The Creative Architect Study

In 1949, the psychologist Donald MacKinnon started a research center at UC Berkeley called “The Institute for Personality Assessment and Research (IPAR).” During World War II, Dr. MacKinnon had developed personality and ability tests for the U.S. military. The purpose of the IPAR was to extend this research into civilian life. One of its priorities was to scientifically determine the traits of the creative personality.

Their most important research study was an analysis of creative architects. Forty of the top architects in the U.S. flew to Berkeley and lived together in an old fraternity house for a weekend. Psychologists gave them a battery of tests, and observed them while they had dinner, lunch, and cocktails. The most famous architects agreed to participate, including Louis Kahn, Philip Johnson, I. M. Pei, Richard Neutra, and Eero Saarinen. It’s a legendary story among creativity researchers. And now, there’s a new book that tells the story: The Creative Architect (by Pierluigi Serraino, and reviewed in the Wall Street Journal here).

Unfortunately, the study didn’t result in any strong or surprising findings–other than observing that the architects didn’t fit the stereotype of a creative person. The study found no evidence that creative people fit the widespread image of “an eccentric not only in thinking but in appearance, dress, and behavior; a Bohemian, an egghead, a longhair…a true neurotic, withdrawn from society, inept in his relations with others” (MacKinnon, 1962/1978, p. 178). The architects seemed to be pretty normal and successful professionals.

What’s more, they had remarkably ordinary childhoods: When they recalled their childhoods, they described the classic upper-middle-class, educated, American lifestyle: fathers were effective in their demanding careers, mothers were autonomous and often had their own careers, religion was important but not central or doctrinaire, families emphasized the development of a personal code of ethics, parents were not overly judgmental but encouraged the child’s ideas and expressions, and the family moved frequently (paraphrasing from MacKinnon’s book).

I recommend reading the WSJ review, and getting the book!

McKinnon, D. W. (1962/1978). In search of human effectiveness. Buffalo, NY: Creative Education Foundation.

Creativity is not Localized in the Brain

If you’ve read the chapter on brain imaging in my book Explaining Creativity, you’ll know that the technology has limitations. Specifically: There’s no way to use this research to claim that creativity is located in a particular part of the brain. To their credit, the researchers who do this work would never say that. However, the media tend to hear about these cautious and limited findings, and publish articles with titles like “Now we know where creativity is!”

A new article in The Economist describes these limitations:

The technology has its critics. Many worry that dramatic conclusions are being drawn from small samples (the faff involved in fMRI makes large studies hard). Others fret about over-interpreting the tiny changes the technique picks up. A deliberately provocative paper published in 2009, for example, found apparent activity in the brain of a dead salmon.

The Economist article is about a new study that identifies a serious problem with fMRI methodology. The new study’s findings suggest that the statistics programs that interpret the fMRI results are “seriously flawed.” (And there’s a lot of statistics involved; take a look at my chapter for a quick summary.) The researchers used these fMRI algorithms to compare 499 subjects who were lying in the scanner while not thinking about anything in particular. With the standard fMRI statistical software, they divided this subject pool in half in 3 million different ways, and did comparisons each time. There shouldn’t have been any findings at all. But in fact, 70 percent of the 3 million comparisons resulted in false positives. That means, in 70 percent of these comparisons, there was a statistically significant finding of elevated brain activity, in half of the 499 subjects, in some part of the brain.

Because this study was just published, we can’t yet be sure what it really means. But my advice is: Be skeptical if you read an article claiming that creativity is located in a particular brain region. Creativity is a function of the entire brain, working together.

Magic Carpet Ride: How Music Gets Created

Here’s a story of the unpredictable, improvisational process of creativity. It’s the story of how the 1968 hit song “Magic Carpet Ride” was created by the band Steppenwolf.

Maybe the process works this way: A songwriter writes a song, usually alone, and then gathers the band together to perform the song. If that’s what happens, then musical creativity is a solitary act. But that’s not how most songs are created. They emerge from collaboration, with unpredictable twists and turns.

Here’s the creative process behind “Magic Carpet Ride,” according to two of the musicians who played on the recording:

  1. A guitarist named Mars Bonfire (not his birth name!), who was not in the band, visited the studio and was playing a new song he’d written.
  2. At some point, the bass player, Rushton Moreve, starting playing a bouncy riff that he always played on sound checks on the band’s first tour, but which had never been part of any song.
  3. Mars liked the bass line, and started playing some chords with it. Not related to his original song; they were just playing around and having fun.
  4. The recording engineers in the sound booth loved it. They said “Hey, keep doing that. That’s really good.”
  5. Then, the whole band joined in. But all they had was that one-measure bass riff. What else could they add?
  6. Mars improvised some chords and suggested they could be an instrumental interlude. (Later, singer John Kay would write lyrics for this interlude that made it into the final song: “Close your eyes girl/look inside girl/let the sound take you away”)
  7. The lead guitarist, Michael Monarch, loved thick distorted guitar sounds. John asked Michael to do some loud feedback through his amp, and then John improvised matching lines in the high register. They improvised the same few bars twice.
  8. The recording engineers had actually hit the “record” button, even though John and Michael were just playing around. For the final recording, the engineers edited together pieces of the two different takes, to make it sound better.
  9. Everyone loved the track they’d recorded, but they still needed lyrics. John took home a cassette and played it in his home stereo, trying to think of lyrics that worked. He’d just bought a new stereo and it was high-end, the best available. John started singing lyrics about how awesome his stereo sounded: “right between my sound machine/On a cloud of sound” and then the rest of the lyrics were improvised after that.

Anyway…by now you’ve probably stopped reading. But at least, you can see the long and unpredictable creative process. This is how music is created, the music that we hear and love. It doesn’t come from the mind of an inspired, or tortured, songwriter–it emerges from a collaborative process.

  • This story is taken from Marc Myers in the Wall Street Journal, Friday July 15, 2016, page D6.
  • You might also want to read John Seabrook’s book The Song Machine about today’s pop music hits.

Sawyer keynote at IDEAS conference in Calgary, Canada

I just delivered the keynote address “Educating for Innovation” at this big event in Calgary, with teachers, school leaders, education professors, and policy types:

2016 Calgary photo

After the keynote, I did a breakout session where I shared my research on how art school professors teach. Then, I asked the audience to work in small groups to apply these practices to their own teaching in math and science. They all had great ideas about how to teach for creativity! The lessons from art and design pedagogy are really powerful.

Be More Creative Every Day

Tips for creativity from entrepreneurs:

  • Practice doing something risky every day
  • Get to know travelers, people who like unusual music, people who play charades
  • Talk with children and try to answer the offbeat questions they ask
  • Try a new boardgame with your family
  • Make a holiday meal with your family, with each person preparing a different dish
  • Pretend to be a stranger in your own town
  • Break at least one rule every day

*Stephen R. C. Hicks, “What entrepreneurs can teach us all about life,” WSJ, May 6, 2016, p. R6.

Zigzag Inventions

Amanda Foreman, in the Wall Street Journal, describes a list of inventions that followed a zigzagging path:

In 1875, Thomas Edison invented the electric pen. It was a motorized stylus that worked like a stencil: it could punch words through a stack of up to 100 pages. This was supposed to replace copying, which back then was really time consuming. Edison said “There is more money in this than telegraphy.” But users hated it; it was almost impossible to use.

The zigzag: In the 1890s, tattoo artists started using the pen technology for the first electric tattoo needle.

In 1860, the first mechanical carpet brush was invented. But it was horrible; it just threw dust and dirt up into the air. In 1898, John Thurman of St. Louis invented a gas-powered carpet cleaner with a canvas bag, designed to catch the dust as it was thrown up into the air. This idea turned out to be even worse; huge clouds of dust filled the room.

Hubert Cecil Booth learned about Thurman’s invention, and had the idea of turning it into a sucking mechanism instead of a blowing mechanism. This was the first vacuum cleaner.

And check out this zigzag: Thurman’s gas-powered blower became the technology behind the leaf blower.

It’s the path to all great inventions: The zigzag that transforms the original idea into something completely different.

The Brick Test: The Most Unusual Use EVER

One of the oldest tests for creativity is the “brick test.” It originated in the 1950s, and it’s pretty simple: Take five minutes, and write down as many uses as you can think of for a brick. It’s called a divergent thinking  test, which means it measures your ability to generate lots of ideas. And, you get extra points if your list has brick uses that most other people don’t think of. These are called unusual uses.

My wife and I had an interesting experience with bricks recently, and it confirms a central finding of creativity research: The more knowledgeable you are about something, the more likely you are to be creative with it. Even bricks.

Here’s how it happened. For some reason, the house we’re renting has a big stack of red bricks in the back.

WP_20160131_001After a few months, my wife and I started thinking of ways use the bricks. The first was when my wife volunteered to organize the annual Halloween dance at my 11-year-old son’s school. To decorate the school gymnasium, she bought some large inflatable witches and scary monsters. They were over ten feet high. But they’re light and unstable, and they fall over really easily (especially with kids dancing around). The solution? Bricks to weigh them down. But, young children could bump their toes on a brick and get hurt. So, wrap each brick in bubble wrap.

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Here’s another use. We had an ice storm recently, so we got our generator ready just in case we lost power. To make sure all of the fuel would flow into the engine, we need to tilt the generator. A red brick is just what we needed: WP_20160131_003

 

 

 

 

A third use: At Christmas, my wife arranges a display of Christmas village buildings. She wanted the houses in the back of the display to be elevated. Bricks work great:

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I saved for last the most unusual use EVER for a brick. Drum roll please! I recently started repairing accordions. One of the first tools you need is a test bellows. You find an old accordion bellows, put boards to seal up both ends, and drill a tiny hole in the middle. You use this to direct air at one selected note in a reed block. To make the bellows work, I needed something really heavy inside, to hold down the bottom board. Here’s mine, with a red brick inside. (It’s so unusual it probably doesn’t make sense unless you repair accordions). Here it is:

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Here are a few more uses. I’m sure we’ll think of more soon. “Necessity is the mother of invention”–necessity, plus a pile of bricks.

 

 

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