Can Walking Together Help Creatively Synchronize Our Goals? Getting in step to generate diverse creative ideas.

Side-by-side moving forward! Source: Jason Zhang via Wikimedia Commons

 

We know that walking is good for many things.  Brief periods of walking – say 20 to 30 minutes – can lift us into a more positive mood (Ekkekakis et al., 2000), and reduce both our subjective feelings of stress and physiological indicators of stress (such as salivary cortisol, or the concentrations of cortisol in our saliva, Gidlow et al., 2016).  Short interludes of walking can also enhance how readily we find and generate diverse creative ideas (Oppezzo & Schwartz, 2014).

But might the benefits of walking spill-over to our interactions with other people who are walking with us?  Might walking with someone – including someone we are currently in a dispute with or otherwise at odds with – help us get past stubborn road blocks in our thinking or obdurant obstacles to our onward dialogue?  Could we call on the simple activity of “taking a walk together” to assist us in our struggling efforts to negotiate toward the goals that we, and our walking partner, may have?  Can walking together help us resolve conflicts with another person?

Three researchers at Columbia University (Webb et al., 2017) recently teamed up to spell out some of the reasons we might expect walking together to have just such a welcome and positive spill-over effect with a walking partner.  Corralling together findings and theories from several different research areas, they outlined at least three such reasons.

(1) When walking alongside another person we often, even without our awareness, align our rhythm and pacing with that of the other person, leading to a synchrony of our steps and stride.  Synchrony and the mirroring of each others’ gestures and actions is associated with interpersonal coordination.  In turn, such “motor synchrony” may promote a sense of positive emotional rapport and affiliation or emotional closeness with another. (For a review, see Keller et al. 2014).

(2) Walking side-by-side with another person, in joint (parallel) movement through space, carries with it a sense of cooperation rather than of confrontation, and so opens the path to the creative generation of a more integrative solution, that is, a solution that gives each party more of what she or he wants (e.g., Carnevale & Isen, 1986).  During such joint movement through space, we and our partner also are jointly attending to a similar external environment, with such joint attention associated with shared interest.  Indeed, research has shown that instructions that encouraged participants to walk in synchrony as a group (“walking in step” compared with walking normally) resulted in participants behaving more cooperatively in a subsequent (apparently unrelated) context designed to assess their expectations of cooperation by their counterparts (Wiltermuth & Heath, 2009).

(3) Walking carries with it a concrete (physically real!) dynamic sense of forward motion, of moving forward in time and space.  This fundamental physical sense of forward locomotion might echo – and evoke – a cognitive-motivational sense of a readiness to move forward and to get past obstacles, or to move from the “current state” to a “new state” (e.g., Webb 2015).

Using motion to get past commotion?

At a broader conceptual level, there is increasing evidence for the interconnectedness of different forms of cognition, emotion, and motor behavior – with perceived and enacted “alignments” on one level, such as that of motor synchrony, carrying over, and influencing alignments with our thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, intentions, attitudes, and emotions (Keller et al., 2014).

Although not a “magic bullet,” taking a walk with someone to creatively hash through some thorny issues may well be worth a try.

References

Ekkekakis, P., Hall, E. E., VanLanduyt, L. M., & Petruzzello, S. J. (2000).  Walking in (affective) circles: Can short walks enhance affect?  Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 23, 245–275.

Gidlow, C. J. et al. (2016).  Where to put your best foot forward: Psycho-physiological responses to walking in natural and urban environments.  Journal of Environmental Psychology, 45, 22–29.

Keller, P. E., Novembre, G., & Hove, M. J. (2014).  Rhythm in joint action: Psychological and neurophysiological mechanisms for real-time interpersonal coordination.  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B, 369, 20130394, 1–12.

Oppezzo, M., & Schwartz, D. L. (2014).  Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking.  Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40, 1142–1152.

Webb, C. E., Rossignac-Milon, M., & Higgins, E. T. (2017).  Stepping forward together: Could walking facilitate interpersonal conflict resolution?  American Psychologist, 72, 374–385.

Wiltermuth, S. S., & Heath, C. (2009).  Synchrony and cooperation. Psychological Science, 20, 1–5.

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

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

 

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

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

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

Let’s play hide-and-seek

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

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

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

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

Small creatures with big play urges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Motivational and reward systems in the brain

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

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

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

The play-to-play hypothesis

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

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

To think about

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

When to decide? Source: WomEOS via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

Precrastination:  It’s a thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

But this was not what they found.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deferring decisions in creative endeavors

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

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

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

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

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

Putting it all together

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

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

To think about

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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 you giving sound enough space in your creative world?

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

What’s your metaphor for creative change?

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

 

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

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

—> For more see: Mastering the Creative Pivot.

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

How does asking yourself action-related questions catapult creativity?

Source: Moh tch via Wikimedia Commons

 

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

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

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

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

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

But all is not lost. . .

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

What 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

Are inquiring minds creative minds? Does curiosity catalyze creativity?

Source:Ronald Keith Monro via Wikimedia Commons

 

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

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

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

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

Can we be sad and creative too?

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

 

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

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

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

 

What helps us as inspiration seekers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Usien via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Usien via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

Getting your creative pacing right

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

“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. . . .

 

Seven ways to start and keep your writing going

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

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

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

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

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

.

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.

Guinness beer, “absorptive capacity,” and innovation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gosset_paper_1908

—> For further background see:

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

When sometimes it helps to forget

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

conceptual search spaces

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

 

—> For more on the experiments described above see:

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

The Magic of “Inside Out”

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

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

 

 

Jumping in—to get ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

What makes some teams smarter than others?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—> For more see also:

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

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

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

 

Creativity at play

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

It got us to thinking about play and creativity.

As we observe in Innovating Minds:

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

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

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

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

—> See:

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

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

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

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

 

Are you prompting yourself to be creative?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—> For the full text of the experiment see:

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

Dynamic brains & dynamic environments for creativity: How so?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Beyond simple brainstorming: Emerging, without submerging, good ideas

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

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

Compared to what?

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

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

Why might this be?

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

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

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

Brainstorming variants

So what should we do?

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

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

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

 

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

Creativity friendly environments: Two examples

What makes for a “creativity friendly” environment?

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

(1) Shared learning and experimentation space

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

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

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

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

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

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

(2) Cross-pollination at IKEA

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

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

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