Measuring and generating creativity

-December 18, 2012

As our gadgets get smarter, your creativity becomes your single most important quality. You can train a computerized robot to do anything you can describe. Managers call it increasing productivity, workers call it eliminating jobs, engineers, architects, writers, carpenters, …, call it a day at the office.

How can we measure creativity?
Baroness Susan Greenfield, Professor of Neuroscience at Oxford, proposed that, in order for something to be considered “creative,” it be meaningful. By “meaningful,” she meant that it has to shift our perspective, provide a way to “see one thing in terms of something else.”

Yeah, I wanted a yardstick, too, but for something like creativity, where objective value reduces to statistics like number of users or units sold, quantities with which I can legitimately disagree, maybe a qualitative measure isn’t so bad. After all, I still hate disco.

Consider Newton’s laws of motion. Presenting humanity with tools for predicting how things move, the relationship between force and acceleration, and the universal law of gravitation qualify as meaningful by Greenfield’s definition: seeing one thing (the universe) in terms of something else (a few compact equations). Same story for Maxwell’s equations and both precipitated an incremental shift in the perspective of humanity.

Great paintings, music, and literature all make us see the world differently. It’s an old joke among novelists: “Our job is to keep you awake at night and make you cry. You’re welcome.” The tears and laughter come when you see the world through the eyes of the artist.

Figure 1: Leonardo da Vinci’s helicopter.

Measurements of intelligence, on the other hand, range from IQ tests, to weekly classroom quizzes. It’s one thing to gauge the extent to which someone has mastered a specific course of study and another to measure their innate intelligence or talent.

What conditions generate creativity?
Dean Keith Simonton, Professor of Psychology at UC Davis, uses the BVSR (blind variation and selective retention) theory of how creativity comes about. The idea is pretty simple: Try stuff. When it doesn’t work, try again. Try a wide variety of approaches without prejudice and keep trying. It’s how James Dyson invented his vacuum, hand dryer, and bladeless fan.

Dyson says, “It’s when something fails that you learn. If it doesn’t fail, you don’t learn anything. You haven’t made any progress. Everything I do is a mistake… the moment it works—having built, say, 5,126 prototypes, and you make your 5,127th and it finally works—you immediately lose interest in it. You don’t go off and buy a bottle of champagne and celebrate, because you’re on to the next thing.”

How many apples bounced off Newton’s head? How many kites did Franklin take out in thunder storms? How many PCs did The Woz make before the Apple II? How many operating systems did Microsoft release before Vista? (Ahem)

Figure 2: First commercial IC, Fairchild.

One needn’t be all that creative to see that the core ingredients are curiosity, the freedom to try things, resilience to failure, confidence, and talent/skill.

4th ingredient: Uninhibited lateral thinking
Professor Allan Snyder, Director of the Centre for the Mind, suggests another ingredient based on observations of savant-geniuses.

Your brain processes far more data than that which ascends to you’re consciousness. Until you read the rest of this sentence, you’re probably not conscious of: your breathing, scents in the room, or even the act of reading this. But all that stuff and far more is being processed by your brain.

Snyder contends that lateral thinking requires your brain to allow thoughts unrelated to whatever you’re concentrating on to float to the surface. That’s when you get the ah ha, the light bulb, the out-of-the-box insight, (notice that I’m not having any lateral thoughts right now so add your own nonlinear cliché here).

Anecdotal evidence for Snyder’s claim comes from the number of problems I’ve solved in the shower, that the plots for my novels all woke me from deep slumber, and that most software is debugged while the programmer sits in traffic—which explains why the best software in the world is written within a few miles of where highways I880, I280, and US101 meet.

(A quantitative measure of the degree to which a given creation shifts human perspective is still in the works at the T&M World Research Center in Ransom’s underground lair.)

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