August 3, 2009

The Best Way To Improve Your Creativity

triangle of circles.jpg




Moving only three circles, make the overall triangle point downward.









Spend a few minutes on it before reading the hint.

Hint: this is part of a psych test developed by University of Texas students enrolled in a study abroad program in China.


triangle of circles answer.jpg

Scientific American has an article An Easy Way To Increase Creativity,  which describes the recent paper about the effects of psychological distance on creativity.

The SciAm article is worth reading.  Students were asked a series of brain teaser questions.  One group of students was told that the questions were invented at their university; the other group was told they were invented in a far away university.  Thinking that the test came from far away somehow raised the creativity of the subjects.  They answered more questions correctly.

But in this paper, the researchers told the subjects that there was a psychological distance involved.  How would you do this to yourself?

One way would be to imagine the question came from far away, or form another time.  Another way would be to imagine you were far away from where you are now (e.g. answering while on a vacation in Hawaii).

But I'm going to illustrate  another way-- the way I personally use on complicated problems and in writing a lot of the posts in this blog.

II.

Answer this question as fast as you can:

Name ten animals.
Note carefully your answer.  Most likely, your first 6 or so answers are of one category of animal (e.g. farm), and the remaining ones are from another category of animal (e.g. zoo animals).

Even dementia patients can name a lot of animals-- "cow, pig, horse, sheep, umm, cow, no wait, ummm...." but what the demented can't do well is switch to another category.  They get stuck in the same box, looking around in there for more answers.  They don't lack fluency, they lack flexibility.

So knowing the answer to "name 300 animals" isn't about knowing 300 animals, it is about knowing 30 categories of animal, and being able to jump from one to another.

Imagine you are on your 200th animal, and now you are stuck-- you can't even think of any new categories. 

Creativity advice is often of the form, "look at it a different way."  Ok, but I don't even know what way to look at it to start trying for a new kind of solution.

Here's my trick: imagine you are someone else answering the question.

Who that someone else is depends a lot on what you're trying to do.  Sometimes I pick a person related to question (e.g. The Crocodile Hunter guy); sometimes I pick a guy unrelated but clever person (e.g. Stewie from Family Guy).  It can't be a generalization of a person ("how would a biologist answer?") it has to be a real person that I know enough about to model their thinking, but different enough from me that alternative answers are possible.  But I don't linger, I don't force the guy to answer if he can't; I cycle through multiple identities to get quick looks at the problem.  (Why this method works is explained a little more fully here.)

A prisoner was attempting to escape from a tower. He found a rope in his cell that was half as long enough to permit him to reach the ground safely. He divided the rope in half, tied the two parts together, and escaped. How could he have done this?
This question is from the paper, and I couldn't answer it-- but Jack Bauer did.  Silly, I guess, on some level, but I chose a guy who would know how to escape from towers, and the solution then came almost immediately.   It's more than just "what would Jack do?"  It's about being that other person, what would I do if I was him-- I imagined myself harried and relentless, pausing only to say "dammit!"  I need to get her out of here, and I need to get her  out now--

so I frantically split the rope lengthwise, tie the ends together and to the window, grab her by the waist, and jump--------


II Addendum/clarification:

(some have commented that splitting the rope wouldn't hold a person.  Others commented that "getting in someone's head" is BS.) 

The idea isn't to think, "what would Jack Bauer do?"  It is to think, "what would I do if I was Jack Bauer" because the goal isn't to get out of a tower, it is to answer a brain teaser.

Trying to think like you as Jack Bauer allows your own mind to have one more method of thinking, it adds a new road.  Taking yourself out of the process, "what would Jack do?" limits your thinking, it limits it only to the mind of Jack Bauer.

For example: Jack Bauer himself wouldn't split the rope and tie both ends, because Jack Bauer knows this wouldn't work, because he knows ropes.  I don't.  But allowing myself his brain gives me abilities to think of things and in ways I wouldn't previously.

Again, the point is to boost my creativity, to help my brain to think with additional software, not to replace the existing software.

And you only do it for moments at a time.  If thinking like Jack Bauer failed-- after a few seconds, because I'm really looking only for flashes of inspiration-- then I would have moved on to another person.

III.

Note also that my inclination is towards psychology; another person might be able to establish creative reference points by translating the question into a different language, or imagining it printed in different color, or font; or answering it using thinking from different eras, etc.

But effective methods of adopting psychological distance or alternative perspectives have two important similarities.  They are predicated on the idea that who you are, and how your mind works, can be artificially altered at will-- you can actually think thoughts you were neither biologically nor environmentally primed to think; and they establish that an inability to see things from another perspective is almost always a failure of will, not of intellect.

----

http://twitter.com/thelastpsych 








Comments

I got the puzzle without re... (Below threshold)

August 3, 2009 4:02 PM | Posted by mb: | Reply

I got the puzzle without reading the hint. In this case, knowing that the test came from this blog is probably raising your subjects' creativity ;-)

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 0 (0 votes cast)
I'm not sure I get the towe... (Below threshold)

August 3, 2009 4:48 PM | Posted by Neuroskeptic: | Reply

I'm not sure I get the tower one. My immediate answer was that he somehow untwines the rope making two ropes the same length but half as thick. Is that what you mean by "split the rope lengthwise"? If so I guess I just naturally think like Jack Bauer.

I failed the first one though, nearly fell off my chair when I saw the answer was so simple.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 1 (1 votes cast)
Creativity advice is oft... (Below threshold)

August 3, 2009 5:13 PM | Posted by Joshua: | Reply

Creativity advice is often of the form, "look at it a different way." Ok, but I don't even know what way to look at it to start trying for a new kind of solution.

I was fiddling with a Rubik's cube at a coffee shop one day, trying to solve it. One kid sitting near me offered the useful advice of, "You should use non-linear thinking." I wanted to smack him.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 12 (12 votes cast)
Boy does that study suck a ... (Below threshold)

August 3, 2009 5:54 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Boy does that study suck a fatty. Go far away from yourself to find the answer, pretend your someone else. I used to do a variation of this before football games: pre-game I'd "try to psych myself up" by thinking I was older players, players that I looked up to. What would they do? How would they act? These questions do not answer how to play football.

But when you're out there, none of it matters. You're all alone. The reality which scares you pushes you into an alternative reality. Such spineless behavior.

A different perspective on the article: Substitution

An Easy Way to Increase Giving a Fuck
Why thinking about distant things can make us give a fuck.

Giving a fuck is commonly thought of as a personality trait that resides within the individual. We count on people who give a fuck to produce the songs, movies, and books we love; to invent the new gadgets that can change our lives; and to discover the new scientific theories and philosophies that can change the way we view the world. Over the past several years, however, social psychologists have discovered that giving a fuck is not only a characteristic of the individual, but may also change depending on the situation and context. The question, of course, is what those situations are: what makes us give more of a fuck at times and give less of a fuck at others?

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 6 (10 votes cast)
Damn, for the first questio... (Below threshold)

August 3, 2009 11:20 PM | Posted by Kai: | Reply

Damn, for the first question, my initial answer was simply moving the top three circles onto the bottom. It'd look more like a diamond, but "overall" it would be a triangle pointing down. I guess I should've interpreted "overall triangle" as the entire thing still being a strict "triangle". I feel so stupid.

LoL @ Joshua above.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 1 (1 votes cast)
I don't think people can be... (Below threshold)

August 3, 2009 11:25 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

I don't think people can be taught to think. If one cannot think, there is no way to really acquire that skill IMO. It's sorta like any talent. I've been pretty good at problem solving and I've been fairly good at art. I view them quite similarly - something that I'm good at, something that is very natural to my type of mind, that others have more difficulty with. I've had people ask me to teach them to draw, I've had people ask me to teach them how to teach them things I know. While I can explain why I do the things I do when I draw, and I can after-the-fact explain the connections between things so that they get the concept, this is quite a different thing than having ability to figure it out on your own.

For me the key is focus. My focus is considerable. I also have a desire to understand things, it is interesting to me, it is fun to solve puzzles. I'm actually pissed there weren't more puzzles in this post (I came close with the circles one - the key to solving that was visualizing them overlapped and inverse the word "overall" suggested that but I didn't figure it out), and the second one with the rope was so immediately obvious I failed to see where the puzzle was, huh?)

The problem I see is that a lot of people are so preoccupied with the goal (solving the puzzle) that they are actually not paying attention / enjoying the problem itself (the learning process - examining, observing the nature of a thing, everything it's made of, and then considering possible changes/ courses of action and testing them). If people focused more on the joy and excitement of learning (solving the puzzle itself) rather than the goal (the feeling of accomplishment - an ego thrill) more people would be better thinkers. Being outcome focused instead of skill/process focused will doom learning.

I also think another problem is that people value speed over precision. I am notoriously cautious and slow. Hours melt by and it feels like just a moment for me. I've acquired a lot of useful knowledge while people were looking for fast instant fixes (preferably by someone else). I'm typically one of the last to finish any project but I'm usually one of the best/most accurate.
This is not to say taking more time will help... the point I'm making is, forget about time all together. Focus only on the task/question/problem as stated above (observing, analyzing, hypothesizing, testing).

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 4 (6 votes cast)
I was always "the smart one... (Below threshold)

August 3, 2009 11:30 PM | Posted by Diego Navarro: | Reply

I was always "the smart one" in the family (score one for assuming identities others impressed, but not forced, upon you, but another for plain schizoid "self-splitting" -- the lofty intellect from the self-hating teenager), yet I stared at the picture for 30 seconds, looking in vain for the "out-of-the-box thinking" solution, and then proceeded to show it to my dad and my sister, who solved it at first sight. They looked at the problem, then picked up what the actual problem was and then found a solution almost instantly.

Then again, I make a living coming up with the right answers for the wrong questions.

The noncynical/cynical ratio of posts has been pleasant lately. You're hysterical as the cynical type, and then come across as much smoother with the noncynical stuff than, say, The New Scientist. OTOH, the noncynical stuff establishes some basic credibility without which you wouldn't be able to pull off the kind of cynical stuff.

In other words, "The most important article in psych you'll ever read" needs "Geodon is not BID" to be meaningful (as in "this is not just a douche posting random pictures, he's got a point"), and vice-versa.

Yeah, I'm kind of a TLP groupie. OTOH, you need the PayPal tip jar because neither the cynical nor the noncynical persona are good book authors – nor would a zombie combination of both – though your chops and your cheap shots are both sound. That's kind of the reason I never went for broke as a standup comedian.

OTOH, I'm just an OTOH type of guy. I'll riddle you this: guess what my field of gainful occupation is.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 0 (2 votes cast)
One more thing... to anon 5... (Below threshold)

August 3, 2009 11:50 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

One more thing... to anon 5:54:

I think performance-oriented venues and thinking/creating-oriented activities require polar opposite mind states.

The key to successful performance is narcissism - you don't carefully study and acquire the talent, you KNOW you ARE it. You don't consider other perspectives. You hold on to to your ego, and you know with a manic god-touched divinity that you are chosen to do this thing, no one is better than you, you are on fire. Or, perhaps, create a performance alter-ego who is like that (for those who are not naturally narcissists) but the key to making that work is to temporarily become that person.
Now of course performance is also art so there is an element of learning/practice/study - creativity. But that is behind doors, weeks before the performance, not ON performance day.


Performers must be narcissistic, at least selectively... and narcissistic thinking is by definition uncreative. This is why narcissistic personalities predominate performing arts: television/theatre/sports/music.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 0 (0 votes cast)
His cynical stuff is a bit ... (Below threshold)

August 3, 2009 11:54 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

His cynical stuff is a bit scary at times, and sometimes angering, but I have to admit it's why I read.

What is teh intarwebs without teh drama.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 0 (0 votes cast)
Saw this and thought you'd ... (Below threshold)

August 4, 2009 12:39 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Saw this and thought you'd be interested. It's about the interactions between creativity and narcissism, among other things.

http://www.ted.com/talks/view/id/453

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 0 (0 votes cast)
The key to successful pe... (Below threshold)

August 4, 2009 4:51 AM | Posted, in reply to Anonymous's comment, by fraise: | Reply

The key to successful performance is narcissism - you don't carefully study and acquire the talent, you KNOW you ARE it. [...] Performers must be narcissistic, at least selectively... and narcissistic thinking is by definition uncreative. This is why narcissistic personalities predominate performing arts: television/theatre/sports/music.

Errr. As a one-time award-winning classical and jazz musician, with several musician friends, you're conflating several issues. There are loads of successful performers who are not narcissistic, who studied and acquired their talent. You cannot be a successful concert pianist without practicing several hours a day, every day. You cannot interpret a piece of music without putting yourself in the composer's shoes. Take Beethoven, for instance: the pain of his life is reflected; expressed in his music. If you don't know that, you play Beethoven differently, and anyone who does know Beethoven will pick up on it. Many, many musicians prefer to perform for crowds who also know music for this reason.

Now, as concerns pop music... I think a good argument could be made that it's the record labels who are creating and fostering narcissism for their own profit. And please for the love of all that is holy, do not conflate pop music with truly hard-working, talented, educated musicians. (The same goes for other performing arts.)

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 2 (2 votes cast)
There's nothing like sugges... (Below threshold)

August 4, 2009 7:52 AM | Posted by Kristina: | Reply

There's nothing like suggesting that one should consider thinking differently to spark the inherent narcissism in all of us :)
I wonder how many people saw the first puzzle's solution and tried to convince themselves that they had know the answer all along; as it was a fairly simple solution(I know I did).

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 0 (0 votes cast)
The answer to "How to Impro... (Below threshold)

August 4, 2009 7:55 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

The answer to "How to Improve Your Creativity" sounds like voluntary Spirit possession to me.
*Spirit possession is a concept of paranormal, supernatural, psychological and/or superstitious belief in which spirits, gods, demons/daemons (demonic possession), animas, ET's or other disincarnate or extra-terrestrial entities may take control of a human body, resulting in noticeable changes in health and behavior.*

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: -2 (2 votes cast)
Those were two extreemly ea... (Below threshold)

August 4, 2009 2:13 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Those were two extreemly easy puzzles to solve. 10 seconds for the 1st maybe three for the second. I'd like to get a copy of that test, it seems like it would be fun.

If you, or anyone, wants some real hard "puzzles" to solve go check out this page. http://www.paulcooijmans.com/iqtests/slse_sp/

I'm about 1/2 done with it. Luckily with this test there is no time limit so I am able to look at it at different times when I am in different mind sets. Amazingly about 1/2 of my answers came to me after I took my nightly dose of Seroquel, and they checked out the next day when I took another look at those answers. That was extreemly suprising to me considering just how stupid and sedated I feel after taking my Seroquel. I guess it just proves that I over think things to the point of obscuring my own logical capabilities when I am not somewhat sedated.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 0 (2 votes cast)
My wife is a psychologist a... (Below threshold)

August 4, 2009 3:00 PM | Posted by Top Psychology Schols & Top Psychology Majors: | Reply

My wife is a psychologist and I try to get her to test me and give me things like this to do. Needless to say, she never does. Now I can tell her I have done some.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 0 (0 votes cast)
I'm about 1/2 done with the... (Below threshold)

August 4, 2009 3:27 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

I'm about 1/2 done with the above test. Luckily there is no time limit so I'm able to really get into the triangle one. I feel it's just a matter of time ... maybe tomorrow morning.

The animal one is easier. Ever since the article told me how to be creative I've come up with all sort of categories for animals. I really feel more creative now.

I've never seen the character "Jack Bauer," but I have seen Superman and came up with a really good solution to the problem. I didn't even have to use the rope.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: -1 (1 votes cast)
Anonymous (8/3 11:25) sez:<... (Below threshold)

August 4, 2009 6:50 PM | Posted, in reply to Anonymous's comment, by Joshua: | Reply

Anonymous (8/3 11:25) sez:

I don't think people can be taught to think. If one cannot think, there is no way to really acquire that skill IMO. It's sorta like any talent. I've been pretty good at problem solving and I've been fairly good at art. I view them quite similarly - something that I'm good at, something that is very natural to my type of mind, that others have more difficulty with. I've had people ask me to teach them to draw, I've had people ask me to teach them how to teach them things I know. While I can explain why I do the things I do when I draw, and I can after-the-fact explain the connections between things so that they get the concept, this is quite a different thing than having ability to figure it out on your own.

I disagree with you here, but only because I did learn to draw and had no natural talent for it. I certainly don't draw as well as many others, but there was a process of figuring things out and "getting" it eventually. Art was my second least favorite class up until I was twelve or so (PE being the winner*). I grabbed a few books on drawing from the library, and realized the goal wasn't to just trace what I thought were outlines of objects or reduce them to icons in my mind (nose here, eyes here), but to see the form in them as well. If people tell me I have a talent for art, I disagree, because it was a skill I learned from reading, observation, and eventually from teachers, when I knew how to pay attention to them correctly. Likewise, I believe learning how to think is possible, but gets progressively older with age once the rivers of one's thoughts etch deep canyons in the mind.

For me the key is focus. My focus is considerable. I also have a desire to understand things, it is interesting to me, it is fun to solve puzzles. I'm actually pissed there weren't more puzzles in this post (I came close with the circles one - the key to solving that was visualizing them overlapped and inverse the word "overall" suggested that but I didn't figure it out), and the second one with the rope was so immediately obvious I failed to see where the puzzle was, huh?)

I figured the second one out with the rope and figured I was incorrect because it seemed obvious, and assumed that meant I was mistaken. Oops. And I don't know if I actually figured out the triangle puzzle right away or just remembered it from some random puzzle book in my youth. I loved little puzzle books, because they fed my ego and told me I was smart. A few years ago, I did some online IQ test, got a high score, and someone in class praised me for beating him by a few points and told me I must be very smart. I told him that no, the test means nothing with regards to intelligence (other than perhaps pointing out that we're both not as smart as those who choose not to waste their time on it). All it tests is how well one is able to take online IQ tests.

* - Which was dumb on my part. I should have worked harder at PE as well, being that I was (am) scrawny and out of shape, and it was (is) an area of my life that was (is) sorely deficient.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 0 (0 votes cast)
I remember this from childh... (Below threshold)

August 5, 2009 7:25 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

I remember this from childhood, it was a television episode of some old series. The main plot point was how a magician performed a trick that was used in a crime. And so everyone was knocking their heads over how this magician performed his trick.

Then some old timer piped up, "You guys are do this wrong. Don't ask, 'How did he do this trick?' You need to ask, 'If I had to do this trick how would I do it?'"

I was eight or nine at the time but I've used that reversal of perspective in different situations in the years since and it's worked surprisingly often for me.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 0 (0 votes cast)
I got the moving circles so... (Below threshold)

August 6, 2009 4:37 AM | Posted by Dheeraj Kattula: | Reply

I got the moving circles solution by moving 4 circles in 45 sec and then got stuck.2 min later checked out the solution.
The rope one was instantaneous.Even as I was reading the question I was imagining myself there.In a sense I was 'decerasing psychological distance',but still managed a right answer.
Possibly the relation between psychological distance and creativity is that is the distance relieving your anxiety unleashing your creativity or is your anxiety motivating you to find a solution desperately.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 0 (0 votes cast)
Alone's response: people... (Below threshold)

August 6, 2009 9:34 AM | Posted by Alone: | Reply

Alone's response: people have commented the splitting of the rope wouldn't work, etc. I added a clarification in the post, "IIb."

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 0 (0 votes cast)
<a href="http://imgur.com/r... (Below threshold)

August 12, 2009 7:02 AM | Posted by Anonymous Hero: | Reply

This is how I think of the first problem.

Yes this take me hours, I suck at teh Photoshop.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 0 (0 votes cast)
Unless we know the composit... (Below threshold)

August 12, 2009 3:47 PM | Posted by Johnny: | Reply

Unless we know the composition/thickness/quality of the rope, one can't conclusively say that splitting it wouldn't work.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 1 (1 votes cast)
<a href="http://my.nowpubli... (Below threshold) Hello Last Psychiatrist,</p... (Below threshold)

August 23, 2009 1:43 PM | Posted by Michael J. Durkheimer: | Reply

Hello Last Psychiatrist,

I have been following your blog and I want to introduce you to happier.com. I thought you might be interested in our site. Happier.com is a new system designed to help people not just be happier but actually "do happier."

Happier.com offers an interactive experience rooted in the science of happiness. We provide online tools and exercises for people to make an immediate positive impact on their lives. Our methodologies are proven to help reduce stress and worry, and increase personal productivity. Improving one’s happiness is directly related to improving one’s physical and emotional wellbeing.

The site is currently in public beta and we plan to launch in September with some additional features and a new design for the site. If you are interested in a free 30-day membership to try the site and give me feedback, I would be happy to set up an account for you.

Thank you and please let me know if we can set up a free 30-day membership for you. There is no credit card transaction necessary.

Sincerely,
Michael J. Durkheimer

More information about Happier.com:
About Happier.com | Bios | About Positive Psychology

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: -3 (3 votes cast)
Set your own life time more... (Below threshold)

November 6, 2010 11:36 AM | Posted by GreerDona: | Reply

Set your own life time more simple get the home loans and all you require.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: -1 (1 votes cast)
Thank you! The content is e... (Below threshold)

August 18, 2011 10:26 PM | Posted by cheap jewelry: | Reply

Thank you! The content is extremely rich.

cheap jewelry

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 0 (0 votes cast)
Looks like author Neil Gaim... (Below threshold)

May 22, 2012 10:30 PM | Posted by Steve: | Reply

Looks like author Neil Gaiman took a page from TPL at his commencement speech last week: see video at 18:40 - http://vimeo.com/42372767

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 0 (0 votes cast)