Monday, June 25, 2012

Creating creativity

Thomas Edison said: “Creativity is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration”. I had to think of it, when I read an article in Scientific American about how to increase your creativity ( Edison’s saying implies that creativity is not just a trait of some persons. Everybody can be creative, even if s/he does not have a special talent for it. I do not want to deny that some persons do have such a talent for creativity in certain fields, a kind of creativity gene by way of speaking, but fundamentally everybody can produce something intrinsically new and something intrinsically special: simply work hard.
There are more factors that stimulate it, however. In my last blog, we saw already one of them: to relax. And if it is hard to do that spontaneously, organise your relaxation: take a holiday or spend a weekend in a totally different setting. But that is not the only thing you can do. The article in Scientific American just mentioned points out that creativity is to a large extent dependent on the situation and the context, and that is something you can influence, too. The question then is, of course, what those situations are. When and where are we more creative?
It sounds a bit contradictory, but sometimes it can be good not to go too much into your subject and not to try to master all details and aspects hoping to be able to combine them to something new. Do just the opposite: take distance. This needs not to be physical distance from the problem solving activity, as in my last blog. You can also try to look at your theme from another perspective, such as by taking another person’s perspective of. Or it can be a matter of doing mentally a few steps back. Try to see the wood and not only the tree. Or just change your physical situation for a while. When I am working on a problem like writing this blog and my mind has become blocked and I don’t know how to go on, I often just leave the room for a moment, for instance for taking a cup of coffee or walking a few minutes in my garden. When I am back, usually the blockade has gone. I do not need to stop thinking about my activity. Just the physical change helps. The psychological theory behind it is that by taking some physical distance, your problem becomes more abstract for you and your more abstract thoughts might make you contemplate other, less striking sides of it. The distance you take doesn’t need to be physical, however. It can also be a virtual distance in time. Studies show that thinking how you would approach the question next year can help as well.
So being creative is not just being a special person. Everyone is intrinsically creative; it is only a matter of how to take it out. In the past I have written several blogs on the zombie (our unconscious part) in us and on the free will. In a certain sense, creativity seems contradictory to our free will. Creativity is a kind of “Aha Erlebnis”, an “aha” moment. It looks as if it happens to us and that we can’t help that it happens. The creativity “theory” as exposed above says something different. Maybe, we are not completely free to be creative. Maybe it is not something we can literally choose to be. But we are free to “create” the circumstances that enhance the chance that we get creative results. Creativity may be an unconscious process, executed by our zombie while we do not have a real say in it, but we can steer our zombie by pampering it and making itself feel comfortable so that it finds something splendid. And isn’t that already quite a lot? For if we could produce creativity at will, we could ask whether it exists, and whether we weren’t more than complicated machines, just executing what has already been programmed, albeit a program as yet unknown to us.
Source: see the link above and the one in my last blog.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Sweeping your mind

People who regularly read my blogs will know that I am often on holiday. Usually I spend two or three holidays abroad, not counting the shorter trips, both within the Netherlands and on the other side of the border. This year I was already a week in France and also one in Hungary and I have been in six countries. And the summer vacation yet has to come. Although my holidays are not long – most last only one or two weeks – when I am back, there is always the same “trouble”: How to adapt again to the daily routine. I think that many other persons have this experience, too. In fact, it doesn’t make much difference whether a holiday was short or long. What counts is that there was a clear break with the daily routine. This makes that also just a weekend away from home in a totally different setting can have the same effect, for example an intensive course or a training camp with people you do not know in another town or somewhere in the countryside. Also then it can take some time to adapt to normal life again.
All this sounds rather negative, as if daily life is the norm. But of course, you go away for the break, for the difference, for what you can learn during the discussion weekend, and so on. And then, as you certainly will have experienced, it often happens that the break gives you a fresh start, and, if you are a thinker like I am, new ideas. This is often explained by the rest and relaxation you got (and isn’t that also the reason that you have your best ideas at the moment you are taking a shower?). But in Psychology Today, which is often a source of inspiration for me, I found another interesting explanation: Doing something different is a good way to clear your mind. For the main difficulty of problem solving can be that you try to do it in the old way. Your mind is often full of old problems with old solutions and what is more obvious than trying to solve new problems with old approaches? Isn’t it so that this often works? For in many cases new problems are not really new, but they are variations on an old theme. But sometimes, a new problem, a new question, is really new, or it is different enough from the old stuff that old answers do not work. If that is the case, we have to clear our mind and sweep away what is old. Throw the old stuff in a corner of your mind, stow it away in a mental cupboard and keep it out of sight. Take distance from prior experiences for they inhibit new ones. But your daily routine often impedes this. So by a break, a holiday (or a shower), your mind will be swept. A holiday and also a short break function like a broom: They sweep away old ideas in your mind so that you can take distance from them. And then, the disturbance of your daily routine that you feel when you are back home is no longer a trouble but it is an asset. For now there is room for something new, for new ideas and for new solutions.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The peaceful tenor of books

In his book on nationalism Caspar Hirschi quotes the following story from Johannes Aventinus’ Bavarian Chronicle, written around 1500: “After they [the German tribes] had conquered Athens … they amassed a large numbers of books on the market, piled them up and wanted to have them burned. At this point, a soldier stood up and dissuaded them from it, saying: ‘leave the books to those fools, the Greeks; while they are occupied with them, they all become unfit for war and womanish creatures who cannot defend themselves; it is better and more convenient for us if they are equipped with books and pens than with harness and weapons’ ” (Hirschi, The Origins of Nationalism, 173).
This story has a clear morality, anyway seen from the side of the soldier: Reading is a foolish, naïve activity that is innocent by nature. I think that there is some sense in it: When people are reading, they cannot do something else. Moreover, reading leads to thoughts with an “effeminate” content that make that readers are not prepared to take up arms, also at those moments when their minds are not distracted by it. In other words, reading leads to peace.
If this were true, we would have discovered a new way of making an end to war: Establish libraries and bookshops all over the world, in every corner. Make that people love books and that they spend a big part of their time on them, as readers and as writers. Then we’ll get peace on earth, at last. But alas, reality is more complicated. According to Hirschi, Aventinus had probably taken his story from the East Roman historian Petrus Patricius (c. 500-565). Patricius gives a slightly different version and then he comments: “Had [the soldier] been aware of the virtues of the Athenians and Romans, how renowned they were both in word and in war, he would not have said so” (quoted from Hirschi, 172-3). I am afraid that this remark is nearer to the truth than the implicit morality of Aventinus’ version. Books can have an inherently peaceful tenor, indeed, in spite of what they actually are about, but how often doesn’t it happen that books just stimulate war and violence? Or that they make that people are more prepared to use violence or to go to war, even when this wasn’t the intention of the author? And isn’t it so that there are also many books about the way how to wage war? The thought is so wonderful: reading distracts from war and leads to peace and it would have been so nice, when the soldier who stopped his comrades burning the books on the market of Athens would have been the first to have formulated an effective theory of peace, despite himself. Unfortunately reality is different.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Dangerous ideas (4)

Trying to suppress “dangerous ideas” is of all times. In my last blog I wrote about a recent case. One of the first known cases in history is the process against Socrates. Socrates was sentenced to death among other things because he introduced new gods and had a bad influence on the youth. Galileo had to retract his idea that the earth circles the sun, because it conflicted with the ideas the Roman Catholic Church had about the world order. In 1674 Montaigne’s Essays were placed on the Index, although when Montaigne visited Rome in 1581 and had to show all books in his luggage to the authorities, the Essays passed the censor and he got only a few advices for changing the text here and there (which he didn’t). This raises the question: What is a dangerous idea? For, to take the example of Montaigne, what wasn’t dangerous in 1581, was considered to be so a century later, at least by some (the book was still legally for sale in England, for instance, but not in France).
Actually, the answer to the question is quite complicated. In order to keep it simple, one could agree with Steve Pinker (and many others on the Internet with the same view), who writes: “By ‘dangerous ideas’ I don’t have in mind harmful technologies, like those behind weapons of mass destruction, or evil ideologies, like those of racist, fascist, or other fanatical cults. I have in mind statements of fact or policy that are defended with evidence and argument by serious scientists and thinkers but which are felt to challenge the collective decency of an age.” (quoted from hereBut if one would agree with this, why then fight against nazism or a rogue state that wants to have an A-bomb, if the ideas they propagate aren’t dangerous? What then is a good reason for fighting them, if it is not for their ideas? Okay, we could say: because of their consequences. But then I’ll ask: the consequences of what? The consequences of the ideas, of course, that lead to dangerous behaviour. Just for their consequences these ideas are considered dangerous. If the call for democracy and freedom wasn’t dangerous for the Syrian regime, the leading clique wouldn’t shoot down peaceful demonstrators. All this shows that what is seen as dangerous depends on on which side you are.
Nevertheless, there is some – or even much – truth in what Pinker says. Many ideas are or can be seen as dangerous, but when we talk of “dangerous ideas” we usually have something different in our minds: We (implicitly) take the position of the established political order and consider these ideas as subversive and so dangerous for this order. And this can go quite far, as we have seen in my last blog. For even the ideas of widely praised persons, national heroes honoured with special days and statues can still be seen as dangerous, although they are just praised and honoured because of these ideas and their consequences. But it’s so double, for on the one hand authorities (even democratic authorities) still see civil disobedience and nonviolence as dangerous (see the case in my last blog and there are many cases to add), but on the other hand they don’t believe in it (despite the recent success of nonviolent resistance in Tunisia and Egypt and a lot of older cases). For who has ever heard of states that support nonviolent resistance in other countries, while cases of states that support violent resistance in other countries abound? It’s so contradictory: as if an idea can be true and false at the same time.