How much do we know about creativity?

post by NancyLebovitz · 2015-06-09T12:43:44.964Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 25 comments

A lot of Less Wrong frames becoming more rational in terms of correcting biases. When Scott Alexander is asked how he does it, he doesn't seem to actually have an answer-- if I recall correctly, he's just said that all he's got in his life is his job, his girlfriend, and his blog, which doesn't begin to explain his remarkable flow of interesting posts.

It's a good thing to have fewer and weaker biases, but it's better if de-biasing can be applied to new ideas which have a good chance of paying off.

Is there LW material about creativity that I'm not remembering? Any recommendations for information about creativity elsewhere? I'm especially interested in material which you've seen help you or other people become more creative, as distinct from material which has been plausible and/or fun to read.

Edited to add: While I think this is a generally applicable topic, I also have a local interest. I'm fond of LW, but it seems to be in a doldrums, and at least part of the cause is a lack of interesting new material.


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comment by ahbwramc · 2015-06-09T13:36:45.402Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wrote a couple posts on my personal blog a while ago about creativity. I was considering cross-posting them here but didn't think they were LessWrong-y enough. Quick summary: I think because of the one-way nature of most problems we face (it's easier to recognize a solution than it is to generate it), pretty much all of the problem solving we do is guess-and-check. That is, the brain kind of throws up solutions to problems blindly, and then we consciously check to see if the solutions are any good. So what we call "creativity" is just "those algorithms in the brain that suggest solutions to problems, but that we lack introspective access to". The lack of introspective access means it's difficult to pass creative skills on - think of a writer trying to explain how to write well. They can give a few basic rules of thumb, but most of their skill is contained within a black box that suggests possible sentences. The actual writing process is something like "wait for brain to come up with some candidate next sentence", and then "for each sentence, make a function call to 'is-sentence-good?' module of brain" (in other words, guess and check). Good writers/creative people are just those people who have brain algorithms that are unusually good at raising the correct solution to attention out of the vast possible space of solutions we could be considering. Of course, sometimes one has insights into a rule or process that generates some of the creative suggestions of the brain. When that happens you can verbalize explicitly how the creative skill works, and it stops being "creative" - you can just pass it on to anyone as a simple rule or procedure. This kind of maps nicely onto the art/science divide, as in "more of an art than a science". Skills are "arts" if they are non-proceduralizable because the algorithms that generate the skill are immune to introspection, and skills are "sciences" if the algorithms have been "brought up into consciousness", so to speak, to the point where they can be explicitly described and shared (of course, I think art vs science is a terrible way to describe this dichotomy, because science is probably the most creative, least proceduralizable thing we do, but what are you gonna do?)

Anyway, I don't know if all of this is just already obvious to everyone here, but I've found it a very useful way to think about creativity.

Edit: I missed your last sentence somehow. The above is definitely just plausible and/or fun to read.

Replies from: pianoforte611, None, jacob_cannell
comment by pianoforte611 · 2015-06-09T14:57:12.115Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's very interesting but I think that some people can explain their creative process. Bruce Adolphe is musician who hosts a piano puzzler radio show. If you are a classical music buff I highly recommend it. He takes well known songs or pieces of music and then rewrites them in the style of an old composer. (The challenge is find the popular song buried within and figure out which composer it is in the style of). Anyways in each of his segments, he explains exactly what he is doing to imitate the style of that composer and how he incorporated the popular song into it.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-09T16:36:29.805Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your approach looks quite unscientific to me. What empirical evidence do you have to support this? How would you go about codifying these ideas into a proper scientific theory?

Replies from: ahbwramc
comment by ahbwramc · 2015-06-09T17:14:50.149Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I mean, I don't really disagree; it's not a very scientific theory right now. It was just a blog post, after all. But if I was trying to test the theory, I would probably take a bunch of people who varied widely in writing skill and get them to write a short piece, and then get an external panel to grade the writing. Then I would get the same people to take some kind of test that judged ability to recognize rather than generate good writing (maybe get some panel of experts to provide some writing samples that were widely agreed to vary in writing quality, and have the participants rank them). Then I would see how much of the variation in writing skill was explained by the variation in ability to recognize good writing. If it was all or most of the variation, that would probably falsify the theory - the theory would say the most difficult part of "guess and check" is the guessing part, but those results would say it's the checking.

That's the first thing to come to mind, anyway.

comment by jacob_cannell · 2015-06-10T04:07:06.093Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Assuming this general type of theory is vaguely correct (which I find plausible), it suggests that creativity depends on both some potentially innate creativity algorithms combined with lots of knowledge. Acquiring as domain knowledge is important for two reasons: firstly it gives one more insights/ideas to recombine, and secondly it probably indirectly trains the creativity algorithms themselves (assuming the brain is constantly trying to improve its ability to predict new novel ideas it encounters).

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2015-06-09T21:44:30.087Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When I first heard of creativity tests I was surprised that this should be possible but I was quickly convinced that at least some aspects can indeed be tested relatively straitforward:

1) Originality - statistical infrequency of response 2) Fluency - number of responses 3) Flexibility - the degree of difference of the responses, in other words do they come from a single domain or multiple domains 4) Elaboration - the amount of detail of the response

(these are from the web here but recurr in standard tests like William’s Creativity Assessment Packet (CAP) and real scoring instructions that I have seen are interestingly simple to do. More interesting are actual examples provided which show the range of creativity. And that is where I think one can actually learn to be creative: By reproducing certain dimensions of creativity. That may sound like a contradiction in terms but I have found from self-practice that many creative ideas build on earlier ones. And the earlier ones apparently don't neccessarily need to be your own :-)

While looking for accessible material online I found these: A marketing campaign which stimulates creativity and a thesis which adapts the CAP to an online setting and may give you a feel of creativity tests in practice.

Replies from: Gunnar_Zarncke
comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2015-06-24T22:49:00.162Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Found the artical I mentioned first: Torrance Test of Creative Thinking - TTCT Read it, It contains lots of illustrative examples - many very creative.

comment by pianoforte611 · 2015-06-09T13:56:01.267Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In music, creativity is the ability balance newness with repetition. To introduce new ideas and frame them in terms of old ones, or reconnect old ideas in a new way. To give a very simple example, sing Yankee Doodle.

You'll notice that the beginning of the first two lines "Yankee doodle" and "Riding on a" are exactly the same notes, but they finish differently, a new listener can understand the the second line in terms of the first, but his expectation of how the second line will end is broken.

The is a very simple example, but balancing a listener's expectations, while having enough repetition or consistency* across multiple instrument lines and across larger sections of the music, so that there is global structure in addition to local structure is what makes real music. Komponisto has much more to say on this, but its scattered throughout many comments. I took me 2 years of bashing my head against traditional music theory, his preferred music theory, and composition classes to understand this, but I've become much more aware of what's going on inside a musical work.

I think that creativity is more generally the same thing, the ability to understand new ideas in terms of old ones or to reconnect old ideas in an interesting way. The question of how creative someone is, has to do with whether it feels natural for them to do this. Do they have to manually try out connecting ideas one by one, or does their brain seem to do it automatically? They can't help but try to find links and analogies in everything. And more interesting, can "brute force" creativity ever lead to creativity on auto-pilot? Extensions to physics are obvious (special relativity giving rise to general relativity) and fiction (narrative tropes).

*Stylistic consistency is more broad, it doesn't have to include the exact notes, it can include just the rhythm, or for example playing lots of leaps would be a type of style.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-14T14:21:51.196Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Wow! Can you do an indepth post about predicting aesthetic value from sensory data? Ideally other senses too! Thanks for this comment!

comment by pjeby · 2015-06-10T19:45:10.588Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It might help to taboo "creativity". I know of three major schools of thought on the subject, all of whose definitions I agree with, despite certain of the group(s) claiming that other group(s) are "wrong. ;-)

One group defines creativity in terms of being able to systematically generate novel alternatives for a design problem, or within some target space.

Another defines it in terms of creating... that is, being able to formulate a desired objective in the first place, and pursue a process of bringing it into being by continually comparing and contrasting the desired state with the current state of reality.

A third defines it in terms of fluency - that the mere practice of generating different sequences of output in some medium causes one to develop an intuitive sense of what sequences are likely to be "good" or "bad". (I don't know a ton about this group, but I heard someone give a talk once on this, demonstrating how teaching children to generate sequences of the form 1-2-3, 1-3-2, 2-3-1, 2-1-3, 3-1-2, 3-2-1 would allow them to learn interesting things about music and mathematics in a very short period, by changing e.g. pitch and duration of notes.)

All three of these characteristics -- the ability to hold a vision, generate alternatives to solve specific problems, and be fluent in the low-level expression of your subject area -- seem to be important to any good definition of "creativity". But quite a lot of materials tend to take on only one of these areas, and then usually some relatively small subset thereof.

comment by tallguy · 2015-06-10T07:48:07.988Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Every creative idea I've ever had came through analogies. This makes sense since neural networks are good at identifying similarities. My suggestion is to read broadly, and seek to identify similarities between fields since the contrasts are what jump out at us first.

comment by skeptical_lurker · 2015-06-09T12:53:19.685Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What makes you think SA's ability to write interesting posts has anything todo with rationality? He's mentioned that at least one member of his family is very talented, and that he won writing contests when he was a child (and so, before he encountered LW).

In general, in many ways creativity is correlated with insanity, not rationality.

Replies from: Vladimir_Nesov, NancyLebovitz
comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2015-06-09T19:28:37.981Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In general, in many ways creativity is correlated with insanity, not rationality.

Definition and evidence? What do you mean by "creativity" in this statement and why do you believe it's true? (If by "insanity" you mean something other than mental illness, what do you mean?)

Replies from: skeptical_lurker
comment by skeptical_lurker · 2015-06-09T20:11:51.478Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


There seems to be quite a lot of evidence, including a study with over a million participants (!). The primary correlates seem to be bipolar, unipolar depression/anxiety, and psychosis.

Interestingly, back when a certain very prominant LWer was 16 or so, he credited his maths ability largely to depression. (I don't know whether he still believes this). The idea here is that analytical problem solving is linked to depression, because the brain has evolved to dedicated more resources to problem solving when depressed, because depressed people presumably have problems that need solving.

Bipolar people would also have a drive to create while in the manic phase.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2015-06-09T13:53:39.576Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Rationality is about winning. That's an oversimplification, but if creativity is an important part of living well, then rationalists should look into it.

My guess is that creativity has something to do with a feeling that some passing thought is interesting enough to be worth pursuing, but that doesn't mean I know whether everyone has enough passing thoughts to pursue.

Replies from: skeptical_lurker
comment by skeptical_lurker · 2015-06-09T19:09:50.923Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was assuming you meant epistemic rationality. I certainly believe creativity is great and an instrumentally rational goal.

My guess is that creativity has something to do with a feeling that some passing thought is interesting enough to be worth pursuing, but that doesn't mean I know whether everyone has enough passing thoughts to pursue.

I dunno if there is anyway to improve the generation of thoughts, save good genes and around 10000 hours of practice.

Having said that, slatestarcodex did have some interesting thoughts on how creativity might be simply the mind moving out of the ruts it creates for itself, the opposite of focus, explaining why creativity is sometimes associated with mental states such as being half asleep, on drugs or bipolar/schizophrenic etc.

As far as passion and interest goes, I suppose that this should come naturally with general good mental health.

comment by adamzerner · 2015-06-10T16:56:33.890Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't know what to say exactly, but I'm in awe of how creative Kanye West is. I just watched this freestyle of his and read through the Genius annotations. It's soooo deep! I genuinely can't imagine how someone could come up with something that complex/interrelated/deep/etc. so quickly, in such rhythm etc. Thoughts? Maybe there's hints as to how to be more creative in people like him.

A bit of background: I was talking to a friend and he mentioned how much he admired Kanye West and how smart he thinks Kanye is. My first reaction was very skeptical because Kanye has that reputation for being crazy and stuff, but I think I was way too quick to judge now.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-10T18:52:58.458Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Crazy and intelligent may be correlated but are not synonymous. Kanye West is fiercely independent and emotional; possibly closed-minded even. Generally intelligence and open-minded are correlated but there are always exceptions. When put into positions of power I think such individuals can become incredibly dangerous.

Replies from: adamzerner
comment by adamzerner · 2015-06-10T19:54:39.761Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree. I'm not saying that he's smart in a general sense (whatever "smart" means) or that I'd put him in power - just that he's incredibly impressive in his domain, and that we may be able to learn from it.

comment by casebash · 2015-06-10T16:00:02.058Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In order to learn to produce something creatively, you need to break down other works so that you understand how they were crafted. It doesn't matter if it's maths proofs, jokes or works of art, you will be able to become more creative by drawing on the work of others.

Once you've learned an idea, you have to internalise it, by playing around with it yourself to understand the ways in which it can be used. This also cements it in your memory.

When looking for inspirations, the further afield you can draw inspiration from, the more you will be inspired.

comment by adamzerner · 2015-06-10T01:08:56.600Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I consider myself to be pretty creative. I have lots of contrarian thoughts that I think are sensible (not that that's exactly what creativity is...).

I'm a very inside view-driven thinker, and I think that that plays a very large role in the contrarian conclusions I arrive at.

I have a rather strong impression that trying to explore things "from the bottom up" (Inside View) will lead to creative thoughts. And I sense that it's a skill that rationalists could be particularly good at! Although I sense that currently a lot of rationalists aren't particularly good at it right now, because they don't try to think about things "from the bottom up" when the "outside view evidence" says that it's unlikely.

Along similar lines, I sense that Intentional Compartmentalization like Nothing is Beyond My Grasp and My Willpower Doesn't Deplete would be really useful. Because they get you to explore possibilities that you normally wouldn't explore. (Although I should note that I believe in those two ideas way way more so than others)

comment by RomeoStevens · 2015-06-09T21:07:21.865Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

John Cleese has a very entertaining talk discussing and summarizing the research on creativity and the open and closed modes of behavior:

comment by Antisuji · 2015-06-09T16:25:40.599Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

First of all, I can highly recommend Nachmanovitch's Free Play. It's at the very least thought-provoking and entertaining—whether it helps you be more creative is harder to tell. I got a bit of milage creativitywise out of Comedy Writing Secrets, which I hear is well-regarded among professional humor writers. I wasn't very diligent about the exercises, or I might have gotten more out of it.

Regarding LW-like thought and creativity, I'm reading through Minsky's Society of Mind and the Puzzle Principle section talks about machines and creativity:

Many people reason that machines do only what they're programmed to do — and hence can never be creative or original. The trouble is that this argument presumes what it purports to show: that you can't program a machine to be creative! In fact, it is surprisingly easy to program a computer so that it will proceed to do more different things than any programmer could imagine in advance.

And he goes into a bit more detail.

My thoughts on this, cribbed more or less directly from my notes:

I think there's an equivocation in common uses of the word "creativity." There's one sense, generally used by technical people, that means something like the ability to make intuitive leaps when solving a problem. Then there's the other sense, which is probably closer to what most people mean, the attributive sense. That is, someone might be a creative person, meaning they make those intuitive leaps, yes, but they also have certain stereotypical personality traits; they're quirky, they dress in non-conformitive ways, they're artsy, emotional. And so on.

So Minsky's answer doesn't really adequately address what most people mean when they say you can't program a machine to be creative.

But of course you can, and we're getting better and better at this.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-14T14:20:11.310Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-11T14:47:00.628Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Creativity need not be (intentional)[,+1947.jpg]

edit1: fucked up the brackets for hyperlinking edit 2: still not fixed. oh well, might fix later, might not.