Creativity and Inborn Personality Factors
This post will be pretty casual in the way I will talk... but the subjects of creativity and of inborn personality factors are both quite serious, both for society and for basic science.
Let me start with some important basics, things which should be well-known but somehow get lost in powerful policy discussions.
Background 1... creativity
There are lots of high-level efforts in US, China and elsewhere on how to accelerate innovation, or take the lead in innovation. For decades and decades, serious economists have known that improvements in productivity have been the main source of long-term growth, and that improvements in productivity are tied to productivity. In my recent post on NSF, I emphasized the need for greater effectiveness in “both main areas”: (1) new fundamental breakthrough discoveries and inventions; and (2) “translational” work, addressing the “Valley of Death” between invention and deployments which actually create value added or improvements in human life. (Really serious economists want us to measure value added in ways which capture more of the possible improvements in quality of life, but that’s too big of a subject for me to review again this morning.) We need diversity of thoughts and approaches in both areas, but right now (1) is the area most in danger around the world. I have spent a lot of effort in (2) as well, but it is beyond the scope of this particular post.
Even in an ideal system (like the old NSF, exactly as it was or with more rational improvements/supplements?)... new discovery and invention (1) is not easy. I spent almost 30 years at NSF seeing real results, good and bad and halfway, from proposals and projects across a very wide variety of S&T areas. I have read state-of-the-art papers on creativity; this post will not be one of those, but it is informed by some of those, and it will have two unique advantages:
(1) What I saw in direct observation of hundreds of the very most effective people in (1) from many fields; and
(2) A more mathematical functional understanding of the underlying brain mechanisms, reviewed in my chapter for the 2016 book edited by Freeman and Kozma and also in our new paper submitted by invitation in a neuroscience journal..(hopefully citeable soon)...
Background 2... inborn personality factors
Inborn personality factors?
I have spent most of my life developing models and designs for intelligent systems as open-minded as possible, relying as little as possible on hard-wired behavior and assumptions and prior knowledge. Yet even the most universal learning systems, at the highest levels of intelligence, remain influenced for their whole life by three kinds of constraints: (1) the concrete sensors and actuators, like senses and muscles (or “squeezing and squirting”) they are hooked up to; (2) the complex system of primary utility or reinforcement they partner with, the system I was prepared to study instead of intelligent back when I defended two topics for my Harvard PhD thesis; and (3) “arbitrary cognitive style parameters.”
To me, the “inborn personality factors” which some psychologists look for are a mixture of factors in the primary utility system, and of cognitive style parameters. The cognitive style parameters are factors where the mathematics says you can pick anything, and the system will still learn the right thing in time... but it will simply lose a finite amount of time if it starts with the wrong things. The values of these parameters are arbitrary in a way, because the system is equally intelligent and powerful whatever you choose within a broad range, but in some environment some values get you off to a better start. In biology, one would predict that nature would create a diversity of gene values, to make sure that the population has a diversity of possible values of these parameters, so that some organisms will be able to adapt to a variety of possible environmental conditions. To a first approximation, if we see a diversity of cognitive style parameters in the population, it tells us that there is no “best value” but rather a need for a diversity of values in the population. This is especially important to creativity! But at the same time, populations in flux, like the human population, may have a mix of traits, some which really need variation, and some which are more like the appendix, evolutionary relics. If nation-states try to micromanage DNA, or, worse, look for “the best DNA,” we are in very deep trouble, worse than governments trying to pick the one right source of energy. But we do need realistic humane systems of competition which do justice both to the need for diversity and for the need for progress. The DNA of creativity is important both to technological creativity and to spiritual progress as well, and that is part of why all top-down systems of political control right or left are a great threat to humanity here and now. (At this moment, assorted threats from the right seem more serious, and threats from the left seem more of a joke, but such things wax and wane.)
By the way, some neural network people would immediately guess that “the learning rate” might be one of those parameters. But even in my older work (as in the Handbook of Intelligent Control, and my 1988 paper on the model of natural gas markets I developed for EIA), I used an Adaptive Learning Rate Algorithm, in which cognitive style parameters were at a higher level, allowing adaptation of the learning rates used in different parts of life.
And now, some rambling realities.
I remember a nice tutorial from an old entrymate from Harvard, Prof. Dan Levine, discussing the theory of Cloninger, who has become something of an orthodoxy or starting point for today’s research in human personality theory. (Please forgive that I giggled when I first heard that name, long ago, as it sounded like “cloning her.” Actually, many people end up working in areas which resonate with their names, like the once famous Dr. Brain. I was so sad when Dr. Merklein took over the the Energy Information Administration (EIA), and one reviewer said “Given who is behind the Annual Energy Outlook, we are not surprised that it is Murky and Verbose this year.”)
In Cloninger’s view, some of the 11 or so basic traits of human personalities are highly inheritable, others not at all so, and some (like IQ?) a kind of 50-50 mix. One of the 11 was
a kind of mix of two highly inheritable traits, which I had discussed before with Bernie Baars, Dan Levine and Dan’s former student Sam Leven: (1) “tolerance of cognitive dissonance” and (2) “novelty seeking.”
In the course of evaluating literally thousands of proposals at NSF (with heavy input from peer review of course), funding hundreds... I noticed some patterns.
I used to say: “Everyone I fund has at least SOME trait which most people would regard as an extreme anomaly or even fault. It seems that unique high productivity or new value added (without which we would not want to spend NSF money) demands some special irritant, like the old story of he oyster and the pearl.” I told this to many people, including one woman I funded. “Hey, what about me? I am absolutely normal.” She was, at a very important level, but she also taught belly dancing and practiced wicca in her spare time. But don’t worry, I also founded a guy who talked EXACTLY like Donald Trump, so much so that I found it weird when I first heard his (familiar!) voice on TV this year. I suppose that the guy like Romney was more average, sort of, or the guy who had danced in the bolshoi... but... some unique creative tension does seem called for.
I have done some creative things myself, and “it takes one to know one.” For me... I have a high inborn “intolerance of cognitive dissonance,” like a lot of “yang” Germans and Russians. As with all cognitive style parameters, it provides a mix of strengths and weaknesses, and we need to be mindful both of the strengths and the weaknesses, and the risks and opportunities they provide. People with this trait tend to go for order, and tend to insist that things make sense in terms of a coherent worked out understanding. But they can risk becoming a bull in the China shop, ignoring data which does not fit their theory, and being insensitive.
But at the same time, I also have a very high level of “novelty seeking.” I sometimes associate this one with the Irish half of my ancestry, though people like my mother and the great physicist Robert O”Connell remind me that that ancestry can also come with a kind of almost clairovoyant clarity which also favors mathematics. My mother is a very serious“yin” person, but perhaps OConnell goes for order as much as I do. (I remember Irish priests who also went for order, though I doubt Bob would follow them any more than I would.)
When I discussed this with Bernie Baars in a sushi bar next to UNU in Tokyo in 1999, where we both had plenary talks in the first big international conference on consciousness, he said something like: “My God! Those two traits do not go together very often or very well. Their negative correlation is so great that it’s no wonder Cloninger just limped them together as one thing. Your novelty seeking would always drive you to disconfirm whatever theory you are trying hard to hold onto... It would cause endless inner conflict and discontent.” Yes, it is so, exactly so, but for that niche of folks asked to come up with new theories or frameworks, it is a powerful engine, like the powerful free energy you can get from access both to high heat and cold at the same place. It also drives some psychological adjustments. In light (Irish?) type moments, I have said... “I ended up with a German brain and an Irish heart”.. and I even noticed the different unique capabilities of other folks with Irish brain and German heart... we all learn in time. Both engines can also drive a person to serious, analytic mysticism, as I described in a prior blog post.
In discussions of spirit and consciousness and mysticism, frivolous superficial people have said: “Oh, you just believe that paranormal kind of stuff because of what your parents taught you about your family religion. That’s the only reason any intelligent people believe anything but what the amazing Randi teaches us about how the cosmos works.” Well, I sometimes cite the deep study by Greeley and Macready going past that kind of speculative ideological stuff. But I sometimes say: “What of the four great founders of the hard core of quantum mechanics, Heisenberg, De Broglie, Schrodinger and Einstein? Except for Einstein, all four were hard core mystics as serious as I am. Were these the kind of people who just beleived what their parents taught them, with no ability to think for themselves? Can the Amazing Randi think for himself better than these folks could?” No, the Amazing Randi would fit in well with the utterly conformist non-innovative cheering squads we now see, chanting Bo Xilai hymns to innovation (paid for by the taxpayer)... but it’s just another species.. a species which has its place but not in charge.
So what WERE the engines of creativity for those four great people?
I like to believe that De Broglie and Schrodinger were driven by engines very similar to my own, to a type of mysticism very similar to my own. I actually have letters from De Broglie in my files (also scanned into google drive!), and once had a few links to his old colleagues in France. His Bergson said a few things too mystical for me, a tad less yang, but he pushed hard for clear orderly understanding to his dying day, more than most mainstream physicists. I like to believe that our 2016 paper in Quantum Information Processing will be a step to help the world understand the validity of his vision.. Schrodinger was even more yang, like me, and the record of his conversations with Einstein is ever so gemutlich...and clear about his interest in very hard core yang-style mysticism.
But what of Heisenberg? I think of Heisenberg as an utterly yin person born into an utterly yang culture and family. That was the engine for him. How else could a person invite Gopal Krishna to given lectures on the vedas and on the unreality of everything to Germany, even as fitting in just fine in Nazi Germany and keeping people happy in Max Planck institutes?
And Einstein, the mirror image, a more purely yang person brought up in an incredibly cosmopolitan and even yin culture, furiously womanizing but also treating women a bit like a bull in the China shop even in later life.
I once compared Steve Grossberg’s engine of creativity to Einstein’s, and was amused when I saw the reaction of some of his followers. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and I am glad that Gail Carpenter has taught Steve things which Einstein never quite learned in his lifetime.
Just this morning, as I talked to Luda in the kitchen, she mentioned how she really hates it when things become routines, like how I keep offering to make coffee or tea (her choice) almost every morning. “Even this recent cognac thing in the evening, for the stomach..
it was great at first, but not after three times. We need new adventures. Like this new one..”
I then said: “You know, Luda, now that I think of it, we really do have something very deep in common here. We both have a very strong drive for order, combined with very strong novelty seeking.” She looked a bit conflicted, however (not a state she likes), and I said: “OK, I can see you might deny that about ordnung... except that in the kitchen especially you don’t want me to develop delusions about you putting up with disorder.” (Just as I type this, a scary thought arises: does Putin also strive for a combination or order and novelty in some ways? Ouch!)
After some thought she said: “Order in space, but novelty in time. I want you always to put things back in the same place in the refrigerator, but in the coming weeks...”
And then I thought: “Is this like spatial intelligence before the development of temporal intelligence, order and structure in space but not time?” I even said that, and noted.. the dinosaurs were a great step forward in evolution (though I have to admit I forget the details of Bitterman’s experiments comparing them with amphibians)... lots of structure and order in time... but not so creative. (I once compared them to Cheney’s foreign policy, but Cheney actually was quite creative in support of different goals, like Sith Lords, still very active today.) And then I realized... of course, the key difference between the mouse and the reptile is the new creativity mechanism, which RETAINS the temporal structure of the reptile brain but subordinates it in a way which allows for much more novelty and creativity. “Creativity” as we know it,” like “love” or “consciousness”, is actually a word or phenomenon representing the emergent outcome of many things, but certain these special new connections in mouse brain beyond reptile brain ARE a very specific mechanism specifically aimed at creativity, at escaping a type of local minimum in the higher order patterns, routines and decisions of our life. So are we just motivated to better express the inner mouse? (As Perlovsky has noted, the cognitive style and motivation parameters may actually overlap at some level. The mouse builds up a cognitive map of the space of possibilities; some mice may be more driven to fill in the unknown parts of the map than others. Work by Powell on exploration gradients is also relevant to the underlying cognitive style parameters in play here.)
By the way... something recently reminded me how important it ALSO is to consider Cloninger-like parameters on respect for authority and such, to map out some human behaviors... but I forget what it was. This is enough for one day.
As Putin hears Trump and Trump’s people selling out to folks who want a war with Iran.. I do hope his sense of order will kick in, more than it did when he made a deal with Erdogan like what CIA once did with Osama bin Laden. Or will he repress the unwanted data? I agree that the data is unwanted, but we do need to face up to reality here... scary as it is.
Small follow-on thoughts. I remember when I was 14 my father arranged a thorough psychological inventory, to try to help with career planning and such. I still remember that the personality part of test mostly ended up with numbers in the mid-range... except self-reliance, at the utter maximum, and self-confidence, at the utter minimum. As he looked at that contradiction, the psychologist rubbed his eyes... very hard.. so hard it looked as if he would squish/force them our of the sockets; I could hardly
hold my stomach to look at it! Another engine, needed for science, but problematic in other niches in this society?