Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sometimes, it helps to consider irrelevant information.

Be sleepy. Be drunk. Be creative?

So, in looking around at other pieces by Jonah Lehrer on creativity, I came across this, from his blog. It’s regarding a couple studies that suggest not being able to properly focus and pay attention can improve one’s ability to solve creative problems. Being sleepy or drunk, in this scenario, is a good thing.

“Yikes” is the proper response. But it does directly link to the way a lot of artists and writers, etc, have used drugs as a creative crutch. Still, I refuse to lose sleep over it or pick up drinking.

In the first study, he poses a couple brain teaser questions. The first is one that 92 percent of people are able to quickly answer. As well, nearly 90 percent of those with brain damage to the prefrontal lobes—leaving them with “severe attentional deficits, unable to control their mental spotlight—are also able to find the answer.”

The second problem he shows is a similar arithmetic brain teaser, but one that requires a bit of insight or creative thinking rather than more derivative thinking. In this case, only 43 percent of normal subjects are able to solve it, but 82 percent of those who “couldn’t pay attention” were able to.

Here are the two problems (you must move a single line to make them valid math statements):

IV = III + III (Easy)

III = III + III (Difficult)

I’ll give it over to him to mull the issue:


What accounts for this bizarre result? Why does brain damage dramatically improve performance on a hard creative task? The explanation is rooted in the unexpected nature of the solution. . . . The reason this puzzle is so difficult, at least for people without brain damage, has to do with the standard constraints of math problems. Because we’re not used to thinking about the operator, most people quickly fix their attention on the roman numerals. But that’s a dead end. The patients with a severe cognitive deficit, in contrast, can’t restrict their search. They are forced by their brain injury to consider a much wider range of possible answers. And this is why they’re nearly twice as likely to have a breakthrough.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should take a hammer to your frontal lobes. Being able to direct the spotlight of attention is a crucial talent. However, the creative upside of brain damage — the unexpected benefits of not being able to focus — does reveal something important about the imagination. Sometimes, it helps to consider irrelevant information, to eavesdrop on all the stray associations unfolding in the far reaches of the brain. We are more likely to find the answer because we have less control over where we look.

This helps explain a new study led by Mareike Wieth at Albion College. The scientists surveyed 428 undergrads about their circadian habits, asking them whether they were more productive and alert in the morning or evening. As expected, the overwhelming majority were night owls, which is why they studiously avoided 9 a.m. classes. Then, the scientists gave the students a series of problem-solving tasks. Half of these tasks were creative insight puzzles, in which the answer arrives suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere.

[ . . . ]

The other half of the problems given to the students were standard analytic problems, such as long-division and pre-algebra equations. These questions don’t require insights. Instead, they benefit from ordinary focus, as people grind out the answer and check to make sure it’s right. The subjects were given four minutes to solve each problem. Half of them were tested early in the morning (8:30 a.m.) and half were tested in the late afternoon (around 5 p.m.).

The results are a testament to the creative virtues of grogginess. When people were tested during their “least optimal time of day” — think of that night owl stumbling into the lab in the early morning — they were significantly more effective at solving insight puzzles. (On one problem, their performance increased by nearly 50 percent.) Performance on the analytic problems, meanwhile, was unaffected by the clock.

The larger lesson is that those sleepy students, like a brain-damaged patient, benefit from the inability to focus. Their minds are drowsy and disorganized, humming with associations that they’d normally ignore. When we need an insight, of course, those stray associations are the source of the answer.

One last piece of evidence: A brand-new study by scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago compared performance on insight puzzles between sober and drunk students. (They were aiming for real intoxication, giving students enough booze to achieve a blood alcohol level of 0.075.) Once the students achieved “peak intoxication” the scientists gave them a battery of word problems – they’re known as remote associate tests – that are often solved in a moment of insight.

[ . . . ]

According to the data, drunk students solved more of these word problems in less time. They also were much more likely to perceive their solutions as the result of a sudden insight. And the differences were dramatic: The alcohol made subjects nearly 30 percent more likely to find the unexpected solution.

Once again, the explanation for this effect returns us to the benefits of not being able to pay attention. The stupor of alcohol, like the haze of the early morning, makes it harder for us to ignore those unlikely thoughts and remote associations that are such important elements of the imagination.


And an interesting conversation regarding creativity, then, is how to foster this non-attention attention. Because I like a good night sleep, you see. And I have some sort of problem with alcohol where I instantly get a headache. And drugs just scare me.
A short-term good idea, a long-term disaster.


At 3/11/2012 9:29 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

You're fascinating me because I thought alcohol--and the behaviors it elicits, such as getting naked and capering obstreperously to The Stooges--were, like THINKING, useful mainly in the interstices of writing. (A formerly close friend writes poetry almost entirely with his brain. I try to write with my body, senses, blood. Well, he was smarter than I am...) Writing under the influence might, by lowering inhibitions, help you feel like you don't give a fuck. (Justin Marks has a good blog post about achieving a creative breakthrough when he said, with the Beastie Boys,
"I got nothing to lose because I don't give a fuck.") Once, when I was drunk at a poetry reading, I made an extempore poem out of a page from a phone book, and I got up there and slurred it out. (Needless to say, I wasn't reading to a genteel academic crowd.) But I doubt I've written a keeper under the influence.

If drugs scare you--and I don't blame you, they scare me, too--I've found that taking in trippy art can induce mind-alteration. If you're really into it. For example, LSD, Spirituality, and the Creative Process (a great book about Oscar Janiger's experiments), Naked Lunch, Jesus' Son. Jim Carroll makes me feel stoned. Watching Robert Crumb talk about his acid vision in the eponymous documentary helps. Helps to open doors of perception, I mean.

At 3/11/2012 10:17 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I like the general conversation of “considering irrelevant information.” The more art resides in this place, the more I tend to like it. Poets have told me in the past that they read a few pages of Ashbery to help them get into this sort of space to create their own work.

This makes sense, as the workaday world is, according to what people have told me, antithetical to this sort of thing. But these studies complicate that. They say this “art space” or “drunk/ sleepy” space is necessary. Or, actually, what is necessary is the ability to navigate between these poles. There’s probably something to that, but every time I see a dichotomy I get skeptical. Still, though, it seems obvious enough that these are, at the very least, good things to keep in mind. It’s BOTH / AND.

But alcohol and drugs wear down the body. That seems to me a terrible way to go. And then, like The Rolling Stones, when you get sober, you’ve no strategies left to make good art.

At 3/11/2012 10:38 AM, Blogger Jason Bradford said...

I often like to write in the morning. It feels as if I have no critical filter, which I think this post is getting at. In the morning, I'm ready to let things happen.

At 3/11/2012 10:45 AM, Blogger Jason Bradford said...

Moreover, by night, I feel like I "have" to say "something". In the morning, I'm ready and willing to say "anything".

At 3/12/2012 8:34 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

My fellow scientists,

There's a fatal flaw in this study and it doesn't get at any truth at all. I got this insight in a lazy moment while yawning, or, was it the moment before when I had a surge of hyper-clarity? Not sure. Anyway:

The problem is that it fails to distinguish between clear-headed and foggy *thinkers* and clear-headed and foggy *thinking.*

People who are foggy thinkers to begin with fear further fogginess and thus are less likely to do drugs, and more likely to lead a clean lifestyle. Thus a group labeled clear-headed thinkers, will be more prone to foggy thinking on tests. Conversely, clear-headed thinkers, because they see more quickly the pleasurable benefits of foggy thinking, will, as clear-headed thinkers, tend to follow the 'foggy thinking lifestyle,' and so this group of 'foggy thinkers' will have a greater tendency to do clear thinking on tests.

Plus there's the question, is it the foggy thinking itself which comes up with solutions to problems, or is it the clear-headed thinker fighting with greater energy against the *conditions* of foggy thinking?

At 3/12/2012 9:15 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Jonah Lehrer allows comments on his blog. You should tell him about your theory. At the very least, it would be amusing!

At 3/12/2012 11:24 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

Thanks, John, I just did.


At 3/12/2012 12:03 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

My guess is that if he responds, he'll say that the type of sample and its size correct for such deviances across the population. But I'm not a social scientist, so I'm staying out of it.

At 3/12/2012 1:33 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

"or is it the clear-headed thinker fighting with greater energy against the *conditions* of foggy thinking?"

Sometimes, when I'm in my cups, I struggle to declaim Johnsonian periods with punctilious elocution.
I'm fighting the effects of the foggy lifestyle.

I read that Timothy McVeigh fought the first of his three lethal injections, the one that knocks you out. There's some irrelevant info to consider.


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