The Default for Our Minds Is "Closed"

Your brain does not always want to be creative. You need to find ways to help.

Posted May 31, 2018

There seems to be an assumption that people are ready to be creative; all they need is a little motivation. Maybe they need to be encouraged to speak up, or maybe they need to feel safe, or maybe they need the chance to interact with diverse others. If we just let people be free of judgment, criticism, and pressure to conform, then they would be wellsprings of creative ideas.  

It's not so simple.

Judgment, criticism, and conformity do suppress creativity. But we can take all these hurdles away and people still really struggle to think differently. Just ask Yanny or Laurel, whichever one you heard. If you don’t know what I am talking about, there is an audio file that plays a sound that about half of people will hear as "Yanny" and others will hear as "Laurel." (If you missed it, check out this New York Times feature and listen to the file as it was recorded, but do not change the slider; we will do that later.)

Inconceivable!

Whichever word you heard, try to hear the other one (again, don’t change the pitch). Odds are that you not only can’t hear the other word, you can’t imagine how you could.

How does this relate to creativity? Hearing the other word requires changing your perspective—your frame for interpreting perceptions. All creativity involves perspective change1. Proust describes this poetically as “Not seeking new landscapes but seeing with new eyes.” Perspective change is how it is possible for the same perception to seem completely different depending on how you interpret it. The young girl-old woman illusion demonstrates this.

Public domain
Source: Public domain

The young-old woman illusion works the same way that the Yanny-Laurel illusion does: Perspective assembles the pieces of your perception into a coherent whole. But that means interpreting specific aspects one way or another. In the woman illusion, the nose of the old lady is the cheek of the young one. It can’t appear to be both at the same time. Further, if it is a cheek, then the round shape above and to the right must be an ear; it would not make sense as an eye given what people know about faces. It works as an eye only if we see the cheek as a nose. Similarly, the sound components of Yanny-Laurel are interpreted as “Yah” or “Law,” “nee” or “el,” and so forth.

The Yanny-Laurel illusion shows how hard it is to shift your thinking to a new perspective. In the woman illusion, one can point and say “See, this is her ear and that is her necklace” to show the young girl to a person who sees the old woman. But Yanny-Laurel uses sound, so as with most problems people encounter, it is hard to know what the pivot points would be. It demonstrates the fundamental cognitive challenge of perspective change.

You may want to change your perspective. But even with an entreaty to think differently, even when there is no lack of psychological safety, even when you know what the other perspective would lead you to perceive, it is still hard to change your perspective without help. That help is not motivation or encouragement, it is discovering the mental pivot points that restructure your perspective. Finding the pivot points is actually something people can learn to do more effectively1. But it takes time.

In the case of Yanny-Laurel, the pitch of the sound file was found to be the most effective way to pivot. Go back to the slider tool and play back the sound file with the slider all the way on the left, then all the way on the right. You will hear each word. It took time and work to figure that out (reminding us that creativity is not just some automatic flash of insight). It also took people who did not get stuck defending their own perception.  

Wrong, sir! Wrong!

Most media didn’t characterize Yanny-Laurel as an illusion. They called it a debate—as though there is an objectively right answer. To see how misguided that is, start the sound file playback with the slider at either Yanny or Laurel, and slowly move the slider toward the other direction while the sound keeps playing. Note where it changes from one word to the other. Then do the same from the other direction. Compare where you stopped hearing “Laurel” as you moved to the right, and where you stopped hearing “Yanny” as you moved to the left. Was there overlap? I bet there was. I put my results below. I can hear either word at 6, 7, 8, and 9 depending on what I just heard. The sound is objective, but its meaning is not.

Matthew A. Cronin
How far towards Yanny could you hear Laurel, and vice versa, as you moved the slider? You might have a different range, as my 46-year-old, post-rock-and-roll-band ears probably have different frequency sensitivities than yours.
Source: Matthew A. Cronin

So what do we learn from all this?

People assume their perception is reality, and this is done for honest reasons: we cannot imagine an alternative; it is inconceivable. It means that when we hear interpretations that conflict with ours, the typical reaction is not “That’s interesting,” it’s “You’re wrong.” But even if we encourage open mindedness, even if we want to change our perspective, it is hard to do this without cognitive help. One needs to find the pivot points to get between perspectives. The pivot points are also how we communicate our different perspectives to others so that they can see the world as we do. Learning how to find those pivot points is part of the Craft of Creativity.

References

[1] Cronin, M. A., & Loewenstein, J. (2018). The Craft of Creativity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press