Our brain is wired for creativity
There are many, many perspectives on creativity. Some think it is a skill we have lost. Some think it is an education problem. Most agree it is something we can learn. The authors of “The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World”, think it is part of human nature. We can’t help ourselves.
Innovation will never stop
That is why hairstyles, streetlights, nations, symphonies, laws, sonnets, prosthetic arms, smartphones, ceiling fans, skyscrapers, boats, kites, laptops, ketchup bottles, auto-driving cars, bikes and stadiums keep changing. Why can’t we find the perfect solution and stick with it? The answer: innovation will never stop.
“What if” all the time
It’s never about the right thing; it’s about the next thing. Humans lean into the future, and there is never a settling point. We have restless brains. What makes the human brain so restless? An evolutionary tweak in the algorithms running in human brains has allowed us to absorb the world and create what-if versions of it. All the time.
Human brains have an enormous cortex (and in particular an outsized prefrontal cortex), giving us the facility to hold sophisticated concepts and manipulate them. Therefore, we are masters at generating alternative realities, taking what is and transforming it into a panoply of what-ifs. We may not be able to run as fast as a jaguar, but our ability to run internal simulations is unmatched. Thinking about what-ifs is so rooted in our daily experience that it’s easy to overlook what an imaginative exercise it is.
Creativity is hard wired
Reinstalled The software of creativity comes preinstalled on the human hard drive, ready to bend, break and blend the world around us. The brain spits out a stream of new possibilities, most of which won’t work, but some of which do. No other species throw themselves at reimagining the world with such vitality and persistence.
We like breaking things
Our brains constantly wander through our storehouse of experiences, and they often link ideas through far-flung connections. Thanks to the restlessness of human brains, we don’t just set out to improve imperfection – we also tamper with things that seem perfect. Humans don’t just break bad; we also break what’s good.
It is nature’s way
We see diversity, and the heavy investment in alternatives, in nature’s constantly branching tree of life. Why? Because the surest path to extinction is to over-invest in a single solution. One trillion different species traffic the planet, and Mother Nature’s great success boils down to one principle: she proliferates options.
Eating your own brain
A small mollusc known as the sea squirt does something strange. It swims around early in its life, eventually finds a place to attach like a barnacle, and then absorbs its own brain for nutrition. Why? Because it no longer needs its brain. It’s found its permanent home. Even the most committed couch potato among us wouldn’t eat his own brain, and this is because humans don’t have a settling point. Our constant itch to combat routine makes creativity a biological mandate.
By continually diversifying and filtering, our imaginative gifts have put roofs over our heads, tripled our lifespans, spawned our ubiquitous machines. It has given us an unending parade of ways to woo each other and engulfed us with a fountainhead of songs and stories.
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it. They just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while; that’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesise new things. Human creativity does not emerge from a vacuum. We draw on our experience and the raw materials around us to refashion the world. Many people have figuratively stood in thunderstorms, waiting for the creative lightning to strike. But creative ideas evolve from existing memories and impressions. Instead of new ideas being lit aflame by lightning bolts, they arise from the interweaving billions of microscopic sparks in the vast darkness of the brain.
Creativity is good for you
It is good for you too. Even as we age, novelty propels ongoing plasticity, with each surprise etching new pathways. The redesigning of the circuitry is unceasing; we spend our lives as works in progress. A lifetime of creativity helps to maintain this flexibility. When we refashion the world around us, we also remodel ourselves.
Breaking, bending, blending
The book proposes a framework that divides the landscape of cognitive operations into three basic strategies: bending, breaking and blending.
- In bending, an original is modified or twisted out of shape.
- In breaking, a whole is taken apart.
- In blending, two or more sources are merged.
Bending, breaking and blending – the three Bs – are a way of capturing the brain operations that underlie innovative thinking.
It is a fascinating book.
- Explaining “repetition suppression”; the brain gets bored and switches off. The brain gets excited when it updates.
- Or “skeuomorphs”: features that imitate the design of what has come before. Because human consciousness moves, but it is not a leap: it is one inch. Every idea has an umbilical cord with history.
- A lot of neuroscience too. Kahneman’s stage one and two thinking. Explaining why we are not biological machines, such as bees. While a bee brain has one million neurons, a human one has one hundred billion, giving us a larger repertoire of behaviours.
- A lot about arts. For tens of thousands of years, the arts have been a constant in human culture, giving us an abundance of overt creativity.
- About language. Human communication has change built into its DNA: as a result, today’s dictionaries look very little like those of five hundred years ago. Thanks to the creative possibilities of language, what we can say keeps pace with what we need to say. Words are a predictor of trends.
- Some interesting inventions are mentioned. Spider goats, nano space crafts and self-healing concrete.
- Study arts
- Study history
- Look out for new words
- Create ideas quotas (I always maintain that an idea pipeline should be part of a balance sheet)
- Apply 70/20/10 rule mandates that 70 percent of resources go to the core business, 20 percent to emerging ideas and 10 percent to brand new moonshots. Read “The day after tomorrow”.
- Use alternate history, science fiction and meanings as platforms for creativity.
As in “Robot-proof, Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence”, the book is again a passionate plea for changing our education system.
Creativity is not a spectator sport. Exposure and performance are valuable, but it’s not enough to listen to Beethoven and act out Shakespeare. Students have to get on the playing field and do the bending, breaking and blending themselves. The more children do the making in their classrooms, the more they see themselves as makers of their own world. We should go for creative schooling.
Things come alive in the classroom when precedent is presented not as the answer, but as the springboard. Get your students to proliferate options instead of coming up with a single solution. Inspire them to take risks instead of taking the safe route. Motivate and encourage your students, whether from the inside (meaningful challenges) or the outside (audiences and rewards). A curriculum that fosters arts.
Every facet of the creative mentality can be taught through the arts – they are a boot camp for bending, breaking, and blending. The arts constantly shape the landscape of possibilities, illuminating previously unseen paths. Better arts make better engineers. But there’s an even deeper reason why the arts matter: beyond improving the sciences, they steer culture.
Our predictions about the future are revised not only by new facts but also by the make-believe. Our homes, cities, cars and planes a few decades from now will look very different from the ones of today; there will be new medical treatments, new kinds of smartphones, new works of art. The road to that future begins in the kindergarten classrooms of today.
When I speak at conferences, I bring lego blocks with me. That is to illustrate the number of interchangeable technologies we now can combine. It is beyond precedent. We have constructed for ourselves a vast, readily accessible warehouse of raw materials. The tidal wave forges on. Hacking at the border of the world we haven’t yet invented.
Invest in imagination
Conditions are ripe for a surge in innovation, but it will only happen with the proper investment at every level of our society. If we don’t cultivate creativity in our children, we won’t take full advantage of what’s unique about our species. We need to invest in imagination. We need to shape individuals and build companies in which new ideas blossom, different distances are explored, trimming is part of the process and change is the norm. We don’t know where an investment in creativity will take us. But if we could see the future, its flourishes would surely stagger us.
The groundwork for tomorrow is being laid today
The next big ideas will come from the bending, breaking and blending of what we’re surrounded with now. The ingredients are all around us, waiting to be reshaped, fractured and combined. With the necessary investment in our classrooms and boardrooms, our creative drive will gain even more speed. Together, we will scout new possibilities and write the story of our future.
It is in our nature
Now go and remake the world. It is in your nature. It is what we were born to do.