Tag Archives: creativity

Attitudes that enhance vs. limit broad creative thinking

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What motivates you as you go about your life? Is your attitude more of approach or avoidance, the willingness to go for a reward or the desire to avoid harm?

I know it isn’t strictly either/or for anyone, but it’s helpful to think of your motivations in different situations and how they affect your thought processes, including your creativity and memory.

I came across an interesting study from 2001, The Effects of Promotion and Prevention Cues on Creativity. It centers on an experimental set-up where you have to get a cartoon mouse out of a maze by finding a route through the maze to the exit.

In one condition, there was a piece of cheese drawn outside of the maze, suggesting that if you successfully found the correct route out, the mouse would get the cheese. This condition was meant to evoke a style of thinking focused more on promotion: you complete a task in order to attain something new and nurturing.

In another condition, there wasn’t any cheese; instead, an owl hovered above the maze, making you think that if the mouse didn’t get out, the owl would eat it. The style of thinking evoked here was based on prevention: more about risk aversion and vigilance, avoiding bad outcomes.

So what happened in the experiment? The participants did well on solving the mazes (one would hope, given they were college students), but the interesting difference between participants who were in the promotion vs. prevention condition emerged later, when they were all given another task to complete. In one version of the experiment, they got a task that required them to detect images of simple objects embedded in a noisy visual. In another version, they had to come up with a list of ways that they could use a brick. In yet another, they had to complete word fragments by coming up with whole words that matched.

Independently of how much they enjoyed any given task, it seemed that overall, the participants in the promotion group were able to think more broadly and more creatively during the follow-up tasks. In contrast, an attitude of avoidance/prevention tended to make their thinking narrower. (And this wasn’t even tied to anything personal – the participants themselves weren’t going to enjoy the cheese or avoid a monster owl about to attack them, though they may have identified with the mouse; basically they were just cued into thinking within a certain framework, promotion vs. prevention).

You always have to be cautious when applying the results of one study to day-to-day life, but this does get me thinking about the implications. I’m more in the habit of avoidance than approach, which I don’t think always serves me well; while I don’t want to change this orientation completely, I don’t want to skew too much towards it either. Having risk-avoidance as a dominant approach may not be good in the long-run, in terms of thinking big and developing ideas creatively over time; it might limit you more to narrower, tried-and-tested paths.

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Marching to the beat of your own drummer works…

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… if you don’t mind making music all by yourself?

New research written up in a Science Daily article called, Dont Get Mad, Get Creative: Social Rejection Can Fuel Imaginative Thinking claims the following:

A study by a Johns Hopkins University business professor finds that social rejection can inspire imaginative thinking, particularly in individuals with a strong sense of their own independence.

(The emphasis in bold is mine.)

Some questions this raises for me:

1) What leads some people to develop a sense of strong independence vs. really hoping to be included? Can people who really long for inclusion become more genuinely independent? (not in a false way, where they pretend not to care, while seething with anger and forming little groups of their own from which they can reject people). Can people who start off independent get worn down and long for inclusion – if so, how does this happen?

2) How is social inclusion being defined here? Is it inclusion in terms of mainstream values? There are people who might not be bothered by rejection by the mainstream, but care very much about the opinions of a non-mainstream group. Does true independence hold in the face of all kinds of rejection, both mainstream and non-mainstream?

3) More from the article:

“Rejection confirms for independent people what they already feel about themselves, that they’re not like others. For such people, that distinction is a positive one leading them to greater creativity.”

What other qualities accompany this feeling of being proudly different from others? Positive qualities like resilience, focus and discipline. Possibly negative qualities like arrogance and contempt (are these conducive to creativity?).

Synaptic Sunday #5

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Psychology/neuroscience link roundup centered on a particular topic – this week, some links on what makes people productive.

1) Would this work for anyone? (If something like it has worked for you, speak up):

Helen Oyeyemi advises writers to download the Write or Die app onto their computer (or does she write on an iPhone?). In ‘kamikaze mode’, if you stop writing for more than 45 seconds it starts deleting the words you have already written.


That sounds like a nightmare to me. Whenever I’d stop to think (or to just sit quietly for a little bit, staring out the window and letting my brain do whatever it does when I appear to be unproductive), I’d be too busy watching the clock to let my brain work.

2) It can be good to let your mind wander! (As long as you’ve put in some focused mental effort beforehand.)

3) When our thoughts and attention wander, the brain isn’t as passive as we imagine it to be: …an interesting study published in a 2009 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that daydreaming also activates parts of our brain associated with ‘high-level, complex problem-solving’ including the lateral pre-frontal cortex and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex.”

I don’t think day-dreaming, and its potential creative benefits, can be forced (then you’re too self-conscious – attending too much to your own thoughts); it also isn’t beneficial when done excessively. But to dismiss it as wasted time is a mistake. And to chain productive and creative thinking to strict time intervals strikes me as useless (and horrifying).

Synaptic Sunday #1

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Synaptic Sunday is a weekly collection of thought-provoking links related by similar topics:

1. If we remember more, can we read deeper–and create better? Part I.

In the very process of memorizing, remembering—and faltering—we don’t just learn more about what we are reading. We also learn more about how we are reading, how we are reacting to the material—and, in a way (or, at least, after we’ve stopped to ponder our mistakes in the manner Cooke suggests we do) why we are reacting to it as we do.

Interesting discussion on memorization, and what the process can show us about our minds and how we analyze whatever it is we’re memorizing (the example in the article is literary work). Also starts off with an interesting description of a memorization technique using the body’s movements, which can serve as cues for later recall.

2. Another post on the unreliability and malleability of memory

Elizabeth Loftus has produced a body of work showing that our memories aren’t strictly accurate recordings of what we’ve taken in through the senses, but that we can unintentionally shape, elaborate on, and outright fabricate them, and are influenced by suggestive remarks made by others (her work has had an enormous impact on cognitive psychology and also the legal field – how witness testimony is solicited and handled). At the link you’ll find further links to an interview with Loftus, and also to an article from Time Magazine on the faultiness of memory.

3. Memory Training Unlikely to Help in Treating ADHD, Boosting IQ

Overall, working memory training improved performance on tasks related to the training itself but did not have an impact on more general cognitive performance such as verbal skills, attention, reading or arithmetic.

I’m not sure what the working memory training tasks are; I’ve never participated in such a program (one example of a training task is mentioned at the link). Different kinds of memory processes may be related to and interact with other cognitive processes, but there needs to be caution about the claims made by people selling these programs. If they’re telling you that an intensive program of memory tasks will boost your cognitive ability more broadly, you have to ask yourself if this is really the case. Can they give you proof, linking training in certain memory tasks or series of tasks with measurable improvements in other areas of cognition and in academic success?

Maybe their whole approach of “loading up the brain with training exercises” is the wrong one to take to begin with, if they really want to use these tasks as a means of strengthening cognitive abilities more generally and not only your performance on those specific memory tasks. Maybe the problem with the training exercises is that they’re dry, rote short-term memory tasks, which don’t call on other areas of cognition as much as other kinds of memory tasks would.

4. Memories are Crucial for Imagining the Future

The past and future may seem like different worlds, yet the two are intimately intertwined in our minds. In recent studies on mental time travel, neuroscientists found that we use many of the same regions of the brain to remember the past as we do to envision our future lives.

Fascinating article.

Getting the mind to pipe down

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An article in More Intelligent Life called “Non Cogito, Ergo Sum” brings up the following point: thinking too much can make you mess up. Examples are given of tennis players who fumble when they think too much about their backhand, opera singers who falter if they start to think about whether their voice is at its best, and songwriters who can barely string together lyrics because their thoughts are interfering with their creative processes.

It’s not just any kind of thinking that messes you up, but badly timed self-conscious thinking, when you’re thinking about what you’re doing as you’re doing it (and on top of that, maybe thinking about how you appear to your audience). This cripples creativity and makes you second-guess yourself at the worst possible moment. What you may be hoping for instead during those moments of performance or creative functioning, is what the article calls “unthinking”:

Unthinking is the ability to apply years of learning at the crucial moment by removing your thinking self from the equation.

How do you best remove yourself from the equation? That’s definitely something I’d like to explore in future posts. I know what it’s like when I’m writing, and critical voices intrude during that first draft when everything should be coming out uninhibited. My mind is hamstringing itself.

In large part dealing with badly timed self-conscious thinking has to be a matter of mental flexibility and discipline. There are times when you want to evaluate your own thinking – revising your assumptions, checking yourself before you do or say something you’ll regret, evaluating your performance (after the fact, not during). It’s not good to always operate unselfconsciously. But you need to command the ability to switch between one mindset and another so that self-conscious thoughts don’t overtake your mind at exactly those moments when you should be acting with unthinking clarity and focus. Any advice on how to do this well? (There’s a topic for several future posts.)

Also it takes trust – the ability to let go and trust yourself. At the right moment you have to forget what you know and what you don’t know, what others think of you, what you think of yourself – you become a conduit for creativity, talent, ingenuity and unselfconscious thought. You have to trust that what you know and what you can do is enough, more than enough, and that for the moment at least you are sufficient and complete. All considerations of success and failure must disappear from your mind, because you’re entering a state of mind where the typical yardsticks measuring failure and success don’t exist anymore.

Easier said than done. How do you get to that state of mind when you most need to?