Archive for January, 2010

I think Dr. Nersessian’s research follows closely with Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Scientists, and other creators of course, perform their problem solving in Piaget’s formal operational stage by targeting their zone of proximal development. What I found interesting in Dr. Nersessian’s research is that it blends with a portion of Simonton’s argument. Simonton suggested that in order to be creative, a person must move toward the “soft” side of his heirarchal ordering. By scientists creating models (sometimes mentally), they are actually accessing the concrete stage of Piaget’s theory. The model is formulated using abstract thought processes and hypothetical reasoning (Piaget’s formal operational stage), but in using the model, the scientist is often reverting by to Piaget’s concrete stage of development, relying on observations of the physical representation of the model. This process mirrors the slide down Simonton’s heirachal scale.

Similarly, Dr. Nersessian shows that Blooms taxonomy is still an effective process for solving problems. The levels of the pyramid in ascending order are as follows, beginning at the base: knowledge (remembering), understanding (describing/explaining), applying (what you know), analyzing (the results), evaluating (the accuracy), creating (forming a new hypothesis to test). In both Simonton’s and Nersessian’s versions of creativity, one must go up and down the Bloom’s taxonomical pyramid in order to create innovative solution to problems.


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Dean K. Simonton, a Professor of Psychology at UC Davis, is a research Psychologist. Mr. Simonton offered to the audience his “theory” on the connection between traits of various mental illnesses and creativity. I asked Mr. Simonton in private why this connection between mental illness and creativity should be taken seriously, given the high rate of people with Downes Syndrome, who also suffer from Bi-polar Disorder, and various types of Schizophrenia. Mr. Simonton’s response was, “This data is so new, we have not had time to go over all of it.” I must ask (although Simonton is very versed at directing conversations, as well as telling people what they want to hear) why any sort of “good” scientific researcher could draw any conclusion whatsoever, when the data is so new that they haven’t had enough time to go over all of it properly? It is interesting to note that Simonton’s hierarchy of disciplines in the arts and sciences mirrors UT Dallas’s development from an engineering graduate university, to a 4 year institution, complete with an arts and humanities undergraduate program. Simonton certainly knows how to play to the prejudices of both the average person, and that of the university’s administration. Simonton also found it necessary to exclude the disciplines of physiology, and the medical sciences, which he dismissed as being so far from the norm of other disciplines that their inclusion would simply throw the picture out of balance. When one cherry picks information to support a claim, while admitting that the data is “too new” to make a real conclusion, one must assume that this is at best, very bad scientific research, and at worst, a farce. Although he did not mention the field of Psychology at all, it was also excluded. If one is to cater to stereotypes (and apparently Simonton feels we must), I would find it hard to find ANY living genius in Psychology, and far too many people with personality traits associated with mental illness. My conclusion is that Mr. Simonton should avoid stuffy publishers, such as MIT Press, or even the University of California Press, when publishing his yet to be solidified conclusions. Instead, he should go straight to paperback. Does Fox News own a press company? For Mr. Simonton’s sake, I certainly hope so!

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Like many others who have posted, I was intrigued but the notion of the slippery slope into some sort of a Nietzschean abyss. Well, at least with Dean Simonton’s research that indicated Nobel prize recipients in the arts and letters were prone to be “nutsy,” in respect to their fellow scientists. And yet, revolutionary non-paradigmatic scientists who contribute most to breaking free their discipline from fossilized moorings, are more “crazy” than their colleagues who simply toe institutional lines? A great free-thinking physicist is as likely to exhibit psychopathic tendencies similar to regular practitioners of a “lesser” discipline—such as a mediocre chemist? My instincts would lead me to the belief that “great minds think alike,” and that the stretching they engage in to come up with new paradigms give them somewhat similar dispositions. But it appears from the Simonton research that a great physicist is only as “psychopathologically challenged” as an average biologist, not as a Joyce or a Tagore. In trying to reason this out, I thought to myself that maybe the fact that the “science types” came from more stable, homogenous families, and tha their disciplines seem to possess more structure than those of artsy types enabled them to descend into the “void” for briefer periods of time and emerge to make significant contributions with fewer psychopathological issues than their discplinarily lower counterparts. I have always found the descent into the abyss/void idea interesting. The void, or “no-mindedness” as many cultures would have it, can be traced back to Japanese notions of “mushin,” much the same as Chinese notions on “wu-hsin.” The ability to disengage with everyday subject-object dualism, to relinquish ego and return to some infantile state of forgetting oneself, is seen as a positive, a point of epiphany/satori/being-in-the-zone, WHEN accompanied by the return to normalcy and the ability to once again navigate 75 Central during rush-hour. Otherwise: “their eyes would be lost at sea somewhere, out there in a sea somewhere.” And I suppose this I can accept, this definition of “sanity” or “appropriate” consciousness, albeit centered on a over-riding proritization of selfhood, self-interest, and material agenda…But of course, if one keeps peering into the “abyss,” there is the possibility that it will turn its terrifying and glittering eye onto you and hold your gaze.

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There are several issues handled here.  I’d like to start with the statement in The Idea of Creativity where Simonton states that creativity must be, necessarily, comprised of originality and adaptiveness.  The meaning of the word adaptiveness is easy to understand given the BVSR definition .  The word originality, however, is more contentious.  What is meant by originality?

In the paper, Simonton says that Campbell defines a creator as a person who has to “grope in the dark” where he/she had to engage in a process where the “outcome of any given trial was uncertain.”  This example Campbell equates to blind variation.  He then uses the example of the radar that systematically searches for aircraft in a non-determined pattern.  A plane may or may not come by, so this is the “groping in the dark” process.  This seems a little limiting to me.

Firstly, the radar is not engaged in an activity with an uncertain outcome.  Campbell assumes that the radar is only looking for planes and responds when a plane arrives in the air space.  The process is limited by the specifications of the search. One could easily define the process as the radar is searching for planes and non-planes; that is, the proposition is true when a plane is not available and true when plane is available.  It is only our interpretation of the data that defines any meaning in either data.

Moving to his Creativity Domain model, Simonton’s analysis, admittedly so, can not account for hybrid groups such as a psychologist that is a poet also.  Instead, he argues that each person takes traits from the group above him/her.  It could be, simply, that groups can not be grouped based on occupation and then extrapolate the “creative” tendencies of each, but should be grouped by their creative tendencies to begin with.  This makes more sense.

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Dr. Simonton’s lecture on Scientific Creativity is very insightful and educational. His lecturing style is personable, penetrating and entertaining. Dr. Simonton begins the lecture with the nature of creativity. He thinks that creativity is a heterogeneous phenomenon rather than a homogenous phenomenon. There is no “one-size-fits-all” type of creativity. However, he argues the essential potion of the heterogeneous diversity of all kinds of creativity can extends from sciences to the arts. Despite the differences between exact sciences and the not exact sciences, the hard and soft sciences, the natural and human sciences, he believes that scientific disciplines can be ordered in a single dimension using a large number of positive and negative indicators. The theoretical parameters for the study of scientific creativity he sets are very comprehensive. The positive indicators he adopted include peer evaluation consensus, citation concentration, early impact rate, citation immediacy, anticipation frequency, obsolescence rate and graph prominence. And the negative indicators include consultation rate, theories-to-laws ratio, age at receipt of Nobel prize, lecture disfluency, etc. His arguments, especially the one where diverse domains of creative achievement can be arrayed as a hierarchy, are very interesting. When the hierarchy is extrapolated to include the domains beyond scientific domains, he uses a few subjects as examples to demonstrate his idea. When “obsolescence rate” is used as an indicator, the order of hierarchy is Psychology/Sociology> History > English. When “lecture disfluency” is used as an indicator, the order of hierarchy is changed to Psychology/Sociology < Political Science< Art History< English and so on. He jokes that the number of Shakespeare’s plays will not change after an English professor comes back from vacation.
I think Dr. Simonton has presented a convincing theory that meaningful commonalities can be found in a variety of creativities. His study examines eminent politicians, physicists, chemists, mathematicians, musicians, writers, psychologists, philosophers and other distinguished achievers in many areas. Although the samples he chooses seem to focus on those in the US and Europe, they provide scholars around the world with a new approach to examine creativity. Of course complications to his generalization leaves room for more research on the model. As globalization becomes a trend in many aspects of the world’s economy, and high tech provides scholars with new ways of communication, I sincerely hope more scholars will be inspired to conduct similar research with more inclusive samples, geographically, demographically, and culturally. Speaking as someone from a culture where English is not the native language, I know English is taught very differently from that in the US. English Literature for example, refers not only to Shakespeare, but also to contemporary and classical American literature, Canadian literature, and Australian literature as well. Under this circumstance, if a similar experiment is conducted, different interpretation might be generated regarding the field of English. In my opinion, the best way to verify and enrich Dr. Simonton’s hierarchical model is to promote collaborations among countries or continents. Even collaboration with Canada or Mexico, the closest neighbors of the US would add value to this hierarchy model.

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I found the discussion in the morning much more insightful then Dr. Simonton’s presentation at night. For me the categorization between hard and soft sciences and it’s expansion to other fields is not as interesting as his theory he touched on of Blind Variation, Selective Retention.

My personal interest in these sessions is to better understand what creativity is and how it can be fostered and improved on. So the concept of the BVSR provided valuable insight because of how someone could utilize blind variation. In one example Dr. Simonton talked about was of the chemist, Kekule, and how he creatively solved the benzene structure as being a circle. Using blind variation, and a good bit of luck, applying the outside knowledge of the Ouroboros, a snake biting his own tail, Kekule was able to apply, in an abstract manner, this idea that the benzene structure was a circle biting its own tail. This idea of stepping away from a problem and honing in the skill of BVSR can be utilized by someone trying to expand their creative thinking skills. It’s a concept that I believe accurately describes the process and fits with the definition of a creative solution which is something novel, has utility, and is not obvious. The question now becomes how can you cultivate this skill. Is this something that can be cultivated, or is it more of a talent that is discovered earlier in life? In the case of the Kekule example, it was a stroke of luck that he thought about a snake instead of an earthworm. So how does luck play into the creative process. If we expand on the idea that luck does not exist then maybe there is room for developing a skill set for the “Selective Retention” part of the theory by removing luck and replacing it with choice. There is room for application using BVSR that is worth looking into deeper as the course goes on.

Going back to the presentation of the Hierarchy, there was an interesting anomaly in the statistical analysis. There is a positive correlation between mental instability and the softer arts. There is also a positive correlation between a person in a harder science being better known and respected in his or her field to being perceived as more “normal” or more mentally stable. There is also a positive correlation between Nobel award winning hard scientists who indulge in softer arts. How are these award winning hard scientists more mentally stable if they are indulging in something that is mentally destabilizing? I think there is a balance between the hard and the soft that is not accounted for in the hierarchy. I agree with one of the commenters at the end of the presentation who said that there is a need for another dimension to the hierarchy. Just like in the example of the Engineering Designer, I too am in a field that doesn’t quite fit, Game Design. Being a game designer means creating and understanding very precise mathematical rule structures, but applying artistic design to think up and develop these systems of rules that are interesting for the end user. I’m not sure were to place this within the hierarchy, but I would be curious to know what statistical correlations are discovered in game designers and how it relates to the hard and soft areas of study.

There are many interesting concepts that Dr. Simonton presents and I look forward to answering some of the questions I’ve posed to myself in this post as the course progresses.

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There were several concepts presented by Dr. Simonton, both in the articles in and at our morning meeting, that I find applicable to my practice of creativity.

First, Dr. Simonton’s poses that a creative idea or concept must meet all three of the following criteria; original, novel or surprising, adaptive or functional, and the added 3rd criteria taken from the US patent office, that the idea must be a non-obvious extension. This definition refined my concept of what constitutes creativity.

Dr. Simonton explains that Blind Variation Selective Retention (BVSR), or divergent thinking, is a process that encourages variants unjustified, undirected, unguided, haphazard, unconstrained, random, or serendipitous ideas. He believes the creator must engage in a systematic process in which the outcome of any given trial is uncertain. As he stated in our morning meeting, “blindness is the key to creativity”, and at the night lecture “there will be lots of trips down blind alley” for the creative person. This part of the creative process encourages a “combinatorial process” that involves some degree of chance or unpredictability, and therefore in increased chance of an idea meeting his 3 criteria of creativity. For me, this concept was worth the price of the class. As a creator, I have struggled with the ‘American’ idea that time is money, and time spent on divergent paths is a waste of time. Now, it has been scientifically proven that time spent on ‘blind alleys’ lead to a better, more creative end product.

Dr. Simonton’s theory about creative hierarchy raised this question for me. If reducing restraints on creativity for those in hard sciences and creative endeavors improves their creative performance, does the opposite hold true for those on the ‘bottom’ of the hierarchy? Is it beneficial to those on the ‘lower’ end to constrain our creativity in some cases, and go ‘up’ the ladder, to create better structure for our ideas and concepts?

Last, Dr. Simonton’s points out that defocused attention, an individual’s inability to filter out extraneous information is one telling correlate to a person’s creativity. While this inability can be a handicap in everyday life, it can be a tangible asset in creativity. Noticing what others fail to notice provides the primary basis for serendipitous discoveries, and can stimulate associations that might not otherwise emerge, associations that then end in a creative synthesis. To this fact I say, finally!

While I did not agree with everything Dr. Simonton presented, I did learn several things that I will take with me into the creative problem finding I love so much.

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