The Science of Creativity: How Imagination and Intelligence Work Together in the Brain
Imagination Institute's Scott Barry Kaufman talks brain networks - daydreaming, how to have better ideas, and the left-brained vs. right-brained myth.
Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D., is a humanistic psychologist exploring the depths of human potential. He has taught courses on intelligence, creativity, and well-being at Columbia University, NYU, the University of Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. In addition to writing the column Beautiful Minds for Scientific American, he also hosts The Psychology Podcast, and is author and/or editor of 9 books, including
Scott Barry Kaufman: It’s useful to distinguish between intelligence and imagination. They are different constructs as we would say. So I like to view intelligence as all the things, all the thought processes, behaviors that allow us to learn what is. Learn the way the world is. Whether or not it’s in a classroom situation and we have to use our learning skills to understand the material that’s being taught to us or we’re reading something and we have to comprehend what we’re reading or we have to observe things. And a lot of that draws on this Executive Brain Network, our ability to focus and to synthesize information in our heads at one time and remember them. So that’s all the things involving our ability to learn what is. Imagination are all the processes that allow us to imagine what could be. So I like to see these as overlapping traits but not completely overlapping. So a lot of creativity requires to learn what is so that we can go beyond it. But if we’re just at the stage of learning what is, so we just have the knowledge I don’t think knowledge necessarily equals creativity. So creativity requires both intelligence and imagination. Creativity requires our ability to know what has come before so we can stand on the shoulder of giants. But it also requires the ability to have great foresight and vision to imagine the world the way that it could be. And when we combine the two I think that makes it much more likely we’ll have creativity.
So many of you might have heard of the left brain/right brain myth about creativity that the left brain is not related to creativity much at all because it’s really boring and logical and super serious and analytical. And that the right brain is where all the artistic beauty comes out and it’s very poetic. And I’ve seen like ads like – I think I saw a Ford ad that had like left brain/right brain where it kind of makes this distinction and stuff. Well the reality is that creativity involves interaction of lots of different brain networks that rely on both the left side and the right side of the brain. And all brain network is, is that when you have lots of different parts of the brain that are communicating with each other to solve a certain task then it’s called a brain network. And you find that creativity draws on multiple interacting brain networks and in particular it draws on three brain networks that seem to be absolutely essential to creativity across whatever field it is, whether or not it’s science or it’s art.
One of those brain networks that’s important is what’s called the Executive Attention Network. And the executive attention network allows you to integrate lots of information in your head at one time. It holds stuff in your working memory. Maintain strategies that you’re currently working on at one time so you don’t forget what your strategy is or forget what you already did and then redo it. The Executive Attention Network is also helpful for inhibiting obvious responses or the first things that come to your mind. And so creativity is important to access remote associations. So the Executive Attention Network is going to be helpful to inhibit the most immediate, obvious things that come to mind. People who are very good improv artists, for instance, the first thing that comes to their mind is usually not the most creative so they tend to wait for the second or third thing and that’s one of the improv activities. So the second major brain network that’s important is the Default Mode Network but I like to call it the Imagination Network because it’s very active, it’s highly active every time we turn our attention or focus of attention inward and we focus on our daydreams. We focus on our future goals, on when we’re trying to take the perspective of someone else.
So it’s very important for having compassion for someone else because it allows us to imagine what someone else is thinking or feeling. And so that’s the imagination brain network. And the third major brain network that’s important for creativity that I think is a very underrated brain network, it’s called the Salience Brain Network. And that’s associated with what is most salient in our environment. What is most interesting to us. Before we think through consciously about a creative activity, and even before we activate our imagination, there’s a process before both of that where we have a subconscious process where the Salient Brain Network tags things as interesting or not interesting in our environment. And it either feeds it to our Imagination Network or to our Executive Attention Network to pay attention to. So that’s where daydreaming comes from. So daydreaming is associated with the activity and the imagination brain network. And if our salience network tags something as extremely not interesting in our environment, in our immediate environment, it’ll pass the baton to the imagination network and that’s when we start daydreaming and we start like tuning out to the current environment. But creativity involves the interaction of all three. It’s when we’re captivated by the moment or mindful but we’re also imaginative and we’re also motivated and passionate to engage in the creative activity.
The great myth of the left brain versus right brain personality types has been popular for years. Even comedian Bo Burnham has turned this classic cliché into a successful song for his tour. As the story goes, the left brain is reserved for logic, analytics, and other brow-furrowing things, while the right brain is all about being creative. So a person who was very creative would say, oh, I’m right-brained, while someone who is more into scheduling would say, I’m left-brained.
Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. and scientific director of the Imagination Institute, has put his foot down on the myth, and called it just that. In fact, he claims you can’t harness one side without enlisting the help of the other. It takes creativity to invent, and make something new, and it takes a certain calculated-ness to schedule long hours, trying to figure out how to make the invention work. For example, Leonardo da Vinci, one of the most famous artists in the world was also a brilliant inventor. His sketches of his flying machines, and fetuses developing in the womb are beautiful to look at, with expressive detail, but they’re also brilliantly designed.
The brain is interwoven, with no committed left side or right side usage. Parts are connected through various brain networks that criss-cross the brain to communicate and get the best function of the brain in various situations. One of these is the Executive Attention Network. This is what allows you to hold onto many pieces of information at once. When a person is studying for a test, this network allows them to remember what they’re studying, why they’re studying, the methods used to study, and when they need to finish. When it comes to creativity, the Executive Attention Network is also responsible for inhibiting the most obvious ideas that spring to mind, and instead it digs deeper to see what a second or third idea might bring - these are usually the more creatively developed versions of an idea, and it's something improv artists are usually very good at.
Then there's the Default Mode Network, which Kaufman prefers to call the Imagination Network, because it's the inwardly focused network that kicks in when the immediate environment surrounding us is not stimulating or engaging enough. This is the network responsible for daydreaming, tuning out, and also a lot of creative musing.
Furthermore, it takes creativity to be sympathetic for another person. The ability to imagine oneself in another person’s shoes is important to interpersonal relations, and allows us to be empathetic. This is imagination and creativity. While schools tend to prize science and math over creative skills, these things are important. It’s how we daydream, and how we improvise. Perhaps it’s time to invest in our imagination networks.
Scott Barry Kaufman's book is Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind.
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- People have been digging up limestone and gypsum from below Paris since Roman times.
Paris stone and plaster of Paris
A delightful hiding place
An underground economy
Overview of the Paris Catacombs.Credit: Inspection Générale des Carrières, 1857 / Public domain.
Hokusai's Great Wave as the backdrop to the "beach" under Paris.Credit: Reddit
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Cool in summer, warm in winter: Paris Underground could become Paris A/C.Credit: Fieldwork
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Even with six months' notice, we can't stop an incoming asteroid.
- At an international space conference, attendees took part in an exercise that imagined an asteroid crashing into Earth.
- With the object first spotted six months before impact, attendees concluded that there was insufficient time for a meaningful response.
- There are an estimated 25,000 near-Earth objects potentially threatening our planet.
The asteroid 2021 PDC was first spotted on April 19, 2021 by the Pan-STARRS project at the University of Hawaii. By May 2, astronomers were 100% certain it was going to strike Earth somewhere in Europe or northern Africa. On October 20, 2021, the asteroid plowed into Europe, taking countless lives.
There was absolutely nothing anyone could do to deflect it from its deadly course. Experts could only warn a panicking population to get out of the way as soon as possible, if it was possible.
The above scenario is the result of a recently concluded NASA thought experiment.
The question the agency sought to answer was this: If we discovered a potentially deadly asteroid destined to hit Earth in six months, was there anything we could do to prevent a horrifying catastrophe? The disturbing answer is "no," not with currently available technology.
While Europe can breathe easy for now, the simulation conducted by NASA/JPL's Center for Near Earth Object Studies and presented at the 7th IAA Planetary Defense Conference is troubling. Space agencies spot "near-Earth objects" (NEOs) all the time. Many are larger than 140 meters in size, which means they're potentially deadly.
Credit: ImageBank4U / Adobe Stock
"The level [at] which we're finding the 140-meter and larger asteroids remains pretty stable, at about 500 a year. Our projection of the number of these objects out there is about 25,000, and we've only found a little over one-third of those so far, maybe 38% or so," NASA's Planetary Defense Office Lindley Johnson tells Space.com.
With our current technology, spotting an NEO comes down to whether we just happen to have a telescope pointing in its direction. To remove humanity's blind spot, the Planetary Society — the same organization that deployed Earth's first light sails — is developing the NEO Surveyor spacecraft, which they plan to deploy in 2025. According to the Planetary Society, it will be able to detect 90 percent of NEOs of 140 meters or larger, a vast improvement.
How to move an asteroid
The DART spacecraft will attempt to deflect an asteroid.Credit: NASA
The NASA/JPL exercise made clear that six months is just not enough time with our current technology to prepare and launch a mission in time to nudge an NEO off its course. (Small course adjustments become significant over great distances, which is why "nudging" an asteroid is a potential strategy.)
What would such a mission look like? Hollywood aside — remember Armageddon?— we know of no good way to redirect an NEO headed our way. Experts believe that shooting laser beams at an incoming rock, exciting as it might look, is not a realistic possibility. Targeted nuclear blasts might work, but forget about landing Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, and Liv Tyler on an asteroid to set off a course-altering bomb, especially just a month after its discovery (as was the case in the movie).
Another thing that might work is crashing a spacecraft into an NEO hard enough to shift its course. That's the idea behind NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART). This mission will shoot a spacecraft at the (non-threatening) asteroid Dimorphos in the fall of 2022 in the hope of changing its trajectory.
The deadly asteroid's journey
The asteroid "2021 PDC" hit Europe in NASA's simulation.Credit: NASA/JPL
The harrowing "tabletop exercise," as NASA/JPL called it, took place across four days at the conference:
- Day 1, "April 19" — The asteroid named "2021 PDC" is discovered 35 million miles away. Scientists calculate it has a 1-in-20 chance of striking Earth.
- Day 2, "May 2" — Now certain that 2021 PDC will hit Earth, space mission designers attempt to dream up a response. They conclude that with less than six months to impact, there's not enough time to realistically mount a mission to disrupt the NEO's course.
- Day 3, "June 30" — Images from the world's four largest telescopes reveal the area in Europe that will be hit. Space-based infrared measurements narrow the object's size to between 35 and 700 meters. This would pack a similar punch as a 1.2-megaton nuclear bomb.
- Day 4, "October 14" — Six days before impact, the asteroid is just 6.3 million km from Earth. Finally, the Goldstone Solar System Radar has been able to assess the size of 2021 PDC. Scientists calculate the blast from the asteroid will be primarily confined to the border region between Germany, Czechia, Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia. Disaster response experts develop plans for addressing the human toll.
"Each time we participate in an exercise of this nature," says Johnson, "we learn more about who the key players are in a disaster event, and who needs to know what information, and when."
Practically speaking, little can be done to hurry technological development along other than budgeting more money toward that goal. Maybe we should have Bruce Willis on call, just in case.
If you ask your maps app to find "restaurants that aren't McDonald's," you won't like the result.
- The Chinese Room thought experiment is designed to show how understanding something cannot be reduced to an "input-process-output" model.
- Artificial intelligence today is becoming increasingly sophisticated thanks to learning algorithms but still fails to demonstrate true understanding.
- All humans demonstrate computational habits when we first learn a new skill, until this somehow becomes understanding.
It's your first day at work, and a new colleague, Kendall, catches you over coffee.
"You watch the game last night?" she says. You're desperate to make friends, but you hate football.
"Sure, I can't believe that result," you say, vaguely, and it works. She nods happily and talks at you for a while. Every day after that, you live a lie. You listen to a football podcast on the weekend and then regurgitate whatever it is you hear. You have no idea what you're saying, but it seems to impress Kendall. You somehow manage to come across as an expert, and soon she won't stop talking football with you.
The question is: do you actually know about football, or are you imitating knowledge? And what's the difference? Welcome to philosopher John Searle's "Chinese Room."
The Chinese Room
Searle's argument was designed as a critique of what's called a "functionalist" view of mind. This is the philosophy that argues that our mind can be explained fully by what role it plays, or in other words, what it does or what "function" it has.
One form of functionalism sees the human mind as following an "input-process-output" model. We have the input of our senses, the process of our brains, and a behavioral output. Searle thought this was at best an oversimplification, and his Chinese Room thought experiment goes to show how human minds are not simply biological computers. It goes like this:
Imagine a room, and inside is John, who can't speak a word of Chinese. Outside the room, a Chinese person sends a message into the room in Chinese. Luckily, John has an "if-then" book for Chinese characters. For instance, if he gets <你好吗>, the proper reply is <我还好>. All John has to do is follow his instruction book.
The Chinese speaker outside of the room thinks they're talking to someone inside who knows Chinese. But in reality, it's just John with his fancy book.
What is understanding?
Does John understand Chinese? The Chinese Room is, by all accounts, a computational view of the mind, yet it seems that something is missing. Truly understanding something is not an "if-then" automated response. John is missing that sinking in feeling, the absorption, the bit of understanding that's so hard to express. Understanding a language doesn't work like this. Humans are not Google Translate.
And yet, this is how AIs are programmed. A computer system is programmed to provide a certain output based on a finite list of certain inputs. If I double click the mouse, I open a file. If you type a letter, your monitor displays tiny black squiggles. If we press the right buttons in order, we win at Mario Kart. Input — Process — Output.
Can imitation become so fluid or competent that it is understanding.
But AIs don't know what they're doing, and Google Translate doesn't really understand what it's saying, does it? They're just following a programmer's orders. If I say, "Will it rain tomorrow?" Siri can look up the weather. But if I ask, "Will water fall from the clouds tomorrow?" it'll be stumped. A human would not (although they might look at you oddly).
A fun way to test just how little an AI understands us is to ask your maps app to find "restaurants that aren't McDonald's." Unsurprisingly, you won't get what you want.
The Future of AI
To be fair, the field of artificial intelligence is just getting started. Yes, it's easy right now to trick our voice assistant apps, and search engines can be frustratingly unhelpful at times. But that doesn't mean AI will always be like that. It might be that the problem is only one of complexity and sophistication, rather than anything else. It might be that the "if-then" rule book just needs work. Things like "the McDonald's test" or AI's inability to respond to original questions reveal only a limitation in programming. Given that language and the list of possible questions is finite, it's quite possible that AI will be able to (at the very least) perfectly mimic a human response in the not too distant future.
What's more, AIs today have increasingly advanced learning capabilities. Algorithms are no longer simply input-process-output but rather allow systems to search for information and adapt anew to what they receive.
A notorious example of this occurred when a Microsoft chat bot started spouting bigotry and racism after "learning" from what it read on Twitter. (Although, this might just say more about Twitter than AI.) Or, more sinister perhaps, two Facebook chat bots were shut down after it was discovered that they were not only talking to each other but were doing so in an invented language. Did they understand what they were doing? Who's to say that, with enough learning and enough practice, an AI "Chinese Room" might not reach understanding?
Can imitation become understanding?
We've all been a "Chinese Room" at times — be it talking about sports at work, cramming for an exam, using a word we didn't entirely know the meaning of, or calculating math problems. We can all mimic understanding, but it also begs the question: can imitation become so fluid or competent that it is understanding.
The old adage "fake it, 'till you make it" has been proven true over and over. If you repeat an action enough times, it becomes easy and habitual. For instance, when you practice a language, musical instrument, or a math calculation, then after a while, it becomes second nature. Our brain changes with repetition.
So, it might just be that we all start off as Chinese Rooms when we learn something new, but this still leaves us with a pertinent question: when, how, and at what point does John actually understand Chinese? More importantly, will Siri or Alexa ever understand you?