The Playing Field

Sport and culture through the lens of science

Creativity: The Secret Behind the Secret

Forget about thinking different, the real secret is perceiving different!

In 2010, IBM’s Institute for Business Value surveyed over 1,500 chief executives about the most important leadership competency for this new millennium. Creativity was the across-the-board’s winner. No surprise, right? But this begs the eternal question: When scaling up your business, where in the heck does one find good creative talent?

There’s lots of advice around, most of which is centered around a watch-and-wait kind of approach. See which people ask creative questions, see who comes up with interesting problem-solving solutions—that sort of thing.

And this is fine if you’re assembling a creative group within your organization to spearhead a project and already have an existing infrastructure and a lot of employees to choose from—but what if you’re starting from scratch? Building your business? How do you identify creative talent in a few quick rounds of interviews?

The short answer—talk to a skateboarder. The long answer… well, it’s long… and it starts with a Swarthmore University psychologist named Solomon Asch.

In the 1950s, Asch performed what has since become on of the classic experiments in social psychology. He was interested in the effects of peer pressure, so designed an experiment to test our willingness to follow the herd. 

See All Stories In

Genius at Work

Can you cultivate genius?

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

In Asch’s study, groups of 5-8 people were assembled. Only one subject was an actual subject—the rest were Asch’s co-conspirators. Everyone was seated in pair of rows, with the subject seated towards the back of the second row. They were then told they were participating in a “vision test,” in which they would be shown a card with a line on it, followed by another card with three lines on it (labeled A, B, C). The “goal” of this test was to guess which line (A, B, C) matched (in length) the first line shown. 

For the first two round of the test everything proceeds like normal. The experimenter held up a card with, say, a two inch line. Then everyone, including the study subject, guessed the matching line correctly. The same thing happened on the second round. But on the third round, something funny unfolds. The presenter showed a two inch line on the first card. On the second card, line B was obviously the two inch line and both A and C are shorter or longer respectively. But all of the conspirators gave the wrong answer—claiming the shorter line (say a one inch line) actually matched the two-inch line.

The question was what would the study subject do? Will they go along with the herd and give the wrong answer or will they be willing to stand out from the crowd and give the right one? 

There were 18 total rounds. In 12 of them conspirators gave the wrong answers. And our study subjects? 75 percent went along with the herd at least once. 32 percent went along every time. A stunning example of conformity.

When asked about their decisions later—none of the subjects had any idea why they made the choices they made. They didn’t realize they were intentionally picking the wrong line.  They thought they had given the correct answer.  Humans were sheep—that’s the moral of this story.

But in the early 2000s, Emory University neuroscientist Dr. Greg Berns decided to rerun Asch’s study, only this time inside an fMRI scanner. Instead of line length, Berms used rotational shapes…(he showed people two abstract 3-D shapes that were rotated with respect to one another. This was the only deviation from Asch’s study. Everything else was the same—including the result.

Again, subjects went along with the crowd. Again, they didn’t quite know why they did so. But when Berns look at the fMRI data, it told a different story.

When subjects studied the shape, there was activation in the visual processing regions of the brain. Simultaneously, both the parietal and temporal lobe showed activity (these were involved in reorganizing the shapes, essentially solving the rotational portion of the problem).  This was baseline data—exactly what we’d expect to see.

But when subjects conformed, something else occurred. The parietal cortex, which before had emitted a faint glow, was now lit up like a Christmas tree—the telltale sign of hard work being done.

“A plausible explanation,” writes Berns in his excellent book Iconoclast, “ is that the group’s wrong answers imposed a “virtual” image in the subjects mind. In the case of conformity, the image beat out the image originating from the subject’s own eyes, causing the subject to disregard her own perception and accept the groups.”

Now, there has always been considerable suspicion that we live in a world entirely constructed by our brain—our own private little Matrix—but Berns had confirmed this to a scary degree. Conformity, up to that point, had been thought of as a fear problem. The terror of standing out from one’s peer group and all that. But Bern’s data showed that conformity was also a perceptual problem—our brain literally showed us “false” data when that terror began to grip us.

Now, humans are social creatures and this neuronal reaction makes a certain amount of survival sense—but if our natural tendency is sheepishness and finding creatives is one of the top goals for any organization—well how exactly do you do that? 

Berns asked a similar question. He had started to wonder about iconoclasts—which he defined as people who do something other say couldn’t be done. He was curious about the likes of Walt Disney, Ray Krok, Warren Buffet, Richard Branson and such. What was it about these innovators that allowed them to think differently?

Berns came to a number of conclusions, foremost among them an interesting fact: iconoclast don’t just think differently, they have different brains—literally. They don’t just think differently, they perceive differently. 

Here’s how he explains it:

"At every step in the process of visual perception, the brain throws out pieces of information and assimilates the remaining ones into increasingly abstract components. Experience plays a major role in this process. The human brain sees things in ways that are most familiar to it. But epiphanies rarely occur in familiar surroundings. They key to seeing like an iconoclast is to look at things that you have never seen before."

But there’s one step farther on this line. Certainly, finding someone who is constantly seeking out new sights, sounds, information—whatever, is a decent marker to look for when trying to hire creative employees. But to go one better, why not seek out someone who looks at the things they see everyday from constantly new angles—someone who sees the old as new again.

Now that’s real creativity, and this bring us to skateboarding. 

In a recent blog, I made the point that skateboarding is an extremely creative activity and that legendary skateboarder Danny Way has managed to stay atop this game for most of the past three decades, a period in which the sport went from a nascent, underground activity to a nearly five billion dollar industry. My point being that Way has had exceptional creative longevity in an arena that emphasizes novelty and youth—and this is no simple feat.

So how did he pull it off? Simple—just like Berns explained—he perceived things differently.

Sports that involve wheels—skateboarding, BMX riding, motocross, etc.—all do something very peculiar to the brain. And it happens fast. Usually around the point a novice begins to acquire their first bit of real skill, the world morphs. An entire new possibility space emerges. Instead of seeing a rock outcropping and thinking: “Oh, look, the majesty of nature.” The mountain bike rider says—“Oh look, the majesty of nature, can I ride my bike down that? Is that even possible? How can I make it possible?”

The same goes for skaters. As Danny Way explains: “I look at everything differently. My first thought is always—how can I skate that. With architecture, or urban planning, I see things no one really notices, subtle differences in materials, the shapes of stairs, tiny ornamental features that might mean interesting possibilities. It’s always can I skate that, how can I skate that, how can I skate that in a way that no one’s ever skated before. That’s the thought process. I just see the whole world as a playground.” 

But, for our purposes, the most important point: This talent doesn’t just stay locked up in skating. “This creative way of looking at things impacts every aspect of my life,” continues Way,  “as a skater, as a businessman, a musician, when I’m with my kids—all of it.” 

Creativity, then, is the downstream product of a long-term habit in altered perception. This is the only proven work-around for our sheepish tendencies. So if you’re trying to build a creative organization and looking over resumes, pay attention to past experiences. Hobbies and work. Look for those activities that require perceptual shifts for success. Have the potential employees been forced to train their brain to see things anew?

Without this forced training our innate tendency is think similarly. The world is either our playground or our prison, there’s just no other way to see things. So what are you looking for in potential employees?

Why a playground mindset, of course.

For more content like this, sign up for Steven's email newsletter here.

Steven Kotler is an author and journalist. His most recent works include: Abundance, A Small Furry Prayer  and West of Jesus.

more...

Subscribe to The Playing Field

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?