Art Works Blog

Artists and Scientists: A Question of Creativity

Washington, DC

Lightbulb Macro by Katarzyna Matylla via Flickr

In this fourth blog post on the NEA/National Science Foundation conference, Symbiotic Art and Science, Dr. Patrick Hogan discusses the relationship of creativity to collaborations between scientists and artists. Hogan’s areas of research include cognitive neuroscience of narrative and emotion, identity formation, and Indian philosophical and aesthetic traditions. He is the author of 13 books, including Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts: A Guide for Humanists and Understanding Indian Movies: Culture, Cognition, and Cinematic Imagination.

Many participants at our recent conference were particularly interested in creativity. They are not alone. Researchers have been exploring the topic productively for decades. A few years ago, I overviewed and tried to extend some of this work in Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts. Some of the wealth and diversity of such “creative cognition” research may be seen in the recent Cambridge Handbook of Creativity. Though this research went largely unmentioned at the conference, it bears directly on the main themes we were trying to explore.

In creative cognition research, creativity is understood as problem solving that is novel and “task appropriate,” which is to say, productive of a solution to the problem. (Treating math phobia with liberal use of shoe polish is innovative, but probably not task appropriate.) Note that the point applies whether the problem is curing a disease or inspiring aesthetic delight. Thus there are two parts to creativity. Creative cognition researchers associate these with two properties of creators---“divergent thinking” and expertise.

Let’s take the second. Successful creative work requires expertise in the “target” discipline (i.e., the discipline in which the problem occurs). This expertise is obviously required to develop and apply the innovation. For instance, one needs to know about dance in order to develop a novel idea into an actual performance. But, even before that, expertise is required for the initial innovative thinking. Thus to be innovative about dance, one must already have a cognitive repertoire of postures and movements that one can draw on and alter.

What, then, constitutes the innovation? Clearly, it can’t be the expertise, since that is what all well-trained professionals (e.g., choreographers) share. In fact, innovation is almost the exact opposite of “professionalism,” at least in certain respects. It is a matter of “divergent thinking” or “remote association.” Training in a discipline tends to limit the “solution space” for problems to a set of closely linked, professionally standardized associations. Scientists and artists produce novelty by going beyond those associations.

One of the main benefits of interdisciplinary work is that it interconnects complexes of association that ordinarily diverge from one another---for example, those of physicists and those of dancers. As a result, when we encounter new disciplines, our associations are partially reconfigured so that formerly remote associations become much more readily accessible. Thus we don’t get stuck in the mental ruts produced by expertise, going over the same, unproductive routines. Of course, the risk of interdisciplinary work is that it will produce inappropriate problem responses. Okay, shoe polish is an implausible example. But consider an exercise we did at the conference where each of us in effect choreographed a little dance. Mine, at least, was horrendous. It may have been “novel” in some sense. (Certainly no actual dancer would have done that!) But it was very much not task appropriate (unless the task was to give me a dose of humility).

Here, expertise enters again. In addition to having two components, creativity has multiple stages. The innovation must be elaborated, made precise and more rigorous, then further evaluated, perhaps with further innovation.

Given all this, it seems clear that the collaboration across art and science can be a great spur to creativity. In each case, the “alien” discipline provides novel associations while the “home” discipline provides the target problems. This is perhaps more obvious in arts---as in Liz Lerman’s development of an exquisite new dance inspired by ideas drawn from physics. But it can occur equally in the sciences. For example, I have argued that researchers in emotion may draw productively on representations of grief in writers such as Shakespeare or Kobayashi Issa (see What Literature Teaches Us About Emotion). These representations not only provide productive re-orderings of associations; they also provide some degree of evidential support for hypotheses (to the extent that the literary implications converge with other research).

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