Sunday, April 22, 2012

On The Origin of Creativity

I'm intrigued by the subject matter, so having read several positive reviews and finding myself stuck in an airport, I paid list price for Jonah Lehrer's Imagine: How Creativity Works. I'd read his How We Decide a couple of years ago, and enjoyed it. My anticipation, boosted by a recent NPR interview and one in The Economist, steadily disassembled as I read the book itself.

Lehrer does not cite the scientific literature well - there is no list of sources in the back and many claims have no clear references at all. He seems a little gullible (or sensational) in regard to some other studies. One showed that red backgrounds increase test-takers' accuracy and attention to detail, while blue backgrounds double their creativity. Were it so easy. And a neurologist can anticipate a puzzle solver's breakthrough 8 seconds in advance. And, he tells us that all the easy problems of the world have been solved, and that cultivation of athletes in the Unites States should be used as a model for cultivating creativity. Here's my favorite, from a footnote: "Urban areas and the human cortex rely on extremely similar structural patterns to maximize the flow of information and traffic through the system." (p183) There was no reference.

But my main criticism is that the book relies almost exclusively on anecdote. He trots out case after case of well-known successes (masking tape, Bob Dylan, 3M, Pixar, google, and so on.), and some unknown ones (a surfer, a bartender who puts bacon grease and celery extract in drinks) --always in retrospect -- and draws out what he presents as yet another insight into creativity. But many of these are contradictory. For example, does creativity come out of isolation (p 19) or from teamwork (p120); from breaking convention (p 20) or submitting to its constraints (p 23)? Does it help to be in a positive mood (p32) or a depressed one (p76) or an angry state (161) or a relaxed one (50); does caffeine and other stimulants make the epiphanies less likely (33) or more likely (57)? Should stealing others' ideas be encouraged (247) or discouraged (244)? Does broadening one's set of skills and interests increase creativity (41) or should one concentrate on a single goal (95)? Does relaxation stimulate creativity (p 45) or does difficulty do it better (54)? Does creativity drive toward perfection (p 63) or is it a celebration of errors? (87). Does insight come in a flash (p 17) or is it revealed slowly, after great effort (56)? Must a good poem be "pulled out of us, like a splinter," (p 56) or is it best "vomited." (19)

All of these, apparently.

The book boils down in the end to four vague conclusions which he calls "meta-ideas."
1. Education is necessary
2. Human mixing stimulates creativity
3. Creativity requires willingness to take risks
4. Society must manage the rewards of innovation

For me, the best revelation is on p 159: Brainstorming sessions, in which "there are no bad ideas" do not often result in good ideas, because criticism is essential. This is the key to the growth of knowledge, good government, and much more -- and a theme that is developed thoroughly in David Deutsch's The Beginning of Infinity. That's a much more stimulating and challenging read, which explains creativity (and much else) far better than this one does.

Deutsch doesn’t focus on the simple triggers for creativity – blue color, happy mood, and so on – he places creativity (he calls it conjecture) in the center of all knowledge.  Empiricists, who believe all the laws and lessons in nature are there to be read, have it wrong, he says.  Science starts with a creative guess, a hypothesis, a mental leap.  Objective tests only assess the value of the speculations, to determine whether they have what Deutsch calls reach, which is the value of an idea in a different context.  For example, bird wings have reach when the bird flies to a different continent and the wings work there as well.  But they don’t have reach a mile above the surface of the Earth because the atmosphere is too thin to support them.

When it comes to ideas, some have more reach than others too. Natural selection, for example has incredible reach.  It not only reaches throughout the biological world, with genes, it also reaches throughout the world of ideas by way of concepts or memes.  Some concepts are more salient in more varied situations than are others, and ideas replicate, selectively.

But how did creativity itself evolve?  Other animals can imitate or copy behaviors, but they don’t transmit underlying meanings like humans do.  An ape may learn to use a rock to crack a nut, but it’s basically stringing together all the simple movements that requires. A human, on the other hand, would learn what it means to crack a nut: the underlying concept.  Deutsch’s example is a student, having heard a college lecture, will be able to explain its meaning without repeating a single sentence of the lecture itself.  The meme had replicated, not the sounds. 

Some think creativity was selectively advantageous by making some individuals more sexually attractive, or was selected for because of the practical benefits of innovation.  But Deutsch considers this unlikely, first, because it would be very difficult to detect small differences in creativity of a potential mate, especially if it was not put to practical use.  And it apparently wasn’t put to practical purpose because for an eon, while human creativity was evolving, there simply wasn’t that much change in behavior, culture, or technology. 

Instead, oddly, creativity developed as a result of rigid maintenance of a static society, he said.  The human “creativity trait” resulted from thousands of years of conformity.   Here’s a summary to his chapter called “The Evolution of Creativity:”

On the face of it, creativity cannot have been useful during the evolution of humans, because knowledge was growing much too slowly for the more creative individuals to have had any selective advantage.  This is a puzzle.  A second puzzle is: how can complex memes even exist, given that brains have no mechanism to download them from other brains?  Complex memes do not mandate specific bodily actions, but rules.  We can see the actions, but not the rules, so how do we replicate them?  We replicate them by creativity.  That solves both problems, for replicating memes unchanged is the function for which creativity evolved.  And that is why our species exists.

So if Deutsch is right, the faithful replication of a complex idea requires creative thought, because with each iteration the original meaning must be recreated.  Even if the most minute alterations of a message are discouraged, the very ability to divine meanings from external cues is an act of creativity itself.  Throughout nature, females are generally more selective in choosing a mate than are males, because of the relatively small number of children they can bear. Males with higher status are usually more successful procreating, and often with multiple partners.  In a static society, status comes from faithful adherance to cultural norms, and the male who "gets it" best -- he who always seemed to know the right thing to do in every situation, had more chance spreading his genes.  He who could recreate the cultural attributes, norms, and mores from the subtle cues of human interaction -- he who was most creative -- was naturally selected.  And so, within a breathtakingly static culture, and although it was not used for innovation, the uniquely human mental skill we call creativity came about.

But static societies have moments of relief.  Deutsch points out that we are now in the longest ever period of Enlightenment, which is simply a time when humans turn their creativity outward.  They conject or Imagine new ideas, and they test these new ideas for reach. This is when the only facet of creativity that Lehrer wrote about -- successful innovation -- can be found in abundance.    

During the Enlightement, salient ideas will spread, and the others won’t. In fact, it's the rejection of bad ideas, not the striking upon good ones, which matters most; ideas themselves are subject to natural selection.  Through repetition of this creative process, by trial and elimination, ideas with real reach sometimes emerge.  Like masking tape, for example.  Like Pixar movies.  Like Nike’s “just do it” slogan, as Lehrer points out.  Like Natural Selection.  Like Google.

But ... despite his enthusiasm ... I’d put my money against the bacon-infused “old fashioned.” A mixed drink with bacon grease, I reckon, may be good enough at the witching hour, but I doubt if it has much reach.  The fat must be trimmed, after all.  Bad Ideas must perish.  That is, after all, a big part of the creative process.  

Here's a sad story.  I wrote the review of Imagine (above) and posted it on Mine was the first critical review among many lauditory ones, so it went to the top.  It was "liked" by more people than my 30+ other reviews altogether.  Every day another 5-10 strangers went out of their way to compliment me.  I was at 600 and climbing fast.  I'd even been recommended by some, who went on to read my other reviews, for membership to the Vine which is an invitation-only club whose members get books in advance, for free.  I had hopes.

Then someone who knows everything about Bob Dylan read the book and found something fishy: a quote they did not recognize.  They inquired and Lehrer promised to provide the source, couldn't, and finally admitted making it up and took a hard fall from grace.  He quit his job as book reviewer at the New York Times and Amazon pulled his book from their shelves, removed the link, scratched all my votes, and ended my glory.

Friday, April 13, 2012

It's true, I like Zombies

I recall, when I was 13, getting creeped out by a werewolf.  Rather, it was the vague thought of a werewolf stimulated by terrible reception on a black and white TV.  It helped that I was alone in the farmhouse at night – we had no close neighbors -- and the only unnatural light was the small TV set.  I was flipping the channel knob and channel 13 was almost entirely static.  Over the hiss I barely heard a faint howl, and through the dancing gray pixels – barely – the outline of a wolf.  That was it.  I scared myself with almost nothing.

I also was impressed by the 1999 film Blair Witch Project, particularly one scene in which the screen was entirely black and the sound was just a person clucking.  Again, nearly nothing -- but everyone was on the edge of their seats.

On a shallow beach in Belize a few days ago I was able to walk out into the ocean about 1,000 feet, and then I swam out another 5 minutes.  I may have been a half mile from shore, no one knew I was there, and so again, there was nothing.  This time the thought of sharks really freaked me out -- just disappearing, like that!  I went back to shore right about then.

So, I like to think I have a fairly nuanced sense of fear, and maybe for this reason I dismissed zombies long long ago as too stupid, too ugly, too slow and clumsy to be taken seriously.  The base appeal of zombies, I thought, was that they were dead, and gross, and that didn’t interest me.  I’m afraid of a razor blade. Zombies were way too obvious.

Background, for those few who don’t know:  Zombies are humans who have fallen victim to a strange disease which first kills them, then awakens them in whatever random state of decay.  They don’t seem to rot more from that point on, but they lumber on stupidly, endlessly, always hungry for (living) human flesh -- particularly brains.  They’re generally easy to avoid, and a blow to the head will kill them for good.  If they notice a living human they stumble towards it, to bite.  The bite will kill, and one who dies this way becomes a zombie too. Simple as that.

With the help of my sons, who turned me on to the graphic novel The Walking Dead, I've come to realize that zombies are actually a brilliant invention. It's apocalyptic, either by epidemic for which there are random immunity, like small pox, the plague, typhoid, Ebola.  Despite their obvious silliness, you'd be hard pressed to find a monster requiring so little suspension of belief.

I have compared the zombie situation to what would happen if you took a random group of U.S. citizens and parachuted them into the Brazilian jungle.  New predators, new challenges, total uncertainty, and then the tribes of survivors would form.  Some tribes would become threats, as well.  And it’s not an unfamiliar jungle – it’s the ruins of their own neighborhoods.  And instead of crocodiles, the threat comes from familiar things -- neighbors, and loved ones. The better analogy would be a total failure of the electrical grid, which would cause a collapse of government, businesses, services.  Neighbors prey on neighbors while diseases (the zombie part) spreads wildly.  How interesting.  How terrifying: modern people, thrown back in time.

Zombies reintroduce problems from the past: lack of water, food, shelter, medicine.  Survivors are nomads, and they coalesce into tribes, with governments, rules, specialization of labor.

There's another take on zombies which is pretty interesting. Survivors are often confronted with their loved ones who have turned.  They still feel love for wife, husband, or child, but there is nothing but the shell of the person left.  These bittersweet confrontations are reminiscent of a friendship or love relationship gone bad.  The person looks like the friend or lover, but they are just no longer interested.  The flame, on their side, has died.  Ouch.

You see, just a little twist and the zombie story is a familiar one.
There’s an ant, the Camponotus leonardi, which is susceptible to a parasitic fungus, the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis which gets into its nervous system, causing the poor creature to climb a stalk of grass, clamp on, and die.  Fungal antlers sprout from its head, and the spores of the fungus infect other ants.  Zombie ants.  But a better zombie is caused by trematodes, or flukes.  Here is a slightly condensed quote about the fluke, from a Scientific American blog:
The parasitic Dicroelium dentriticum, lives in the livers of sheep, but its intermediate host is an ant. A snail accidentally eats the fluke’s eggs and the parasite hatches and develops in its gonads. The fluke is excreted in the snail’s slime, which is eaten by an ant.  Once infected, the ant continues about its business by day, but as the sun goes down, the parasite takes over. Every night, the zombie ant will leave its colony behind and search for a blade of grass, to climb to the top, to bite down, and to wait until sunrise. Night after night, the ant will dutifully wait atop its blade until it gets accidentally eaten by a grazing sheep, thus completing its enslaver’s life cycle.

They still don’t scare me as much as static, clucking in the dark, or thoughts of a shark far from shore, but when it comes to monsters, zombies simply take the cake. They require just a small stretch of the biological imagination, and it’s social sciences from there.