When two dolphins, Phoenix and Akeakamai, swam into a training pool at the University of Hawaii's Kewalo Marine Laboratory and were denied fish for performing the "tricks" that usually earned them rewards, they couldn't imagine what had gone wrong.

Unbeknownst to Phoenix and Akeakamai, their human coaches had decided to only provide fish snacks for behaviors they had not previously seen from the dolphins, or for behaviors that were offered in some novel way. They were asking the dolphins to be creative.

Is creativity a gift one is born with or can it be learned? As a teacher of creative writing, that's a question I hear often. Whenever I sense a conversation rounding the nature versus nurture corner, I generally talk about dolphins. That's because I once trained dolphins for a living, and I found that dolphins have lots to teach about creativity as a behavioral process.

Creative folks in general - artists, writers, dancers, you name it - enjoy a somewhat dubious reputation for indulging in fits of displeasure. While I won't debate the validity of such a reputation here, I will say that if tantrums are at all indicative of the creative mind at work, then Phoenix and Akeakamai were well on their way to artistic genius.

I didn't train these two now-famous (at least in training circles) animals, but I know firsthand that dolphins can pitch quite a fit. Sometimes they rush through the water jerking their bodies and snapping their jaws in threatening displays or slap their tails on the surface of the water to produce thunder-like claps of disapproval. When humans are the objects of their frustration, they often leap from the water to produce splash landings designed to drench an offending trainer. Their aim is quite good.

That's about what Phoenix and Akeakamai's trainers reported as the outcome of initial creativity training sessions, when the animals' normal repertoire of behaviors failed to produce expected fish rewards.

We humans do much the same thing when pressed for creative solutions to current problems. We gather around the corporate water dispenser to complain about new policy and swear that there is just no way we are going to be able to meet the new demands and expectations we see headed our way.

But we are usually wrong.

Creative challenge is a lot like that coming-of-age moment when the training wheels come off the bicycle. We've typically been riding and enjoying ourselves for quite some time when this happens, for months or even years. We like riding our bicycles. Suddenly, with training wheels removed, the flow of reward for our bike riding behavior is momentarily interrupted. We are forced into new ways of doing things - learning through creative experimentation how to subtly shift our bodies this way and that, redistributing weight.

We fall and we complain.

If we're lucky, however, an encouraging caretaker is on hand to offer us a steady stream of praise: "There you go, good balance, keep going, you're doing great!" In the beginning, every effort gets rewarded.

Once the basic behavior - that of engaging in creative experimentation - is in place, reinforcement need not, and in fact ultimately should not, follow every effort. You wouldn't, after all, continue to stand at the street corner shouting praises to a child who has been riding a bicycle for two years. Praise can drop away as the child eventually experiences a sense of creative play which becomes, over time, its own reward.

In general, steady reinforcement is great for helping both dolphins and humans learn new tasks and develop discipline. But once this is achieved, it is best to use reinforcements only occasionally, to reward only a dolphin's highest jumps or a writer's very best sentences or a painter's most vibrant images. In this way, creativity can be molded and shaped for improved performance. Successful human artists of virtually every stripe know this intuitively, and they find ways to reward themselves for their efforts to help overcome creative hurdles.

So, the next time you find yourself in the midst of a dejected, complaining throng of coworkers gathered around the corporate water dispenser, you might just buoy the collective spirit with a tale of two dolphins:

Phoenix and Akeakamai experienced numerous failures in eventually learning to answer their trainers' call for creative behavior. But the pay-offs, when they came, were spectacular. The dolphins began to find new combinations of soaring leaps with twists, underwater rolls with fin slaps, and pairings of vocalizations with gestural behaviors. The animals found their psychological limits as permeable as the shimmering surface boundary that separated their watery world from that of their human trainers. They breached a divide and caught on to the creative life. And so can we.

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2011

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