and, on a radar-like circular screen, you are presented with a range of alternative topics—a number of which you might not even have thought of, say, “immersive environment” or “accelerometer.” Suppose further, that you can then move those topics about on the screen. You can pull the most relevant topics into the center of the radar screen. Suggestions that seem more peripheral for your purposes, you can move away closer to the outer edge of the circular radar-like display. The system dynamically responds in real time with new suggestions as your expressed interests change.

Such “interactive intent” search has been shown in a study, using SciNet, to provide significantly improved quality of retrieved information, allowing users to access both more relevant and more novel information in an efficient way. The search tool allows us to deeply tunnel into a meaning space that is already familiar to us (exploitation) but also offers support for experimental forays into the currently less well known (exploration). In the words of the system’s developers: “The model and its environment (the user) form an online loop, and learning involves finding a balance between exploration (showing items from uncharted information space for feedback) and exploitation (showing items most likely to be relevant, given the current user intent model).”

This interactive visualization allows the searcher to capitalize on their natural ability to rapidly and largely effortlessly recognize—rather than recall from their memory—relevant information. With this visualization we can rapidly adjust where we are on our “cognitive control dial” as we cycle through moments of automatic recognition and more deliberate evaluation and goal setting. The interactive visual display maps to both our visual and motor capabilities—allowing rapid updating of our search intent without costly sidetracking of our thinking. In this way, the boundary line between what’s “inside” and what’s “outside” in our thinking/meaning space becomes more permeable and more fully integrated with our unfolding thought processes.

Developing such cognitively friendly and fluid interfaces for structuring and guiding our exploratory idea search and experimentation are examples of what we broadly call thinking scaffoldings. As we explain in Innovating Minds, thinking scaffoldings are a way of productively guiding our perception-action cycles. They are intentional queryings and quarryings of our idea landscapes that are meant to help bootstrap (that is, “scaffold”) our idea generation processes. Thinking scaffoldings include not only databases or tools for extracting and identifying promising ideas or directions but also many other modes of scaffolding our idea generation processes such as adopting design heuristics, engaging in reflective verbalization, and drawing on tools for analogical or biomimetic search.

Thinking scaffoldings assist us to transition and keep moving across ideas, prodding us to re-categorize and shake-up or unsettle creative objects or their configurations. They help us to see things we could try or attempt—without an assurance that what we are trying will work.  They prompt us to test and revise, look and revise, and test again.

 

—> For more on exploratory online search see:

Dorota Glowacka, Tuukka Ruotsalo, Ksenia Konuyshkova, Kumaripaba Athukorala, Samuel Kaski, & Giulio Jacucci. (2013) Directing exploratory search: Reinforcement learning from user interactions with keywords. Proceedings of the 2013 International Conference on Intelligent User Interfaces, pp. 117-128.

Gary Marchionini (2006) Exploratory search: From finding to understanding. Communications of the ACM, 49(4), pp. 41-46.

Tuukka Ruotsalo, Giulio Jacucci, Petri Myllymäki, & Samuel Kaski (2015) Interactive intent modeling: Information discovery beyond search. Communications of the ACM, 58 (1), pp. 86-92.

Creativity at play

We recently encountered this insightful piece on new types of social media marketing. The newly emerging form of marketing invites online interactively engaged play between marketers and consumers. One of the differences with this novel approach is that it is not predominantly top-down, attempting to fully foresee and plan; rather, it places greater reliance on a more open-ended, risk-laden process itself, akin to improvising.

It got us to thinking about play and creativity.

As we observe in Innovating Minds:

“Play provides us with brief times in-between that encourage a “re-set” or refreshing of our mental landscapes and a release of tension and an invitation to participation. Humor and creativity are significantly positively associated with one another, in part reflecting shared characteristics such as risk taking, insight, cognitive flexibility with mild positive affect, and surprise. Playful imaginative exploration—including in virtual online environments—may provide an impetus for creativity and act as a space that can welcome and sustain ambiguity and may stimulate nonroutine abstract learning in teams and organizations.”

Or to quote organizational theorist and professor James G. March:

“A strict insistence on purpose, consistency, and rationality limits our ability to find new purposes.  Play relaxes that insistence to allow us to act ‘unintelligently’ or ‘irrationally,’ or ‘foolishly’ to explore alternative ideas of possible purposes and alternative concepts of behavioral consistency.  And it does this while maintaining our basic commitment to the necessity of intelligence.”

Goal-guided behavior is not incompatible with spontaneity.  The creative process, under some circumstances, can itself be seen as a deep interweaving of the thoughts of multiple individuals in different roles. Play and learning can be emergent ambiguity-laden processes which can evoke a form of meaning-making/meaning guided turn-taking to which each participant contributes questions as well as answers. Oftentimes, we make and find meaning as we go.

—> See:

John A. Deighton & Leora Kornfeld. (2014).  Beyond Bedlam: How Consumers and Brands Alike Are Playing the Web. GfK Marketing Intelligence Review, 6, no. 2, pp. 28–33.

James G. March (1976).  The technology of foolishness.  In March, J. G. & Olsen, J. P. (Eds., pp. 69–81).  Ambiguity and Choice in Organizations.  Bergen, Norway: Universitetsforlaget.

Jessica Mesmer-Magnus, David J. Glew, & Chockalingam Viswesvaran, (2012).  A meta-analysis of positive humor in the workplaceJournal of Managerial Psychology, 27, pp. 155–190.

Noel Murray, Harish Sujan, Edward R. Hirt, & Mita Sujan (1990).  The influence of mood on categorization: A cognitive flexibility interpretation.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, pp. 411–425.

 

Are you prompting yourself to be creative?

A recent large-scale experimental study used a simple computer task. In this task, college students are presented with a noun on a computer screen and asked to say a verb that could be associated with that noun. For example, the noun “dog” could be paired with a verb such as “bark” or with the less expected “rescue.”

This task was done for many different nouns and under two different conditions. In one condition participants were asked simply to produce the first word that comes to mind. In the second condition they were specifically asked to “think creatively.”

The experiment revealed that the prompt or instruction to be more creative made a significant difference in three ways:

(1) If we are specifically asked or cued to be creative we give responses that are less predictable, less conventional, and more creative. Setting the explicit goal of being creative enables us to be more creative.

(2) When we are under no specific goal to think creatively we tend to provide responses that are fast and efficient but that are less creative.

(3) The extent to which the students were more creative when prompted was significantly correlated with being more creative at types of drawing and story writing too, even after taking into account individual differences in on-the-spot problem solving and personality factors such as openness to experience. This suggests that creativity isn’t a single ever-present ability but is something we can boost in response to particular contexts and goals.

 

—> For the full text of the experiment see:

Ranjani Prabhakaran, Adam E. Green & Jeremy R. Gray (2014). Thin slices of creativity: Using single-word utterances to assess creative cognition. Behavior Research Methods, 46, pp. 641-659.

Looking in, looking out: Spontaneous cognition, intention, and creativity

At this time of year, many of us may find our thoughts turned inward, reflecting on what we have experienced and achieved in the past year, and our goals and aspirations for the upcoming year. This underscores an important distinction in our thinking between inner-directed attention, and outer-directed attention, and their interplay.

When our attention is directed externally, whether intentionally or not, we are responding to, and interpreting, stimuli or events outside of ourselves, with information coming in to us from the external world through our senses. When, though, our attention is directed internally, we draw on our own memory and knowledge, reliving past experiences, and imaginatively anticipating future events using what we already know.

In many situations, our internally directed cognition and our externally directed cognition compete with one another. Think of the times we may drift into reverie during a long talk or while overhearing an extended conversation—only to find ourselves unable to capture what was said just moments before. Or, conversely, think of what happens when we’re trying to recall an uncommon word or an unfamiliar name, and we might close our eyes or avert our glance, as we try to fully turn our attention inward and block out external distractions.

This competition is also often observed in brain imaging studies. An interconnected set of brain regions (often referred to as the “default mode network”) is strongly activated when we turn our attention inward. A different set is often activated (for example, in what has been called the “executive control network”) when we are purposefully responding to externally presented words, objects, or sounds. When activation in one set of brain regions goes up, activation in the other set goes down and vice versa.

But do internally directed and externally directed thinking always compete with each other? What would it mean for creativity and imagination if they could, instead, cooperate?

A growing number of studies show that during creative or imaginative activities, when we are partially thinking in spontaneous or automatic ways, there can be a more cooperative relationship between internal and external thinking.

What might this mean for our creative processes? During our creative endeavors, we need to exert some deliberate guidance, but not be too rigid and unrelenting a “controller,” weaving in with our guidance and goals, and then loosening control before we weave in again. In the longer-term, developing effortless ease in parts of our creative process may lead to conditions that promote even more discoveries because there’s a powerful blending of the spontaneous and the intended, and of our internally and our externally directed thinking.

 

—> For a recent and comprehensive review on the relationship between externally and internally directed cognition in the brain see:

Matthew L. Dixon, Kieran C.R. Fox, & Kalina Christoff (2014). A framework for understanding the relationship between externally and internally directed cognition. Neuropsychologia, 62, pp. 321-330.

Dynamic brains & dynamic environments for creativity: How so?

Everyone today is telling us that we need to regularly “exercise” our brain. But what does mental exercise mean for creativity? When we regularly workout “mentally” what is really changing in our brain?

By mental exercise, we mean engaging in challenging activities that require us to pay close attention and learn new things and make novel, often subtle, distinctions between similar-appearing things. The distinctions could be sensory-perceptual, or about meaning, or about action. Our brains are continually learning and forming predictions based on the environments we choose and make for ourselves. Environments matter.

Our brain—in response to our environments—changes continually, in multiple ways, and across multiple timescales. Both the structure of the brain (that is, how it is built) and the function (that is, the ways it processes information) may change in the face of experience. At the structural level, stimulating mental exercise may lead to the formation of new synaptic connections between neurons (that is, changing “gray matter”). It may also lead to more efficient connections between neurons and neuronal ensembles at long distances through changing what is known as “white matter” or axons. Greater white and gray matter connectivity may enable us to process and understand information more quickly and efficiently.

In the longer-term, our increased active grappling with novelty might lead to the generation of new neurons (neurogenesis) in regions of the brain such as the hippocampus, important in memory and in making connections between our experiences. Challenging mental exercise may make it more likely that new neurons that are born throughout our lifespan actually survive and become meaningfully connected to our existing memory and experience networks. New, effortful, and successful learning is the ticket to the survival and integration of many newly generated neurons. This could allow us to develop an increasingly deeper and richer wellspring of knowledge to draw upon in our discoveries and problem solving.

We should also consider the conjoined benefits of mental with physical exercise. Putting the two together may yield benefits that are more than the sum of their parts.

So what works best? Particularly potent are activities that involve naturally occurring combinations of mental and physical actions and that call on fine-grained multimodal coordination in time and space, such as various forms of dance, theater, filmmaking, musical performance, or real-world making and shaping. Dislodging old unproductive habits, deliberately varying, and paying attention in the moment all help our brains to dynamically develop brand new neural connections. We should choose and nurture activities that offer us long-term challenges with ever-unfolding possibilities.

As we observe in Part 1 of our book, Innovating Minds:

“We cannot understand creativity, or identify potential barriers to the generation of novel and innovative ideas and methods, if we isolate our mind or brain from our environments.  Our minds, brains, and environments are in perpetual interplay.  It is at their intersections that new ideas emerge and can be realized.”

 

–>For some empirical research on our dynamic brains and environments see:

Newly learning to juggle is a stimulus to brain plasticity. Juggling changes the brain’s gray matter. And juggling changes the brain’s white matter.

How stimulating environments “makes new neurons, and effortful learning keeps them alive.”

Learning to vary: An overlooked avenue to mental flexibility and innovation

It’s easy to repeat. But, we can also ask ourselves to not repeat––and reward ourselves for deliberately varying. Although little recognized, rewarding variability is a powerful shaper of creativity and innovation.

As we will see in Part 4 of our book Innovating Minds:

“Deliberately varying our actions helps to bring different sets of thoughts and procedures close together in time and space within our individual and group idea landscapes. This, in turn, allows us to combine and reconfigure aspects of ideas and ways of doing things to make novel combinations. . . . It is not always an entirely new approach that is needed. Sometimes “repeating with a difference” frees us to see new options.”

Whether shy or bold, lab animals that were rewarded for interacting in different ways with new objects later explored more widely. Trained dolphins, too, that were rewarded for varying showed newly emerging novel behaviors that had never before been seen in dolphins.

In our own creative endeavors we can also prompt ourselves to do things differently within constraints. Some questions we can ask:

How can we better learn to (appropriately) “reinforce variability” in ourselves, and in others?

How might we structure our physical, symbolic, and technological environments to better support “useful” experimentation and variation?

Do we too strongly emphasize minor variability in what we already know and do well, with mostly “known” but smaller rewards (sometimes called “exploitation”)? Do our attempts at minor variations come at the cost of more far-afield, novel, and bold exploration that is more risky and uncertain––but also potentially yields much larger rewards and creative breakthroughs?

What might be some of the cognitive processes that underlie the demonstrated benefits of reinforcing variability? That is: What’s being learned when variability is reinforced? What cognitive and perceptual processes (besides motivational ones) might contribute to the observed effects?

 

–>To further explore routes to greater creative/productive variability in behavior see:

Wilma Koutstaal (2012) The Agile Mind [Learning to vary versus learning to repeat, in chapter 5]  (New York, NY: Oxford University Press) pp. 220-233.

Patricia Stokes (2001). Variability, constraints, and creativity: Shedding light on Claude Monet. American Psychologist, 56 pp. 355-359.

Alison Weiss & Allen Neuringer (2012). Reinforced variability enhances object exploration in shy and bold rats. Physiology & Behavior, 107 pp. 451–457.

Beyond simple brainstorming: Emerging, without submerging, good ideas

Most everyone knows what brainstorming is—the group idea generation process where any and all ideas are welcomed, and ideas can be combined or built upon. Not being “judgy” is key, etc.

But how many of us know how to assess the effectiveness of a brainstorming session? And how to make what may be a good process even better?

Compared to what?

Individuals in a group brainstorming session may generate many ideas—but how do those ideas compare with the number and quality of ideas that would be produced by the same number of individuals working alone generating their own ideas?

Many research studies and meta-analyses show that typical interacting face-to-face group brainstorming sessions produce fewer unique (non-redundant) ideas than do the same number of individuals working alone. The ideas generated in the typical face-to-face group are also of lower average quality than if the individuals had worked independently.

Why might this be?

Hearing the ideas of others has the effect of associatively cuing our ideas in the same direction as what we are hearing. This can be helpful if it occurs at the right time by cognitively stimulating our thinking in new and useful directions. But such associative cuing can be a big drawback if it occurs at the wrong time, or too soon, preventing us from reaching and articulating ideas we otherwise would have formed.

Another factor is that ideas compete with one another for emergence in our awareness and “bottlenecks” may be created while we wait our turn to speak.

As we observe in Innovating Minds: “Verbally expressing our ideas to the group too soon may lead to a single shared idea landscape—without the beneficial input of each individual’s contributions and successive reworkings. Variations on simpler face-to-face group brainstorming are attempts to avoid the drawbacks of jumping into a single idea space too soon.”

Brainstorming variants

So what should we do?

We might try brainwriting. Here we each individually and silently write down our ideas and place them on idea sheets in the center of a table. People in the group, when they feel they are ready, can select and read the ideas of others, adding to or elaborating on those ideas if they choose. Another approach is to pass the idea sheets along. In the 6-3-5 method: 6 people each generate and write down 3 ideas on their own. Then they pass them along 5 times, silently and in parallel building on the ideas of others, until the idea sheet returns to where it started.

Sketches rather than words could also be circulated this way or later displayed as a “gallery” of ideas. Or ideas could be generated individually and then selectively shared and later broadcast more widely electronically via a computer network.

Each of these are potential ways of maximizing the diverseness of our idea landscapes, reaping the cognitively stimulating benefits of encountering the ideas of others without incurring creativity costs. Such “pairs of pairs of pairs” methods allow varied contributions and intermeshing of the contributions of others in a way that can optimize both individual and group idea generation.

 

–> For a recent extensive review see: Wolfgang Stroebe, Bernard A. Nijstad, & Eric F. Rietzschel, “Beyond Productivity Loss in Brainstorming Groups: The Evolution of a QuestionAdvances in Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 43, 2010, Pages 157–203.

Re-presenting words: Writing like Jane Austen

Jumping past the physicality of words, to their meaning(s), is something, as skilled readers, we automatically and effortlessly do. But is our jumping guided by the shape and sound and sinuosity of the words? Does the way a word is written matter?

Take a look at the words of Jane Austen on a manuscript page.

What do you notice? What subtle meanings might be lost (abstracted away?) in a published book?

A type-faced page offers desirable consistencies and constancies. But for this we may pay a price:

“Handwriting . . . happily accommodates the quirks and inconsistencies of individual expression, taste, and personality, and a range of letter-shapes that grow and diminish in size regardless of rules of upper and lower case. In the print edition, where the print transcription both substitutes for and interprets the handwritten original, we largely take on trust the reliability of that substitution. . . . A print transcription, we take it, will be faithful to the linguistic elements of the text – its words and punctuation. But to shapes? to spatial relations? to the graphic ‘noise’ of dashes of varying length and sub-semiotic marks?”

–> From: Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts Digital Edition

Oh no, my cow just fell over—but I can reboot

Suppose you need to translate technological computer terms, such as “browser” or “cache” or even “crash” into another language in which such technological terms are absent? How literal can you be—or is metaphor what is needed?

How do we convey meaning effectively when the cultural building blocks are so different?

Take this imaginative approach:

“Ibrahima Sarr, a Senegalese coder, led the translation of Firefox into Fulah, which is spoken by 20m people from Senegal to Nigeria. ‘Crash’ became hookii (a cow falling over but not dying) . . . In Malawi’s Chichewa language, which has 10m speakers, ‘cached pages’ became mfutso wa tsamba, or bits of leftover food. The windowless houses of the 440,000 speakers of Zapotec, a family of indigenous languages in Mexico, meant that computer ‘windows’ became ‘eyes.’”

The translation project is also a great example of goal synergy: “As well as bringing the linguistically excluded online, localisation may keep small languages alive.”

Analogies and metaphors are part and parcel of our communicative repertoire and we can use them more or less purposively, and more or less creatively. Metaphors and analogies are not curlicues—they are enmeshed in how we think. They are not mere ripples on the surface but currents that move the stream—and us—forward.

As we observe in our book Innovating Minds, analogies:

“are clearly important in the generation of our ideas but they can also serve several other functions in fostering positive creative change and development.  Analogies enable us to use what we already know in order to better understand or grasp something that is novel or less familiar.  In one study of new product development projects, 6 of 16 people interviewed explicitly noted that analogies helped to promote communication between team members, designers, and engineers during new product development.  Two of the interviewees even stated that enhanced communication was the most important aspect of the analogy in the given project.  The communicative and explanatory functions of analogies may prove especially pivotal in bridging between teams and individuals with quite disparate backgrounds, task priorities, and thought processes.”

So what’s a robot for?

Most of us have encountered the notion of “functional fixedness” – our tendency to yoke a particular use or function on to objects. For example, we might assume that a spoon is for scooping or a chair is for sitting, but less readily recognize that a spoon might serve as a lever or a chair might act as a doorstop.

So what’s a robot for?

Cirque du Soleil, partnering with ETH Zurich’s Flying Machine Arena, sought to creatively call upon precision aerial robots as collaborative dance performers. They experimented with sundry semblances and scenarios but discovered that the quadrocopters truly came into their own as…. lampshades. The lampshades each can sport multicolor designs and textures, tassels and various appendages, and convincingly assume idiosyncratic roles and personalities.

In the words of the actor Nicolas Leresche, who fluidly interplayed with the flying machines:

“Actors think they are the ones who make objects move. I think that, on the contrary, it’s the objects that make us move. In the case of drones, even more so! They are companions (in an etymological sense), confrères, brothers.”

–> Here’s the quote and a video tracking parts of the team’s creative process.

Creativity friendly environments: Two examples

What makes for a “creativity friendly” environment?

There is no single “one size fits all” answer… but here are some broader themes to think about. Let’s look at two recent examples through the lens of our iCASA framework.

(1) Shared learning and experimentation space

A very large Chinese factory that produced mobile phones had a massive open floor plan where the workers on the production lines and the supervisors were continually and readily seen. What would happen to production speed and quality if some of the lines were surrounded by a privacy curtain?

A field study with four production lines randomly chosen to be surrounded by such a curtain for several months found that the curtain increased improvisation, encouraged “productive deviance,” and led to higher productivity and quality. The comparative increase in team privacy afforded by the curtain allowed temporary, smaller issues to be solved locally through line-level learning and it promoted collective team knowledge.

Observations by embedded student researchers on the curtain-surrounded lines revealed that the workers actively switched roles to learn multiple tasks and enable team cross-support, fluid adaptation, experimentation, and learning.

The innovations that were observed “were a mix of preexisting and new ideas: some of these were ideas that were just waiting for an opportunity at experimentation, while others reflected novel learning on the line through the increased levels of experimentation the curtain enabled.’’ (Bernstein, 2012, p. 202)

The curtain allowed the line to collaborate and discuss new ideas and to iteratively test and try process improvements, arriving at successful prototypes before sharing them outside of their local idea landscape. It formed a “scrutiny-reduced” supportive making-and-finding environment where the workers and the line managers could adaptively and contextually experiment with an increased degree of autonomy.

—> For the research study, see Ethan S. Bernstein, The transparency paradox: A role for privacy in organizational learning and operational control, Administrative Science Quarterly, 57, 181–216. Also, see Bernstein’s, “The transparency trap”

(2) Cross-pollination at IKEA

IKEA’s product catalogs feature multi-color contemporary images of home furnishings in various natural looking settings. The company, though, was looking to move from its longstanding tradition of studio photography of its products to computer-generated images. Transitioning to computer-generated imagery would greatly reduce logistical and environmental costs because the many products would no longer need to be flown in and configured on site. Instead of physically creating multiple culturally specific settings, for example a typical Japanese kitchen, a German kitchen, and an American kitchen, computer-generated imagery would make such reconfigurations much simpler. But how could IKEA make this transition in a creativity-friendly way, while preserving catalog image quality and empowering employees throughout the change process?

The solution was simple and incisively creative: They started small scale, and then scaled up. After initial experimentation and demonstration of the feasibility of the computer-generated imagery process, all of IKEA’s studio photographers were required to learn to use the 3D computer generated process and vice versa. This in-depth cross-training extended the skills and understanding of both groups, and led to an increase in quality, with computer-generated images that were essentially indistinguishable from conventional photographs. There was a synergistic meeting of the two approaches to image making, and a fuller appreciation of the goals, aspirations, and constraints that each uniquely faced. The merging of techniques expanded and deepened everyone’s individual and shared idea landscapes and mental models. There was learning and unlearning at the same time.

—> For more background on the IKEA process, see: Kirsty Parkin, “Building 3D with IKEA”

 

Creativity Cross-Checks and Queries, No. 7

We use the expression creativity cross-checks and queries to refer to questions we ask to encourage reflection and connections to your own work and practice . . .

Here’s an insightful quotation to reflect on:

“I think initial ‘concepts’ or ideas are always over-rated. My starting points are usually quite simple—the fun and skill is in the making. . . . What I love is the physical process of making a machine. It’s partly drawing—not pretty drawings but drawing as a way of thinking through problems. . . . The making process also involves lots of prototypes—there are many problems drawings can never solve.”

— Inventor and cartoonist Tim Hunkin

Cross-checks and queries:

  • how might you give yourself more time and space to try repeatedly and make productive/promising mistakes?
  • could you more keenly enjoy the wending and winding of the discovery process itself?
  • do you invite varied formats to guide you to what might be left out (both details and abstract principles)?

For more creativity cross-checks and queries (Parts 1 through 6) see our: Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

 

Our new book, currently in press

Our book Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change (Oxford University Press) is coming soon. We’ll keep you posted with progress as it moves forward. For now a brief overview from the introduction to the book:

“A primary message of our book is that positive change and creativity can be encouraged through gaining a better understanding of the ways our thinking really works. Thinking emerges not just from our brain, or from our mind, or from our environments in isolation, but from an ongoing dynamic interaction of brain, mind, and environment. By gaining a better understanding of our thinking (our own and others, across time) we can optimize our “innovating minds”—minds that continually creatively adapt themselves, flexibly building on what they have learned, helping others to do so, and shaping environments that sustain and spur further innovation.

We will learn about the processes of generating and testing ideas, and how ideas lead to yet other ideas. We will see there is not as sharp a divide as might be supposed between thinking and action, or between creating and innovating, but that these cycle together, each informing the other. Creativity and innovation—changing the ways we and other people think about, listen to, look at, or do things, and helping to solve problems (large or small)—rarely happens in a single step or a single moment.”