Can I teach myself scientific creativity?

by AllAmericanBreakfast4 min read25th Jul 20213 comments

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World ModelingRationality
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Textbooks and classes are more than just curated collections of established knowledge. They also suggest what your goal should be:

  • Read the textbook and go to lecture
  • Take notes, ask questions when you feel confused, and try to understand everything
  • Solve the assigned problems for which the material equips you
  • Do practical projects and labs for hands-on experience

These are all instrumental goals, pointed at the terminal goal of becoming familiar with the material.

In real-world scientific research, scholarship has a different terminal goal, which is to let you design and carry out useful experiments. Familiarity with the material is just an instrumental goal that is supposed to contribute to that end.

Since useful research is about carrying out novel experiments to chip away at unsolved problems, it's generally going to be harder to say which specific bits of knowledge are going to be most useful to help you become a better experimenter. Perhaps you'll hit on a great idea for an experiment, or have a novel theoretical insight, and be able to trace back which bits of prior knowledge were necessary and sufficient to achieve this illumination.

Unfortunately, now that you've had your eureka moment, the connection between that prior knowledge and your creative insight is no longer very useful. The causal connection between your prior knowledge and your eureka moment is a form of knowledge. Unfortunately, it's a form of knowledge that becomes obsolete as soon as it is created.

All you can do with it is bring others to the same eureka moment you just had, which is what a classroom education is for. You can't use the prior knowledge->eureka moment connection to teach other people how to crank out their own novel insights.

Yet I do believe that creativity can be taught.

I worked as a piano teacher for a decade before my turn into scientific research. Although I was classically trained, I looked for ways to teach improvisation and songwriting to interested students. Occasionally, I would find two types of mechanical methods for developing their creativity:

  1. Processes for improvising that force students to make creative decisions, even when they don't have any clear ideas.
  2. Tools that let students generate clear ideas, even when they're not ready to make any creative decisions.

For example, when I taught songwriting, I created a songwriting process (verse/chorus structure, figuring out a chord progression first, then writing lyrics, then singing them while playing the chords). No particular chord progression is better than any other. You just have to choose some arbitrary chords. Any lyrics are fine, and any melody. It would be fine to generate every facet of the song via a random number generator. It's only important that there be some content.

I also discovered a set of tools for when a student just couldn't come up with any content for the songwriting process. I'd ask them for basic attributes of a character for their lyrics (gender, name, hair color, mood). Then I'd ask them to describe a problem that character had. Finally, we'd do the Five Whys exercise. Why does the character have that problem? Well, why are they in that situation? And why did that happen? Why? Why?

Then we'd just write a song that communicated that information in the lyrics. This worked great. Between the basic songwriting process and tools like this, we never had a day when my student couldn't write at least one song during her lesson.

Occasionally, we would engage in something akin to scholarship. This might involve listening to a song from the radio, reading through the lyrics, and discussing what they mean. Or we might learn a bit of music theory. Sometimes, she would learn songs from the radio by ear. I believe that these activities were also helpful and necessary on some level. But I also never tried very hard to directly connect these "scholarly" activities to her creative songwriting, in the sense of "now that you've learned X, you can create Y." When I tried, the results were almost always lackluster.

Hypothetically, it seems like we could approach scientific creativity in a similar fashion. We'd try to come up with a reliable process for project planning, where literally any experimental procedure is valid. To complement it, we'd want a set of tools to generate more interesting ideas for the project planning process.

Scholarship would need to happen alongside the creative side of the work. But analogously to my work with my piano students, I wouldn't try to force a connection between the book learning and the creative aspects of my work.

This seems like a reasonable strategy. I'll optimize for scholarly learning and experimental creativity separately. The former I'll approach using the suite of methods I've already developed for classroom learning. The latter will require developing  some new processes and tools for scientific creativity. I won't worry too much about trying to force a connection between these two aspects of my relationship with science, except by tailoring my choice of scholarly topics to align with my creative work. Just as with my piano students, it'll be most important to keep this fun, creative, and sustainable over the long-term.

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One good habit for creativity is to have a process that captures creative ideas. If you take a note whenever you have a creative idea whether that's good or not you train yourself to have creative ideas. 

For actually being creative it's important to believe in one's ability to have valuable ideas. A person who doesn't will easily find reasons why an idea he has shouldn't be persued so it doesn't rise to the level of being a creative idea. 

For many people I expect that they don't feel like they have the permission to have really creative ideas because of imposter syndrome issues or other similar issues. 

Your description of the processes you employ to enhance creativity in your students might be better described as behavioral algorithms. I would describe a behavioral algorithm as a sequence of behaviors or stimuli that increases the likelihood that some behavior, thought, or sentiment occurs or changes in a directed manner.  While I have not found many instances of this phrase being used in this way (a quick Google Scholar search doesn't return much), I would argue that this definition is still valuable. A hypothetical example (little bearing on reality) of a behavioral algorithm of the form ([behavior/stimuli sequence] → [outcome]) could be [10 minutes meditation → 3 minutes mild-intensity exercise → 10 minutes meditation → 10 minutes of any music → green tea] → [reduction in temporally local depressive feelings]. 

I have done some observational experiments (informal) to gauge behavioral algorithms that enhance creativity and that reduce depressive feelings. I will briefly describe the latter, as it pertains to the topic of this post. 

During my subway commutes several summers ago, I forced myself to generate 5 features of society or life that I thought could be better, and then I forced myself to come up with a solution to each of these. Before generating the problems, I would sit still for 15 minutes and try to avoid thinking about anything. I did this exercise (the still-mindedness and problem/solution generation) each day for one month. At the end of the exercise I found that it became much easier to generate problems and solutions, that my descriptions of the solutions became more detailed and practical, and that the solutions themselves seemed to be slightly more creative (this is subjective; I would say that the solutions became somewhat more clever). It could be the case that my creativity was not actually increasing, and rather that I was simply getting more efficient at generating ideas of the same degree of creativity (I don't know how creativity is measured) as I had going into the informal experiment. Different approaches might be needed for improving the 'cleverness' or depth of a creative idea versus improving the rate of creative idea generation, where the level of creativity in this case is equal to the person's baseline creativity. 

I have not devoted the necessary time to generate robust experimental designs to test different behavioral algorithms for improving various dimensions of my health, creativity, or productivity, but I think it'd be interesting to scope out this topic more. It would be awesome if you could test out several variations of the current behavioral algorithms you use with your students, and then report how the outcomes differ between variations.

Thank you for this post as well!

My guess is that creativity isn't really something you need to focus on to get good results in it. You have your own personal point of view. Follow it to its natural conclusion within the area you care about. You are probably in a place that no one else has quite gone (though it is likely close). Don't check if it is original, just if it is a good idea. If it is a good idea, do it (as well as possible). What did you learn? Follow it to the new natural conclusion. Repeat. Pretty soon, you'll be in some far off corner of possibility space. Only then, check how your work fits with others. It would be truly bizarre if you ended up where everyone else is. If you did, show that. People will be intrigued about why it is such a natural place to end up [and your journey there was likely novel, or at least close enough.]

I like your analogies to songwriting, and I think it is completely obvious that tying the learning explicitly with the creating will get subpar results. Intuition works best with a lot of relevant (understood) information, but not so well with explicit rules.