I was excited to find that Jeff Hawkins touched on the topic of creativity in his book On Intelligence. I think creativity is often highly misunderstood in our current culture. We think doing anything differently than it has been done before is creative. Yet our brain is primed to find patterns. Creativity can look very different within different personality structures. But I have yet to find a child who is intrinsically uncreative.
Creativity exists in all of us. It is only with much oppression that it may begin to shrink. But then again, sometimes oppression only turns the creativity up as a survival mechanism.
Hawkins argues that humans are creative in so much of our lives, creative in solving mundane everyday problems, that we often do not recognize it as creativity. He uses the example of finding a restroom in a restaurant you have never been to before. This is easy for us to do and we don’t think of it as a creative act. Yet we are not finding the restaurant directly from our memory. But we are using information from our memory, such as, restrooms are usually away from the eating area and there is usually a sign on the door, to guide us on our journey of discovery to this restroom, we do not, in reality, even know exists. We just assume it does based on the pattern in our brain that previous experiences have provided. The pattern tells us restaurants have restrooms for customers.
He goes on to explain that creativity is part of our prediction framework, we are using analogies to complete our predictions.
“Prediction by analogy-creativity-is so pervasive we normally don’t notice it.”
“At a fundamental level, everyday acts of perception are similar to the rare flights of brilliance. It is just that the everyday acts are so common we don’t notice them.”
“Creativity is not something that occurs in a particular region of the cortex.”
“Nor is it like emotions or balance, which are rooted in particular structures and circuits outside of the cortex.”
“Rather, creativity is an inherent property of every cortical region. It is a necessary component of prediction.” – Jeff Hawkins
Hawkins goes on to explain how nature and nurture can account for many of the differences we see in the level of creativity different people seem to possess. But I wonder also, how much of this difference is simply perceived? We tend to try and cram creativity into a little box. Artists and Writers and Interior Designers are considered creative. But Engineers and Computer Programmers are not. However, is it true that computer programmers and engineers never have to think outside of the box or rely on analogies in order to solve their problems?
I don’t think creativity looks the same in every person. I can see it there in all of us. Perhaps, there is not as much discrepancy in how creative people are as we think, perhaps, there is just an underlying fallacy in how we think of creativity in our culture. This fallacy, that creativity has to be messy and crazy, unpredictable, and perhaps can only surface if we have endured enough darkness (a popular idea among ‘brooding artists’), is a stunted definition of creativity.
There is just as much creativity in a mathematician as there is in an abstract painter. And perhaps, we should begin to elevate the role of some of these other professions that we see as less creative, after all, they are the ones solving problems and making the world an easier place to live in.
Now, it is true, as far a nurture goes, a person needs to be exposed to a lot of something in order to be able to embrace the complex patterns that create those things. So, a musical family tends to create musical offspring. If there is no music in a home it is less likely that a child will become a composer. However, we also know, that as adults we can nurture ourselves in any way we choose, and certainly after we study music for enough hours, we can become a composer if we put in the time.
Nature does account for some variations, for example, there are some differences in brain size, the strength of connections and other ‘little’ variances. These differences may account for why some people, such as Einstein seem to have a level of brilliance above the ordinary. In fact, they have studied Einstein’s brain and found differences, what I am not sure we know is whether these were formed by the amount of time he spent both studying and letting his mind wander in search of connections, or if he was born with these differences in brain structure. (For example, his brain width is 15% larger than normal and he had more support cells (called gilia) per neuron than normal, he also had unusual grooves in the parietal lobes which are a region thought to be important in mathematical abilities.
Along with the question of where creativity comes from, and why some people are more creative than others, comes a third question. Can you become more creative? Can you practice creativity like you practice math and get better each passing year?
The answer is yes, and Hawkins gives several steps to help you flex those creativity muscles.
1. Assume there is an answer if you don’t believe there is an answer you will give up too soon.
2. Let your mind wander. Your brain needs time and space in which to come up with a solution.
3. Turn the problem around, upside-down or backward to look at it from a new angle. This may help you find that matching pattern in the world or in your cortex.
To his list, I would like to add a fourth idea that can help you practice creativity. Divergent thinking is a good way to add a bit of spice to your creativity. An example of divergent thinking is to make a list of all the different ways you can use an everyday object. A chair can be used to sit it. Or it can be used as a stool to stand on and reach something. It can be used as part of a support system for a blanket fort. Kids are really good at divergent thinking. Divergent thinking creates new patterns between things in our brain, making it easier to form the analogies and connections needed for creative thinking as it applies to solving problems or coming up with new analogies.
Can Creativity Trick You?
Well, yes, our mind can form false analogies, and it is hard for us to recognize these false patterns until faced with some contradictory pattern or data that does not fit into our pattern. History is abundant with examples of false analogies, such as the idea of spontaneous generation which was the obvious conclusion to maggots appearing out of nowhere. When thinking about these examples we would be wiser today if we could manage to embrace our own ideas with just a small dose of objectivity. Realizing those who believed in spontaneous generation were not stupid, and only a very clever mind could come up with such an idea. However, many of our advanced and brilliant ideas could easily prove, over the course of time, to be just as idiotic, so why do we spend so much time arguing about theories?
The art in this post was brought to you by a mathematical formula…maybe it is time to stop pretending that ‘side’ of the brain is not colorful.