Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Squelching the obvious

The origin of creativity is an ongoing source of fascination and puzzlement to me.

I say this in part because I'm frequently asked, "Where do you get the ideas for your books?" and the answer, "Beats the hell outta me" seems kind of inadequate.  Sometimes I can identify at least some sort of point of origin -- for example, my work-in-progress, The Harmonic Labyrinth, was inspired by a combination of dream my wife had and a piece of music by Johann Sebastian Bach -- but the details of the characters and plot come from who-knows-where.  They just seem to appear, unbidden, in my mind, and I have to write them down to keep my skull from exploding.

But a new piece of research, published last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has suggested that creativity may have as much to do with suppressing ordinary ideas as it does with generating unusual ones.  Scientists at the University of London have shown that the production of alpha waves in the right temporal lobe of the brain is associated with inhibiting obvious/habitual connections -- and that this may allow more creative ones to form.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons LaurMG, Glass creativity finalrevis, CC BY-SA 3.0]

As an example, think about the classic divergent thinking question, "How many uses can you think of for a paper clip?"  Ordinary adults can usually come up with ten or fifteen, maybe twenty if you really push it.  People classified as divergent thinkers can come up with far more -- up to two hundred -- and the most interesting thing is that amongst kindergartners, 98% of them fall into this range.  Most of them do this by disregarding the basic assumptions of the question.  For example, could the paper clip be thirty meters tall and made of Silly Putty?  Most adults never get this far because they're locked into the ordinary interpretations.  In other words: if you accept the walls of the box as a given, you can't think outside it.

Interestingly, divergent thinking decreases steadily from childhood into adulthood.  Some of it is undoubtedly brain wiring, but a good share of it is how we teach kids, that of the many answers to a question, one of them is the one the teacher wants ("correct") and the others are going to be frowned upon ("incorrect").  Now, clearly, there are some cases where this is a valid approach; there's not much to back up a kid who wants equal respect for his claim that 2 + 2 = 13.  But what about things like interpretation of the motives of a character in a book?  Analyzing the causes of a historical event?  Or better still, finding solutions to problems such as how to build a better mousetrap?  Here, the narrow thinkers run out of steam very quickly.

Apparently, the key is not only to generate new solutions, but to convince your brain somehow to look past the obvious ones, to question your own assumptions about the perimeter of the problem.  "If we need to generate alternative uses of a glass," said lead researcher Catherine DiBernardi Luft, "first we must inhibit our past experience which leads us to think of a glass as a container.  Our study’s novelty is to demonstrate that right temporal alpha oscillations is a key neural mechanism for overriding these obvious associations.  In order to understand the processes underlying the production of novel and adequate ideas, we need to break down its constituent processes, dissecting creativity as much as possible at first, and then analyzing them in context, before putting them back together to understand the process as a whole."

I know from my own experience as a writer, it does take some level of assumption-suppression to work my way out of a corner.  When I have "writers' block" -- and I put it in quotes because I don't honestly believe such a thing exists, although writers (like everyone) do get temporarily stymied at times -- the thing to do is to work on a different story, or better yet, do something else entirely.  Go for a run, practice the piano, play ball with my dog.  The alternate activity acts to suppress my focus on the "obvious solutions" (which aren't working), and more often than not, the way out pops into my brain, sometimes with such alarming suddenness that it seems to come from somewhere outside of me.

So what Luft et al. have done is shown the neural mechanism that underlies this process of blocking habitual, ordinary responses, allowing you to get out of your own way.  What this still doesn't answer, however, is why some people are so much better at it than others.  In my Critical Thinking classes, we do periodic divergent-thinking puzzles, which I think of as being mental calisthenics.  Some students take to them right away, and others find the exercise incredibly frustrating -- and it seems to have little to do with how well they do on other school tasks.  I'll end with one of the puzzles that half of my students figured out in seconds, and the other half never did.  I'll post the answer tomorrow!
A man left home, took three left turns, and as he was arriving back home, he saw two masked men waiting for him.  Who are the masked men?

One of the best books I've read recently is Alan Weisman's The World Without Us.  I wouldn't say it's cheerful, however.  But what Weisman does is to look at what would happen if the human race was to disappear -- how long it would take for our creations to break down, for nature to reassert itself, for the damage we've done to be healed.

The book is full of eye-openers.  First, his prediction is that within 24 hours of the power going out, the New York Subways would fill with water -- once the pumps go out, they'd become underwater caves.  Not long thereafter, the water would eat away at the underpinnings of the roads, and roads would start caving in, before long returning Manhattan to what it was before the Europeans arrived, a swampy island crisscrossed by rivers.  Farms, including the huge industrial farms of the Midwest, would be equally quick; cultivated varieties of wheat and corn would, Weisman says, last only three or four years before being replaced by hardier species, and the land would gradually return to nature (albeit changed by the introduction of highly competitive exotic species that were introduced by us, accidentally or deliberately).

Other places, however, would not rebound quickly.  Or ever.  Nuclear reactor sites would become uninhabitable for enough time that they might as well be considered a permanent loss.  Sites contaminated by heavy metals and non-biodegradable poisons (like dioxins) also would be, although with these there's the possibility of organisms evolving to tolerate, or even break down, the toxins.  (No such hope with radioactivity, unfortunately.)

But despite the dark parts it's a good read, and puts into perspective the effect we've had on the Earth -- and makes even more urgent the case that we need to put the brakes on environmental damage before something really does take our species out for good.

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