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.

 

 

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.”

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

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.

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.’

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?

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.”

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:

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.

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.

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.

 

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.”