S2 Episode 15: In Search of Creativity

True creative genius may well be the last frontier in human evolution – the only trait that can’t be replaced with technology. Dr. Robert Bilder, who directs the Tennenbaum Center for the Biology of Creativity at UCLA, reveals what his study of artists and scientists tell us about how creative brains work, and how some creative people manage to bring their brains to the very edge of chaos without crossing into madness. Plus… Are we educating the creative genius out of our kids?

Phil Stieg: Hello and welcome to Professor Robert Builder, director of the Tennenbaum Center for the Biology of Creativity at USC, at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. We will discuss his “Big C” project where he examined the brain and behavior in exceptional artists and scientists against regular folk like us. Are artists brains and relationships different from everybody else’s? We do that our artists brains and relationships different from everybody else’s. Are they on the brink of madness? Here to enlighten us is Dr. Builder.

Robert, thank you for being here.

Robert Bilder: Well, thank you so much for having me on. So much fun.

Phil Stieg: Why study creativity in the first place? We’re number one. Where are you going to take it and what are you learning from it?

Robert Bilder: I think that creativity in some ways is the next frontier of human evolution. You know, so far we’ve seen technology gradually take over what were once thought to be uniquely human tasks. You know, I guess chess was once thought that it would be impossible to emulate then the game of go, then Jeopardy! – we saw how IBM’s Watson was able to really kick the butt of all the humans, I should say, but of all the humans. And as these things are occurring and more and more displacement is occurring, we need to find what’s uniquely human. And I think it’s these capacities to bring together things in unique ways that has uniquely human qualities. And so that’s a great emphasis. And the hope is one day we’ll be able to help people achieve their creative potentials by understanding how the brain does it. That will be able to give people clues, tips, interventions that will promote creativity.

Phil Stieg: When I was reading through some of your materials, I was really curious, how do you – what criteria do you use to state that somebody is an exceptional artist or an exceptional scientist? Because if you go online, everybody thinks that they’re exceptional today.

Robert Bilder: That’s right, and it’s one of the biggest questions facing creativity researchers is how do you decide who’s really a creative person? So most of the criteria come down to two main dimensions, though. One of them is seeing how novel the work is and the other is how widely used the products are or how useful the products are. So with scientists and artists, we can take some crude indicators of usefulness or utility by seeing whether anybody uses the stuff. But then on the novelty criterion, that one’s a lot harder to evaluate. So basically what we had to do is we had to ask their peers, “OK, all that stuff they produced was a really new and different, or was it really just more of the same”? So that helped to segregate those who were truly creative from those who just did a lot of stuff.

Phil Stieg: Edison would always say that he wasn’t a genius. He felt that genius was one percent inspiration and ninety nine percent perspiration. What role does that play in your mind in terms of this creative spectrum?

Robert Bilder: Yeah, there are a couple of things that come to mind. The first thing that came to mind was another quote, which is, I guess, attributed to Einstein saying that he didn’t think he was any smarter than anybody else, but he would stay with the problem longer. And there’s actually some nice scientific evidence that if you look at a property that we all have, which is the tendency to resist premature closure, that quality seems to predict who’s going to produce more creative stuff. And basically give somebody a task and see how long does it take them to stop. There’s some people, some artists you give them like something to draw and you have to tear the paper away from them because they don’t want to stop. They’re never finished.

Phil Stieg: So how did you test creativity in these people? If you had a scientist, did you have scientific questions? If you had an artist, did you ask artistic questions? I’m trying to understand just how you went about it.

Robert Bilder: There’s no test for being an exceptionally creative visual artist or scientist – at least not yet. What there are, are tests that have been used widely in the free-range human populations, and these tests largely focus on certain key attributes that people think are important for creativity, especially divergent thinking. So just as an example, one of those tests is I show you a picture of a brick and you tell me how many uses you can think of for that brick. So if you tell me that it’s you know, you use it to build a wall, well, that’s not a particularly creative response. That’s a pretty typical response for that. But if you tell me it’s good as the bed for a Barbie doll, well, that would be a little bit more unusual. And we can actually look at the frequency of different kinds of responses that free range humans come up with and determine what are really unusual responses on tests like that.

And we could do similar kinds of things. Let’s say I give you two parallel lines and I ask you to make something out of it. We give you a pencil and see what you can do with it. That’s another kind of test where we got some amazing responses, especially from our visual artists, as you can imagine. Anyway, we have these kinds of tests that look at the capacity for divergent thinking. There are some others that look at unique capacities for convergent thinking as well. Because it’s usually thought that fully creative cognition involves not only being able to expand the scope of one’s thinking, but also to be able to select out from that expanded scope, those things that are truly relevant and come to conclusions about all the thoughts one has had.

And in addition, we looked at certain other features that are thought to be associated with creativity, including just the ability to get stuff out of there – raw generation capacity. So we look at people’s ability to produce words, to produce figure drawings. Then working memory is another feature that we have focused on a lot, because working memory or the ability to keep something in mind long enough to use it or do something with it typically has a limited capacity, but some people’s capacity is greater than others. And so there’s a line of thinking that suggests that the bigger one’s capacity in working memory, the more things one can keep in mind, the greater the opportunity to connect together different novel things in mind and then to select from those the ones that are truly going to be useful and creative.

Phil Stieg: In those populations where they were more creative, where their particular parts of the brain that seem to be activated, that either stimulated the creativity or shut off things that would block creativity.

Robert Bilder: So there were a few things that we found in our studies of brain structure and function that I think are really interesting. On the structural MRIs, by and large, there was very little difference between the big C groups and the smart comparison group. But in the visual artists, we found that some of the brain that is typically associated with visual spatial functioning — parts of the parietal lobe — were larger structurally than in the in the comparison group. And this was a striking, significant finding. But it leaves open the question still, about chicken or egg possibilities. Is it true that people started out with bigger brains in visual areas and that led them into the visual arts? Or, what I think is more likely, is that by exercising these parts of their brain over years and decades, in many cases, that they actually had hypertrophy or growth of those brain regions. I think we now see for a bunch of examples that if you use it, the brain will show the kind of plasticity and growth within the region that that beefs it up just like muscles.

This Is Your Brain: The Guided Tour – In Search of Creativity

Phil Stieg: Did you find any surprising results, and if not, then what were you most satisfied with in terms of your results?

Robert Bilder: Yes, I think that there were a few things that were not too surprising, but that provided useful information. One example would be our findings about personality and certain traits that are thought to be associated with psychopathology.

What people want to know is, oh, is genius associated with madness or not? And I think that’s actually that’s the wrong question. And what’s been found is that there are certain tendencies that tend to increase the risk for certain kinds of mental illnesses. And those same propensities actually do endow you with some greater creative potential. But the challenge is that if you go too far in the direction of these propensities, then it can lead to mental illness, and that is almost always associated with a decline in the capacity for productive creative work. So we refer to this in a hypothesis that’s referred to as the edge of chaos theory, where the basic idea is that it’s important if you want to be creative, to be novel up to a certain point, you want to be up to the edge where everything is about to fly apart but not go over the edge, this ideal balance of flexibility and stability and an interplay of those two keeping you at the edge of chaos and exploring novel ideas, selecting from those the ones that work and doing so without a feeling of great effort.

Phil Stieg: So you feel that that’s a narrow edge or a broad edge? What I’m worried about is somebody might think I should go way too far. The creative thinking like a wall off the brink and be crazy or have a mental illness problem. Not the case I would suspect.

Robert Bilder: I think that I think in general there’s a greater risk in not trying anything than there is in trying something. And I think that many of us are inhibited to act when in fact, all the evidence suggests that taking action, doing stuff is really important and exploring new territory, doing new things. In fact, there was just a great experiment that came out of Josh Gordon’s lab at Columbia, Josh Gordon, of course, now the director of the National Institute of Mental Health. They did experiments with mice and showed that if you introduce novelty to the mice, it actually increases the plasticity in key zones in their hippocampus and other areas of the brain. I think it was a good advertisement for doing new stuff. Getting exposure to novelty, engaging in novel actions is a way to really revive your brain, revitalize your brain and promote new connections.

Phil Stieg: It is better to have tried and failed than to have never tried at all.

Robert Bilder: Exactly. Exactly. And, you know, there are so many great examples of people bouncing back from and learning from failure. If you haven’t failed, you haven’t done anything. Some would say.

Phil Stieg: You may have asked answered my next question because I was going to ask you, can you teach creativity? Do you have to have a fundamental creative subtype or can somebody just be a “little C” average bight, and then teach them to be a “big C” creative person?

Robert Bilder: I think embedded in whether we can teach creativity or a couple of different elements. One key thing is that the more stuff we do, the more likely it is to be creative stuff. So the Nike logo and a catchphrase “just do it” seems to be pretty important. If you think about certain exemplars like Pablo Picasso, and he’s said to have produced about 50000 works in his lifetime. I’ve got a beautiful slide that shows about 100 works produced by Picasso and one work by somebody who was not Picasso. But I’ll be damned if I can figure out which is the one that wasn’t done by Picasso. And the stunning thing about the slide is that there’s just so many different styles that he was able to produce so many different genres. That is, that he entertained, at least for a period of time. And the raw productivity led to diversity in itself. Also, I met an art instructor who was attending a lecture, says, oh, I’m so glad you talked about that generation stuff, because what I do in my classes is I had my students make 20 versions of every assignment and they hate me during the course because they just can’t stand it. But it turns out that it’s only after they do the 10th, 11th and 12th assignment that they’re actually breaking new ground. They’ve already gotten rid of the low hanging fruit from their cognitive trees. And they’re getting to the really interesting stuff in these later versions. So sticking with the problem, creating new versions, putting it out there really seems to free up our brain to take new directions.

Phil Stieg: Now, how is scientific creativity different than artistic creativity?

Robert Bilder: Well, that’s one of the questions that we were interested in trying to understand. And some of the clues that we found in our study were really focused on the kind of cognitive approach that people take to different problems. And it looks like the scientists locked down their working memory functions pretty tightly. They’re able to really, in a – you might call it a “gear headed” way, represent things in their minds and preserve them over time and operate with them. In contrast, the artists seem to have a more fluid approach, and indeed they were more likely to entertain ideas and have memories that were more loosely related to the material we’d actually presented them. So they would show more signs of what we would call “intrusion errors” that the scientists would not make. So I think that there’s a slight a different emphasis and the way that their brains are working where scientists were showing a great mastery of convergent thinking and narrowing down the possibilities to those that were useful, the artists perhaps an emphasis on the divergent aspects to a greater extent and the more flexible forms of thinking.

Phil Stieg: So, are creative people happier?

Robert Bilder: You know, it’s interesting that there have not been as many studies as you’d think on the links between creativity and happiness. But to the extent that it has been studied, it does look like when people engage in creative pursuits, they do show higher levels of happiness. And there’s a number of qualities that go into happiness or psychological well-being that do seem to be associated with creativity, including skills like mastery and also commitment and engagement and things that give you purpose and meaning. So when people are sticking with the stuff that they really value and that give them meaning in life, then they tend to be happier and more creative.

Phil Stieg: That’s why I ask the question. I mean, Americans are such competitive individuals. And I don’t want them listening to this thinking, “oh, my God, I’m not creative. I’ve got to go out and figure out how to be creative and do something so that I can be happy”.

Robert Bilder: Well, I think that the bottom line is that everybody is creative. And I think that some people just get greater opportunities to explore their creativity. And I think the biggest obstacle to creativity is fear. And liberation from fear is one of those things that really seems to unleash people’s creativity. You know, there’s a lot of research looking at the slump in creativity that occurs in elementary school students around the third or fourth grade. And it’s thought that by having to learn to abide by social conventions and play by the rules, that we’re sort of “de-geniusing” our children, as Buckminster Fuller would say. We’re taking away from them that freedom just to explore those things for which there is no right answer and or to question whether the answers are right or wrong. And I think that the more that we give people the liberty to do that, the more creative they become.

Phil Stieg: That’s one of the take home messages I’m getting from you is that we can teach ourselves to be more creative. Do you have recommendations to the listeners about – is there a process to make yourself more creative or if it’s art, you go to art school. If it’s math, you go to math school or things like that?

Robert Bilder: Yeah, I think there are a number of things that people can do. And one of them is to get experience in particular areas you want to be interested in. You may have heard of Andres Eriksson’s the 10,000 hour rule. Well to be, you know, really recognized for your creative achievements, it probably is valuable to really have a repertoire of skills and that that can be the cornerstone of making more creative contributions. It’s hard to be a creative musician if you don’t know how to play a scale. So getting up to a certain level where fluency in the domain is probably important. But beyond that, I think there are a number of other things that one can do, and that is to really give yourself the space to explore your creative potential so that it comes back to the freedom issue. And you have to have the opportunity to give yourself the time and the faith in yourself that you can produce novel contributions and that they may be interesting mostly to you, but who knows, maybe to others, but not to constrain yourself by thinking of how satisfying is it going to be to anybody other than yourself. And there’s also a great quote from a great set of tips from one of the great creativity researchers and the author of A Concept of Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. And he suggested that you do three things every day, one of which is to surprise yourself, another of which is to surprise somebody else. And the third thing is to write down those surprises and see if you can make sense of them.

Phil Stieg: I would also think that it’s probably important in parenting to enable your children to be creative, but also when they do fail – or they think they fail is to be supportive in those endeavors.

Robert Bilder: Yeah, this is absolutely critical, and I know that I had once asked my kids before I had to give a talk about arts and education, and my kids were about eight years old at the time. I said, what do you think is helpful and being creative? And they highlighted the freedom factor. They said that having unconstrained problems where they could say whatever they wanted, there’s no right or wrong answer and they’re supported either way, no matter what happens. I think that’s the kind of thing that parents can provide is that safety net so that we know that we are free to explore our craziest ideas and see how they work out.

Phil Stieg: Professor Robert Builder, it’s been an absolute pleasure getting to know you and talk to you more about creativity. And I. I feel reassured to know that I’m not on the brink of madness if I push my creative juices. And it’s also good to know that it’s good for me to push my children to be creative and to help them work in that area. Thank you so much for being with us.

Robert Bilder: That’s wonderful. Thank you so much for having me come.