What is scientific creativity—and how do you feed it? (Part I)

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Last winter, on a speaking trip to Norrköping, someone asked me to write about skills (and meta-skills) that scientists and PhD students need, beyond writing papers. Turns out that this is a lot more difficult than writing about writing, where the end product—a scientific paper—is something tangible and amenable to analysis: how do great introductions look like? How do the greatest writers finish their papers? It is much more difficult to write, say, about learning to be creative, which is what I shall try to do here. But what would be more important for aspiring scientists than creativity?

Science is all about creativity: coming up with the right questions, developing clever methods to answer those questions, and connecting the answers in imaginative ways to learn something greater. But we rarely talk about creativity as a skill—often, people view it as something that you either have or don’t have, just like an ear for music or an eye for design. And just like with music and design, this view is wrong: everything can be learned. So how do you learn to be creative?

Before attempting to answer this question, let’s take the bull by the horns and ask what creativity is. If by creativity we mean the ability to bring forth ideas that are entirely new, we are immediately hit by a very difficult, philosophical question: where do new ideas come from? At least to us (recovering ex-) physicists, the emergence of something that wasn’t there before is kind of strange: aren’t there conservation laws that forbid this kind of travesty from happening? What is it that gives birth to new information (because that is what happens when a new idea emerges, whether it is a question or an answer)?

If physics doesn’t provide us with answers, let’s drop it for a while and put on the hat of a biologist: in the realm of living things, don’t new things gradually emerge, driven by the slow Darwinian evolution? Notice the word “gradually”—biological evolution is slow tinkering, a process where existing forms and shapes and organs are gradually transformed into something new, of dinosaurs developing feathers that eventually help some of them to learn to fly, of finches’ beak shapes adapting to their habitats. So in biological evolution, everything that is “new” is built on top of a lot of something old, and this happens slowly: a slow expansion into the adjacent possible, if you’ve read your Kauffman.

Are there some other natural processes where new forms emerge more rapidly? The human immune system provides a great example. Somewhat surprisingly, not all our cells carry the same sets of genes: the T and B cells of our immune system, our ultimate smart weapons against viruses and other invaders, display an enormous diversity of different receptors that recognise those invaders. This diversity results from those cells carrying some randomised (but not too randomised) parts of our genome. The precursor cells that eventually become T and B cells have strings of different modules in their genetic code, and in the process of randomisation, some of those modules are randomly picked and joined together (the rest are discarded). Then, a bit of extra randomness (extra letters, deleted letters, and so on) is added to their junction. So to arrive at new kinds of receptors, our bodies randomly merge things that are known to work (those receptor modules) and then add some noise on top. Again, “new” equals “old, but with added something.”

Let’s now return back to creativity, in the context of science or otherwise. The above examples point out that the old rhyme—“something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue”—is scientifically highly accurate, except for the blue bit perhaps. In other words, the things that we think are new are in fact modifications and clever combinations of old things, with perhaps some small amount of additional randomness. Ideas do not live in a vacuum, they emerge because of other ideas.

Therefore, creativity is the ability to merge existing ideas in new ways (while possibly adding a magic ingredient on top).

This brings us to a fairly simple recipe for feeding one’s creativity: collect lots of things that can be combined/transmogrified into something new, and then just combine them! In other words, first, feed your head with lots of information—and not just any information, but preferably pieces of information that haven’t yet been combined.

To maximise the chance of something entirely new emerging out of this process, your input information—the stuff that you feed your head with—should be diverse enough. There are, however, different possibilities: on the one hand, if you know everything that there is to know about your field, you can probably see where the holes are and combine bits of your knowledge in order to fill them. On the other hand, if you know enough about a lot of fields, you might be able to spot connections between them (think of, say, network neuroscience, applying network theory to problems of neuroscience). There are different styles here, but even if you choose to go deep instead of wide, do keep the diversity of input information in mind: just for fun, learn some mathematical techniques that people do not (yet) use in your field! You never know, those might turn out to be useful later.

To be continued…

One thought on “What is scientific creativity—and how do you feed it? (Part I)

  1. Pingback: The great research question hunt – Network Construction Site

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