Thursday 1 January 2015

Heave half a brick at Creativity

It is wry comment from a bygone age, but in Britain the mentality of parochial dislike of newcomers was parodied as: “There’s a stranger: heave half a brick at him”.

Having decided to start the year on a bright and positive note, with a focus on that most positive of human characteristics, Creativity, why should I ask you to heave half a brick at anything? By way of explanation, the Sixties mixed profound social change with profound silliness. Creativity research centred on a particular test, in which people were invited to think of as many uses of a brick as possible. I can remember taking the test in my undergraduate years, and finding it fun for a few minutes. Dull people, it was argued, would suggest building a house; creative people would think of a brick as a one-time-use TV channel changer.

Dull as creativity researchers were, they eventually realised that asking people to list many uses for a brick encouraged fatuity, so they began to rate the entries for “creativity” (circular, but the beginning of wisdom) or they at least provided figures for the common and uncommon types of response. Notice what they did not do: they did not create a test which gave a set of problems for which creative solutions were required. For example, a yoghurt factory produces different flavours in large batches one flavour at a time (and cleans the machinery before each new batch) and keeps the different-flavoured yoghurts in a cold store from which they are send to supermarkets. They want to build a larger cold store so that they can respond more quickly to requests for different flavours. Is there a creative solution to this problem? A pot of yoghurt is offered as a prize.

Here is another creative problem, with thanks to the late Richard Feynman. He landed at the airport one Saturday, a day late for a Physics conference, and realised that he did not know whether it was being held at the University of North Carolina or the University South Carolina. This was not a trivial problem, because they are 60 miles apart. This was the age before mobile phones, and he did not have the home phone of his secretary and all the colleagues he might have phoned were already at the conference. Is there a creative way of solving this problem, and quickly? A string of sub-atomic particles is offered as a prize.

It was with an air of truculent scepticism that I attended the ISIR symposium on Intelligence and Creativity, with my very own brick ready as a projectile protest, but it remained firmly in my pocket, because the speakers were, in fact, creative. Paul Silvia ( pointed out that the “uses of a brick” test made the procedural error of asking for “as many ideas as possible” rather than stating the real aim: “be creative”. Poor instructions have led to misleading data. He outlined better scoring methods for tests of creativity and “divergent thinking” which show strong effect sizes for executive and strategic components in creative thought . He also provided the TV channel changer example, worth a prize in anyone’s value system.

Harrison Kell ( and colleagues presented work on the creative accomplishments of bright children identified at age 13.  They say:

The debate about the relationship between intelligence and creativity, especially when intelligence is assessed via standardized tests, is long-standing. To begin, data showing that creative accomplishment increases along with intelligence is reviewed. Next, the extraordinary achievements of 320 members of the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) in the top 1 in 10,000 in mathematical or verbal reasoning abilities are detailed. These individuals were identified prior to age 13 using a standardized test and tracked for over three decades. Finally, the creative accomplishments of 271 individuals from Duke University’s Talent Identification Program (TIP) scoring in the top 1 in 10,000 are presented. These participants were also identified before age 13 using standardized tests and tracked for over 30 years. The magnitude of the SMPY cohort’s creative accomplishments were closely replicated in the TIP cohort, including: over 5% tenured at research-intensive universities, over 8% holding patents, and over 2% being authors of fiction or non-fiction books. The ability patterns underlying the nature of the creative accomplishments among SMPY participants were also replicated in the TIP sample: Individuals whose verbal ability was relatively greater than their quantitative ability tended to produce creative works in the arts and humanities, while individuals whose quantitative ability was relatively greater than their verbal ability tended to produce creative works in STEM. This replication confirms the consistent role of ability pattern and relative ability strength in shaping differential development across the full range of cognitive ability, extending earlier conclusions about those in the top 1% of ability to those in the top .01%. Replication of findings across two profoundly gifted samples further demonstrates that 1) exceptional creative accomplishment covaries with exceptional intelligence, 2) this phenomenon is robust, and 3) individuals with great creative potential can be identified early in life using standardized tests.

This work is highly persuasive because the predictive measures are taken at age 13 and the accomplishments measured in adulthood, using measures which are as objective as possible, given the somewhat airy-fairy way in which creativity is conceptualised. Testing the findings on another rare sample is an added bonus. The moral of this research is: if you want creativity, find someone who scores well on verbal or mathematical tests.

Finally, to show that talks about creativity can be creative, Rex Jung did an entertaining tour de force of the reasons that creativity might exist at all. What evolutionary pressures may have selected for creative cognition, in contrast to other types of reasoning? He argues that intelligence itself is clearly important to human survival, but then goes on to ask whether creativity is important to human survival. He distinguishes, pace Tooby and Cosmides, between special purpose cognitive systems which facilitate rapid and accurate reasoning, though narrow in application; and situation specific improvisation, which facilitates novel and useful reasoning, which is broad in application, though it may take longer to come up with solutions.

Based on studies of brain connectivity, Jung proposes another interesting way of looking at thinking, which is to distinguish between the internal and social brain networks. The internal thinking network is based on general problem solving, and involves metaphor and “as if” thinking. The social thinking network is based on specific problem solving, is rule based, and focuses on the real external world.

Here is a snapshot of his distinction between creativity and intelligence.



This brief account cannot do justice to his presentation, which reported currently unpublished findings, but here is the link to Jung’s “Here be Dragons” paper, which gives almost all of the key points:

Finally, to test the creative abilities of the presenters I confronted two of them and demanded they tell me what was the most creative idea humankind had ever come up with. One ventured “the theory of evolution” but I dismissed it as not being a theory but merely a set of observations. The other ventured “Human Rights” but I dismissed this as being no more than Thomas Paine showing off at dinner parties, and without any objective foundation other than wishful thinking. I then gave them my candidate: the theory of relativity. My first interlocutor retorted that the theory was without practical consequences, but I think I was able to talk him out of it. However, it was clear that while Darwin built up his theory by systematising observations drawn from an international network of colleagues, Einstein just sat there conducting personal thought experiments: a clear distinction between internal and social brain networks (or working preferences at the very least).

What is your candidate idea?


  1. "My first interlocutor retorted that the theory was without practical consequences": either you are being creative here, or he was being profoundly stupid.

    Anyway, which of the two Relativities do you have in mind?

  2. Replies
    1. I've seen the case made that when you allow for the work of Poincare and Lorentz (and perhaps others) it wasn't all that big a creative step. I've never seen a like case made about General. But I dunno. As for fire: it occurred to me - but do you want to include stumbling over a use for an existing thing? How about (i) farming, and (ii) metallurgy - say bronze-making. Or even the move from logs and rafts to proper boats.

    2. Yes "stumbling" is the benchmark for common or garden noticing, which can then be shaped up by incremental improvements. In that sense an observed fire leads to noticing how fire makes food more digestible, and changes the physical properties of inert matter next to the fire. Making fire is a harder step. Equally, following a wolf to find something to kill could eventually lead to the domestication of dogs, and gathering seeds the beginning of agriculture. Perhaps the actual steps are so gradual that there is rarely a Big Idea, just a wave of incremental gains on all fronts.

  3. My interlocutor, he of the theory of evolution, reminds me that his first proposal was "fire", which I had forgotten. Perhaps the whole question revolves on the moving target of what constitutes more than an obvious observation

  4. I'd vote for either the doctrine of original sin, or the concept of currency.

  5. I don't think the theory of relativity is up there with the most creative accomplishments - it shows mathematical genius, but it doesn't lend itself to very many further accomplishments, and it's aesthetically rather bland. Some candidates my wife and I came up with:

    1. Writing (or if you prefer, language itself)

    2. Calculus of Infinitesimals

    3. Polyphony

    4. Principle of Noncontradiction

    5. God

    6. Spirit Realms or other worlds

    7. The Computer

    I think writing must be the most creative accomplishment. It wouldn't be an easy idea for anyone to come up with who had never seen it before; it has an artistic element in the formation of the letters; and it allows for the encoding of ideas into a semi-permanent physical form. The calculus of infinitesimals opens up whole worlds of science and mathematics, but it lacks any aesthetic fluorish. Polyphony allows for very moving music, but little else. The principle of noncontradiction, is, on reflection, rather obvious, and like much of philosophy it seems to hold great potential which hasn't quite been realized. God has many far-reaching consequences, but isn't terribly difficult to imagine. Spirit realms are extremely engaging on emotional and imaginative levels, but lead into schizotypal fantasy rather than any useful. The idea of logical machines has fluorished in our information age, but like calculus, lacks any innate artistry and is, if anything aesthetically barren.

    So, I propose that the idea of writing is the most creative idea humans have ever come up with.

    1. An appealing proposal to make to a blogger. Tempted to give you pole position, but am fighting against my natural bias.

  6. My all-time favorites are the wheel and the zero.

    Also deeply impressive:
    - the clock (navigation)
    - the light bulb
    - using radio waves for communication.
    - the Von Neumann computer

    and although fairly recent, we should not forget:
    - the touch screen interface

    1. All good suggestions. David Landes, excellent on the impact of clocks, also rated looking glasses very highly. They extended the practical working lives of the most educated workers, to great economic effect.

  7. "What is your candidate idea?" Must it be an "idea" rather than a "thing"?

    Anyway, what about monotheism?

  8. Must be an idea. Things are for artisans. Monotheism is just religious imperialism applied to smaller local deities. Tesco, rather than local shops. On the latter point, I am all in favour.

  9. "Must be an idea. Things are for artisans." Ha, Greek Thompson!

  10. As to the physics conference, pre-internet and pre-cellphone. First, I must observe that each university has an airport nearby. The first solution would be to ask the taxi drivers. Have there been an unusual number of physics-type people heading to the university? If the taxi drivers have not noticed such an influx, the conference would be out-of-state, and thus the physics people would have rented cars to reach the destination, assuming their travel agents hadn't arranged their travel to take them to the nearest airport.

    The second solution would be to ask the rental car agencies. At some point in the past, I recall renting a car and being asked if I planned to drive the car out of state. If I were renting a car in South Carolina, to attend a conference in North Carolina, at that time I'd have needed to state that I'd take the car out of state. If the conference were in South Carolina, I wouldn't have needed to make that declaration.

    So, my solution would be to chat up taxi drivers and/or rental car desk personnel.

    A more complicated question would have been, _which_ campus? It seems each university has several campuses.

  11. Dear East Coast. My example was from memory, and I probably should have said "which campus" rather than which university. Feynman went directly to the taxi rank and asked whether they had seen some funny guys the day before, wearing sandals and talking about moo-on and things like that. The taxi drivers certainly remembered, and took him to the correct campus. Car hire? What sort of physicists did you have in mind? Thank you for your quick solution.

  12. Feynman's hypothetical could have entailed a 40 mile taxi ride. After a certain distance, renting a car makes financial sense. A sensible person would have arranged to arrive at the closest airport, but sadly US airlines don't work that way. The least expensive direct flight rarely lands at a convenient airport.

    In a modern context, I would likely describe them as people wearing t-shirts with obscure physics jokes. Doctor Who or Monty Python might adorn the shirts.

    I don't see proposing an answer to the problem as an exercise in creativity, though. I'd dub it common sense. Attempts to gauge creativity through the quantity of novel uses for everyday objects seem to me to be a good way to come up with something to measure--but are the experimenters measuring creativity? Such a system would prioritize verbal skills, and a knowledge of social expectations.

    I've come to realize my children hang out with creative types, and those friends who strike me as most creative--producing new content, new things, and new ways of approaching problems--are the least likely to sit tamely in with a researcher listing ways to use a brick. They are likely to dive deeply into areas which interest them, learning as much as possible about narrowly defined fields. They might amuse themselves finding ways to meet the official guidelines while utterly failing to produce useful data.

    They are unlikely to have participated in the Duke talent search program. They aren't that compliant.

  13. Fluid intelligence should be more related to creativity than crystalized intelligence.

    As we know, fluid intelligence is related to novel problem solving ability.