Neuroscientist David Eagleman and composer Anthony Brandt offer a primer on the intersection of culture and creation and of novelty and predictability in pursuit of a unified theory of creation.
Humans are uniquely creative because the brain is hardwired for ingenuity, and geared for breaking down problems and for answering “what if” questions. Neuroscientist David Eagleman – who also wrote Livewired; The Brain; and Incognito – and composer Anthony Brandt explore the powerful techniques that creators use, almost without conscious thought, to “bend, break and blend” ideas to make something new. Eagleman and Brandt describe processes that generate invention. They provide inspiring historical examples and sound advice for organizations seeking to unleash creative talent.
Eagleman and Brandt tell how, in the early 20th century, artist Pablo Picasso used what little money he had to buy a canvas and begin a painting of five prostitutes. As Picasso worked, his painting became increasingly less realistic. Over time, the painting became more famous and influential.
Picasso’s painting undercut Western notions of beauty, decorum and verisimilitude all at once. ‘Les Demoiselles’ came to represent one of the fiercest blows ever delivered to artistic tradition.David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt
Animals explore, but humans dominate the world. Bees have neurons, but don’t think creatively. They act and react based on hardwired neural mechanisms that generate instinctual behaviors. Bee brains have about a million neurons; human brains have 100 billion. These give humans flexibility in their responses to stimuli; the authors insist that flexibility forms the basis of human creativity.
With exposure, what was once avant-garde becomes routine. This happens with companies and with art. Humans adapt quickly to changing conditions due to “repetition suppression”: When you grow accustomed to a stimulus, you react to it less and your brain spends less energy evaluating it.
Too much repetition makes humans lose interest. Too much surprise disorients them. Eagleman and Brandt make a telling point when they say that creativity thrives in the tension between the two.
Creators tend to find each other. The authors regard the tragically isolated artist as a myth, as they do the isolated scientist. The social component distinguishes humans from computers, Eagleman and Brandt insist, which is why computers won’t be directing films or writing novels anytime soon.
“Bending, Breaking and Blending”
When Steve Jobs introduced the Apple iPhone in 2007, it arrived like a thunderclap of novelty because it placed several gadgets and services in one device. Jobs said, “Creativity is just connecting things.”
Creative minds use “bending, breaking and blending” to mine new ideas. The brain mixes, matches and smashes up experience to create new versions of reality.
When “bending,” the human mind takes a prototype and plays with its size, materials, speed and other characteristics. In his Guernica depicting war, Picasso used “breaking” visually. The authors refer to the poet e e cummings as one who broke syntax and even words over different lines.
Brains like compression: We’re good at breaking things down, keeping the best bits, and still understanding the point.David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt
Many mythical creatures result from “blending.” Mermaids, for example, merge fish and women; the Minotaur merges man and bull.
No creation is guaranteed an audience. Ideas and innovations must resonate for success. Moving too slowly is risky, because the public might progress without you.
Sometimes the public is ripe for disruption, as when silent movies became talkies or mainframe computers mutated into desktops. Sometimes it’s not, which is why the calendar Pope Gregory created in 1582 remains the standard today. Changing to something new, however more sensible, is too much trouble.
Near – and Far-Term Solutions
Bees split their hives in two, and one-half of the population scouts for nectar in advance, flying different distances in different directions for new fields.
As Einstein developed his revolutionary scientific theories, he also tinkered with designs for a refrigerator, a camera and waterproof clothing. Many of Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions resembled science fiction and many were practical. Eagleman and Brandt cite da Vinci’s system of canal management to prevent flooding at Milan’s locks, a design that still functions worldwide today.
Human culture is forever a work in progress.David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt
Building only on what’s preceded you won’t fuel many creative breakthroughs. Imagining only futuristic solutions may doom your ideas because they aren’t realistic enough to execute.
Greyhound Bus Lines commissioned Raymond Loewy, an industrial designer, to imagine the bus of the future. He conceived a bus that could accommodate families and featured an upper deck with panoramic windows. Greyhound could not have produced his design in 1942. But, after World War II, Greyhound built prototypes and introduced the Scenicruiser in 1954. By designing for a prosperous future, Eagleman and Brandt emphasize, Greyhound was ready when that future arrived.
Proliferating and testing ideas is a necessary step, even though most new concepts won’t work. Stay flexible and build a “culture of change,” whether that means redesigning your office space or changing up your business model, as Apple did when it leaped into music with the iPod and then iTunes. Prepare for disruption. Things change rapidly and so does the public’s taste. Google, for example, invests its resources in a 70/20/10 ratio: 70% to existing business, 20% to developing new ideas, and 10% to “moonshots.”
Disruption of the status quo is the essence of creativity. To meet the future at the border between what is and what’s possible, cultivate creativity.
Neuroscientist David Eagleman and composer Anthony Brandt could be said to view the world from opposite perspectives: One lives in data and the other in creative consciousness. But their beguiling, readable overview of the cultural and neurological roots of creativity dissolves such boundaries and identities. Eagleman and Brandt embrace the glorious contradictions inherent in the brain. While their attempts to explain creativity bog down – as do other authors’ – their framing, contextualizing and deconstructing of how creativity occurs prove fascinating and paradigm-shifting. Eagleman is an experienced author; Brandt a first-timer. You can feel this mixture of a seasoned pro and giddy newcomer in their prose, which moves rapidly and keeps the reader engaged.