Are Immigrants More Creative?

A provocative claim: in any country, immigrants are statistically more likely to generate exceptionally creative works. There’s a long list of immigrant geniuses: Victor Hugo, W. H. Auden, Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolas Tesla, Marie Curie, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein. But single cases don’t make a scientific argument. Do we have any statistical data on this?

Eric Weiner gives us some numbers in today’s Wall Street Journal:

An awful lot of brilliant minds blossomed in alien soil. That is especially true of the U.S., where foreign-born residents account for only 13% of the population but hold nearly a third of all patents and a quarter of all Nobel Prizes awarded to Americans.

Those are some pretty convincing numbers, somewhere between a 12 and 20 percent increase in creativity among immigrants.

Creativity research has the explanation: Psychologists have shown that bigger creative insights result from distant associations–when your mind has many different types of knowledge, a diverse range of experiences. Associations between similar conceptual material also often lead to creative insights, but those are more likely to be ordinary, incremental, everyday sorts of creativity. It’s the distant associations that lead to radical, breakthrough innovation. Weiner makes a similar argument from recent research; studies show that “schema violations” result in greater “cognitive flexibility,” and that cognitive flexibility is linked to creativity.

Weiner says that it’s marginality  that results in greater creativity. I wouldn’t say it that way; you can be marginal to a culture and yet not be a part of your own separate culture. The silent introvert who lives in a shack up in the mountains is marginal, but that person doesn’t bring together distinct bodies of experiences and knowledge. In fact, we know that lone individuals are less  likely to be creative.

The lesson for everyone is: If you seek greater creativity, then go out and learn something new. Meet people very different from you. Travel to a really different place. Read magazines that you’ve never looked at before. Fill your mind with a broad range of really different stuff. You don’t have to be an immigrant; but we can learn from this example to help enhance our own creativity.

Vygotsky on Collective Creativity

I just read this English-language translation of an old Russian text by the psychologist Lev Vygotsky, and it surprisingly foreshadows contemporary scientific understandings of creativity and innovation:

Our everyday understanding of creativity does not fully conform to the scientific understanding of this word. According to everyday understanding, creativity is the realm of a few selected individuals, geniuses, talented people….we typically believe that such creativity is completely lacking in the life of the ordinary person. However, this view is incorrect. Creativity is present not only when great historical works are born, but also whenever a person imagines, combines, alters, and creates something new, no matter how small a drop in the bucket this new thing appears. When we consider the phenomenon of collective creativity, which combines all these drops of individual creativity that frequently are insignificant in themselves, we readily understand what an enormous percentage of what has been created by humanity is a product of the anonymous collective creative work of unknown inventors. The overwhelming majority of inventions were produced by unknown individuals.*

This is very similar to the findings I report in my 2007 book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, and also is captured right in the title of Peter Sims’ wonderful book Little Bets. I elaborate this scientific research at greater length in my 2012 book Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation.

*pp. 10-11 in: Lev Vygotsky, English translation published 2004 as “Imagination and creativity in childhood,” Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, Volume 42 Issue 1, pp. 7-97. From the original Russian text published in 1967: Voobrazhenie i tvorchestvo v detskom vozraste (Moscow: Prosveshchenie).

Thanks to Professor Susan Davis for sharing this manuscript with me!

The Myth of the Mentally Ill Creative

You may believe in some variant of this myth: Creative people are more likely to be mentally ill than non-creative people; artists and writers are more likely to be alcoholics, clinically depressed, or commit suicide.  Anyone can think of at least one famous artist or writer who committed suicide (Hemingway, Plath) or did some other crazy thing (Van Gogh cutting off his ear).

I call this a “myth” because there’s no solid scientific evidence for it.  And there’s a pretty large amount of scientific evidence that creativity is associated with positive moods, happiness, and healthy lives.  There’s also a large amount of evidence that creativity is based in ordinary cognitive processes, not in a distinct brain region; that means that there could be no brain mechanism through which mental illness could affect creativity distinctly.  In other words, creativity is intimately tied with normal brain functioning, so if creativity is impacted then so is everything else our brain does.

The myth originated in the Romantic era, as I describe in detail in my 2006 book Explaining Creativity.  It has received an aura of scientific respectability in recent years, with a few rather small studies gaining a lot of media attention.  (And some being expanded into book-length treatments.)  I’ve just read a journal article by Judith Schlesinger* questioning the methodologies and the media interpretations of the most-cited publications reporting links between creativity and mental illness: those by Andreasen, Ludwig, and Jamison.  The article is a little bit strident for an academic journal article; between the lines of academic prose I can sense a bit of frustration on Schlesinger’s part: “I can’t believe anyone takes this stuff seriously!” she seems to be thinking.  I was surprised not to see any citations to the creativity experts who have gone on record claiming there is no link between creativity and madness: Weisberg, the creative cognition scholars, myself, a special issue of the Creativity Research Journal (2000-2001 volume 13 issue 1) although Simonton gets a mention for his  work.

The good news is that there’s no evidence that mild levels of mood disorder interfere with creativity.  (Although there haven’t been very good studies done of this possibility.)  However, severe mental illnesses generally result in reduced creativity.

I hope you will comment on this post, but keep in mind that one example of a creative and mentally ill person does not constitute scientific proof of a causal link.  That’s because a statistical connection also has to consider all of the mentally ill people who are not creative, and all of the creative people who are not mentally ill.  The only way to evaluate the myth is with large datasets and rigorously gathered data and diagnosis of the participants in the study.  And no such study has demonstrated a firm correlation; much less, a causal link.

Kudos to Schlesinger for publishing an article that I’m sure will get her some challenging and maybe even angry emails from various people who are deeply committed to this myth.

*Schlesinger, Judith. 2009. Creative misconceptions: A closer look at the evidence for the “mad genius” hypothesis. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, Vol. 3, No. 2, 62-72.

Einstein’s genius

When I give lectures, whether to the general public or to a business audience, my take-home message is that creativity is always collaborative.  I make a strong claim: that no significant creation ever comes from an isolated, lone genius.  Instead, it always takes multiple contributions over time, and creators always work within collaborative webs.

This is hard for many people to accept, because we’ve all heard so many stories about the isolated lone genius.  So when I’m done with my talk, and ready to accept questions from the audience, I always get one question something like this: “What about (insert famous historical creator here)?  Didn’t he work completely alone?”  Now it’s impossible for me to know every biography of every inventor, but after doing this for many years my audience tends to bring up the same names.  One of the names that comes up frequently is Albert Einstein.  Many people learned that he did his Nobel-prize winning work while working full-time in a customs office.  His crazy hair and casual dress fit pretty well with our stereotype of the lone genius.

So I’m delighted to learn of a new book about Einstein, Einstein’s Mistakes, by Hans C. Ohanian, that makes it very clear that Einstein did not work alone.  Take the formula E=mc squared, which you can find on T-shirts underneath Einstein’s image.  It turns out that Einstein didn’t discover this equation; it was known for years before his 1905 paper.  But no one had worked out the math to prove that the equation was right; that’s what Einstein was trying to do in the paper.  But Einstein’s math skills weren’t so great, and he made several critical mistakes.  It wasn’t until 1911 that another physicist, Max von Laue, developed a full and correct proof.

This wasn’t an isolated story, either, according to Ohanian’s book: pretty much all of Einstein’s publications were incomplete and contained errors.  Other physicists, very few of them with such famous names, put it all together and made sure everything worked.

The point isn’t to tear down Einstein’s reputation; Ohanian still believes he deserves a lot of credit.  He often had the right instincts, even if other people had to come along later to prove he had been right.  But his instincts were often wrong, too–for example, his futile search for a unified field theory over the last decades of his life.

I like the E=mc squared story because it matches perfectly everything we know about how new ideas occur: although we tell ourselves a story of a great genius who sees it all in a blinding flash of insight, in fact the real story is always one of small contributions, over long periods of time, with different people making each small contribution.  Einstein didn’t come up with E=mc squared, and he didn’t even prove it was correct.  He played an important role in a collaborative web of multiple scientists working on the problem, and he deserves credit for that.  But that’s a lot less flashy than the myths we tell about the lone genius.