Tell me a bit about your favorite trips?
Forty minutes into the interview and Bill hadn't asked anything about my specific work. We touched tracker action pipe organs, color vision, and several topics I can't remember. Here was a famous Bell Labs director asking about trips.
Road trips.. I like road trips without a destination. I like taking the backroads, learning from breakdowns and generally getting lost. I love doing it slowly on a bike. Arriving is usually less interesting.
I had no idea what he'd think, but it was honest. He told me he only interviewed candidates who were considered capable of the work. His task was more difficult - building and encouraging an origination that could function creatively in the research environment. How do you find a group that sparks off each other and improve the chances of serendipity of the entire organization.
A madman can spew a random stream of novel words and phrases and most of the useful things and ideas in our lives are far from novel. Creativity is the combination - something novel and useful. It also has to be useful to society at the time - at least to be recognized as creative.
It is often assumed that creativity is part of intelligence or that the two are somehow part of something larger, but that doesn't hold up. Creative networks in the brain turn out to be different from those linked with intelligence. With intelligence is is all about more neurons and connectivity between them. Strong paths between regions of the brain. It is as if there is a network of superhighways that allow you to get from one part of the brain to another.
Creative networks are a different beast. They're backroads that wander all over sometimes taking seemingly random paths, stopping and starting. It is like going from the Autobahn to village pathways in pre-industrial times. These are very high friction paths and rapid information processing just doesn't happen. But something remarkable does. Ideas are linked together. It's as if less is better - in particular activity in the frontal lobes drops dramatically. Very creative people regular enter a state where activity in the frontal lobes drops for awhile - a self-induced transient hypofrontality.
I'm struck by the importance of random influences ... that's probably why Bill was probing for interests outside of math and physics. He had a reputation for putting together groups of people each with a diverse set of interests to increase the probability of chance interaction. Architecture plays an important role - the rabbit warren layout of Bell Labs at Murray Hill came close to that of MIT's legendary Building 20. Physicists would run into mechanical engineers, social scientists into mathematicians, computer scientists into artists and partnerships no one would have predicted emerged. Occasionally people would have difficulty describing what they were doing as they were in the process of doing something outside the regular boundaries of existing fields. Figuring out the social chemistry to make this happen is - well - non-trivial.1 Being part of a regulated monopoly is part of it success, but Bell Labs pulled off the creative part for about seven decades.
Some organizations, mine was one, wanted members to spend part of their time working in an entirely different discipline. Others were more focused. This extended to the cafeteria.. tables were somewhat fixed, but some people would float around connecting ideas. Of course much of it wasn't useful, but the practice and the careful bit of HR at hiring, led to a creative organization with about seven decades of greatness.
I'm struck by how new ideas seem to occur during down time after a period of very hard work. For me it can be during a walk, while sketching or in an exercise session - all times when my mind is completely unfocused. They seem to appear out of nowhere and seem completely obvious and trivial at the time. A fair number - certainly well over half - are complete garbage when you look deeper, but there have been a few real gems that I can't imagine where the link came from. The transient hypofrontality hypothesis seems correct.2
Creativity takes many forms across many fields, but being able to find downtime and play with ideas appears to be common. Boredom is emerging as important - particularly as a training ground for kids who develop the capacity for creative thinking. It's not that they're smart and things are easy, but rather that the conditions conditions creative processes to wander, link and leap through the brain. There is evidence developing tricks to deal with the boredom leads to techniques to trigger transient hypofrontal periods. Knowledge acquisition by itself by itself fails.. teaching kids to efficiently fill in the correct ovals with number two pencils may lead to great crank turning, but is counterproductive if creativity is a goal.
We're all getting older and around the age of forty demyelination takes place - the wiring in our brain slowly gets a bit frayed and leaky. The smooth superhighway structures no longer support fast and efficient movement. We still think, but calling up information or normal fast judgements require more time. But there may be a positive side if we take advantage of it. It appears our capacity for creating rich transient hypofrontality events increases. Combine this with the increasing evidence for neuroplasticity and perhaps we can make our older brains more powerful, more creative, with age.
I'm just skimming but again this is an area that one can talk about for days. I've spent more than a little time learning from neurologists and have been thinking more and more about the stability of creative organizations. But there appear to be some rules that are well grounded in science as well as some widely practiced folklore that is counterproductive (brainstorms sessions for example). Here are some well-known approaches (you need all of them)
° Work intensely and practice, practice, practice in the field(s) you're interested in. You're building neural connections that make thinking easier courtesy of neural plasticity. You're also given your mind difficult problems that it can't solve using the superhighway approach.
° playfulness with downtime to provide opportunities for hypofrontal events. Learn what works for you. Yoga, long showers, long walks looking at nature (a favorite of Beethoven), playing a musical instrument (Einstein's path), whatever works.. The point is your mind can't be occupied with what you've been working on.
° have lots of random interactions with people and ideas...
° keep at it. creative people put out a huge number of ideas. many are stinkers, but that doesn't matter.
Again this is just a very high level introduction - I know some of you have been doing this for decades. I've seen it in so many areas - recently I had a great discussion with some athletic coaches about it in sport. It can and does appear in the most unexpected places. It certainly isn't necessary for a good and happy life, but it can be learned and encouraged.
1 I strongly recommend Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace describing the process of building and encouraging a creative organization at Pixar. It's style isn't standard, but I don't know of a better description of the process.
2 It is still a research hypothesis, but it is holding up well so far as the science progresses and some of the competing explanations have fallen to the wayside.
I'm a huge fan of okra .. roasted or fried mostly..
Okra Stir Fry
° 1 tbl vegetable oil
° 2 cups chopped okra
° 1 medium onion finely sliced
° 1/2 tsp turmeric
° 1 green chili finely chopped
° sea salt to taste
° red chili powder (if you like)
° take the oil to medium heat in a pan
° cook the green chili for a couple of minutes
° add the onion, cut the heat a bit and cook until transparent
° add the okra and turmeric - cook over medium low uncovered for about a half hour stirring a couple of times
° salt to taste and pull from the heat
° add chili powder if you like (I do) .. I also added a bit of garam masala last time which was great