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.