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.

 

 

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.

 

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.

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 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 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?

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.

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?

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. . . .

 

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”? . . .

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.