This is a talk I gave for the Being Human Festival in 2018 at the Maths Institute of Oxford University. Thanks to The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities for hosting, and recording, the event.
Where do brilliant, original ideas come from? The kind that change the world. That make our hearts beat quicker with excitement and the future seem a little less scary.
It’s one of those questions many of us wonder about when we can’t sleep in the middle of the night and we feel so small as we float on a tiny piece of rock in a remote corner of an insignificant part of an infinite dark sky, or as we stare out of the window on a long train journey watching deer in the fields exhausting themselves leaping a few miles and marvel at the way we have manipulated materials and their properties and built them into an object that will carry us at remarkable speeds without moving a muscle.
But the question of creativity, of how new things can take shape seemingly miraculously out of old ones, is so much more than idle speculation. It’s a question whose answer we have to understand for the sake of our own future. Because whether it’s climate change, food security, where artificial intelligence will take us, the potential for nuclear annihilation, or the implications of genetic modification and transhumanism, we face a future that could so easily go catastrophically wrong. And yet these issues are so complicated we have very little idea where to even start in tackling them. It’s this factor that lends them the name “wicked problems”.
The one thing we do know with some degree of confidence is that our current way of doing things probably isn’t going to help us find good solutions – after all, those ways of thinking and acting are what got us into this pickle to start with.
We know, in other words, that to help us solve our wicked problem pickle we need creativity. What I want to do tonight is unlock some of the mystery of creativity so that every one of you here goes away with a slightly better chance of being part of building that better future.
First, I want to look at what some of the recent work in neuroscience tells us about creativity, about what happens when we come up with a new idea and in what kind of brains that most commonly occurs. Then I want to explain a few techniques that can help your brain be more like that, and for that I want to go a little bit further back in time, to some of the techniques developed centuries ago that turn out to be remarkably effective at making our brains better primed to be creative.
The raw materials for creativity turn out to be incredibly simple. You need to know lots of things about lots of things. And you need to be able to use that knowledge to its full potential, which means being able to connect any one part of it up to any other part of it.
Some fascinating studies help us pin down these ingredients and offer suggestions as to how we might develop them. The world’s leading expert on the neuroscience of creativity, Nancy Andreasen, has studied the brains of many of the world’s most creative people. What her studies showed is that resting brains have higher levels of activity in the association cortex areas than those who are less creative.
This ties in beautifully with a more recent study by a group of scientists in the Netherlands, which happened to contain leading memory athlete Boris Konrad, looked at the effect on the brain of training using the techniques employed by memory athletes.
What they found is that this training led to similar activity in the resting brain as was associated with creative people.
This ties in with yet another study into what happens with so-called “aha” moments. Those moments happened more often, the study found, among people who spent more time engaged in what we might call deep learning.
Let’s hold all those thoughts there and move to the second ingredient, connecting all that knowledge together.
Another famous study carried out by Charles Limb looked at what happened to rappers when they began to improvise – that is, when they started spontaneously generating ideas the way we think of people engaged in creativity generating ideas. Limb’s MRI study found that the moment the rappers started freestyling, their frontal lobes, the part of the brain linked to self-censorship, shut down. Similar results were found in those other great improvisers, jazz musicians.
So being creative is a combination of deep learning and being able to form connections (or maybe, we should say being able to turn off the mechanism that stops us exploring connections).
So how do we do we make our brains more creative?
Well, we start by learning lots of things about lots of things. But, as these studies suggest, it matters how we learn, and I want to offer two techniques to help us learn in a way that makes it easier to learn
First I want to talk about mind palaces.
You have probably come across the idea through Sherlock, or Hannibal. It’s the technique the memory athletes in the study we looked at earlier use, and it goes back thousands of years, to Cicero and beyond. In short, the technique is this. To remember a new piece of information, we link it to something we already know. In fact to something we know so well that it takes no effort to recall it at all, such as the route we take to work each day, or our home, or maybe the Bodleian Library. What we do for each piece of information is to find a sensual way of imagining it, usually a picture, which we make as memorable as we possibly can by exaggerating it, bringing other senses into play, making it humorous, or rude. And then we attach it to, say, the statue of William Herbert.
So say I wanted to remember that the Council of Chalcedon was held in the year 451. Here’s William Herbert, appropriately outside the Bodleian’s Divinity School. I add a vivid image of the Council of Chalcedon taking place.
And to remember the year 451 I make the image burst into flames, reminding me of the book Farenheit 451.
Now, when we want to recall that piece of information, all we have to do is travel in our mind to Herbert’s statue and discover what it was we left there.
But although mind palaces are great, they are not a magic bullet on their own. By their nature, they isolate things, they’re about the rooms and locations where things are placed.
If we are going to be free to use our knowledge effectively, what we need, in essence, is a mind palace that has leaky plumbing! Once you’ve “learned” that something “belongs here” it’s very hard to shift in your head to “it might belong there”, so we need ways to think about things that mean they could go here but they could just as easily go there.
To overcome this, we need to overcome our brain’s natural tendency to create shortcuts. Specifically, when it comes to how we think about things, instead of a minimum kit that helps us place things, what we need is a maximum kit that makes it as easy as possible to move them around. When we think of things we need to get used to thinking of all of their properties. All of their associations, personal, cultural, historical as well as physical. These properties are hooks, waving around waiting to latch onto one another. The more of these hooks you can set, the more connections you will be able to find with other objects.
Take the kind of question you might get asked in a standard creative thinking test.
“What would you get if you crossed a dog with a skyscraper?”
Our shortcut for identifying a dog might include for example being a four-legged furry mammal and so on
But when it comes to answering the question, that isn’t very helpful. If we maximise our dog definition kit though so it also includes that dogs are known for their friendship of humans, for giving their Latin name variously to puncturing teeth (canines) and a group of islands (The Canaries),
Then we start getting some interesting possibilities
So now we know all this stuff how do we train our brains to turn off their self-censor so that we can connect things more easily?
That brings me to Mycelium, which is the name for the game I‘ve been in St Luke’s Chapel playing with many of you tonight.
Here’s how it works. You have two decks of cards.
From the first you draw one of 10 challenging ways of connecting objects
here we have “After the zombie apocalypse, you can choose to save blank or blank. Explain your choice” You then draw two further cards from the second deck
to produce a question, here “After the zombie apocalypse, you can choose to save an oil well or a violin. Explain your choice” You then have 5 minutes to generate as many ideas as possible. In this case…
Scoring the game is very simple. The more people who come up with an idea, the fewer points that idea scores. You’re basically delivering a dopamine hit every time you come up with an outrageous idea, in the hope the brain will find it increasingly easier to make truly original connections.
I want to end with something that ties all these things together. When it comes to the kind of deep learning techniques we have discussed briefly here, one thing on which there is widespread agreement is that there is one prerequisite that beats all others when it comes to the ability to learn in a way that primes your brain to be creative. You have to love what you learn. I am very lucky in that I have always loved learning. I have also always been stubborn enough to forget what I was being told to learn and just learn what I felt like. As an example, at my Oxford interview, I spent almost the whole half hour of a Classics interview talking about the genetics of racehorses. The great thing is, when it comes to creativity it doesn’t really matter what you learn, just how you learn it. In short, I suppose it comes down to this. The more fun you have learning stuff, the better placed you will be to come up with the ideas that make the world a better place.