Posts Tagged 'Creativity'

Bisociation: Koestler’s Take on Humour and Scientific Enquiry

An image of the Carbon 60 molecule, also called Buckminsterfullerene

Buckmiinsterfullerene (C60) - image via Wikipedia

One of Hungarian-born Arthur Koestler‘s best-known non-fiction works is probably The Act of Creation, written in 1964.  In this seminal text he explores the notion of human creativity from a number of angles, including humour, science and the arts. Koestler’s premise is that creative acts are likely to involve the synthesis of concepts derived from two or more different bodies of thought or disciplines that are not normally related, a process he called “bisociation”. The concept has since been formalised as “Conceptual Blending/Integration” theory within cognitive science by Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner.   A relatively recent example of this associative process in science is the discovery of the structure of macro molecules of Carbon 60 (C60) in 1985 by Harold Kroto, Richard Smalley and Robert Curl at Rice University. They determined that a stable allotrope of carbon consisting of 60 carbon atoms could be produced with a high energy laser directed at a graphite disk, but were initially unable to determine its exact crystalline structure.

Author Arthur Koestler

Arthur Koestler - Image via Wikipedia

The team reasoned that the structure had to be spherical, but it took Kroto’s memory of a visit to Expo 67 in Montreal where he walked into a geodesic dome designed by architect Buckminster Fuller to trigger the realization that the molecule must be based on an icosahedron (specifically, a truncated icosahedron) with 60 vertices; the exact shape of a standard soccer ball and logically the most stable arrangement of that number of carbon atoms. This insight led the team to call the C60 allotrope “buckminsterfullerene” in honor of the genius from another discipline and was the starting point for the whole new science of nanotechnology.

So how does humour come into the picture?  Koestler discusses the mechanism of humour in similar terms to the synthesis of ideas mentioned above. “Punchline” humour, for example, depends on a wholly unexpected conclusion for its effect.  It’s as if you’ve been led down a garden path then directed to turn left, only to be confronted by an elephant’s knee (or a spring-loaded boxing glove). Humour uses exaggeration, imagination and absurd juxtapositions of seemingly unrelated things to create a comic effect, somewhat like the bisociative processes discussed above that are the basis of most creative acts in Koestler’s analysis.

One of the highlights of Open Day at Macquarie University is the Chemistry Magic Show put on in one of the lecture theatres by dedicated members of the School of Chemistry every year.  The master of ceremonies manages to combine humour with science in a wholly engaging way while showing the audience some rather dramatic chemical processes – each of which manages to supply its own punchline.  If only all science subjects were taught that way …

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Neurotypicals and Creativity

What range of skills and ways of thinking define “normality” in an education setting, as opposed to “abnormality” – and how might a definition of normality change in a task that requires creativity?  People in the autistic spectrum community often use the term “neurotypicals” to refer to “‘normal’ people who have an ability to read social and linguistic cues in their day-to-day life, skills that may be wholly or partially absent in someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, for example.

Neurotypicals may well be able to function smoothly in most social situations but such interactions imply a certain amount of conformity to social norms.  Creativity, on the other hand, implies stepping “outside the box” or dispensing with conventional ways of looking at, or thinking about something. Koestler’s seminal work “The Act of Creation” (1964) explored the notion of creativity from both philosophical and comedic points of view.  It’s precisely the non-conformist or unexpected conclusion that gives a joke its power to make people laugh – hence the term ‘punchline’.  Creativity often involves throwing away the expected viewpoint of a problem or situation and trying to see it from a new angle.

Neurotypical behaviour for a mediator in a potential conflict situation would be to try to read the body language of the protagonists in the context of what they’re actually saying so that their short-term future behaviour can be predicted.  Words can then be chosen that will deflect the aggression and avoid an all out brawl, and hopefully get each side to see reason.  A non-typical and perhaps more creative approach could be to draw their attention to an outside threat that affects all parties and encourage them to join their efforts in defending themselves.

When a majority of Iraqis realised that the leader of the Al Qaeda group that had conducted a protracted suicide bombing campaign against Iraqis from all walks of life and had positioned itself as a patriotic defender of Iraqi freedom was actually a Jordanian named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, tacit support for this branch of the insurgency melted away. Zarqawi was eventually denounced by former supporters and assassinated by US Special Forces in 2006.

Distraction in conflict can be a powerful thing.  A two-year-old’s tantrum can be stopped in its tracks by quietly whispering into one of the little person’s ears.  Apparently a 2-year-old’s brain has yet to develop the ability to simultaneously balance input and output streams, so the screaming is put on hold while the little dude struggles to hear what’s being said, preferably spoken at a level just below the threshold of comprehension.

Derek Paravicini

Derek Paravicini - Image via Wikipedia

So are neurotypicals less likely to be creative than ‘others’? Depends  on the level of ‘otherness’ for the most part. Certainly autistic savants often express their creativity in unexpected ways, such as UK artist Stephen Wiltshire’s ability to produce detailed cityscape drawings from a single viewing, or Derek Paravicini‘s keyboard skills in creating compositions in a variety of a styles from a single tune audition.

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