Monday, April 27, 2015

We all have creative minds

I have been reading a thought-provoking new book by Kevin Ashton called "How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention and Discovery".
Ashton, something of an inventor and scientific pioneer himself, begins his introduction by quoting from a famous and oft-quoted letter by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a bright young man usually considered a genius in his field. The letter explains how he, Mozart, envisions his music fully formed in his head, merely requiring the quick and simple task of writing it all down on paper. This is the classic image of a creative genius at work: a special person with a natural gift verging on magic.
Aston, however, then explodes the myth by pointing out that the letter, despite its strong currency among many illustrious commentators both new and old, was actually a 19th Century forgery, and that Mozart's actual letters to family and friends describe the long and painstaking process of sketch and elaboration, error and correction and revision, that represents the reality of his creative process.
This, then, is the main thrust of Ashton's contention: despite the myth of the individual genius established during the flowering of the Renaissance and honed over the centuries ever since, inventions and discoveries actually require long hours of hard work, building on the work of those gone before. Furthermore, great innovations do not come fully formed in a blinding flash of inspiration, but are composed of many smaller steps. As Ashton phrases it: "All great discoveries, even ones that look like transforming leaps, are short hops".
Even more importantly, in Ashton's view, the act of creation requires no special mental processes, and no superior type of brain: in theory, any or all of us are capable of the kinds of extraordinary achievements we normally associate with individuals of genius. He points out that there is no essential difference between the brains of modern humans and those of the homo sapiens of 200 million years ago, even though the first 150 million years resulted in almost no technological advance whatsoever. Likewise, in the light of 20th Century neurology, we now know that there is no essential difference between the brain processes involved in creativity and our normal everyday thought processes. Again in Ashton's words, "Put simply, we all have creative minds".
Most of the rest of the book is an examination - through analyses of well-known and not-so-well-known cases, and other scientific studies - of the idea that genius does not predict, and is not a prerequisite for, creativity, and that extraordinary outcomes may result from very ordinary acts.
Along the way, Ashton debunks many persistent myths about the creative process, including the so-called "aha!" moments of Archimedes, Coleridge, Kekulé, Einstein and others; the claimed efficacy of incubation; the spurious superiority of brainstorming over individual efforts; etc. He looks at creations and innovations as diverse as the Wright brothers' airplane (the "flying horse" of the title), the development of fighter jets during World War II, Kandinsky's ground-breaking paintings, the iPhone, the discovery of the structure of DNA, William Cartright's automatic loom, the development of Coca-Cola, and many more.
Part of the point of Ashton's approach is to demonstrate to what extent important innovations are the result of hard work, dedication, collaboration and "standing on the shoulders of giants", rather than the virtuoso solo effort of an individual of genius.
He also goes off on various peripherally-relevant tangents, including the discrimination against women in science and education, the so-called "Matthew effect" (whereby the well-known tend to receive a disproportionate amount of credit at the expense of the lesser-known), writer's block, the "marshmallow challenge" (in which kindergartners tend to out-perform adults and professionals), opposition to innovation by the Luddites, the Amish, etc. Most of these are interesting enough digressions in their own right, even if they are arguably just padding for the (rather slim) main argument.
While in the main an interesting read, I found myself becoming somewhat irked from time to time by Ashton's belabouring of some of his points. He has a tendency to repeat something in five different ways without really adding much in the process. An interesting point made in a short pithy sentence might be followed by essentially the same sentiment using different words. And then another. Much as I have just (deliberately) done here. This suggests to me that perhaps the material would actually have been appropriate to a much shorter book.

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