Donatella Versace finds it in the conflict of ideas, Jack White under pressure of deadlines. For William S. Burroughs, an old Dadaist trick helped: cutting pages into pieces and rearranging the words.
Every artist has their own way of generating original ideas, but what is happening inside the brain might not be so individual. In new research, scientists report signature patterns of neural activity that mark out those who are most creative.
“We have identified a pattern of brain connectivity that varies across people, but is associated with the ability to come up with creative ideas,” said Roger Beaty, a psychologist at Harvard University. “It’s not like we can predict with perfect accuracy who’s going to be the next Einstein, but we can get a pretty good sense of how flexible a given person’s thinking is.”
The scientists asked the volunteers to perform a creative thinking task as they lay inside a brain scanner. While the machine recorded their white matter at work, the participants had 12 seconds to come up with the most imaginative use for an object that flashed up on a screen. Three independent scorers then rated their answers.
One of the barriers to creative thinking is the ease with which common, unoriginal thoughts swamp the mind. Some people in the study could not get past these. For example, when asked for creative uses for a sock, soap and chewing gum wrapper, less creative people gave answers such as “covering the feet”, “making bubbles” and “containing gum” respectively. For the same items, more original thinkers suggested a water filtration system, a seal for envelopes, and an antenna wire.
Reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study found distinct patterns of brain activity in the most and least creative people. In the highly original thinkers, the scientists saw strong connectivity between three networks of the brain. One, known as the default mode network, is linked to spontaneous thinking and mind wandering, while a second, the executive control network, is engaged when people focus in on their thoughts. The third, called the salience network, helps to work out what best deserves our attention.
The first two of these three brain networks tend to work against one another, Beaty said, each dampening the other down. But the scans suggest that more creative people can better engage both networks at once. “It might be easier for creative thinkers to bring these resources to bear simultaneously,” he said.
Initial scans on men and women from the University of North Carolina were backed up by further scans in Austrian and Chinese volunteers. To make sure enough creative people took part in the study, the researchers recruited plenty of artists, musicians and scientists. Now, Beaty wants to look at brain activity in different creative pursuits, such as the arts and sciences, and investigate whether training helps boost creative powers.
In 2016, David Melcher, who studies creativity at the University of Trento, identified brain networks used in visual art. “A critical open question, for future research, is whether this ability to put the brain in creative mode transfers across tasks,” he said. “Do we learn to network our brain regions for creativity in new domains once we learn to do it, for example, in painting or freestyle rap?”
“There has been an educational policy, in many countries including the US, of reducing teaching hours in the arts and focusing instead on rote learning for yearly testing of basic knowledge,” he added. “We need to understand whether creativity is a transferable skill, a way of using the brain that students learn to use across fields.”
With Regards to Your Letter on Meaningful Interaction & Time Well Spent
A few days ago, you announced that your number one goal for 2018 was to make Facebook “Time Well Spent”.
This was especially gratifying for me because five years ago, I coined this term in a conversation with Tristan Harris (who’s worked tirelessly to spread and elaborate the concept, turning it into a movement).
Back in 2013, Tristan and I were worried about the entire tech industry, but your product’s News Feed was then — and is still — our best example of what needed to change. And that was before election manipulation, fake news, teen depression & suicide, worries about children’s videos.
Now that you’re on board with Time Well Spent, let’s get practical about how a company like Facebook (and an industry like consumer tech) can be retooled around “meaningful interactions” instead of engagement.
But I think the blame lies somewhere else: in the nature of software itself. I believe even the most well-intentioned teams, operating in the best possible culture would struggle with meaningful interactions and time well spent. Even in a small startup. Even at an open source, peer-to-peer nonprofit.
Why do I think so? I’ll tell you in this letter. Then, in the follow-up essay, I’ll say what to do about it.
It’s possible (but very tricky) to design software so as to address the users’ sense of meaning. But it requires profound changes to how software gets made! These changes make others your company has gone through (such as the adoption of machine learning, the transition from web to mobile) look easy.
But that’s what it will take.
On Social Software & Meaningful Interactions
Sometimes new social software works out well. Few people would come out to a protest of Wikipedia, Couchsurfing, or Meetup, for example. These products — and the social changes that come with them — are welcomed, even embraced.
But people are less enthusiastic about Facebook, Twitter, the “Fake News” ecosystem, Uber, AirBnb, and even smartphones themselves. Why are reactions to these systems different? I think we need the concept of values to understand:
Values: The ideas a person has about how they want to live, especially ideas about what kinds of relationships and what kinds of actions are of lasting importance in their life.¹
Values are like vertebrae: even if you never think about them, you have them, and they structure much of what you do. Values are ideas that direct the manner in which you act, rather than the outcomes you want. Let’s say you’re planning a social event, like the F8 conference you put on once a year. You might have a goal in mind, maybe “getting a lot of people to participate”. But while you craft your invitation, you also have a manner in which you pursue that goal (perhaps honestly or cleverly). Maybe you were inspired by a friend who writes cleverly, or by another invitation from someone who spoke honestly and from the heart.
And here’s the problem: generally speaking, your product (Facebook) makes it more difficult for all of us to live according to our values.
When a person spends hours on News Feed before bed, are they cultivating the type of social relationships they believe in? Are they engaging in acts of lasting importance?
Maybe! Facebook can be used in all sorts of ways. Perhaps this sleepy individual was planning a political revolution, or getting feedback on their first-ever breakdance video.
But many of us wake up the next day feeling like our late-night scrolling session was a waste of time. That’s because living according to our values doesn’t happen automatically. Some social environments make being honest more difficult, while others make it easier. It is similar with courage, creativity, and with every other manner in which a person wants to act or relate to others.
As we’ll see below, social software simplifies and expedites certain social relationships, and certain actions, at the expense of others. And if the simplified actions and relationships weren’t designed with a users’ particular values in mind, then using the software can make living by their values more difficult, which leaves them feeling like their time was not well spent.
For example, it may be harder to live by the value of honesty on Instagram, if honest posts get fewer likes. Similarly, a courageous statement on Twitter could lead to harassing replies. On every platform, a person who wants to be attentive to their friends can find themselves in a state of frazzled distraction.
As users, we end up acting and socializing in ways we don’t believe in, and later regret. We act against our values: by procrastinating from work, by avoiding our feelings, by pandering to other people’s opinions, by participating in a hateful mob reacting to the news, and so on.
This is one of the hidden costs of social software. Let’s call it the cost of values-misaligned systems.
Any social environment can be misaligned with our values, but with social software it is harder to resist. Compared to past social systems — governed by social conventions or laws — software gives less space for personal reinterpretation or disobedience. It tends to code up exactly how we are intended to interact.
Our Choices Are Structured
Consider how social conventions shape our lives: teenagers are ostracized for wearing the wrong clothes, adults for saying the wrong words or spouting unpopular beliefs. But it’s still possible to flout convention, and by operating expressively, outside of conventions, a person can sometimes initiate a new trend or subculture. With software, on the other hand, acting in a way the designers didn’t intend is often impossible: a user can’t sing “Thrift Shop” to a stranger on Tinder or wear their Facebook cover photo on the bottom of the screen. The software has structured the sequence and style with which they interact.²
We see something similar if we compare software with laws. Imagine if Twitter were implemented through government regulation: there’d be a law about how many letters you used when you spoke, and an ordinance deciding who wore a checkmark near their face and who didn’t. Imagine bureaucrats deciding who’s visible to the public, and who gets ignored. Could a law make you carry around and display everything you’d recently said?
In practice, laws can’t structure social life that tightly. Even in the worst dictatorships—when the Nazis had Jews wear stars—they couldn’t ensure complete compliance. As law, the “Twitter Code” would be impossible to enforce. But as software, it’s impossible not to comply.
Social software is therefore different from laws and social conventions.³ It guides us much more strictly through certain actions and ways of relating. As a result, we have less of a chance to pursue our own values. The coded structure of push notifications makes it harder to prioritize a value of personal focus; the coded structure of likes makes it harder to prioritize not relying on others’ opinions; and similar structures interfere with other values, like being honest or kind to people, being thoughtful, etc.
This doesn’t just cause problems for individuals. In the follow-up essay, I show that the problems I mentioned at the outset — election manipulation, fake news, internet addiction, teen isolation/depression/suicide, the mistreatment of children — are fuelled by the fact that actors are guided along in ways that don’t accord with anyone’s values.
So Zuck, let’s return to the issues that you are struggling with: meaningful interactions, time well spent, and the future of politics.
Since they are connected to the nature of software, it won’t be an easy fix. But I believe you’re serious about making a time well spent Facebook, and serious about addressing the harms to democracy and society.
So what can you do? What can any software team do?
There are two approaches that could work: in the long-term, you (and other technologists) can learn to build software that’s less constraining, software that works more like social conventions, which can be defied, expressively reinterpretted, and remodeled by the user. But realistically, that will take decades of research, innovation, business change, and cultural evolution to achieve.⁴
The only other option (besides rejecting the idea of social software entirely) is to learn a lot about values, and to explicitly redesign everything to be as value-aligned as possible, making room for the broad diversity of values of your users.
If you go this route, technology products must be re-conceptualized. They must be considered as spaces: virtual places where people struggle to live out the acts and relationships they find meaningful.
Teams will face questions like these:
What are the variety of values that users have?
For each such value, are there features of social spaces which make practicing it easier?
How do users decide which values to bring into their socializing? How can software support this decision?
Are there more or less meaningful kinds of conversations? Is there a way to identify less value-aligned talk?
Can we accomplish all of this without imposing our own corporate or personal values?⁵
Tackling such questions may seem impossible. But this kind of focus on meaning can work out. It’s part of what’s made Couchsurfing (in its heyday), Meetup, and Wikipedia less objectionable than Facebook has been. They were designed with a deeper understanding and prioritization of the values of their users, as spaces for practicing those values. A complex and general product like Facebook will have to go much further in this direction
Qubits have only remained stationary until now. Researchers have successful created flying qubits that move at speeds never reached before…. This feat, achieved by a team from Polytechnique Montréal & France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), brings the state-of-the-art ever closer to the era when information is transmitted via quantum principles.
Specifically, the creation of a qubit in zinc selenide, a well-known semi-conductor material, made it possible to produce an interface between quantum physics that governs the behavior of matter on a nanometre scale & even the transfer of information at the speed of light, thereby paving the way to producing quantum communications networks.
Classical Physics vs. Quantum Physics
In today’s computers, classical physics rules. Billions of electrons work together to make up an information bit: 0, electrons are absent & 1, electrons are present. In quantum physics, single electrons are instead preferred since they express an amazing attribute: the electron can take the value of 0, 1 or any superposition of these two states. This is the qubit, the quantum equivalent of the classical bit. Simply put, Qubits provide stunning possibilities for researchers.
An electron revolves around itself, somewhat like a spinning top. That’s the spin. By applying a magnetic field, this spin points up, down, or simultaneously points both up and down to form a qubit. Better still, instead of using an electron, we can use the absence of an electron; this is what physicists call a “hole.” Like its electron cousin, the hole has a spin from which a qubit can be formed. Qubits are intrinsically fragile quantum creature, they therefore need a special environment. Zinc Selenide, Tellurium Impurities: A World First
Zinc selenide, or ZnSe, is a crystal in which atoms are precisely organized. It is also a semi-conductor into which it is easy to intentionally introduce tellurium impurities, a close relative of selenium in the periodic table, on which holes are trapped, rather like air bubbles in a glass.
This environment protects the hole’s spin – our qubit – & helps maintaining its quantum information accurately for longer periods; it’s the coherence time, the time that physicists the world over are trying to extend by all possible means. The choice of zinc selenide is purposeful, since it may provide the quietest environment of all semiconductor materials.
A team effort lead by Phillipe St–Jean (far left) & Professor Sébastien Francoeur (left) of Polytechnique Montréal & CNRS of France, generated photons from a laser to initialize the hole & record quantum information on it. To read it, he excites the hole again with a laser & then collects the emitted photons. The result is a quantum transfer of information between the stationary qubit, encoded in the spin of the hole held captive in the crystal, & the flying qubit – the photon, which of course travels at the speed of light.
This new technique shows that it is possible to create a qubit faster than with all the methods that have been used until now. Indeed, a mere hundred or so picoseconds, or less than a billionth of a second, are sufficient to go from a flying qubit to a static qubit, & vice-versa.
Although this accomplishment bodes well, there remains a lot of work to do before a quantum network can be used to conduct unconditionally secure banking transactions or build a quantum computer able to perform the most complex calculations. That is the daunting task which Sébastien Francoeur’s research team will continue to tackle.
Element of surprise helps babies learn & retain basic knowledge better than any other method, Johns Hopkins researchers report.
Infants have innate knowledge about the world, and when their expectations are defied, they learn best, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found.
In a paper that will be published Friday in the journal Science, cognitive psychologistsAimee E. Stahl andLisa Feigensondemonstrate for the first time that babies learn new things by leveraging the core information with which they are born. When something surprises a baby, like an object not behaving the way she expects it to, she not only focuses on that object but ultimately learns more about it than from a similar yet predictable object.
“For young learners, the world is an incredibly complex place filled with dynamic stimuli. How do learners know what to focus on and learn more about, and what to ignore? Our research suggests that infants use what they already know about the world to form predictions. When these predictions are shown to be wrong, infants use this as a special opportunity for learning,” says Feigenson, a professor of psychological and brain sciences in the university’s Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.
“When babies are surprised, they learn much better, as though they are taking the occasion to try to figure something out about their world.”
The study involved four experiments with pre-verbal 11-month-old babies, designed to determine whether babies learned more effectively about objects that defied their expectations. If they did, researchers wondered if babies would also seek out more information about surprising objects and if this exploration meant babies were trying to find explanations for the objects’ strange behavior.
First the researchers showed the babies both surprising and predictable situations regarding an object. For instance, one group of infants saw a ball roll down a ramp and appear to be stopped by a wall in its path. Another group saw the ball roll down the ramp and appear to pass—as if by magic—right through the wall.
When the researchers gave the babies new information about the surprising ball, the babies learned significantly better. In fact, the infants showed no evidence of learning about the predictable ball. Furthermore, the researchers found that the babies chose to explore the ball that had defied their expectations, even more than toys that were brand new but had not done anything surprising.
The researchers found that the babies didn’t just learn more about surprising objects—they wanted to understand them. For instance, when the babies saw the surprising event in which the ball appeared to pass through the wall, they tested the ball’s solidity by banging it on the table. But when babies saw a different surprising event, in which the ball appeared to hover in midair, they tested the ball’s gravity by dropping it onto the floor. These results suggest that babies were testing specific hypotheses about the objects’ surprising behavior.
“The infants’ behaviors are not merely reflexive responses to the novelty of surprising outcomes but instead reflect deeper attempts to learn about aspects of the world that failed to accord with expectations,” said Stahl, the paper’s lead author and a doctoral student in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.
“Infants are not only equipped with core knowledge about fundamental aspects of the world, but from early in their lives, they harness this knowledge to empower new learning.”
The study was supported by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.
For many education advocates, the arts are a panacea: They supposedly increase test scores, generate social responsibility and turn around failing schools. Most of the supporting evidence, though, does little more than establish correlations between exposure to the arts and certain outcomes.
Research that demonstrates a causal relationship has been virtually nonexistent. However, researchers found after a multi-year study that strong causal relationships do in fact exist between arts education & a range of desirable outcomes.
They concluded visiting an art museum exposes students to a diversity of ideas that challenge them with different perspectives on the human condition. Expanding access to art, whether through programs in schools or through visits to area museums and galleries, should be a central part of any education curriculum.
Study conducted by Daniel H. Bowen, Rice University postdoctoral fellow at the Kinder Institute, Brian Kisida, senior research associate & Jay P. Greene, education reform professor of University of Arkansas.