Friday, 10 August 2012

Extended review of Lehrer's "Imagination.." (Incomplete)

(Incomplete) Comments on Jonah Lehrer’s (2012) ”Imagination: How creativity works”. Edinburgh: Canongate. ISBN 978 1 84767 786 0.  (Withdrawn from publication, 31 July, 2012)

The topic of creativity intrigues a wide range of scientists, educationalists, business and lay-people. It is a constant source of new books every year, from the purely scholarly, to practical manuals, to popularising attempts for the general reader. Jonah Lehrer aims to increase the public’s understanding of what advances scientists may have been making in this area and to draw some practical implications. Popularising books are strongly biased towards providing definite and clear conclusions – which are often not actually available given current disputes and contradictory evidence. The lay audience is presumed not to be interested in ambiguities and questions that require future research. Single eye catching results are highlighted and treated as if they are definitive as long as they make a nice story. Readers do not want to be troubled by tedious attempts at defining terms or providing historical context. Lehrer’s book shows all these characteristics of the genre.

Although in the Introduction it is stated that “...the standard definition of creativity is completely wrong.” (author’s italics, p. xvii) no clear definition, standard or otherwise of creativity, is explicitly given. Normally, creativity is defined as the ability to produce novel and valuable products and nothing here really contradicts that neutral definition. Controversy starts when we attempt to say how novel and valuable products might be generated. Lehrer states that, since the Ancient Greeks, people have assumed that imagination/creativity is separate from other kinds of cognition but that the latest scientific news is that “...creativity is a catch all term for a variety of distinct thought processes.” (authors italics, p.xvii). So, he implies that previous to c. 2012 creativity was seen as an ability underlain by a single unitary process. This is somewhat undermined by the quotation on p.39, from Hume’s An Enquiry into Human Understanding of 1771 expressing a multiple processes view of creativity as “...compounding, transposing, augmenting or diminishing materials afforded by the senses...” . Around a century ago, Poincare and Wallas in the 1910s and 1920s divided creativity into a number of distinct, if rather broad, processes of Preparation (conscious work), Incubation (problem set aside, after impasse, possible unconscious work), Insight (awareness of promising idea) and Verification (conscious work to develop idea). So a multiple processes view predates, “the latest science” by a wide margin. Although, strangely, Lehrer does not mention either Poincare or Wallas (who nearly always feature in accounts of creativity), the initial chapters 1-2 largely address unconscious work (Incubation) and Insight while chapter 3 focusses on conscious work in creativity, as in Preparation and Verification. Later chapters discuss improvisation, expertise and its possible positive and negative effects, and socio-cultural factors.

Chapter 1, “Bob Dylan’s Brain”, highlights a difficulty that many cognitive psychologists will have with the treatment of neuroimaging and neuropsychological data and speculation in this book. To put my cards on the table, I am of the view that the cognitive level (information processing strategies, use of different types of memory, types of representation and so on) is key and needs to be specified in some detail before neuro-data can be interpreted as showing how the cognitive level functions are implemented in the brain. If we are told, as we are, that people who solve an insight problem show more activation in the aTSG brain region this doesn’t tell us how the problem was solved in information processing terms. As Fodor (1999) put it, “If the mind happens in space at all, it happens somewhere north of the neck. What exactly turns on knowing how far north?” Lehrer presents a simple localisation view and assumes that brain imaging data can be taken at face value, despite the well known problems of interpreting fMRI results (for instance, difficulties with subtraction method, low temporal resolution, statistical issues, reverse inferences, and replicability.) He contends that Dylan’s production of “Like a Rolling Stone” is a mystery that can only be understood by “breaking into the brain”. On the basis of two brain imaging studies of the Remote Associates Task and a Right v Left Visual Field priming study of insight problem solving (misreported as Right v Left eye priming), together with one interview of Dylan, we are told that once upon a time, Bob Dylan’s right hemisphere generated the lyrics of “Like a Rolling Stone”, complete and entire in one continuous process. This introduces a new level of unreliable anecdotage (the “neuro-tale”?) in which the writer imagines brain processes underlying real behavioural events (e.g. , Dylan really wrote “Like a Rolling Stone”) and then presents the imaginings as facts. In different interviews, Dylan, never exactly a reliable witness and well known for kidding interviewers, mentions producing a prose piece thematically related to “Like a Rolling Stone” in a manner he likened to vomiting; and he gives the piece so produced as sometimes as 6 and sometimes 20 pages long. It seems much more likely that the prose piece was produced by a freewheeling improvisational method (as favoured by Beat and Surrealist writers whom Dylan admired) and then edited and revised down to its final tight lyrical form of some 96 short lines, rather than being produced in its final form in one pass. The music also needed to be generated; a derivation from “La Bamba” has been suggested but how this came about is not discussed.

At the artistic level, Lehrer also speculates freely. For example, “Miss Lonely” in the song went to the finest school, but “...only used to get juiced in it.” Lehrer says that the listener would have no idea what “juiced in it” would mean. And that it was only there to rhyme with the later “...youre gonna have to get used to it”. However, almost everybody in 1965 would be familiar with the slang use of “juiced” for “drunk”; the line makes perfect sense.

Chapter 2 reviews research on the benefits of diffuse attentional states such as occur when very relaxed or daydreaming, as against very focussed attentional states in solving problems that require unusual combinations of ideas or approaches, interlaced with anecdotes about inventions such as, those of masking tape, sellotape and the oft told story of the post-it note. However, the stories don’t always seem to match the intended lesson. The inventor of masking tape, Dick Drew, engaged in months of trial and error testing of adhesives and backing materials but with the basic idea of masking sheets of material. Eventually, he had the idea of the paper in a long strip, rolled up like a spool of ribbon. This was much more effective than separate squares of paper for the goal. However, we don’t actually know whether this insight occurred during a diffuse attentional state or not; it is simply asserted that it was. Similarly the story about the use of post-it notes for communicating comments, as against as simple bookmarks, seems to have arisen from an insight which quickly proved useful, but whether the inventor, Arthur Fry, was in a diffuse attentional state at the time of the insight is unknown.


........On 31 July, 2012, before my extended review was complete, the US and UK publishers withdrew the print and e-versions of “Imagine”, following Lehrer’s admission of fabricating quotes from Dylan...


Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Brief review of J Lehrer's "Imagination..."

Imagining how creativity works?

Ken Gilhooly

A Review of “Imagination: How creativity works”, by Jonah Lehrer. Canongate. 2012.

ISBN 978 1 84767 786 0.

(Note: Review was scheduled to appear in The Psychologist but as book was withdrawn, review was pulled).


Popular science writer Jonah Lehrer has added to the ever growing creativity book mountain, and offers the following take-home messages:

• “Creativity” is not a single process or ability but results from many different processes. These processes are conscious and attentionally focussed at some points and attentionally unfocussed and unconscious when progress stalls and new insights are needed.

• Applying knowledge from one field to a different field is often helpful.

• Creativity is enhanced by working in groups and in environments where different specialists can easily interact.

These take-home messages are not new, despite Lehrer’s claim that they are based on brand new science which overturns what everyone previously thought. This claim is contradicted by his 1771 quote (p.29) from David Hume, which endorses a modern style multiple processes view of creativity. Further, the idea of conscious and unconscious processing in creative work was set out at least as early as 1913 by PoincarĂ©, and again in 1926 by Wallas, in the well-known proposal of Preparation, Incubation, Insight, and Verification stages. These two pioneers feature in most treatments of the psychology of creativity but are curiously absent from Lehrer’s text.

Although the conclusions are not controversial, the way in which they are backed up is rather unconvincing. There is a standard template for chapters in popular science books, i.e., story-study-lesson, which Lehrer follows . Chapter 3, for example is full of anecdotes about inventions such as masking tape. However, the stories don’t always seem to match the “relax, let the unconscious do the work” lesson of this Chapter. The inventor of masking tape engaged in months of (conscious) trial and error testing of materials with the idea of making masking sheets (not tapes). Eventually, he had the solution idea of the paper being in a long strip, rolled up like a spool of ribbon, rather than in sheets. However, we don’t really know if this insight occurred during a diffuse attentional state; it is simply asserted that it was.

Stories about mental processes, given long after the events, even if from “the horse’s mouth”, in view of all the frailties of memory and attention, are, sadly, worthless as scientific evidence.

The use of stories as evidence reaches an early peak in Chapter 1, “Bob Dylan’s Brain”. On the basis of two brain imaging studies of the Remote Associates Task and a Right v Left Visual Field priming study of insight problem solving (misreported as Right v Left Eye priming), together with one interview by Dylan (a famously unreliable witness), we are told that, “once upon a time”, Dylan’s brain’s right hemisphere generated the lyrics of “Like a Rolling Stone”, complete and entire in one continuous process. This chapter introduces a new level of unreliable anecdotage (the “neuro-tale”?) in which the writer imagines brain processes underlying real behavioural events and then presents the imaginings without qualifications as facts. In addition, the neuroimaging studies cited as justifying the right hemisphere story are not of lyric composition tasks and so linking those studies to the writing of a complex lyric is a considerable stretch.

The “study” parts of the chapters tend to report only a very few, highly selected, experiments which gave eyecatching results supporting the current story line; careful meta-analyses of conflicting results are not to be found here.

Overall, Lehrer’s conclusions are fairly uncontroversial, and the book is written in an engaging style, but the arguments are more suggestive rhetoric than solid scientific argumentation with clearly defined concepts and a solid evidence base.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Hard boiled alter ego Jack Freeman's thriller - Operation Doublepayback - ebook available from Amazon

Hard boiled alter ego Jack Freeman's thriller "Operation DoublePayback" features 1960's Beats+CIA+International Terror, find it at for Kindle version.  Cover and plot outline below.

Plot summary

Max Blue, a long time CIA officer, involved in “roll back” guerrilla operations in Soviet occupied Eastern Europe and anti-Castro actions in the Caribbean, quit the agency after multiple debacles and betrayal from the top. In 1961, Max, now a beat generation bookseller and his Iranian wife Azar, living in London, are blackmailed by CIA officer Jack Johnson into infiltrating an Iranian revolutionary terror group (RPI).

Max and Azar are immediately caught up in a series of fast moving events - an attack on the US London Embassy, an assassination in Amsterdam, a bomb plot against the Shah in Berlin, a fire fight in the Venice lagoon, a battle with circus weightlifters, a bloody confrontation in LA, kidnap and torture in Mayfair, a growing attraction between Azar and Jack, a climactic duel and a revived affair for Max at the 1962 Edinburgh Festival. Finally, Max and Azar are in New York City during the Cuban Missile crisis and must avert a conspiracy by an RPI breakaway group to provoke the superpowers into all-out nuclear war.


Wednesday, 11 July 2012

My Festschrift talk at ICT2012

If link slides for my Festschrift talk at The 7th International Conference on Thinking, July 7, 2012, Birkbeck College, University of London  can be seen below. I ask the question...have we made much progress in understanding insight and creative problem solving?

And despite being of an age when Festschrifts and Emeritus ttles come along (and I am v grateful for them!) I plan to continue contributing to field as long as I can keep on keeping on!

Monday, 21 February 2011

Does Poincare´ still rule creativity studies? Comments on two recent (2010) books on creative processes…”Where good ideas come from”, by Steven Johnson (Allan Lane) and “Sudden Genius?” by Andrew Robinson (Oxford).

For the experimentally oriented psychologist it is striking that both these books rely heavily on biographical and personal accounts as their evidence base for understanding creativity. Experiments rarely get mentioned.

Poincare´ s (1908) theorising, which drew on his own delayed recalls of solving mathematics problems decades previously, is given considerable attention in both books.

Andrew Robinson, in “Sudden Genius?”, while stating that unconscious processing is surely involved in creative productions, as Poincare´ argued, does criticise Poincare´’s particular theory, with its stress on incubation, as not well established and casts doubt on the replicability of incubation. (Incubation is the beneficial effect of consciously putting the problem aside for a while; either you do better on return or have a spontaneous and sudden insight, when not actively thinking about the task - anecdotally, often in bed, on a bus or beach). However, this is an area in which Robinson’s coverage of experimental work really is too brief and ignores the many studies meta-analysed by Sio & Ormerod (2009, Psychological Bulletin) that support incubation, especially in divergent thinking tasks (where many possible answers are to be produced).

In Robinson’s final chapter, cognitive theories, such as those of Simonton are deemed to be of little explanatory value. Yet Simonton’s theory, based on random variation and selective retention of ideas, is well specified and fits a lot of objective data based on historical records of scientific and artistic production. It neatly handles the relationships between quantity and quality of production and the different peak ages of productivity and creativity in different fields. So Simonton’s theory may well be pointing in the right direction even if the underlying mechanisms are not given in detail (a bit like Darwin’s version of evolution on which it is modelled).

Robinson’s discussion of the links between measured intelligence and creativity gets into a questionable interpretation of the Flynn effect in an attempt to boost the famous physicist Richard Feynman’s measured IQ (in c. 1930) from 125 to something higher. It would be neater for the hypothesis that genius always requires very high IQ if Feynman had done a bit better on the day of his childhood test. However, the Flynn effect, viz., that raw scores on IQ type tests have increased steadily over decades would actually downgrade Feynman by current norms rather than upgrade him; however Robinson tries to argue the opposite(to save notion that genius requires very high IQ). This seems to be a clear error. Another error of which I am pretty sure ist Robinson’s ascription of Jackson Pollock’s death to suicide. Pollock’s death was due to a drunk driving accident, as far as I know, rather than deliberate suicide.

Is it really the case that 100 years after Poincare´, we are no further forward in understanding the processes underlying creativity? The only solid generalisation that Robinson identifies is the 10 year rule, well known from studies of expertise. The main thrust of “Sudden Genius?” is that major creative work is not “sudden” but is spread over a long period, often around 10 years and that sudden eureka moments play little role in real creativity.

Steven Johnson in his “Where good ideas come from” also stresses a notion related to the 10 year rule, i.e, the idea of slow hunches, in which creative ideas take years to be fully developed and tested. So, for example, it seems that Darwin’s idea of evolution by natural selection took a year or two to be developed in its basic form and a further period of 20 years or so, to be further elaborated and tested to Darwin’s satisfaction.

Johnson focuses very much on the cultural context in which the innovator operates and argues that the availability of many sources of information is vital to allowing the combination of ideas from different domains. He argues that new ideas are essentially built out of parts of existing ideas to make new combinations. To use Darwin again, the idea of evolution combines ideas of competition for resources among living things and selective breeding (minus the deliberate breeder). As for a cognitive mechanism, Johnson recruits Poincare´ once more with the proposal that unconscious mental work during incubation involves trial and error combining and recombining of ideas. In terms of the social context Johnson argues that cities, coffee houses, open plan offices, lab meetings, conferences, a wide circle of acquaintances with different backgrounds and now the World Wide Web facilitate idea combining and merging across many fields.

Steven Johnson does attempt to define “idea” which, all too often, is left unanalysed in studies of creativity. He writes (p45) that –

“A good idea is a network. A specific constellation of neurons- thousands of them-fire in sync with each other for the first time in your brain, and an idea pops into your consciousness. A new idea is a network of cells exploring the adjacent possible of connections they can make in your mind.”

However, this definition seems to be muddling the neural implementation (cells firing in sync) with the cognitive construct (new idea) and with phenomenology/experience (“pops into in your consciousness”). The new jargon term in the quotation, borrowed from theoretical biologist, Stuart Kauffman, the “adjacent possible” is the set of next states that can be reached in one change to the current state of knowledge. In problem space terms, it is where you can go in one step from the current state.

Johnson’s attempt at a definition does bring it home that a good definition in cognitive/information processing terms of “idea” would indeed be a good idea!
Surprisingly we do seem to be lacking a good definition. A future blog will focus on this question of defining “idea” and “new idea”.

Ken Gilhooly Feb 21, 2011.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Incubation, Internalism and Distributed Cognition

Incubation, Internalism and Distributed Cognition: an e-Discussion

Following the Kingston 2010 Meeting on Distributed Cognition and Problem Solving, there was brief email discussion about DCog and Incubation effects. (Incubation is when a problem is solved readily after time away from the problem.) An exchange between Fred Vallee-Tourangeau and me is shown below.

Fred Vallee-Tourangeau:

I liked the incubation gauntlet( i.e., challenge issued at DCog meeting for a DCog account of Incubation), but if right from the start the theoretical perspective doesn’t allow for representations to be distributed over internal and external resources, then a distributed cognition perspective will not be able to rise to the challenge. For my money, incubation ‘works’ for stochastic/aleatory reasons – leaving a problem aside, the representation decays. Confronting the problem again, the representation is put together again, constructing and drawing upon a slightly different interpretation of the problem (the semantic activation spreading slightly differently), recruiting slightly different operators maybe, and out of that chancy configuration may surface a more productive problem representation with possibly more traction to get you out of the impasse. But this assembly process, from a distributed cognition perspective, could also recruit external resources, and in fact, you may double the possibilities by re-assembling and re-coupling internal and external parts to form a problem representation (or perhaps you double the noise!)

Perhaps you have heard me talk about the Watson episode in the Double Helix (or you read it yourself) about how he put the base pairs together and discovered how the helix was held together. Here’s the passage:

“When I got to our office….I quickly cleared away the papers from the desk top so that I would have a large, flat surface on which to form pairs of bases…Though I initially went back to my like-like prejudices, I saw all too well that they led nowhere….I began shifting the bases in and out of various other pairing possibilities. Suddenly I became aware that a [A-T] pair held together by two hydrogen bonds was identical in shape to a pair [G-C] pair held together by at least two hydrogen bonds. All the hydrogen bonds seems to form naturally; no fudging was required to make the two types of base pairs identical in shape. Upon his arrival Francis did not get more than halfway through the door before I let loose that the answer to everything was in our hands”. (Watson, 1968, pp.123-125).

The final understanding gels in Watson’s mind, but the external scaffolding necessary for him to achieve insight was both strategic and I suspect possibly opportunistic (is it possible to rule that random movements might have led to felicitous configurations?).

You probably know Peter Cheng, and perhaps the work he did with Herb Simon in the early/mid 90’s on the importance of multiple representations (diagrammatic/mathematical) in scientific discovery. I saw him in DC at CogSci 08. We talked a bit about some of my work with Wason’s rule discovery task using multiple representations (people are more likely to discover the rule and formulate more pertinent hypotheses when they have access to both a graphical and algebraic representation. In light of his writings, I thought he’d be particularly fond of the DCog perspective. But he is staunch internalist. He does not deny that information format and annotations can help, but he argues that all the interesting psychology takes place in the head, not as a result of the interaction with reified projections and artefacts, cognitive or otherwise.

Ken Gilhooly:

Incubation effects as results of “beneficial” forgetting that brings about changes in problem representations is a theory of some standing and indeed was put forward by Simon among others. This does seem to be a thoroughly internalist explanation.

A role for environmental cues has been incorporated into some approaches, but the cues have to be processed internally and lead to changes in the internal representation.

The Watson case of insight, while manipulating a concrete model, is interesting as an example of insight following overt trial and error accomplishment of a solution, but not really a case of an incubation effect?

From the internalist point of view, concrete material/models are helpful because they facilitate exploration that would otherwise overload working memory.

This seems to be pretty intra-organismic.

I am inclined to a rather fence-sitting view that some important cognitive processes (e.g., incubation) are essentially in-the-head and others are distributed across heads and across the environment (e.g., group problem solving with external memory aids)?