Monday, July 12, 2010

Creativity in America

When someone is describing another as creative, what do you suppose they mean? Would it be that they're painting frescoes on their living room ceiling and know how to decorate wine glasses? Would it mean that they had an unusual idea to solve a problem (Bob over there rigged his lawnmower to the Roomba). Can they make up a song or a story?

It's all of the above. Creativity isn't just relegated to the arts. Creativity is a way of problem solving. A way of figuring out  how we're going to turn grass into gas, how we're going to re-structure business, how we're going to deal with education in economically diverse areas. Creativity is good for all of us.

The problem is, our culture has been sorely under-valuing creativity. According to this Newsweek article, it's starting to show.

"Kim found creativity scores had been steadily rising, just like IQ scores, until 1990. Since then, creativity scores have consistently inched downward. “It’s very clear, and the decrease is very significant,” Kim says. It is the scores of younger children in America—from kindergarten through sixth grade—for whom the decline is “most serious.”

The potential consequences are sweeping. The necessity of human ingenuity is undisputed. A recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 “leadership competency” of the future. 
Overwhelmed by curriculum standards, American teachers warn there’s no room in the day for a creativity class. Kids are fortunate if they get an art class once or twice a week. But to scientists, this is a non sequitur, borne out of what University of Georgia’s Mark Runco calls “art bias.” The age-old belief that the arts have a special claim to creativity is unfounded. When scholars gave creativity tasks to both engineering majors and music majors, their scores laid down on an identical spectrum, with the same high averages and standard deviations. Inside their brains, the same thing was happening—ideas were being generated and evaluated on the fly.

and this is where it gets more interesting, especially to people like me

To understand exactly what should be done requires first understanding the new story emerging from neuroscience. The lore of pop psychology is that creativity occurs on the right side of the brain. But we now know that if you tried to be creative using only the right side of your brain, it’d be like living with ideas perpetually at the tip of your tongue, just beyond reach.

I had a hard case of this in the previous year. Words were constantly out of reach, and it was frustrating to have a conversation.  It was evident that the hemispheres of my brain weren't having a good conversation with each other, resulting in a host of problems associated with damage to the frontal lobe. Simple problem solving was like asking a third grader to do calculus.

When you try to solve a problem, you begin by concentrating on obvious facts and familiar solutions, to see if the answer lies there. This is a mostly left-brain stage of attack. If the answer doesn’t come, the right and left hemispheres of the brain activate together. Neural networks on the right side scan remote memories that could be vaguely relevant. A wide range of distant information that is normally tuned out becomes available to the left hemisphere, which searches for unseen patterns, alternative meanings, and high-level abstractions.

Having glimpsed such a connection, the left brain must quickly lock in on it before it escapes. The attention system must radically reverse gears, going from defocused attention to extremely focused attention. In a flash, the brain pulls together these disparate shreds of thought and binds them into a new single idea that enters consciousness. This is the “aha!” moment of insight, often followed by a spark of pleasure as the brain recognizes the novelty of what it’s come up with.

Now the brain must evaluate the idea it just generated. Is it worth pursuing? Creativity requires constant shifting, blender pulses of both divergent thinking and convergent thinking, to combine new information with old and forgotten ideas. Highly creative people are very good at marshaling their brains into bilateral mode, and the more creative they are, the more they dual-activate.

Is this learnable? Well, think of it like basketball. Being tall does help to be a pro basketball player, but the rest of us can still get quite good at the sport through practice. In the same way, there are certain innate features of the brain that make some people naturally prone to divergent thinking. But convergent thinking and focused attention are necessary, too, and those require different neural gifts. Crucially, rapidly shifting between these modes is a top-down function under your mental control. University of New Mexico neuroscientist Rex Jung has concluded that those who diligently practice creative activities learn to recruit their brains’ creative networks quicker and better. A lifetime of consistent habits gradually changes the neurological pattern. "

This is what I am currently doing. Re-training my brain to the way it was before my accident. Maybe it will be better, maybe it will just be different.  A lot of what I am doing involves the creative process. My way of training is to pose situations to myself (or have a light but engaging conversation). I purposely think of other viewpoints, and why those viewpoints might be valid.  I'll play puzzle games like Machinarium.  Other times, I have a task (say... picking up a painting when my dear G can't drive), and I'll work on possible solutions for real life.  One of my favorites is playing MacGuyver with our refrigerator contents. What can I make with a lemon,  cherry tomatoes, tofu, and quinoa?

bottom pic by smlions12 on Flickr

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