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creative thinking

Lighting and Creativity

I'm feeling creative.

I’m feeling creative.

In yesterday’s article about daydreaming and creativity, I noted that daydreaming is negatively correlated with parts of the brain that process visual stimuli. I suggested that this might relate to inattentional blindness. If you’re daydreaming, your mind wanders and you don’t consciously see things even if they’re directly in front of you. Some part of your subconscious may see the object (and direct you around it) but the object never registers in your consciousness.

Now there’s evidence that not seeing may enhance your creativity. An article in The Journal of Environmental Psychology  (“Freedom from constraints: Darkness and dim illumination promote creativity“) reports on six different experiments on the relationship between physical environment and creativity.  The research found “…that darkness elicits a feeling of being free from constraints and triggers a risky, explorative processing style.” (See additional commentary here and here)

The study focused on 114 German undergraduate students who were asked to solve several creative insight problems under different lighting conditions. The upshot: students in dimly lit rooms solved more problems than those in brightly lit rooms. They also reported that they felt fewer constraints on their thinking. The research also suggested that mental priming could effectively imitate a dim environment. In other words, you don’t have to be in a dark room; you just have to think about being in a dark room.

The researchers also note that creativity involves at least two processes: 1) creating or generating ideas; 2) analyzing and implementing those ideas. A dimly lit room seems to facilitate the first process but not the second. In the authors’ words: “Creativity may begin in the dark but it shouldn’t end there”.

Creativity and Caffeine

Gosh, I'm feeling so creative.

Gosh, I’m feeling so creative.

Last December I wrote a brief article asking, Are You More Creative When You’re Sleepy? The general idea is that you’re less likely to stick to nonproductive routines when you’re tired. Let’s assume that you know the “right” way to do something. When you’re fresh and energetic, you may repeat the process multiple times, even if it doesn’t work well. You’re more likely to assume that the process is correct but you’re making a mistake. Thus, you repeat the process, expecting to correct the mistake and achieve success. When you’re tired, you’re more likely to give up, and try something different — perhaps something more creative.

This week The New Yorker has an article looking at the same phenomenon from a different perspective. The question: does caffeine inhibit creativity? Caffeine tends to stimulate and focus the mind. If you’re more creative when you’re tired — because your mind wanders — then caffeine should reduce your creativity.

Maria Konnikova — who wrote Mastermind: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes — wrote The New Yorker article and it’s well worth a read. Even if you’re not interested in creativity, you’ll be fascinated with the way Honoré de Balzac inhaled ground coffee dust because the brewed stuff just wasn’t strong enough.

Playing Up Creativity

kids playingWant to be more creative? How do you get started? What are the best exercises to stimulate creativity? It all sounds very serious. As it turns out, it may not be so serious after all. The basis of creativity may simply be unstructured play.

That’s the argument that the International Play Association (IPA) makes. According to the IPA white paper Children’s Right to Play, when children play, they “…rearrange their worlds to make them either less scary or less boring.” They also learn how to negotiate, the importance of rules, and a general notion of fairness. It’s not so much rehearsal for adult life (as I had thought). Rather, it’s “about creating a world in which … children are in control and can seek out uncertainty in order to triumph over it — or, if not, no matter, it is only a game.”

The IPA notes that unstructured play can enhance a child’s “…adaptive capabilities and resilience” and “changes the architecture of the brain, particularly in systems to do with emotion, motivation, and reward.” For all these reasons (and more), the IPA concludes that “… play is no mere indulgence; it is essential to children’s health and well-being.” (By the way, the IPA was established in 1961 in —  where else? — Denmark. Those pesky Scandinavians again!)

Note that we’re talking unstructured play, which is different than, say, playing baseball or the piano. As Melinda Wenner points out in Scientific American, structured games “… have a priori rules — set up in advance and followed. Play, on the other hand, does not have a priori rules, so it affords more creative responses.” So, taking up all your kid’s time in sports leagues or music classes may actually impede rather than develop their creativity. It’s also important to let kids play with kids. Among other things, kids use more sophisticated language when they play with each other than when they play with adults.

That’s all well and good for kids but what about those of us who are well past our prime playing days? Wenner writes that “Adults who do not play may end up unhappy and exhausted without understanding exactly why.” How should adults play? Wenner makes three suggestions:

  • Body play — “participate in some form of active movement that has no time pressures or expected outcomes (if you are exercising just to burn fat, that’s not play!)”
  • Object play –  create something with your hands
  • Social play — “join other people in seemingly purposeless social activities, ‘from small talk to verbal jousting’…”

Wenner concludes that, “Ultimately, it’s not how you play but that you play.” So enough with this website. Let’s go out and play.

(By the way, IPA next triennial conference will be in Istanbul in 2014. Anyone want to go play?)

Pascal’s Wager and the Mediterranean Diet

Wanna bet?

Wanna bet?

I like to think of Blaise Pascal (1623 — 1662), the French mathematician, as the western world’s first practitioner of Twitter. His collected Pensées were brief, enigmatic thoughts about mathematics, religion, and philosophy. Collected after his death, they read like the tweets of the 17th century (though they were intended to be a much more comprehensive defense of religion).

In the Pensées, Pascal made his famous wager. We all bet with our lives on whether God exists or not. We can live as if God exists and practice the traditional forms and virtues of religion. Or we can do the opposite and ignore our religious duties, assuming that God does not exist. If we live as if God exists and we’re right then the rewards are infinite. If we’re wrong, the loss is finite — indeed it’s quite small. Thus, Pascal argues, it’s only rational to live a pious life. The wager is heavily stacked to that side.

In today’s world, we don’t spend much time wagering on God’s existence (perhaps we should) but we make lots of bets that are much like Pascal’s. The cumulative effects are enormous.

For instance, consider the Mediterranean diet. The diet — which features olive oil, nuts, vegetables, and fish but not much red meat — has been on our radar for a number of years now. Epidemiologists observed that people who live near the Mediterranean have a much lower rate of heart disease than would be expected. Maybe it’s the diet. Or maybe it’s something else, like religion, culture, family structure, heredity, etc.

So the evidence for the positive health effects of the diet was an observed correlation. We could see that the diet was correlated (inversely) to heart disease but we couldn’t be sure that it caused the lower rates. Maybe a hidden, third factor was in play. Still, we could make a version of Pascal’s wager: eat as if the Mediterranean diet does reduce the risk of heart disease. If we’re right, we live longer. If we’re wrong … well, we’ve missed out on a few tasty bacon cheeseburgers. Would you take the bet?

Last week, the level of evidence changed dramatically. A five-year, randomized Spanish study of nearly 7,5000 people was published. People who followed the Mediterranean diet had 30% fewer heart attacks, strokes, and deaths from heart disease than the control group. Since the study used the experimental method, we can now talk about cause and effect, not just correlation. Now will you take the bet?

Of course, there’s still some doubt about the results. It’s only one study; it hasn’t been replicated yet. It was conducted in Spain. Maybe we wouldn’t get the same results in America. Maybe there were methodological or measurement errors. Still, the evidence seems pretty strong and it points toward a version of Pascal’s classic wager.

We all make versions of Pascal’s wager every day but we rarely think about them. Perhaps it’s time that we pay more attention. Perhaps it’s time to think about what levels of evidence we need before we take the bet. Is correlation enough or do we need to prove cause and effect? Life is uncertain but perhaps we can make it more comfortable by thinking — and betting — logically. While you’re pondering that, I’m going to drizzle some olive oil over a bowl of walnuts. Drop by if you’re hungry.

Premature Commitment. It’s a Guy Thing.

Sin in haste. Repent at leisure.

Sin in haste. Repent at leisure.

There’s a widespread meme in American culture that guys are not good at making commitments. While that may be true in romance, it seems that the opposite — premature commitment — is a much bigger problem in business.

That’s the opinion I’ve formed from reading Paul Nutt’s book, Why Decisions Fail. Nutt analyzes 15 debacles which he defines as “… costly decisions that went very wrong and became public…” Indeed, some of the debacles — the Ford Pinto, Nestlé infant formula, Shell Oil’s Brent Spar disposal —  not only went public but created firestorms of indignation.

While each debacle had its own special set of circumstances, each also had one common feature: premature commitment. Decision makers were looking for ideas, found one that seemed to work, latched on to it, pursued it, and ignored other equally valid alternatives. Nutt doesn’t use the terminology, but in critical thinking circles this is known as satisficing or temporizing.

Here are two examples from Nutt’s book:

Ohio State University and Big Science — OSU wanted to improve its offerings (and its reputation) in Big Science. At the same time, professors in the university’s astronomy department were campaigning for a new observatory. The university’s administrators latched on to the observatory idea and pursued it, to the exclusion of other ideas. It turns out that Ohio is not a great place to build an observatory. On the other hand, Arizona is. As the idea developed, it became an OSU project to build an observatory in Arizona. Not surprisingly, the Ohio legislature asked why Ohio taxes were being spent in Arizona. It went downhill from there.

EuroDisney — Disney had opened very successful theme parks in Anaheim, Orlando, and Tokyo and sought to replicate their success in Europe. Though they considered some 200 sites, they quickly narrowed the list to the Paris area. Disney executives let it be known that it had always been “Walt’s dream” to build near Paris. Disney pursued the dream rather than closely studying the local situation. For instance, they had generated hotel revenues in their other parks. Why wouldn’t they do the same in Paris? Well… because Paris already had lots of hotel rooms and an excellent public transportation system. So, visitors saw EuroDisney as a day trip, not an overnight destination. Disney officials might have taken fair warning from an early press conference in Paris featuring their CEO, Michael Eisner. He was pelted with French cheese.

In both these cases — and all the other cases cited by Nutt —  executives rushed to judgment. As Nutt points out, they then compounded their error by misusing their resources. Instead of using resources to identify and evaluate alternatives, they invested their money and energy in studies designed to justify the alternative they had already selected.

So, what to do? When approaching a major decision, don’t satsifice. Don’t take the first idea that comes along, no matter how attractive it is. Rather, take a step back. (I often do this literally — it does affect your thinking). Ask the bigger question — What’s the best way to improve Big Science at OSU? — rather than the narrower question — What’s the best way to build a telescope?


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