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The Science of Creativity in 2013: Looking Back to Look Forward
The neuroscience of creativity is flourishing. But will the popularity of this subject lead to better, or sloppier science?
In 1950, the American psychologist Joy P. Guilford delivered a lecture to the American Psychological Association (APA) calling for a scientific focus on creativity. Psychology knew little about creativity at the time. Years earlier, during WWII, the Air Force commissioned Guilford, then a psychologist at USC, to identify pilots who would respond to emergencies with original insights to save themselves and the plane. IQ was a popular measurement but it did not capture the type of thinking that generated novel solutions to urgent predicaments. Studying pilots led Guilford to a few insights he shared with his colleagues at the APA in 1950. First, creativity is not equivalent to intelligence. Second, divergent thinking is central to the concept of creativity. Third, we can develop tests to measure divergent thinking skills. Guilford’s remarks encouraged questions the academy is still having today: What is the relationship between creativity and intelligence? How do we measure creativity? And what, exactly, is creativity?
Unfortunately, Guilford’s ideas did not give rise to widespread research in creativity. Psychologists neglected the domain throughout the second half of the 20th century with notable exceptions including Dean Keith Simonton, Howard Gardner, Teresa Amabile and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It was a fringe subject because no one saw any practical applications; acquiring grant money was therefore difficult.
The 21st century is witnessing a renaissance in creativity in both the lab and the pages of popular books and magazines. “Creativity is a topic at many conferences and many grad students are getting excited about the subject,” says Scott Barry Kaufman, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Psychology at New York University. “2012 was a good year for creativity research, journals devoted to creativity published a lot of great work and other fields weighed in.”
The most newsworthy research came from cognitive psychologists researching creativity “boosters”. Jennifer Wiley’s lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that a certain dose of alcohol helped participants solve tricky word problems. Mareike Wieth and Rose Zacks demonstrated that undergrads were better at solving insight-based problems when they tested during their least optimal time. This means that night owls did better in the morning while morning larks did better in the afternoon. Counter-intuitive findings like these scattered psychology journals and made for catchy headlines in the press.
The neuroscience of creativity is flourishing. In 2008 the journal PNAS published a paper by researchers from the University of Michigan demonstrating that participants who played a difficult working memory game known as the n-BACK task scored higher on tests of a fundamental cognitive ability known as fluid intelligence: the capacity to solve new problems, to make insights and see connections independent of previous knowledge. In other words, the task made people smarter. Oshin Vartanian, Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto-Scarborough, explained that a lot of researchers are excited about this finding. “The 2008 paper has had a profound effect on how creativity researchers think about creativity. Now scientists are working on replicating the results and figuring out if intelligence gained from the n-BACK task transfers to other domains.” The hope is that “cognitive training” will help children and adults boost creative output. “The application of this research is probably the most exciting idea in the cognitive science and neuroscience of creativity,” says Vartanian.
Cognitive flexibility, the ability to switch between thinking about two concepts or consider multiple perspectives simultaneously, is also a popular topic in the neuroscience world. Darya Zabelina, a graduate student at Northwestern University who studies creativity informed me that, “a lot of people are studying cognitive flexibility from a lot of different perspectives. It will be one of the topics researchers will continue to focus on in 2013.”
Paul Silvia is a Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina who researches creativity and aesthetics, among other topics. According to Silvia, “film and creativity is going to become popular; maybe music and creativity as well.” He is currently working on a paper co-authored with Emily Nusbaum that looks at unusual aesthetic states such as awe, the chills, and crying.
Countless popular psychology books that either focused on or mentioned creativity were published in 2012. Susan Cain lambasted brainstorming and “GroupThink” in her bestseller and introvert manifesto Quiet. Drawing on a wide body of robust research she reminded our hyper social world that working alone is usually better than working in groups in terms of productivity and creativity. Dan Ariely’s book The Honest Truth About Dishonesty contains a chapter on the relationship between dishonesty and creativity – honesty might not be good for creativity. The Power Of Habit by Charles Duhigg made some important suggestions for creativity: if you’re in a rut, try changing your routine. The elephant in the room is Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: The Science of Creativity, which the public gobbled up. Scientists in the field rightly expressed concerns about how Lehrer portrayed and interpreted some of the science but they are also happy that good science writers are attracted to the field. Unfortunately, Lehrer got pegged for plagiarizing and inventing Bob Dylan quotes. Kaufman said it best: “When people started doubting the veracity of that book, they started doubting the veracity of the science.”
Given that the relationship between the science of creativity and the media will continue to evolve, it will be interesting to see how the media’s portrayal of creativity affects the research. Starting with Gladwell’s Blink or Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics, the public began to expect counter-intuitive results from cognitive science. Now we live in an era where readers of science books on human nature expect clever psychological studies to explain every nook and cranny of our complex nature. This trend is good because it gets otherwise uninterested lay readers excited about cognitive science; Thinking Fast and Slow, Incognito, and others were bestsellers. However, the popularity of these books may create a bad system of incentives for researchers, in which researchers are motivated to publish results just to create a stir at the expense of sound research techniques and less provocative but more important research. (There’s nothing wrong with provocative results of course. Done properly, counter-intuitive findings are vital to any field because they force us to think differently.)*
I’d like to see more researchers active online in the future. My educated guess is that only about one percent of cognitive scientists (professors, grad students, etc.) are blogging or tweeting. This is a problem for three reasons. First, the Internet is an excellent medium for spreading information, including research papers. Consider a project by Melissa Terras, the Co-Director of the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities. She put 26 of her articles originally published in refereed journals online for free via UCL’s Open Access Repository. She wrote blog posts and used Twitter to promote them. It helped. “Most of my papers, before I blogged and tweeted them, had one to two downloads, even if they had been in the repository for months (or years, in some cases). Upon blogging and tweeting, within 24 hours, there were on average seventy downloads of my papers.”
Second, pseudoscience, “neurobabble,” and folk psychology flourish on the Internet. We need more experts to set the record straight. “The hard part,” Silvia told me, “is many professors aren’t good at doing that. It’s just not natural for us to ‘grab’ the public.” Not everyone is Carl Sagan or Neil DeGrasse Tyson, but it’s counterproductive for scientists to trench themselves in the academy. I hope creativity researchers will continue to make a larger online presence in 2013. We need them to keep writers like me honest.
Third, we need researchers to help promote the science of creativity to a wider audience. “I know a lot of really careful, good researchers in the field of the neuroscience of creativity, but no one is talking about them,” Kaufman tells me. “These thoughtful researchers should think about writing for the popular sphere and writers should pay attention to them more. There is so much exciting stuff going on in the field of creativity that most popular books don’t address.”
I’m optimistic about next year. Creativity researchers will continue to produce great research and improve our understanding of creativity as well as methods to measure it. In the spirit of Ken Robinson’s celebrated TED talk (now with over 13 million hits) we should broaden our conception of creativity; it is diverse and anyone can tap into it, even adults. Science writers will continue to write about creativity and the general public will continue to enjoy reading about it. Let’s strengthen the relationship between the academy and the journalism world, keeping in mind how we can use social media to promote the science of creativity and correct misconceptions about it (i.e., that people either are or not ‘creative’). This is important for education, where creativity research is especially useful, although it has implications for every industry.
It’s unclear where, exactly, the science of creativity will go next year, but the most interesting discoveries surely await us.
Full disclosure, Scott is also my colleague at The Creativity Post.
* This paragraph reiterates a point I made in collaboration with Dave Nussbaum, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago, on a previous post.
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to life recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
How imagining the worst case scenario can help calm anxiety.
- Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
- It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
- By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
Are you a worrier? Do you imagine nightmare scenarios and then get worked up and anxious about them? Does your mind get caught in a horrible spiral of catastrophizing over even the smallest of things? Worrying, particularly imagining the worst case scenario, seems to be a natural part of being human and comes easily to a lot of us. It's awful, perhaps even dangerous, when we do it.
But, there might just be an ancient wisdom that can help. It involves reframing this attitude for the better, and it comes from Stoicism. It's called "premeditation," and it could be the most useful trick we can learn.
Broadly speaking, Stoicism is the philosophy of choosing your judgments. Stoics believe that there is nothing about the universe that can be called good or bad, valuable or valueless, in itself. It's we who add these values to things. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Our minds color the things we encounter as being "good" or "bad," and given that we control our minds, we therefore have control over all of our negative feelings.
Put another way, Stoicism maintains that there's a gap between our experience of an event and our judgment of it. For instance, if someone calls you a smelly goat, you have an opportunity, however small and hard it might be, to pause and ask yourself, "How will I judge this?" What's more, you can even ask, "How will I respond?" We have power over which thoughts we entertain and the final say on our actions. Today, Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
Helping you practice StoicismCredit: Robyn Beck via Getty Images
One of the principal fathers of ancient Stoicism was the Roman statesmen, Seneca, who argued that the unexpected and unforeseen blows of life are the hardest to take control over. The shock of a misfortune can strip away the power we have to choose our reaction. For instance, being burglarized feels so horrible because we had felt so safe at home. A stomach ache, out of the blue, is harder than a stitch thirty minutes into a run. A sudden bang makes us jump, but a firework makes us smile. Fell swoops hurt more than known hardships.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, how can we resolve this? Seneca suggests a Stoic technique called "premeditatio malorum" or "premeditation." At the start of every day, we ought to take time to indulge our anxious and catastrophizing mind. We should "rehearse in the mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck." We should meditate on the worst things that could happen: your partner will leave you, your boss will fire you, your house will burn down. Maybe, even, you'll die.
This might sound depressing, but the important thing is that we do not stop there.
Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
The Stoic also rehearses how they will react to these things as they come up. For instance, another Stoic (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius asks us to imagine all the mean, rude, selfish, and boorish people we'll come across today. Then, in our heads, we script how we'll respond when we meet them. We can shrug off their meanness, smile at their rudeness, and refuse to be "implicated in what is degrading." Thus prepared, we take control again of our reactions and behavior.
The Stoics cast themselves into the darkest and most desperate of conditions but then realize that they can and will endure. With premeditation, the Stoic is prepared and has the mental vigor necessary to take the blow on the chin and say, "Yep, l can deal with this."
Catastrophizing as a method of mental inoculation
Seneca wrote: "In times of peace, the soldier carries out maneuvers." This is also true of premeditation, which acts as the war room or training ground. The agonizing cut of the unexpected is blunted by preparedness. We can prepare the mind for whatever trials may come, in just the same way we can prepare the body for some endurance activity. The world can throw nothing as bad as that which our minds have already imagined.
Stoicism teaches us to embrace our worrying mind but to embrace it as a kind of inoculation. With a frown over breakfast, try to spend five minutes of your day deliberately catastrophizing. Get your anti-anxiety battle plan ready and then face the world.
A study on charity finds that reminding people how nice it feels to give yields better results than appealing to altruism.
- A study finds asking for donations by appealing to the donor's self-interest may result in more money than appealing to their better nature.
- Those who received an appeal to self-interest were both more likely to give and gave more than those in the control group.
- The effect was most pronounced for those who hadn't given before.
Even the best charities with the longest records of doing great fundraising work have to spend some time making sure that the next donation checks will keep coming in. One way to do this is by showing potential donors all the good things the charity did over the previous year. But there may be a better way.
A new study by researchers in the United States and Australia suggests that appealing to the benefits people will receive themselves after a donation nudges them to donate more money than appealing to the greater good.
How to get people to give away free money
The postcards that were sent to different study subjects. The one on the left highlighted benefits to the self, while the one on the right highlighted benefits to others.List et al. / Nature Human Behaviour
The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, utilized the Pick.Click.Give program in Alaska. This program allows Alaska residents who qualify for dividends from the Alaska Permanent Fund, a yearly payment ranging from $800 to $2000 in recent years, to donate a portion of it to various in-state non-profit organizations.
The researchers randomly assigned households to either a control group or to receive a postcard in the mail encouraging them to donate a portion of their dividend to charity. That postcard could come in one of two forms, either highlighting the benefits to others or the benefits to themselves.
Those who got the postcard touting self-benefits were 6.6 percent more likely to give than those in the control group and gave 23 percent more on average. Those getting the benefits-to-others postcard were slightly more likely to give than those receiving no postcard, but their donations were no larger.
Additionally, the researchers were able to break the subject list down into a "warm list" of those who had given at least once before in the last two years and a "cold list" of those who had not. Those on the warm list, who were already giving, saw only minor increases in their likelihood to donate after getting a postcard in the mail compared to those on the cold list.
Additionally, the researchers found that warm-list subjects who received the self-interest postcard gave 11 percent more than warm-list subjects in the control group. Amazingly, among cold-list subjects, those who received a self-interest postcard gave 39 percent more.
These are substantial improvements. At the end of the study, the authors point out, "If we had sent the benefits to self message to all households in the state, aggregate contributions would have increased by nearly US$600,000."
To put this into perspective, in 2017 the total donations to the program were roughly $2,700,000.
Is altruism dead?
Are all actions inherently self-interested? Thankfully, no. The study focuses entirely on effective ways to increase charitable donations above levels that currently exist. It doesn't deny that some people are giving out of pure altruism, but rather that an appeal based on self-interest is effective. Plenty of people were giving before this study took place who didn't need a postcard as encouragement. It is also possible that some people donated part of their dividend check to a charity that does not work with Pick.Click.Give and were uncounted here.
It is also important to note that Pick.Click.Give does not provide services but instead gives money to a wide variety of organizations that do. Those organizations operate in fields from animal rescue to job training to public broadcasting. The authors note that it is possible that a more specific appeal to the benefits others will receive from a donation might prove more effective than the generic and all-inclusive "Make Alaska Better For Everyone" appeal that they used.
In an ideal world, charity is its own reward. In ours, it might help to remind somebody how warm and fuzzy they'll feel after donating to your cause.
The 'Monkeydactyl' was a flying reptile that evolved highly specialized adaptations in the Mesozoic Era.