[Paleopsych] New Scientist: Creativity: A Special Issue
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New Scientist: Creativity: A Special Issue
5.10.29 (many articles)
The creative mind: special report - Opinion
Everyone has it, some a lot more than others. The development of
humans, and possibly the universe, depends on it. Yet creativity is an
elusive creature. What do we mean by it? What is going on in our
brains when ideas form? Does it feel the same for artists and
scientists? We asked writers and neuroscientists, pop stars and AI
gurus to try to deconstruct the creative process - and learn how we
can all ignite the spark within.
[These are the articles. I arranged them in order of the printed
edition, to which I subscribe.]
Looking for inspiration - finding the muse
Where it's at - creative hotspots
One culture - art's debt to relativity
Never give up - mathematical stickability
When the music takes you
Just got to write this down - the double life of Alice Flaherty
Natural talent - nature's profligate beauty
The complexity of the universe - Paul Davies hunts a new law
Oh look, a new cliché! - Douglas Hofstadter's clever Cats
And how to be original - we asked the experts
Looking for inspiration
* Helen Phillips
PEOPLE have speculated about their own creativity for centuries -
perhaps ever since we became able to think about thinking. Because
creative thought just seems to "arrive", the credit has been laid at
the feet of gods and spirits or, recently, the id or the subconscious
mind. Whatever it is, it is thinking at the edge, at the very fringes.
The only bit of the creative process we actually know about is the
moment of insight, yet creative ideas and projects may incubate beyond
our awareness for months or even years. Not surprising, then, that
creativity has long eluded scientific study.
In the early 1970s, it was still seen as a type of intelligence. But
when more subtle tests of IQ and creative skills were developed in the
1970s, particularly by the father of creativity testing, Paul
Torrance, it became clear that the link was not so simple. Creative
people are intelligent, in terms of IQ tests at least, but only
averagely or just above. While it depends on the discipline, in
general beyond a certain level IQ does not help boost creativity; it
is necessary, but not sufficient to make someone creative.
Because of the difficulty of studying the actual process, most early
attempts to study creativity concentrated on personality. According to
creativity specialist Mark Runco of California State University,
Fullerton, the "creative personality" tends to place a high value on
aesthetic qualities and to have broad interests, providing lots of
resources to draw on and knowledge to recombine into novel solutions.
"Creatives" have an attraction to complexity and an ability to handle
conflict. They are also usually highly self-motivated, perhaps even a
Less creative people, on the other hand, tend to become irritated if
they cannot immediately fit all the pieces together. They are less
tolerant of confusion. Creativity comes to those who wait, but only to
those who are happy to do so in a bit of a fog.
But there may be a price to pay for having a creative personality. For
centuries, a link has been made between creativity and mental illness.
Psychiatrist and author Kay Redfield Jamison of Johns Hopkins
University in Baltimore, Maryland, who has bipolar disorder, found
that established artists are significantly more likely to have mood
disorders. But she also suggests that a change of mood state might be
the key to triggering a creative event, rather than the negative mood
Some features of schizophrenia are also thought to be more common in
creative types, according to psychiatrist Gordon Claridge of the
University of Oxford. He uses a "schizotypy scale" to record features
of the illness that are not pathological by themselves, including
experiencing hallucinations, hearing voices, having disorganised
thoughts, believing in magic and so on. People with these traits tend
to score highly on tests of lateral, divergent and open thinking. But
those who score very highly on such tests find this kind of thinking
can be very destructive. Intelligence can help channel this thought
style into great creativity, but when combined with emotional
problems, lateral, divergent or open thinking can lead to mental
Jordan Peterson, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, Canada,
believes he has identified a mechanism that could help explain this.
He says that the brains of creative people seem more open to incoming
stimuli than less creative types. Our senses are continuously feeding
a mass of information into our brains, which have to block or ignore
most of it to save us from being snowed under. Peterson calls this
process latent inhibition, and argues that people who have less of it,
and who have a reasonably high IQ with a good working memory can
juggle more of the data, and so may be open to more possibilities and
ideas. The downside of extremely low latent inhibition may be a
confused thought style that predisposes people to mental illness. So
for Peterson, mental illness is not a prerequisite for creativity, but
it shares some cognitive traits.
But what of the creative act itself? One of the first studies of the
creative brain at work was by Colin Martindale, a psychologist from
the University of Maine in Orono. Back in 1978, he used a network of
scalp electrodes to record an electroencephalogram, a record of the
pattern of brain waves, as people made up stories. Creativity, he
showed, has two stages: inspiration and elaboration, each
characterised by very different states of mind. While people were
dreaming up their stories, he found their brains were surprisingly
quiet. The dominant activity was alpha waves, indicating a very low
level of cortical arousal: a relaxed state, as though the conscious
mind was quiet while the brain was making connections behind the
scenes. It's the same sort of brain activity as in some stages of
sleep, dreaming or rest, which could explain why sleep and relaxation
can help people be creative.
However, when these quiet-minded people were asked to work on their
stories, the alpha wave activity dropped off and the brain became
busier, revealing increased cortical arousal, more corralling of
activity and more organised thinking. Strikingly, it was the people
who showed the biggest difference in brain activity between the
inspiration and development stages who produced the most creative
storylines. Nothing in their background brain activity marked them as
creative or uncreative. "It's as if the less creative person can't
shift gear," says Guy Claxton, a psychologist at the University of
Bristol, UK. "Creativity requires different kinds of thinking. Very
creative people move between these states intuitively." Creativity, it
seems, is about mental flexibility: perhaps not a two-step process,
but a toggling between two states.
In a later study, Martindale found that this change in activity was
particularly noticeable on the right side of the brain. However,
people who had the connections between the two sides of their brain
severed to treat intractable epilepsy seemed to become far less
creative, showing that communication between the sides of the brain is
Researchers are now trying to identify some of the specific anatomy of
creativity. Brain studies of people with particular types of
creativity show, perhaps not surprisingly, that the active areas are
determined by the specialist knowledge being used. Language, imagery,
spatial awareness and so on - each skill is localised to some extent
to a particular brain part or parts. Mathematicians and physicists may
have larger parietal lobes, important for spatial representation,
while writers may have more widely distributed language regions in the
frontal and temporal lobes, perhaps spreading across both sides, when
they are normally confined to the left.
But it's not just these speciality areas that are active. Using
information creatively needs coordination between many areas.
"Creative synthesis requires a new pattern, to put the brain in a
state where a large number of areas are simultaneously active," says
Claxton. When we concentrate in a less creative way, such as when
reading the gas bill, there are fewer active centres and less
Ingegerd Carlsson, a psychologist from the University of Lund in
Sweden, and her colleagues found something that they think might link
different forms of creativity. When people were performing a creative
task - trying to list as many uses for an object as they could - the
frontal lobes of their brain were noticeably more active. The frontal
lobes are thought to help people change tasks and strategies and to
shift attention from task to task.
The frontal lobes also help coordinate the connectivity between
different brain areas by controlling the release of signalling
chemicals, says neurologist David Beversdorf of Ohio State University
in Columbus. One thing that relaxed states of mind, sleep and
depression - all linked with increased creativity in some way - have
in common are low levels of a brain signalling chemical called
noradrenalin, or norepinephrine. This chemical controls how easily
neurons "talk" to each other. Low levels of it seems to encourage
broad networks of neurons to communicate, whereas higher levels seem
to focus that activity into tighter, smaller networks. Treating people
with precursors to noradrenalin seems to hinder their ability to solve
creative word puzzles, says Beversdorf, while drugs such as
propranolol, which block the chemical, can help people do better at
tasks such as spotting anagrams.
Paul Howard-Jones, who works with Claxton at Bristol, believes he has
found another aspect of creativity. He asked people to make up a story
based on three words and scanned their brains using functional
magnetic resonance imaging. In one trial, people were asked not to try
too hard and just report the most obvious story suggested by the
words. In another, they were asked to be inventive. He also varied the
words so it was easier or harder to link them.
As people tried harder and came up with more creative tales, there was
a lot more activity in a particular prefrontal brain region on the
right-hand side, extending backwards towards a deeper region called
the anterior cingulate cortex. These regions are probably important in
monitoring for conflict, helping us to filter out many of the
unhelpful ways of combining the words and allowing us to pull out just
the desirable connections, Howard-Jones suggests. It shows that there
is another side to creativity, he says. The story-making task,
particularly when we are stretched, produces many options which we
have to assess. So part of creativity is a conscious process of
evaluating and analysing ideas. The test also shows that the more we
try and are stretched, the more creative our minds can be.
But to be truly creative needs more than just the right personality
and the right brain areas and networks. It's about using them
effectively. Skills, situations and our social setting can shape our
creativity just as dramatically as the brain resources we are born
with. The most creative people also use the different rhythms of the
day, the weekends and the holidays to help shift focus and brain
state. They may spend two hours at their desk then go for a walk,
because they know that pattern works for them, and they don't feel
And creativity need not always be a solitary, tortured affair,
according to Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School. Though there
is a slight association between solitary writing or painting and
negative moods or emotional disturbances, scientific creativity and
workplace creativity seem much more likely to occur when people are
positive and buoyant.
In a decade-long study of real businesses, to be published soon,
Amabile found that positive moods relate positively to creativity in
organisations, and that the relationship is a simple linear one.
Creative thought also improves people's moods, her team found, so the
process is circular. Time pressures, financial pressures and
hard-earned bonus schemes on the other hand, do not boost workplace
creativity: internal motivation, not coercion, produces the best work.
Another often forgotten aspect of creativity is social. Vera
John-Steiner of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and author
of Creative Collaboration (Oxford University Press, 2000) says that to
be really creative you need strong social networks and trusting
relationships, not just active neural networks. One vital
characteristic of a highly creative person, she says, is that they
have at least one other person in their life who doesn't think they
are completely nuts.
Where it's at
* Richard Florida
THE world is flat - or so says The New York Times columnist Thomas
Friedman. It's the title of his latest book (Allen Lane, 2005), in
which he argues that globalisation has levelled the playing field,
allowing people the world over to exploit the cutting edge. "You no
longer have to emigrate," writes Friedman, "in order to innovate."
But Friedman fails to capture the complex reality of how economic
growth and innovation cluster together in the modern global economy.
In particular, scientific and technological creativity, the engines of
that economy, are more geographically concentrated then ever.
Geographer Tim Gulden of the University of Maryland at College Park
and I have found that the bulk of the world's patents originate in
just a few dozen city-regions - places such as Tokyo, San Francisco,
Berlin, Paris, New York and Taipei.
For all the concern over the rising global prominence of Bangalore and
Shanghai, those two still do relatively little at the cutting edge. In
2003, the University of California alone generated more patents than
either India or China, and IBM accounted for five times as many as the
two combined. And while Asian city-regions are major players in
commercial innovation, scientific advancement occurs largely in cities
across Europe and North America.
The US's success has stemmed in large part from its ability to attract
creative talent. During the 20th century, its universities drew
eminent scientists such as Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi, fleeing
fascism and intolerance in Europe. The creative influx accelerated
during the 1980s and 1990s, providing much of the power for America's
But talent does not just flow between countries. More precisely, it
locates in communities, regions and cities. This has been the case for
centuries: from Athens to New York, cities have long served as
crucibles of invention. This is driven by a key social and economic
force: when talented people come together, their collective creativity
is not just additive; rather, their interactions multiply and enhance
their individual productivity.
Researchers at The Brookings Institution have developed a computer
simulation of this effect. The model was formed around two simple
principles: first, that creative people cluster together to form teams
that turn into companies or organisations; second, that these bodies
then search for places in which to locate. Its simulated world emerged
as a near-perfect representation of the real one. Creative people and
the firms they built clustered in a hierarchy of cities.
But this only raises further questions: why do some city-regions such
as San Francisco or Boston become enduring centres of creativity and
innovation, while others do not? In the age-old economic models that
still dominate thinking about such issues, talent is conceived as a
stock, similar to a supply of raw materials that is stored up in one
area or another. On the contrary, talent is one of the most mobile
resources on the planet, and is getting more so every day.
What makes for a creative centre? A key driver is the presence of one
or more world-class universities; many have noted the MIT effect in
Boston or the Stanford effect in Silicon Valley. But for universities
to help drive growth they must be embedded in a broader cluster of
creative industries, supportive institutions, and a diverse and
vibrant labour market. The crucial thing is a region's openness to
talent: the ability of a place to draw creativity from all quarters of
society. My research has found high rates of correlation between, on
the one hand, the openness of a city to immigrants, its absence of
racial and ethnic segregation, its acceptance of gay and lesbian
populations and its enthusiasm for artists and, on the other, its
ability to attract clusters of scientific and technological creativity
and turn them into economic wealth.
A recent Gallup survey confirms this. It found that people across all
racial and class groups value cities that are open and tolerant of a
broad swathe of the population. In addition to jobs and incomes,
residents also expect the city to give them less tangible things -
aesthetic beauty, a connection to place and exposure to new ideas.
Today, centres of creativity and innovation are more concentrated than
ever: talented and creative people no longer feel tethered to
particular jobs or locations. In the modern global economy, great
universities matter, and so do great cities. To sustain creative
centres that drive economic productivity and growth, both need to work
* Arthur Miller
What is scientific creativity?
It involves the same kind of elements as artistic creativity. Both the
scientist and the artist are trying to represent the reality beyond
appearances. I believe that at the moment of creative insight,
boundaries dissolve between disciplines and both artists and
scientists search for new modes of aesthetics. That was certainly the
case with Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso. They were both trying to
understand the true properties of space, and to reconcile them with
how space is seen by different observers. Einstein discovered
relativity and Picasso discovered cubism almost simultaneously.
Has scientific creativity ever been sparked by art?
Cubism directly helped Niels Bohr discover the principle of
complementarity in quantum theory, which says that something can be a
particle and a wave at the same time, but it will always be measured
to be either one or the other. In analytic cubism, artists tried to
represent a scene from all possible viewpoints on one canvas. An
observer picks out one particular viewpoint. How you view the
painting, that's the way it is. Bohr read the book by Jean Metzinger
and Albert Gleizes on cubist theory, Du Cubisme. It inspired him to
postulate that the totality of an electron is both a particle and a
wave, but when you observe it you pick out one particular viewpoint.
So scientists can benefit by thinking in artistic terms?
Sometimes scientific discoveries are made through visual design. For
instance, there's the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram in astrophysics.
It's a graph that basically plots the temperature versus brightness of
a star. It was invented when Henry Russell had only 10 minutes to give
a speech and 300 stars to show. He plotted them all onto one diagram
just to condense the information. When he did, this whole collection
of stars assumed a shape, fell into a specific sequence. The
interpretation of that diagram has become a major topic in
Another example is Harry Kroto, who was awarded the Nobel prize in
chemistry in 1996. Kroto's first love was graphic design. That gave
him a real advantage in science. Artistic insight helped him construct
a three-dimensional image from two-dimensional data to deduce the
design of carbon-60. Scientists who understand aesthetics, beauty and
form gain a creative edge.
Does it happen the other way around, with science inspiring creativity
Marcel Duchamp had read some works on relativity and the influence is
obvious in his Nude Descending a Staircase. Wassily Kandinsky was also
very much influenced by relativity, and particularly by E=mc^2. He
took that equation to mean that everything is fundamentally amorphous,
so that's what he painted. Technology has always profoundly affected
art. Today there's a movement in computer art that is held back only
by the pace of the technology.
What do scientists and artists have in common?
They see reality in new ways. While everyone else saw a pendulum
swinging back and forth, Galileo saw it falling and rising. In that
way he was able to do breakthrough work on the nature of falling
bodies. Every great artist has seen the world in a new way. That's
exactly what Einstein did, too. His early papers were very conceptual,
especially the 1905 paper on special relativity. It has very few
equations, and the data that he used had been around for years. He
just saw the problems in a new way.
In art and in science, discoveries are made by breaking the rules. But
what's interesting about Einstein and Picasso, and other highly
creative people, is that they can't seem to follow their discoveries
through to the logical conclusions. Picasso never crossed the Rubicon
and entered into abstract expressionism. Einstein didn't believe in
quantum mechanics as the final atomic theory, nor in the most
spectacular consequence of general relativity, the black hole. It
seems that genius burns brightly for a while and then burns out. The
young revolutionary becomes conservative.
Never give up
* Timothy Gowers
What is mathematical creativity?
I firmly believe it is not some magical, mysterious thing,
particularly in mathematics, and in other fields too, though I don't
have enough experience of things like poetry or painting to be
authoritative. I'm convinced everything can be explained.
How do you analyse it?
It is difficult. The closer you look, the more it seems to dissolve.
If you take an idea that seems outstandingly creative, it usually
didn't appear in someone's head by magic. Some thought process led to
it, and this can be broken into smaller ideas until you get down to
the lowest level of thought process, which is essentially routine. So
if you add up a whole load of routine things, you can somehow end up
with something that everyone acknowledges is creative.
So creativity is a procedure or an algorithm?
Yes, but I realise that I'm opening a big can of worms. That statement
requires much more justification than I can possibly give in an
interview. If I suggest to people that creativity might be
algorithmic, they generally say that it cannot be a simple procedure.
They are right, it is not a simple procedure. But that doesn't stop it
being a procedure.
How does the creative process happen in mathematics?
There's a famous passage in the book Littlewood's Miscellany by the
mathematician John Littlewood in which he talks about the different
phases of forming a mathematics problem. One of the most important is
immersion. You need to spend a long time thinking hard and getting
nowhere in the hope that at some later stage you'll have what feels
like a bright idea. Of course, you'd never have had this idea if you
hadn't been through the immersion stage.
What does immersion feel like?
Most of the time it's very frustrating. You try lots of things that
don't work: 90 to 95 per cent of mathematical research is the process
of trying things and discovering that they don't work. And this is
another factor I think is important. Supposing 1 in 100 ideas turns
out to work. If all that people see is the 100th idea, they'll think
how extraordinary it was that somebody thought of that. An analogy is
videoing yourself rolling four dice and then editing the video to show
only the rolls that produce four sixes. It would look rather
Has immersion worked for you?
Yes. One example is a theorem of a Hungarian mathematician called
Endre Szemerédi that I spent two years thinking about until finally I
got a new proof.
Can you break down the creative process that led to this result?
If I go back, I can find explanations for all the new ideas in that
proof. When other people saw them, however, the new ideas looked quite
novel because a lot of what I'd been doing didn't make it into the
final paper. You cannot just write a big diary of your thought
experiences, including your mistakes. It would be too long. Mistakes
are an important part of the thought process. It's a good research
strategy to be a little bit cavalier about the details and go back and
check them afterwards. It speeds up the process of having ideas.
Immersion sounds similar to obsession.
I think obsession plays an important role. People tend to think of
mathematics as some very mysterious thing that is done by people with
special brains. But a large part of what makes mathematicians' brains
special is the capacity to become obsessed with a maths problem.
And the reward?
The sort of pleasure you get is like supporting a not terribly good
football team. Once in a while the team has some spectacular success
that you can live off for several years. In between, you're yearning
for something else to happen. It's a bit like that.
When the music takes you
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand
Can you describe the process you go through when you write songs?
There are two very different stages. There is an initial creative
stage where it all comes out, and then there's a stage of chopping it
about, arranging it and turning it into something that can be heard by
the rest of the world. The best songs come straight out. It feels a
bit like the first time you ride a bicycle or drive a car. You're
trying to control something but you're not quite sure which direction
it's going. You end up with this big sprawling mess of an idea.
Then you have that other process which is a lot more controlled, where
you discard all the parts that are irrelevant or that obscure the good
stuff at the heart. During the first process you're not really
considering what you're doing, you're just doing it. The actual
writing of a song is fairly easy. But the second process is very
ruthless and quite cold because you have to cut away things that
you're attached to.
Do you write better in certain environments?
I tend to write in all sorts of places. For our new record I've
written songs in hotel rooms, on the back of tour buses, in corridors,
wherever I've had an opportunity to sit down and pick up a guitar.
Environment isn't particularly important. I usually just feel like
doing it and do it. It's usually either when you feel there's no
pressure to be doing other things, or when you feel almost selfishly
unaware of other things. That's essential: having a disregard for
anything happening around you. Whether it's somebody shouting about
something they want you to do or you're desperately hungry or thirsty,
you can just turn it off.
Are you a different person when you're writing?
I find myself being rude to people when I'm trying to get past the
distractions. I used to have big arguments with my mother. It's funny
because I'm generally not rude at all, I'm generally very polite,
probably too polite. The only time I'm really rude is when I'm writing
What does it feel like when you're writing?
If it's good, it feels really exciting. It's like listening to a story
you've never heard before. You lose your sense of where you are. All
the everyday stuff - conversation, where you left your keys - it all
seems to belong to a different brain, almost like a brain in somebody
else's head. That's why the distractions are so infuriating, because
it's like being reminded that this other brain exists. Most of the
stuff I write about is from experiences I've had in everyday life when
you use the trivial part of your brain, but the other part is always
absorbing things it can use later.
Interview by Eleanor Case.
Franz Ferdinand's new album is You Could Have It So Much Better
How do you write your songs?
I begin with little ideas that aren't fully formed and I have to
either excavate further or enlarge a small idea and turn it into a
song - perhaps join it to some other ideas that I have hanging around.
So a lot of the time it's more like being a mechanic.
But occasionally a song just seems to come out of nowhere. I pick up
my guitar and within half an hour I've written one. It's an
instinctive process, a shutting down of conscious thought. It's about
opening a door in your brain that is normally closed. It's about
dredging up things that surprise you: images that you had stored and
didn't know you had remembered. One image will unlock a chain of
images, and that becomes a song.
What kind of images?
For example, an image of a tree I once saw came to me and helped
resolve the calm of the song Ain't No Love. The tree had drops of
water hanging on it, glistening in the sun, and it looked like a tree
of diamonds: a beautiful image that is lodged in me rather like a
splinter. It comes from way back in your life and you don't even know
How do you know if a song is any good?
You shouldn't always trust inspiration. Just because it came out of
thin air doesn't mean it's any good. But sometimes you can tell,
because all your emotions are stirred. The emotion, the purity of the
germ of the song - it's all so vivid and wondrous. It feels so
shockingly fresh. But a song that comes from nowhere is usually much
better than anything you consciously think up.
What's your state of mind when you're writing?
It's an extremely intense period. I find myself storming around the
room, biting my nails, scratching my head to the point that it bleeds.
It's like having an itch you can't scratch until the process is
completed. It takes hold of you. That's how you make records. You
start off by tinkering around, making a few sounds and having a really
good time, but when you get deeper into it and your demands get
greater and more ambitious, something rears its ugly head. You become
possessed. I'm not a particularly easy person to live with during
these times. I find it really hard to get back into normal life.
What puts you in the mood to create?
An openness of heart. You either have it or you don't. It's an
upwelling of feeling - and I will suddenly want an instrument to see
if I can express it.
Interview by Lucy Middleton.
David Gray's new album is Life in Slow Motion
Alison Goldfrapp & Will Gregory of Goldfrapp
You think a lot about the theatrical side of your performances as well
as the music. Where do you find your ideas?
Alison: The inspirations are quite often outside music. We keep
pictures, cut things out, write random things in notebooks, record
things on Dictaphones, write up dreams. There are things that have
been in your mind since you were a child. It's a matter of extracting
them and regurgitating them in a different shape.
Will: There's something quite childlike about it because you almost go
back to just playing and being in the sandpit and making things. The
ideas haven't got any verbal reasoning behind them and that's quite
fun, quite liberating. At its best, it's like playing with a box of
dressing-up clothes and trying them on and seeing how you look in
Do you throw away a lot of ideas?
Will: It's like you've got a map. You just don't know which are the
blind alleys. When you start something, you don't know what it is or
what it's going to be. Living with that perpetual sense of doubt can
be pretty stressful. Each time you start to build, there's a part of
you saying, this is rubbish, you can't do this, and there's another
part that's saying this is quite fun, let's see where it goes.
Do things ever arrive fully born?
Alison: Yes, though sometimes when you have the whole picture it
doesn't make it easy, because you can never achieve the whole thing.
Or there's not much point in realising it because it's already formed.
You've thought it, you've done it! Things that are half-done are
What's the difference between people who do what you're doing and
those who just aspire to it?
Will: It's to do with self-confidence - that grey state of the unknown
is terrifying and some people find it harder to deal with. If you have
a certain amount of self-belief you can say, I don't know what I'm
doing but it's fine.
Alison: I think people look at things differently. They don't see
connections that penetrate beyond the thing itself. Like looking at a
tree in a pot, some might say that's just a tree in a pot. Then
someone else might say, it's a tree in a pot, it has those colours and
it could be this and it might go into that. Or you might be looking at
brickwork and think it looks like someone's skin.
Will: It's like that Picasso sculpture of a bicycle. He turned it at a
certain angle and suddenly the seat and handlebars look like a bull's
Do you do any other creative things?
Alison: I started knitting. I like it because it's very repetitive and
Interview by Liz Else.
Goldfrapp's latest album is Supernature
Just got to write this down
* Alice Flaherty
The writer: All in my head
I HAVE a problem with writing. It started on a particular day, seven
years ago. That day everything changed somehow and all the changes
were of the utmost importance. I had to record them. One day I noticed
that I was crouched on the floor of a bathroom in the building where I
worked as a neurologist, writing on toilet paper because the idea
couldn't wait until I got back to my office. When there was no paper,
I wrote on my forearms. As my ideas got more intense, I even wrote on
myself while I was driving.
The change in my writing came 10 days after I gave birth prematurely
to twin boys, who died. They were so small - one held my finger before
he died, and his hand hardly fitted around it. For nine days my grief
was "appropriate". On the tenth, I woke wildly excited, filled with
hundreds of ideas pressing to be written down.
I holed up in my office to write, and family and friends worried that
I was depressed. But depression and mania can come in complicated
mixtures: my mood, while sorrowful, was also manic. I didn't want my
agitation, or even my grief, to end. It felt as if my grief had
brought a magical kingdom of sorrow so close to this one that I could
reach into its shadows and bring back dream fruit. It was a kingdom
where beauty can't be separated from pain.
In my transformed state, I saw meaning everywhere, which made the
world radiant but also terrifying. Metaphors came alive. The rhythmic
swoop of telephone wires had a faint message I needed to decipher and
transcribe. Aesthetic experience? Psychosis? The distinction seemed to
be missing the point.
Sometimes, writing felt like a disease that took me away from family
and friends. Other times, it filled me with pleasure and energy: I
felt I was taking dictation from the muse. Most of what poured out was
trash, but by picking through it I have had two books published which
won awards, with a third in press and a fellowship to finish a fourth.
Writers and artists with unusual creativity problems started to refer
themselves to my clinic. That led to a research grant to study
biological factors in creativity.
Such social approval is always pleasant, but in someone with a
tendency as odd as mine it is also key to my being able to claim that
I am merely mad about my work, not mad.
After four months, the urge to write left as suddenly as it had come.
For the next month, it took a great deal of concentration to even lift
my arm. I didn't feel like a blocked writer, but as if I were not a
writer at all. The state was almost peaceful, a rest cure from the
agitation of the previous months. If I tried to write or speak,
though, I felt I was suffocating, my lungs full of water.
A year after my twin boys died, I delivered, in an odd symmetry,
premature but healthy twin girls. Again 10 days after the birth, I
switched into a manicky, hypergraphic state. My doctor suggested a
mood stabiliser. The first one was not a success, but after several
tries we found a regime that has smoothed out the sharpest peaks and
valleys of my writing. Without, luckily, flattening them completely.
These days my excited writing has a seasonal rather than a post-partum
pattern: it peaks in late summer, and early each winter it goes into
When my writing is driven, writing seems one of the glories of
humankind. When I write as a scientist, writing seems a product of the
brain. I try to keep my passionate and scientific writing separate
because convention demands it. Doing so is artificial, though, and
even deceptive - bloodless prose often hides the true motivations for
a scientist's research. I study the drive to write because it is
something in my brain that torments me, something that needs
treatment. But never, I hope, a complete cure.
The neurologist: All in my brain
BECAUSE I am a neurologist, I could easily summon up a Greek word for
my symptoms: hypergraphia, an exaggerated desire to write. And it had
a pedigree. Norman Geschwind, a neurologist at Harvard Medical School,
showed that hypergraphia comes from a change in the brain's temporal
lobes. These regions, located between the ears, are important for
speech comprehension and emotional meaning. Geschwind noticed a
cluster of personality traits in some people with temporal lobe
epilepsy. This cluster is sometimes called the Dostoevsky syndrome,
after the novelist who had all of these traits.
So do the temporal lobes also control non-literary creativity? A form
of senility called front-temporal dementia suggests they may. In
people whose temporal lobe is most damaged, mood swings and
compulsions are far more prominent than cognitive problems until late
in the disease. Neurologist Bruce Miller of the University of
California, San Francisco has recently described a number of these
people who, with no previous interest in art, suddenly begin composing
music or painting even though the rest of their abilities were
In these patients, the intact frontal lobe may be as important for
their creative bursts as the temporal lobe deficits. Ingegerd
Carlsson's group in Sweden has shown that in normal, non-demented
people, brain activity is higher in the frontal lobes of creative than
non-creative subjects. There is mounting evidence that the
front-to-back communication between the frontal and temporal lobes is
more important for creativity than the left brain-right brain model of
the 1970s, when the right brain was thought to be visuospatial and
intuitive, while the left brain was linguistic, deductive, and did
your tax forms.
Other disorders that affect frontal and temporal lobe activity also
affect creativity: chief among them is manic depression. Mania and
milder states of increased energy turn out to be much more likely than
epilepsy to cause hypergraphia as well as pressured speech. And the
temporal lobe is abnormally active in people who have manic
depression, as captured by functional brain imaging and
While there is sometimes thought to be a link between depression and
creativity, that link may exist because depression is often coupled to
rebound periods of at least mild agitation or mood elevation. Recent
evidence suggests that depression correlates better with writer's
block than with creative bursts. Depression itself often brings with
it a decreased desire to communicate, and a feeling that life and
words have lost meaning. Interestingly, the behaviour of depressed -
and blocked - people is often surprisingly similar to those who have
had frontal lobe injuries. People with such injuries have poor
judgement and lack creativity, whereas frontal lobe activity increases
in creative people who are thoroughly engaged in creative tasks.
An important addition to the parallels above is the difference between
the kind of aphasia (language deficit) that stem from frontal versus
temporal lobe damage. Frontal lobe injury often causes Broca's
aphasia, in which patients have trouble generating speech, and are
painfully aware of it. Injury to the temporal lobes, however, causes
Wernicke's aphasia, where patients have poor comprehension and are
therefore not aware that they don't make sense. Thus they actually
speak more fluently, if emptily, than before. Broca's patients are
often depressed, whereas Wernicke's patients can be manic or
There have been plenty of attempts to boost creativity in "normal"
people. My colleague Shelley Carson and I, for example, are testing
the hypothesis that creativity can be encouraged by exposure to a
bright full-spectrum light for half an hour every morning to treat the
brain's seasonal response to short winter days. Preliminary results
suggest there is indeed a significant benefit. Students do better on
tasks from writing haiku to listing as many uses as possible for a
paper clip - and many of them are not keen to return the light boxes
at the end of the experiment!
Researcher Alan Snyder, based at the University of Adelaide,
Australia, is working with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). He
has found that holding an electromagnet near the frontal lobe can
influence creative skills, with volunteers showing dramatic
improvement in drawing and mathematical abilities. Unfortunately, the
abilities of the volunteers revert to their previous level within
minutes of turning the magnet off.
The idea of trying to control the muse with pills and magnetic pulses
is disturbing. But standard educational and behavioural alternatives
are worrisome too: they are more expensive, slower, better at
imparting knowledge than creative motivation. Although novel attempts
to boost creativity may appear alien or frivolous, creativity is not a
luxury, it is an essential. On the personal scale, lack of creativity
can put employment in jeopardy. On a world scale, just think of all
the pressing problems in need of creative solutions.
* Philip Ball
IS NATURE creative? The notion sounds at first like a sop to
sentimentalists, an anthropomorphism one step away from pantheism. The
beauty of nature is a perilously seductive concept. Biologist Karl von
Frisch had it more or less right when, confronted with the variety of
delicately patterned radiolarians and diatoms, he was determined not
to get misty-eyed: "I do not want to wax philosophical about so much
'useless' beauty scattered over the oceans," he said. "Nature is
But on closer inspection, the idea of natural creativity has a lot
going for it. Like creative people, nature produces things that appear
neither inevitable nor obvious, and solves problems with innovative
solutions. Nature's unwitting problem-solving mechanism is natural
selection, and the solutions it finds have won the admiration of
engineers - hence the field of biomimetics, the application of natural
solutions to human engineering problems. Nothing in the laws of
physics or chemistry guarantees, for example, the evolution of the
gecko's adhesive foot - a pad with inexhaustible stickiness supplied
by a carpet of tiny, crack-probing hairs. Nor could we predict from
first principles the self-cleaning mechanism of the lotus leaf or the
laminated armour-plating of molluscs.
An engineer who came up with these designs would be creative in
anyone's book, and it seems unfair to deny nature that accolade just
because they were the result of a blind search honed by selection.
Random mutation coupled to selective pressure turns out to be an
efficient way to find good solutions, so much so that scientists and
engineers are now copying this technique. Though lacking purpose,
evolution can conjure up wonderfully artistic design. Moreover, the
creativity of natural selection is self-perpetuating, as it ensures
that no successful product can afford to rest on its laurels.
Of course, not all creativity is about solving problems. Artists often
produce beautiful things for the sheer joy of it. Once evolutionary
arguments have explained away our aesthetic delight in nature's
splendours - in the physical processes that give rise to, say, a
sunset - where in nature is there any room left for pure artistic
We might concede that there is none, if everything in nature were
either functional (as in features formed by evolutionary adaptation),
inevitable (such as the formation of atoms, stars, planets and, in the
end, sunsets) or just random. But it isn't.
Not all features of organisms have an adaptive function - some are
just epiphenomena, side products with no evolutionary significance.
And surprisingly, some of these apparently function-free properties
seem profusely creative. Wild cats and fish develop striking
pigmentation patterns that serve clear roles: for camouflage, warning
signals, mimicry and so on. But similar patterns are observed on many
mollusc shells, even though these creatures live buried in mud, or
have opaque coatings that obscure the markings entirely. These
superficial elaborations are astonishingly diverse. Freed from
evolutionary pressures, says Hans Meinhardt of the Max Planck
Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany, "nature is
allowed to play". Nature creates endlessly without any apparent
And not only in biology. For example, you might expect that wind-blown
sand would be scattered evenly, or at least randomly. But neither is
the case: it forms patterns at many scales, from snaking ripples the
size of your fingers to dunes and super-dunes, called draas, several
kilometres wide. Cloud banks are massaged by the air into mares'-tail
and mackerel skies, patterns that don't mean anything but are simply
inherent in nature.
"Inherent" does not by itself imply creativity: the methane molecule,
say, is also inherent in nature. But what is striking about nature's
spontaneous pattern-forming potential is that, unlike the rules of
chemistry, the outcome is not specified. Jaguars share generic
similarities in their pelt markings, but no two are identical. The
mechanisms that underlie such patterns prove to be fertile sources of
variety: the slightest change in the generative rules, or in the
boundary conditions within which those rules operate, can produce
dramatically different patterns.
What's more, these pattern-creating processes don't seem specific to
any particular system. Meinhardt argues that both shell patterns and
sand ripples can be explained by a single basic mechanism - local
positive feedback coupled to a longer-ranged inhibiting process.
Mathematician Stephen Wolfram goes further. He thinks that
pattern-forming systems called cellular automata underpin all physical
and mathematical laws in the universe, so that a few simple principles
create everything we see and experience.
Artists are starting to use pattern-forming algorithms like cellular
automata to create visual art and music. This is an acknowledgement
that nature is able to produce the kind of rich yet coherent
structures that we respond to in art, and that nature's creativity is
a resource we can draw upon for our own inspiration.
The complexity of the universe
* Paul Davies
PEOPLE sometimes call the big bang "the creation," but this is a
serious misnomer. The universe has never ceased to be creative. The
elaborate universe we observe today - dazzling in its richness,
diversity and complexity - didn't spring into being ready-made.
Rather, it emerged gradually, over billions of years, through a long
succession of self-organising and self-complexifying processes.
In fact, the universe began in an exceptionally bland state, a state
of thermodynamic equilibrium, as evidenced by the near-perfect
uniformity of the radiation left over from its fiery birth. Most
cosmologists believe that even this near-featureless state was
preceded by something simpler still - perhaps little more than rapidly
expanding empty space.
But the dull, uniform distribution of matter was primed to set off a
chain reaction of creative processes. Gravity pulls matter together,
so the spread-out initial distribution was inherently unstable, and
slight irregularities in the density of material were quickly
amplified. In this manner gravity sculpted complex cosmic structures,
and by a process of slow accretion galaxies emerged from the smoothly
distributed gases. The emergence of life on Earth, and the slow
evolution of multicellularity, complex behaviour, and eventually
intelligence, is just a small branch of the cosmic creativity that
began with the big bang.
Viewed on a cosmological scale, the history of the universe appears to
be one of increasing complexification. This seems at odds with the
second law of thermodynamics, according to which all physical
processes irreversibly degenerate - the universe is inexorably dying
even as it blossoms.
But there is no contradiction between these two universal trends - the
creative and the destructive - because every structure that emerges in
the universe is paid for in the currency of entropy. Luckily, the
cosmic kitty is far from empty. Although the universe is noticeably
"running down" as stars burn their fuel and die, there is enough
useful energy left for the cosmos to create complex phenomena for many
trillions of years to come.
Still, while nature's creativity does not conflict with the second
law, it is not explained by it either. It is easy to imagine a
universe which irreversibly degenerates without doing anything
exciting on the way. Yet our universe creates stars, snowflakes,
clouds, rainforests and people. What is the source of this astonishing
Physicists are far from knowing just what it takes to create order out
of chaos. They cannot point to specific characteristics in the laws of
physics as "the source of creativity". It is not even clear that the
whole story lies within the known laws. Some scientists suspect there
are undiscovered laws, or overarching principles, at work, coaxing
clod-like particles of matter toward organised complexity. Sometimes
the hypothesised "principle of increasing complexity" is called the
fourth law of thermodynamics.
One thing is clear. The simplicity of the primordial universe ensured
its eventual complexity. Only these bare beginnings contain such
immense creative potential: cosmic creativity was forged in the big
bang. Once sentient beings like us emerged, a whole new phase of
creativity came with it. Through art, science and technology, humans
are refashioning the world. Who can say how far mental creativity will
help shape the cosmos?
Oh look, a new cliché!
* Mike Holderness
* Liz Else
Few things are quite as challenging as using a computer to model
something we think of as quintessentially human. And if you're Douglas
Hofstadter, the cognitive science researcher whose book Gödel, Escher,
Bach inspired a generation, trying to model creativity will make you
ask yourself tough questions. How much can we learn about human
creativity this way? Is "creativity" the right word anyway? And will
the Cats deliver? Mike Holderness and Liz Else quizzed Hofstadter
How do you define creativity?
I think we would do better to talk about "discoverativity" than
creativity. I am convinced creativity is the ability to discover
things that are in some sense there for anyone to find: things that
the rest of humanity will appreciate because they are beautiful or
because they are insightful or because they are truths about nature.
Of course, we consider some people great musical composers when
nine-tenths of the world has never heard of them, and when most of
those who have heard their music didn't like it anyway. But they've
found what I call a "vein of receptivity" in the minds of a large
number of people.
Are some discoveries more creative than others?
Well, some are easier to make. Take what happened in quantum mechanics
in the 1920s. I use the metaphor of people finding a new beach.
Physicists rushed to this beach because they knew that it was going to
be covered in wonderful shells. It wasn't that hard to find fantastic,
beautiful shells because it was a completely virgin beach. But after
10 or 20 years it got harder and harder. Then it became time to try to
find new beaches.
It is standard to think of science as discovery, but doesn't
"discovering" a novel sound bizarre?
My feeling is that novelists discover patterns or structures of human
behaviour, perhaps miniature plot lines. And they also discover
idiosyncratic fashions of weaving plot lines together, in multiple
layers, and these devices become characteristic of them as an author.
They might make a complex analogy: "That marriage is like another
marriage that I once saw." That is how we navigate human relations. We
are always asking each other for advice: "How should I treat my
daughter?" "Oh, my friends had a daughter who used to do similar
things, so..." Novelists observe the world and discover events and
people in it that they find interesting, and their discoveries pepper
their novels. Good novelists are those whose sense of what is
interesting coincides with that of many others.
Will we be able to scan brains and say "Look, that's the creative
thing being appreciated"?
There has recently been a very strong push to connect the most
complicated cognitive or emotional phenomena to the latest trends in
biology and exploring the brain. People yearn to find "the" neural
correlate of an emotion or even a creative thought. To me, that hope
seems about as silly as trying to find the key to the greatness of a
novel by closely examining the typographical symbols that compose it.
Clearly, the relative frequency of "k" and "j" is ridiculously far
from what makes a novel great. There are so many levels of description
between the level of letters and that of ideas.
How wide is that explanatory gap between neurons and thoughts?
Well, a great poem creates activity in billions of neurons, each
changing every few milliseconds over several minutes at least. From my
viewpoint, you could assign to each intermediate level of description
a factor of 10, and since a neuron firing is 10 or 20 levels away from
the level of a poem, you are missing the mark by something like 15
orders of magnitude. That just gives an idea of how senseless it is to
try to talk about a neural correlate of poetry.
Would we do better approaching the enigma of analogy to understand
There's no doubt about it. Making analogies is central to being human.
Every single word choice we make, for instance, is done by analogy.
Consider the word choice you made earlier - "explanatory gap". It
seemed trivial to you, but for a computer it would be terribly,
terribly hard. Every single word choice is analogy-making, because it
is connecting prior experiences with a new experience and recognising
the commonality. As we grow up, we do that repeatedly at more and more
abstract levels until we build up very deep insights about the world.
In the 1980s and 1990s you tried to model analogy-making on a
computer. What did you do?
We kept it as simple as we could. Our program Copycat deals with
questions like "If ABC changes to ABD, what, by analogy, would XYZ
change to?" There are many defensible answers, by the way, including
XYA, XYD, XYY, XYZ, WYZ, WXZ, DBA and others. Our goal is to make a
program that can find all these answers but also that has aesthetic
preferences that make it "like" some more than others. Although it
finds XYD most frequently, it "likes" WYZ the best. Copycat itself
came out of an analogy - the idea of modelling a computer program on
an ant colony. Copycat is composed of many, many small processes, many
of which run in parallel. Each small "ant" makes its contribution to
finding the analogy.
How have you developed it since the early days?
We have a newer project, Metacat. It can say: "This analogy is like
that one", and you can ask it: "In what way?" Metacat will reply that
the pressures that give rise to this analogy are related to the
pressures in that one, but there is this difference. Metacat also has
a limited sense of its own goals - and in the future we would like it
to have a sense of the goals of the person it is talking to. For
instance, if I were to say to it: "If ABC changes to ABD, what would
ABC change to?", I would want it to reply indignantly: "Why are you
asking me what you just told me?"
That sounds as if it is expressing constraints on what is important.
In my book Le Ton Beau de Marot, I discussed the key role of
constraints in creativity. Constraints give a framework within which
to work. Take, say, the rhythm used in most English sonnets, iambic
pentameter. The vast majority of people like this regular periodic
beat. As in music, they like a rhythm based on a small integer. You
can go out on a limb and try seven or eleven, but the odds are that
fewer people will be attracted to your creation. Such preferences are
part of our biological nature.
Pandering to inbuilt preferences suggests film producer Samuel
Goldwyn's demand that his creative people produce "new clichés".
That's cute. I can almost subscribe to this motto. I would just add
one word: to me, creativity is finding "new future clichés".
Everything truly creative eventually becomes a cliché. The Mona Lisa
is the most clichéd of all the clichés you can imagine - and something
similar could be said of Einstein's great discovery E = mc^2. In each
case, someone found a hidden vein of receptivity in the human mind -
something that a lot of people could relate to.
How long do you expect it to be before Metacat delivers a significant
insight into human creativity?
Well, I feel this is already happening, and I hope it will increase in
the next few years. But I don't expect human-level intelligence
suddenly to flower out of our work. If that happened, it would mean
that our intelligence is a lot simpler than we humans tend to believe.
In fact, I personally would be devastated if any of my computer models
turned out to be just as smart as a human being. It would be a
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