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Killing Creativity: Why Kids Draw Pictures of Monsters & Adults Don't

study conducted between 1959 and 1964 involving 350 children found that around 4th grade our tendency to daydream and wonder declines sharply. In other words, Picasso was right: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

What's the Big Idea?


The Monster Engine is one of the best ideas I’ve come across. It’s a book, demonstration, lecture and gallery exhibition created by Dave Devries. The premise is simple: children draw pictures of monsters and Devries paints them realistically. According to the website, the idea was born in 1998 when Devries took an interest in his niece’s doodles. As a comic addict, Devires wondered if he could use color, texture and shading to bring his niece’s drawings to life.

But Devries had a larger goal: he wanted to always see things as a child. Why? In many ways, children flourish where adults fail. Children are more creative and are natural inventors. Their worldview is incomplete and demands discovery. They prosper because they embrace their ignorance instead of ignoring it. And they are willing to explore, investigate and put their ideas to the test because they are willing to fail. Unlike adults, they don’t care how other people perceive or evaluate their ideas, and they’re unconcerned with the impossible or what doesn’t work.

Growing up, to be sure, has its benefits. As we age, our intellect sharpens and willpower strengthens. We come to control our thoughts and desires. We identify goals and hone our skills. But growing up comes at a cost: we lose our naiveté that facilitates creativity and idea generation. A study conducted between 1959 and 1964 involving 350 children found that around 4th grade our tendency to daydream and wonder declines sharply. In other words, Picasso was right: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

Age doesn’t necessarily squander our creative juices, but when we make the leap from elementary school to middle school our worldview becomes more realistic and cynical. The question is: what did Jobs and Spielberg do differently? How do we maintain our naiveté?

A study conducted several years ago by Darya Zabelina and Michael Robinson of North Dakota State University gives us a simple remedy. The psychologists divided a large group of undergraduates into two groups. The first group was given the following prompt:

You are 7 years old. School is canceled, and you have the entire day to yourself. What would you do? Where would you go? Who would you see?

The second group was given the same prompt minus the first sentence. This means they didn’t imagine themselves as seven years old – they remained in their adult mindset.

Next, the psychologists asked their subjects to take ten minutes to write a response. Afterwards the subjects were given various tests of creativity, such as inventing alternative uses for an old tire, or completing incomplete sketches. (As well as other tasks from the Torrance test of creativity.) Zabelina and Robinson found that, “individuals [in] the mindset condition involving childlike thinking…exhibited higher levels of creative originally than did those in the control condition.” This effect was especially pronounced with subjects who identify themselves as introverts.

What happens to our innate creativity when we age? Zabelina and Robinson discuss a few reasons. The first is that regions of the frontal cortex – a part of the brain responsible for rule-based behavior – are not fully developed until our teenage years. This means that when we are young our thoughts are free-flowing and without inhibitions. Curiosity, not logic and reason, guides our intellectual musings. The second is that current educational practices discourage creativity.

As famed speaker Ken Robinson said: “the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized.”

No matter the reasons, the authors stress, adults can still tap into their more imaginative younger selves. And this brings me back to The Monster Engine and Dave Devries.

Devries’ drawings capture the lesson from this enlightening research well. When it comes to being creative and coming up with new and fresh ideas, children are experts. But in order to harness and hone our creative juices the cognitive tool set of an adult is vital. The children’s drawings, after all, couldn’t have come to life without Devries. The important part is that Devries maintained his naïveté by staying true to the original work. He didn’t change the drawing, he enhanced it.     

What's the Significance?

This approach is behind the success of countless intellectuals and inventors thoroughout history, including Picasso. It is the reason Einstein stressed that imagination is more important than knowledge and, striking a very similar cord to Zabelina and Robinson’s research, suggested that “to stimulate creativity, one must develop the childlike inclination for play and the childlike desire for recognition.”

Again, it’s often beneficial to approach life with an adult mindset – you probably don’t want to get too creative with your taxes – but when it comes to using your imagination, thinking of oneself as a child facilitates more original thinking. 

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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