Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Busting Myths about Creativity

In 1815, a German music journal published Mozart's description of his composing process: basically, when he was quiet and in a good mood, the music came to him complete so that the only thing left was to write it down. The letter was a contributor to the myth of human creativity - a brilliant flash of insight that strikes a bona fide genius.

The trouble is, the letter is fake. Original Mozart manuscripts show many false starts and crossings out - in fact his composition process was iterative. But this myth, and Archimedes' Eureka moment and countless others, are still cited, and they have supported the notion that creativity arises when a sudden flash of insight strikes an extraordinary genius.

Kevin Ashton is the author of How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention and Discovery where he debunks such myths about creativity. In a recent talk at Rotman, he argues that creation arises through a series of trials and errors, and we get to a solution through a long process of incremental steps, alternately refining the problem and the solution until a 'final' solution is reached, or at least until another problem emerges. In fact the word creativity wasn't even coined until 1926 by Alfred Whitehead. But recently, creativity has become a hot topic, as shown in this Google ngram:
(I describe Google ngrams in a previous post. Essentially, it's a measure of how often a particular word is mentioned in books.)

In Ashton's fascinating talk at the Rotman School of Management, he put humans' art of invention in a grand historic context, starting with the first human technology: the invention of the hand axe one and a half million years ago. We usually think of such inventions as the result of our increasing brain size. Humans' brain evolved to be larger as the amount of space in the skull devoted to jaws and teeth diminished. Without the hand axe, humans would have starved without those huge jaws and teeth. Ashton argues that we should think of the increasing brain being the result of our technology, which allowed us to survive with bigger brains and smaller jaws. Interesting twist.

I'm looking forward to reading Ashton's book, which I'm told is full of fascinating stories illustrating his thesis about creativity.

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