Art

Money can't buy you Creativity, or can it?

We’ve just passed the half-way point of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo in hipster-speak) and I can definitely relate to this doggie:

Face To Face With The 2nd Step by Richard Stine
Face To Face With The 2nd Step by Richard Stine

I’ve got what I think is a genius idea for a plot, some genuine, interesting characters and just over 12,000 words. Sometimes my writing voice still feels as though it’s coated with phlegm but I am making progress. I’m still way behind on the word count, however: I should be somewhere in the 25,000-30,000 range right about now. NaNoWriMo is designed in part to help writers (professionals and avocationals alike) develop the discipline and find the motivation to churn out a first draft. After all, the myth that creativity only happens during fleeting and involuntary moments of inspiration is among the first to be debunked by prolific creative writers.

I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp. ~ W. Somerset Maughum


If it’s such a struggle, you might ask, then why on earth are you doing it? Well, the paradoxical truth is that I want to. The exhilaration that I feel when I’ve written something that might be good is intoxicating. It’s similar to how I feel onstage, firing on all cylinders. My motivation is intrinsic: that is, it comes from within rather than for some external goal like the pursuit of a degree or an award or financial gain. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly wouldn’t turn down an advance from a publisher and of course there is a part of me that hopes the work will be published and bring accolades and royalties. But I don’t expect to regret the time and energy spent on the project even if it never generates any income. And so I’ve been wondering, in those moments when the temptation to tweet, or check email, or book a weekend in Mexico shatters my concentration, how strong or pure my intrinsic motivation will prove to be and how the NaNoWriMo artificial deadline affects creativity.

The goal of NaNoWriMo participants is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Some writers simply see it as an opportunity to check off an item on their Bucket List, others feel that the community atmosphere will help them stay motivated and complete a project that has been on the back burner for too long. Some hope to publish the work as is, others will refuse to allow anyone else to read a single word. My (only) writing buddy Gord McLeod sees it as an opportunity to build the block of marble from which he will carve his David over the course of the following months. This smorgasbord of motivations and goals reminds me of the work of Teresa Amabile, who studies the effects of motivation on creative output and is on faculty at Harvard Business School. Having studied and thought about the interplay between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and creativity for decades, she will be the first to admit that the relationships are complex.

In a recent review simply titled Creativity, published in the Annual Review of Psychology, Teresa, along with Beth Hennessey at Wellesley College, sums up the latest research findings by suggesting that when people feel controlled by their situation, as is the case in many workplace environments, rewards for creativity undermine intrinsic motivation and paradoxically, suppress creative output. For example, if employees are asked to create posters and are told that the person who comes up with the best one will get a monetary bonus, research suggests that the final products will be less creative than if the bonus comes as a surprise, rather than an expectation. When intrinsic motivation is already strong, however, rewards can further enhance it and lead to more creative output. Specifically, when rewards confirm competence or provide support in the form of a manager’s kind words or extra resources, creativity flourishes.

So the bottom line seems to be that intrinsic motivation is necessary, but not sufficient, for creative output. And extrinsic rewards can be helpful, so long as they don’t destroy the sense that we are being creative just because we want to. Those NaNoWriMo guys are on to something, but as Beverly Sills has said, there are no shortcuts to any place worth going. And that’s enough procrastination for Day 18.
Comments

Effortless Mastery

Watching a great athlete, performer or surgeon at work is mesmerizing. When a highly complex skill looks effortless, we tend to think of the performer as otherworldly, rather than as the result of years of dedicated, mundane training. Effortless mastery, the hallmark of the world-class athlete, surgeon or other performer, appears only after countless hours of what’s now widely called deliberate practice. A large-scale study by Ericsson and colleagues published in 1993 transformed the way that scientists think about the relationship between talent, effort and mastery. It turns out that across domains, expert performance is directly correlated to the amount of deliberate practice that a person has engaged in, not simply the number of hours spent doing activities related to the domain. Some studies have even tried to quantify the number of hours or years required, and, in general, the magic number seems to be 10,000 hours or 10 years.



According to the Nielsen media rating company, the average American watches 4.5 hours of TV per day. If that American individual practiced, deliberately, as often as he/she watched TV, effortless mastery would be achieved by everyone in about seven to ten years. The idea that most Americans simply do not have time to master a domain must be false: what’s missing is effort, motivation and an understanding of how learning works.

Unlike watching television, deliberate practice is hard: it requires sustained attention and constant adaptability. Rote repetition of an activity simply ingrains habits, not all of whom are good. Mastery requires thoughtful practice, with feedback and change is incremental. Deliberate practice exhausts the muscles and the brain, and for most people, a four-hour practice session feels like a marathon. The way in which a person approaches training is inherently linked to personality and individual differences, making many generalizations uninformative. But are there some general principles that can cut across individual differences?

The first published evidence that called into question the popular notion that more practice of any kind inevitably leads to mastery came from studies of Morse Code operators at the turn of the 20th century (Bryan and Harter, 1897, 1899). The operators in these studies would show improvements in their skills with repeated practice but eventually, their progress would plateau and further practice would yield no more gains. By changing their practice techniques, however, the operators were able to jumpstart their learning and continue to improve. Are these plateaus an unavoidable consequence of learning? Using the same paradigm, that is, learning Morse Code, Keller (1958) showed that the training method itself can be designed to avoid plateaus and show steady learning.

What are the characteristics of the training method and are these characteristics applicable to domains other than learning Morse Code? Perhaps the most important, and certainly the most commonly discussed attribute of deliberate practice is captured by the name itself: deliberate. The subject must want to improve and must be focused upon doing so; attention must be paid and effort exerted. The other two factors outlined in the seminal paper on deliberate practice by Ericsson and colleagues are that the instructions for how to perform the task at hand be understandable and take into account the subject’s previous knowledge and that the subject receives feedback during practice that helps him/her adjust performance in the right direction. Then, the subject should repeated perform the task, adjusting when necessary and always focusing on the process.

Since mastery of a skill in a field requires on average 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, those individuals who take pleasure in practicing or who can enjoy the process are much more likely to put in the requisite hours, and pay more attention to what they are doing. Why do some people like practicing while others loathe it? The exercises that one chooses when practicing can vary in terms of the enjoyment they provide, but even rote repetition can be more or less interesting to different individuals. Ticking off repetitions can be experienced as serial micro-triumphs, or as the epitome of monotony. The mind can be engaged to different extents: the practicer can concentrate on each repetition, comparing it to previous instances, monitoring performance and observing the evoked sensations, or he/she can simply daydream and ‘check out’. Despite our innate tendency to resort to daydreaming in response to boredom, scientists have recently discovered that daydreaming or zoning out can actually lower your mood, rather than lift it. If you allow yourself to daydream during a practice session, it might, paradoxically, be less enjoyable than if you make the effort to concentrate, and battle the temptation of zoning out.

I’ve been thinking about motivation and concentration this past week because I’m participating in National Novel Writing Month - with the goal of cranking out a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. For the first time in my life, I’m focusing on quantity rather than quality in an artistic pursuit. So far, I’ve written about 8,700 words, and I have no idea what use this exercise will prove to be. But the first step towards mastery is deliberate practice, and if nothing else, I’ll have resisted the temptation to procrastinate for at least several hours every day for 30 days in a row. Now that’s one habit worth developing.


Comments

When Conviction Becomes Confabulation

Ever since I started working on Miracle Detectives, the TV show that I co-hosted on the OWN network, I’ve been fascinated by circumstances in which a person maintains a particular belief in the face of contradictory evidence. My goal on the show was never to shake someone’s faith but rather to explore mysterious phenomena with the tools that science has to offer. Most people could incorporate whatever new information I was able to glean into their existing worldview but once in a while, I met someone who stuck to a certain belief regardless of the evidence for or against it. That sort of conviction is considered noble in many situations: we value loyalty in friends and employees, we admire religious fervor, we encourage determination in the pursuit of wildly ambitious dreams and we set instincts on a higher pedestal than data in many business decisions.

once_upon_a_time_wm.JPG
(c) Dragoncrafted.com


But when does conviction turn into confabulation? Confabulation is a term that neurologists coined to describe a disorder of memory in which a patient gives a false or contrived answer to questions about the past but who believes that these answers reflect the truth. It was first described in patients with Korsakoff’s syndrome, whose memories have been obliterated by thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency usually following years of alcohol abuse and/or severe malnutrition. Oliver Sacks poignantly described a case study in The Lost Mariner and A Matter of Identity in his book The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat.*

But while the Korsakoff’s patient represents one extreme, we have all confabulated at one time or another. Young children reporting their own memories often confabulate, as they learn how to distinguish remembering from fantasizing. We often indulge in impulse buying, justifying our purchases after the fact with false memories and constructing a narrative that makes sense and leaves our ego intact. We deny our shortcomings; the vast majority of us consider ourselves to be ‘above average’ in most instances. In the extreme cases of anosognosia, or denial of illness often following stroke, some patients will deny that part of their anatomy has been paralyzed, insisting that if they really wanted to, they could move the affected region.

Doubt, particularly in Western society, is interpreted as a sign of weakness. For many people, the term ‘skeptic’ is synonymous with Doubting Thomas, someone who refuses to believe unless shown direct evidence, and being called a skeptic is seen as pejorative amongst many social groups. Confabulation involves a lack of doubt, about something that is inherently doubtful: one’s memory for the past. But confabulation also involves a skill that humans have perfected: story-telling.

Some evolutionary psychologists argue that our propensity for creating, telling and remembering stories emerged about the same time that the proliferation of our neocortex began to differentiate us from other primates, and that this metabolically-expensive leap in brain size was driven by the need to communicate with each other and navigate social relationships. As our ancestors found strength in numbers, understanding and predicting the behavior of fellow co-habitants afforded a certain advantage, genetically-speaking. Stories might have served as tools for accomplishing this delicate task. But when that storyteller is let loose, and the Doubting Thomas in the brain is silenced, either unintentionally by brain damage or deliberately by conviction, confabulation is the result. Perhaps what fascinates me, then, is the interplay between the interpreter and the doubter in different people: how the relationship between these two components of the mind can result in belief or doubt.

*This book has also been made into an opera with music by Michael Nyman, which I’ve been dying to perform.

Comments

Five Lessons Opera Singers can learn from Moneyball

My husband is a pretty serious baseball fan: there are 162 games in the regular season that his team plays and he listens to almost all of them. So in the interest of sharing that part of his life, and not simply becoming an off-season wife, I developed an understanding and eventually a love for the game and our team.


It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball. ~ Billy Beane, GM of the Oakland A’s



One of the aspects of baseball that I’ve come to love is the conversation. I love listening to broadcast legends Jon Miller and John Sterling call the games of our two favorites teams. Often, when Adam and I are cooking dinner together, he reads me the latest post from Joe Posnanski’s blog. I love the soap opera, the human drama, the boyish charm and the respect for the past that infuses the game. All of these qualities baseball has in common with opera.

But I was surprised by how much opera singers can learn from the movie Moneyball.

Five Lessons for Opera Singers from the movie Moneyball

1. No scout has a crystal ball. In industries as competitive as baseball and opera, no one can predict who will be a major player and who will spend a career languishing on the sidelines. Anyone who claims to have that knowledge should be avoided. The truth is that what worked in the past might not work in the future and the best thing an aspiring athlete, musician, actor or entrepreneur can do is work hard to hone the necessary skills and be ready when opportunity knocks. But there is also room for analysis: not everyone can be a home-run hitting machine, and a team needs guys who consistently get on base. There are other roles in opera besides the leads and consistently nailing them with grace and precision will lead to more work.

2. Take time to react. The performances by the actors in the movie were spectacular. There were many scenes in which their faces took up the entire shot and their thoughts and feelings were projected onto the screen without the usual help from the musical score. Onstage, it’s often hard to resist the temptation to react to what your fellow actors or singers are going to do, rather than what they have just done, especially in opera, where much of the timing is dictated by the composer. And 5 seconds onstage can feel like an eternity. But the performances in the movie underscore the power of the well-timed reaction. Give the audience time to digest and we’ll be with you the whole way through. There is power in doing nothing but listening.

3. Make every pitch count. If you make the starting pitcher work hard and never swing on the first pitch, chances are your team will be up against relievers sooner rather than later. The same advice applies to how singers should rehearse and perform. Mindlessly breezing through blocking or vocal exercises accomplishes very little but focussed practice leads to exceptional performance. Make every rehearsal count.

4. Don’t bunt. If you’re going to swing, make it a homerun. Don’t cheat the audience of your best performance. If you’re sick, underprepared or in any way unable to do your best, send in your backup. By the same token, don’t just throw together a performance, no matter how little the pay or how small the audience. Swing to send it over the fence. Every time.

5. It’s easy. It’s incredibly hard. The audience wants to think that you’re so talented and skilled that it’s easy for you to do this very difficult thing. No one wants to see your effort. But it’s incredibly hard. Work at it until you can make it look easy, even if it doesn’t feel that way. Always underestimate the effort when speaking to your audience - they don’t need to know about your trials and tribulations - that just ruins the romance.

And there’s no point in playing baseball or singing opera if the romance is missing.
Comments

When Time Stands Still

This week, I boldly ventured out of the house, knowing I won’t return until after dark, without a scarf and wearing a mini-skirt with, wait for it, NO LEGGINGS. You might chuckle to yourself, thinking that now I look just like all the tourists who visit San Francisco in the summer only to keep the sweatshirt business flourishing in Fisherman’s Wharf. But I will have the last laugh, as the sun sets and I walk home without a single goosebump: San Francisco’s secret September summer is finally here.

As you can probably tell, I feel a certain pride in my fledgling understanding of San Francisco’s seasons. Dressing for the weather is an art in this city, and I’m convinced that the eclectic fashion of our native hipsters is influenced in large part by the extreme fluctuations in temperature in the different neighborhoods of the city and at different times of the day.

Just as my brain has finally sorted out the regularities in our highly irregular climate, I must admit that I have become a bit of a San Francisco cliche. I no longer fear simultaneously donning two different patterns. I prefer to walk or ride a bike than to drive. I’m really picky when it comes to coffee. I get a box of vegetables delivered from a local farm every week. I do what I love, relying on the kindness of strangers to pay me for doing it. I have an entire trunk dedicated to my scarf collection. When I drive, I drive a smart car so that I can park in between meters. I run a lot. I blog. I tweet. And I listen to NPR.

And so it was that I found myself moved to tears (while driving my smart car to a random gig) by Maurice Sendak on Fresh Air. He has just lost two dear friends, one a few months ago, and another just the other day, and he talked about how he doesn’t fear death itself, but he does fear isolation. He misses his friends and all the other loved ones that he’s lost. So he wrote another book, to help him negotiate these feelings and to explore them further.

9780062051981_custom

Bumble-ardy, the latest from author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, is dark and deeply imaginative, much like his classic works Where the Wild Things Are and In The Night Kitchen. Bumble-ardy is an orphaned pig, who has reached the age of 9 without ever having a birthday party. He tells his Aunt Adeline that he would like to have a party for his ninth birthday, so Aunt Adeline plans a quiet birthday dinner for two. But Bumble-ardy instead decides to throw a large costume party for himself after his aunt leaves for work — and mayhem ensues. When his aunt returns she says, "Okay smarty, you've had your party but never again." Bumble-ardy replies, "I promise, I swear, I won't ever turn 10."



That last line has rattled around my mind all week: a simple rhyme that can be interpreted in so many ways, including as a strong desire to elongate the present moment into eternity and stop the unrelenting march of Time. I have long been fascinated by (and fearful of) the passage of time and the way that our minds track it. Our internal chronometer works in a myriad of ways, each tuned to a different time scale, from milliseconds to years. And just as memory is not an accurate record of the past, our sense of time is distorted by our goals, emotions, past experiences and current environment.

Even if we understand objectively that our memories are reconstructed versions of our experiences, it’s still difficult to reconcile the fact that our experiencing selves are very different from our remembering selves (see Kahneman’s brilliant TED talk here). That separation, however, is obvious to
David Eagleman, a 39-year old neuroscientist in Texas, who launched his human subjects off of a 50-meter high platform to test the notion that time slows down when we fear for our lives (a great New Yorker profile of him can be found here).

As expected, the disheveled subjects reported that their fall seemed to last a long time, and estimated that their own fall was 36% longer than the falls of the other subjects. A portable ‘perceptual chronometer’ was strapped onto the wrists of the subjects, to test whether subjects’ experiencing selves have better temporal resolution during the fall, when they report having experienced the slowing of time. A supersense should have its usefulness, after all, and the military, who funded part of this work, would benefit from harnessing such a skill. Alas, Eagleman and his colleagues found no evidence that our experiencing selves actually perceive time differently during frightening events. It all comes down to how and what we remember.

Happily, however, this finding points Bumble-ardy towards a way to accomplish his desire to stop Time. While we can’t manipulate the passage of time outside of our minds, our memory and imagination are the tools we need to leap forward, jump back and, most importantly, do-over what Time has taken away from us. Crafting rich, varied, and meaningful experiences fills our memory repositories with branches and footholds that trigger and support our reconstruction of Time gone by.

Comments

Remembering in Manhattan

This week, I’m in Manhattan preparing for a marathon concert as my way of supporting people who were affected by the attacks on 9/11. I’ve started this blog-post numerous times, and have abandoned it because I, personally, did not lose anyone that I loved. It seems disingenuous to touch on the event as an outsider, when so many people experienced loss firsthand. And yet, the legacy of 9/11 is not loss, but connection.

When we were shooting
the episode of Miracle Detectives that deals with the story of 9/11, I came across this statement by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the World Trade Center:

'The World Trade Center should,' Yamasaki said, 'because of its importance, become a living representation of man's belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his belief in the cooperation of men, and through this cooperation his ability to find greatness.'


I’m not the first to point out how eerie it is that his vision has become reality as a result of unimaginable horror. My scientific career has been built on the study of autobiographical memory: how we remember our past and how our memories of our experiences shape our identity, our imagination, our decisions and ultimately, our future. But even if I had chosen a different topic, I suspect that I would still have been struck by the central place that remembering occupies in the landscape of the aftermath of the terror attacks.

We interviewed many people while we were preparing for and shooting the episode; survivors, first-responders, grieving family members, health-care practitioners treating victims and their families, writers and artists. Time and time again, I was struck by how important it was to the first responders and survivors in particular, to tell their stories. Even now, on Twitter, the vast majority of the conversation is dominated by reminiscences. Faced with random acts of violence, our notion that life is fair and just was turned on its head. As we try to make sense of what happened, we rearrange our worldview to accommodate this new information.

Faced with evidence that humans can cause such destruction, we swing the pendulum in the opposite direction: we become selfless, generous, kind and creative. In a city notorious for its ruthlessness, the citizens of New York, in particular, outdid one another with random acts of kindness and sacrifice. All over the city, the stories are being told, in pictures, in words and in acts. We are reshaping our memories and creating new ones with the same objective: to connect with those who were lost and with those who remain. Our
experiencing selves panicked, despaired, fought but our remembering selves have the power to console, create and rebuild.

There are countless events today to choose from, but I chose to participate in Music After because my dear friend Danny Felsenfeld, a Brooklyn-based composer, along with his friend Eleonor Sandresky, are emphasizing the creative output triggered by 9/11. Losing so many different people in one day is a blow to the community. And yet, the legacy of 9/11 includes a refocusing on the importance and power of communities and connections between people. This concert, free to anyone who wants to come and listen, is one example.
Meetup, a site that was created by New Yorkers in response to 9/11, and now has 9 million monthly visitors in 45,000 cities, is another. My heart goes out to all those who experienced loss first-hand a decade ago, and my performance today is my humble gift to this great city. May it never sleep.

Comments

Interpretation: the Performer's Art

I spent the majority of this past week in Las Vegas, working as a model for Levi’s at Magic, a large fashion industry trade show. I did it mainly because it paid very well but there were two other reasons that justified this particular use of my time: 1) I wanted to experience the glamour of modeling in a big fashion event and 2) I’d never been to Vegas and seeing the city for the first time through the eyes of a working model was too poetic to resist. It might surprise you that I’ve lived in California for over a decade now and had never been to Sin City. It’s not that I haven’t had the opportunity: I had this romantic notion that my first trip to Vegas should be as an entertainer rather than a spectator, much like my first trip to Paris had to be with a lover rather than by myself. Vegas bills itself as the ‘Entertainment Capital of the World’ and Paris was built for lovers.

1504033_Las_Vegas_Nevada

 
Playing the role of a model in Vegas certainly has its perks: I was always greeted with smiles and courtesy, I never had to wait for a table at the fancy restaurants or stand in line to get into the clubs, and the trade show was within stumbling distance of my hotel room, which was equipped with every imaginable amenity. But already on the first day, I became keenly aware that despite the sheen of fool’s gold, Vegas can quickly turn dreams into acid. I was simply a vehicle for the jeans that I was demonstrating, easily replaced by any number of other women. Certainly, there are ways in which models can improve the look of a garment, but in the end, the garment is the focus and the designer is the star.
 
This shift away from the interpreter and towards the creative team behind the scenes is also occurring in opera and ballet, and many other performance arts. Composers are popping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm, as the proliferation of self-publishing and recording tools has changed the game. Much as blogging and citizen reporting are enabling individuals with no training in journalism to reach the masses, youtube, itunes and composition software are equipping creatives with the ability to create complex music without ever learning to play a single instrument.
 
Like the blogosphere, I suspect that in time, quality will cut through quantity in music as well as writing and the true test of a work will be its longevity. But in the meantime, why should a person devote years of his/her life mastering the art of interpretation rather than focusing on composing, or designing? Why work on skills when the sheer amount and frequency of output is what seems to dictate success?
 
Sometime during my third day in Vegas, I began to notice the acidity in the air: the meanness created by an empire built on losses. In Vegas, you can see, do, taste anything that you can imagine but everything has a cost: the better the quality, the higher the price tag. And the proximity to unaffordable luxury leads to bitterness. I have seen the same cruel disappointment envelop young creatives when the seemingly straight and narrow road to success proves to be deceptively curvy and bumpy. Upon my return from Vegas, I was desperate for a long and focused singing practice session and a workout.
 
I also re-read Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting to remind myself of how complex and elegant the craft can be and how conscientious training can help the actor generate a more powerful experience for the audience. The same is undoubtedly true for my chosen craft: classically-trained singing. A great performance of a play or opera or other composition gives the audience a therapeutic emotional cleanse in addition to intellectual and sensory stimulation. Aristotle observed that a well-executed play allows the audience to expend pent-up emotions and that catharsis is a rewarding experience.
 
Several studies of the effect of music on the mind have shown that the brain regions involved in rewarding experiences such as eating, sex and taking pleasure-enhancing drugs are active when we are moved by a piece of music. And recently, in a PLosOne paper, Heather Chapin and co-authors from a university in Florida demonstrated that when a Chopin’s Etude in E Major was performed by an undergraduate piano major on a digital piano, the emotion and reward centers in listeners’ brains responded. When the same piece was played on the digital piano but using a computerized version that was technically accurate but lacked the expressive quality of the human performance, these areas were much less involved. One might argue that this is the first scientific study to demonstrate what audiences have known since the first cave man beat on a drum: the way in which a piece is performed matters just as much, if not more, than the piece itself. The performance matters, and the only way to give a great performance is to rehearse and train. The performance itself might not last forever, but as long as composers compose and designers design, the interpreter will have an important role to play.

Comments

The Creativity Instinct

In an interview earlier this week, I was asked to define creativity, a fairly common and entirely reasonable request given that I have made the expression and study of creativity my profession. Lately, I have found that I’m less and less comfortable answering that question with the traditional response; some combination of novelty and utility. That is, creative output must both be novel (a new combination of existing ideas or objects or an entirely new thing) and useful (that is, have some purpose). I won’t go into detail defending this particular definition or knocking it down, for that matter, except to say that as we learn more and more about creative behaviors and the motivation behind creativity, defining it has become as easy as herding cats. And likely just as useful.


creativity_fran
(c) www.francartoons.co.uk

I have come to believe that defining creativity in one comprehensive sound byte is at best unnecessary and at worst potentially harmful, if we ever want to truly understand it. What if we applied that same strict criteria to an equally complicated cognitive construct, such as memory? I often use the following definition of memory when asked to provide one, which is both unsatisfactory and strictly true: the change in behavior that comes with experience. I have developed muscle memories for singing after 15+ years of training and my behavior has changed as a result of that experience. I have a long autobiography of vivid events that I can summon at will to affect my current actions. My experience of the visual realm affects the way that I interpret what I see today. Although accurate, the definition glosses over the very aspect of memory that piques the curiosity of most people who want to discuss the topic: the fact that we can search through a vast repository of information that we gathered over a lifetime and use it to our advantage. How it works is much more interesting than what it is.

The very same is true for creativity. Creativity, like memory, is a collection of many processes and behaviors, with many different motivators and mechanisms. Like the study of memory, the study of creativity would also benefit greatly by a shift away from definition and towards understanding how it works under different circumstances. We talk about the differences between memory for events and motor skills or habits. In the same way, we should talk about the differences between creativity in writing and creativity in dance.

Often, when I’m not doing a particularly good job of sharing my enthusiasm for science and instead am caught up in academic jargon or the minutiae of some esoteric argument, I see the eyes of my conversation partner glaze over with boredom. It always surprises me because I’m clearly interested in what I’m talking about. But then I remember that what fascinates me is not what I know, but, rather, what I don’t know. Delving more deeply into a topic as wide-reaching and humanistic as creativity only raises more questions. And that is what drives interest. We flock towards the mysterious, towards things that we can’t seem to explain because curiosity leads to knowledge which leads to better decisions and, dare I say, the reproduction of those genes that underlie curiosity (for a paper on a potential curiosity gene, you can read about great tits, though not the kind you’re thinking of, unfortunately).

We hate boredom: it’s a highly uncomfortable state, as evidenced by our knee-jerk reaction to pick up a smartphone or even look out the window. And we love information: twitter thrives because it promises a never-ending stream of information about our world and its co-inhabitants. The bigger the mystery, the more surprising the cliff-hanger, the more complex the visual scene, the more interested we remain. Provided, of course, that there is some pattern or some hint of a pattern that suggests it’s not completely random. Because randomness is unpredictable and therefore useless information. Creativity, that new interpretation of ourselves and our world, is arguably our most powerful instinct. Only by understanding how it works can we ever hope to understand what it is.

Comments

Opera and the Meaning of Life

Why does opera have such a devoted fan-base? Having once been the pinnacle of entertainment, it’s now relegated largely to fringe status among popular entertainment genres, more closely associated with luxury, exclusivity and excess than with great music and drama in the eyes of the general population. Peter Gelb, at the helm of the Metropolitan Opera in New York is working hard to change this perception, by bringing in directors from the film and Broadway worlds and projecting live performances of operas onto the silver screen all around the country. Time will tell whether the Met in HD program successfully widens the audience nationwide or simply cannibalizes opera fans from smaller cities who eschew their local productions in favor of going to the Met in the movie theater.

But there is one thing that is indisputable: you won’t find out whether you love opera if you are unable to access it. And going to the opera is in some ways much more similar to going to the movies than any other form of entertainment. Both genres are all-encompassing: the lights are low, the drama looms large, the music shuttles your emotions from one extreme to the next, and the goal is to sweep you away into a different world. it just so happens that period and foreign pieces are much more common in opera than in Hollywood.

Like many North Americans, I often crave going to the movies precisely because I will be thoroughly entertained. It’s easy to forget work or personal troubles when your senses are bombarded with the powerful images and sounds of a movie. Sure, some movies are more engrossing than others: some are better acted, others better directed, some stories resonate with me more closely, others are too predictable for my taste. But if I go to the movies and a particular film is a dud, I don’t simply conclude that movies aren’t for me. Not so with opera. Many people only give it one shot. Or, worse, decide they don’t like the genre having never been to a single performance.

The most devoted opera fans are a different breed altogether. They will go to every production, multiple times, even if they hate it. They will relish their distaste for a particular singer, or director or concept. And they will elevate to the status of legendary hero the singer/director/composer/conductor of their choice. We see a similar passion in devotees of many other things: cars, movies, comic books, TV shows, indie rock bands, wine, baseball or pickled foods. Of course, like with so many other objects of affection, there is a rampant nostalgia for the past: a lost golden-age that makes the present seem thin and lifeless.

I believe that the vast majority of people want the same thing: to live a long, meaningful life surrounded by the people they love. But I’ve often wondered how ‘meaningful’ translates to different people. Recently, I came across an interesting notion: some psychologists believe that our search for meaning stems from our uniquely human awareness of our own mortality (though the jury is still out as to how unique this knowledge is to our fair species). A paper that just came out in the highly-regarded Journal of Personality and Social Psychology this week suggests that nostalgia helps give our lives a sense of meaning. The authors themselves say it best:

Believing, then, that one is part of something larger and more meaningful than one’s own physical self provides a psychological defense against the threat of inevitable, and absolute, physical annihilation (Becker, 1973).



It makes me tired just to think about that absolute, physical annihilation but I do think they have a point. In a clever series of studies and surveys, the psychologists found that nostalgia adds a sense of meaning to life by making one feel connected to others. Perhaps a feeling of leaving a legacy aids in dampening our fear of death by the same token. They also found that music evoked a sense of nostalgia, that led to the feeling of being loved and to the idea that life is worth living. When the meaning of life was threatened by reading an essay that contained the following comments, the participants engaged in nostalgic thinking as a defense mechanism:

There are approximately 7 billion people living on this planet. So take a moment to ponder the following question: In the grand scheme of things, how significant are you? The Earth is 5 billion years old and the average human life span across the globe is 68 years. These statistics serve to emphasize how our contribution to the world is paltry, pathetic and pointless. What is 68 years of one person’s rat-race compared to 5 billion years of history? We are no more significant than any other form of life in the universe.

When participants who reported a low sense of meaning in life were encouraged to engage in nostalgic reflection, they showed an increase in vitality and an attenuated response to stress.


So perhaps this focus on a golden-era is simply the opera aficionado’s attempt to cope with his/her mortality. Certainly old recordings of operas trigger a strong sense of nostalgia. And attending a live opera performance in general can foster a sense of connectedness not only with the other members of the audience and the musicians, but also with the great works of literature upon which the stories are based, and the historical eras represented onstage. Perhaps this is one more reason why the great operas, like Le Nozze di Figaro, and La Traviata endure for centuries.

Dove_sono_sm


Comments

Dreams: Setting the Stage for Creativity

What better way to celebrate America’s Independence Day than to visit its (arguably) first National Park? I had been looking forward to disconnecting from technology and camping in Yosemite for months. I find it exceedingly difficult to take time away from work and have resorted to planning vacations which are sufficiently distracting in order to clear my head. The breathtaking beauty of the Yosemite Valley, combined with the unique challenges of sleeping, eating and living outdoors certainly fit the bill. The change of pace, scenery and tasks allowed my mind to wander and wonder.

IMG_1695


Creativity is a slippery process: first, you have to gather all the necessary information and skills, second, you try to combine what you know or can do in a new way, then you generally need to step away from the problem or task and let it simmer for a bit, and finally, the new idea or way of expressing yourself seems to ‘pop’ into your mind. That third stage is called the incubation period. Understanding exactly what’s going on during that incubation period is arguably he Holy Grail in the study of creativity.

This week I came across two interesting studies of incubation that were published within a few months of each other in 2009. Sio and Ormerod reviewed a number of empirical studies of incubation in the journal Psychological Bulletin and found that when someone needs to consider a large amount of information to come up with a creative solution, the incubation period is particularly important. When the problem is visual rather than language-based, incubation is only effective if the person has undergone a long preparation period and has hit a creative block.

Denise Cai in Sarah Mednick’s lab at UCSD wondered whether dreaming, or rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, when our brain is busy consolidating what we’ve learned while we were awake, might be the critical component in incubation. She had her subjects take Mednick’s Remote Associates Test (RAT), a commonly used test of creativity, in which the goal is to figure out how three items are related (e.g. cookies, sixteen, heart - once you’ve had a chance to think about it, scroll down to see the answer below) and then she randomly assigned them to one of two conditions: full-on napping (measured by a polysomograph) or resting quietly while listening to instrumental music. Turns out that napping did, in fact, improve performance significantly more than rest when they were tested again on the RAT in the afternoon.

How important REM sleep is for memory consolidation remains fairly controversial, but there’s no question that sleep affects memory, especially the deepest sleep, called slow-wave sleep. Many professional classical musicians take a nap in the afternoon: napping helps their bodies recover from a long morning practice session and prepare for an evening concert but it’s also likely that their brains are consolidating the motor sequences that they have been learning while their conscious minds are at rest.

Whatever the relationship might be between sleep, memory consolidation and creativity, one thing is clear: there is something still magical about incubation. This weekend, my dreams were filled with waterfalls and butterflies, and new ideas are bubbling in my brain. It will be a while before I underestimate the importance of taking time off again. Oh and the answer to the RAT item above is sweet. Literally.

Comments

The Tao of Cat: the Future as a Function of the Past

The cat that lives in my backyard is his own man. He comes and goes as he pleases. He politely asks for food but when it doesn’t meet his expectation, he complains to the chef. He doesn’t like to be tied down but he’s not above showing his affection when his belly is full and it’s raining outside. He tolerates petting as a courtesy to those who serve him but his eyes belie his disdain for the cooing and snuggling that are sometimes inflicted upon him by his co-tenants.

Street Art: Chicago
Chicago Street Art

His is a pretty sweet life. Recently, I’ve found myself envying his advanced Buddhist practice of living purely in the moment. He does not plan for the future or regret past decisions. He is focussed entirely on the present and his behavior reflects only his most immediate needs. But he does have one major character flaw: when a choice is forced upon him, even if it is a desirable alternative or would have been his preferred action in any case, he cannot tolerate it. For example, it has become his habit, after dinner, to enjoy stretching out on a warm blanket near his chef. But if his exit from the room is blocked by a closed door, he will not settle down for a snooze, but will do everything he can to get out of the room. Once the door is opened, he ignores it and proceeds to sidle up to the chef with his motor in full purr mode.

On one level, I understand his angst: when I am told that I must do something, that action loses a part of its attraction. And I don’t like to feel boxed in or powerless to escape if circumstances change. But, after five years of having my needs met, and never once being hurt or trapped, I have learned to trust the person (and cat) with whom I share my living space. Part of this trust comes from my ability to predict the actions of my co-tenants based on thousands of observations over the years. These observations have been stored, some as vivid episodes, others as extractions of the regularities in my co-tenants’ behaviors, in my malleable brain.

Memory for episodes, in particular, fascinates me for two reasons: the first being that our autobiography, and to a large extent our identity, is made up of our memories of the past, and feels to us like a searchable database of our experience (more here) and the second being the extraordinary observation that patients who lose the ability to retain event memories are also unable to imagine the future (the case of K.C.described here). I’ve studied autobiographical memory for over a decade, from my very first published paper (found here) to the one that’s currently in the STUFF TO DO NOW folder on my desktop.

As neuroscientists have come to navigate the ever-shifting landscape of our personal memories, it has become increasingly clear that our representations of the past and the future overlap to a very large extent. A former lab-mate of mine, who finished her PhD with the supervisors of my very first project (Dr. Morris Moscovitch and Dr. MaryPat McAndrews, at the University of Toronto, co-authors on my first published paper), went on to complete a highly-successful post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard with (another U of T alum) Dr. Daniel Schacter. Donna Addis is a sweet, intelligent and dynamic woman (now a professor in her own right at the University of Auckland) who conducted a seminal neuroimaging study demonstrating that the brain regions that support episodic memory (the medial temporal lobe, the core of which is the hippocampus, as well as areas of dorsolateral prefrontal and parietal cortices) are also involved in imagining the future (paper available here).

Most married couples, among other people, know that memory is a constructive process, rather than an accurate recording of what actually happened. For a long time, this constructive aspect of event memory was seen as a short-coming, rather than a desirable feature. But Dan Schacter and Donna Addis suggested that we should rethink this negative connotation and think about the benefits of a constructive memory system. Specifically, they suggested that this feature enables us to pull together bits of our past, recombine them and imagine the consequences of our actions in the future. Our constructive memory system gives us the tools we need to become effective soothsayers.

This ability gives me an edge over Mr. Cat in many different ways. I can dream big, and imagine every step that I need to take in order to make that dream come true. I can delay immediate gratification for a bigger reward down the line. I can adapt to changing circumstances because I can alter my imagined future to account for new information. But this ability can also draw me out of the present and prevent me from enjoying the moment because I’m too busy planning for the future. I’ve got a lot of decisions to make in the coming weeks and I need Mr. Cat to remind me that when the door is open, my belly is full and it’s raining outside, it’s perfectly ok to snooze with the chef.

Comments

There's still hope for sopranos: thanks to evolution

This week I’ve been having a lot of fun with the music that I’m working on because my voice teacher is out of town and I took her absence as an opportunity to remind myself why I continue to work on improving my vocal chops every day rather than simply maintaining my current level of performance. With sincere apologies to my neighbors, I have to admit that I’ve been enjoying practicing the stratospherically-high runs in the famous Queen of the Night aria (Der Holle Rache - you can find it here, starting 40 secs into the video) from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Sometimes I just need to let it rip.

P1030292

I’ve also been dusting off the Chansons Madecasses or Madagascar Songs by Maurice Ravel, in preparation for a concert that I’m giving on July 15th (details and a sample of one of the songs can be found here). These are fabulous, sensual and politically-charged pieces for voice, piano, cello and flute and I love them dearly. These chansons couldn’t be more different from Der Holle Rache in terms of the words, dramatic context, feel, style, tonality and texture and yet, when I’m singing them right, I get goosebumps. And not just when I’m singing them, but also when I hear someone else performing them.

Having that experience made me wonder, as I often do, why we get the ‘chills’ from specific musical passages. Jaak Panksepp, an Estonian-born (we’re practically neighbors! as my mother would say) neuroscientist in Washington state has studied and written about this phenomenon for decades, with an influential paper published in 1995 showing that, contrary to our intuition, we get the chills when we listen to ‘sad’ music, rather than music that makes us feel happy. A solo line, often in the soprano register (lucky for me), emerging from a denser musical texture most often caused his subjects to experience chills. He also found that women are more likely than men to get goosebumps when listening to music.

He has since gone on to suggest that the experience of chills evoked by music is related to the distress that we feel when we are separated from someone we love and that this response has perhaps evolved to encourage mothers to respond to their crying babies. It’s easy to imagine many of the most memorable musical passages as separation calls: Whitney Houston’s version of Dolly Parton’s I will always love you, the guitar solo in The Eagles’ Hotel California, the vocalise by Rachmaninoff, to name just a few. The solo instrument, on a simple melodic line, emerging from a thicket of other sounds.

Blood and Zatorre, neuroscientists at McGill University used neuroimaging to explore the parts of the brain that are activated during the experience of the chills evoked by music (you can find a copy here). They report that the same brain regions involved in other pleasurable activities such as eating or having sex such as the orbitofrontal and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the striatum and the midbrain, are also involved in this experience. But what’s most interesting to me about their studies is the fact that exactly which musical passage evokes the experience is very much tied to the individual: just because I like it, or find it moving, doesn’t mean that you will. Of course, that observation is self-evident to most of us, and the staggering diversity of music available to us demonstrates that musical taste is deeply personal. By the same token, I’ve watched mothers pick out their own baby’s cry from a cacophony of sounds with remarkable ease.

As I return to my vocal practice this week, I’m going to keep both Panksepp’s and Blood and Zatorre’s findings in mind. And at my next audition, I’m not going to worry about the fact that at least a hundred other sopranos are vying for the part. I’ll remember that, just like a baby’s cry, each of our voices is unique and there’s no telling which of our voices will wake the latent maternal instinct deep in the heart of the men and women on the audition panel. There might be a lot of sopranos out there, but we also might be favored by evolution to give our audiences the chills. And that’s a goal worthy of all the practice hours it demands.
Comments

Not with a bang, but with a whimper

The purpose of this blog is to generate and nurture ideas on topics that represent the wide variety of subjects that irk, interest and impassion me: neuroscience, opera, critical thinking, empathy and all the places where those topics intersect. Read More...
Comments