More civilized than the Tea Party
That’s really how I react to this truly interesting bit from Jonah Lehrer, another case where The Science ‘proves’ knowledge that vast numbers of people have understood implicitly through thousands of years of civilization. In this case, it’s the common fact that thinking creatively is enhanced by what the story calls ‘distractions,’ but what I would call simple perception, being aware of what is happening both in one’s mind and in the world from moment to moment. If I may be briefly immodest, back when I was employable (i.e. prior to the Great Recession and with twenty years experience in business environments) I was a master problem solver, of everything from the technically quantitative to the conceptually qualitative. Problems that I could not solve by wrestling with them in direct concentration I could solve by going outside and walking around, getting some exercise, reading a bit, looking at something else.
Consider a recent study by neuroscientists at Harvard and the University of Toronto […] The researchers began by giving a sensory test to a hundred undergraduates at Harvard. The tests were designed to measure their level of latent inhibition, which is the capacity to ignore stimuli that seem irrelevant. Are you able to not think about the air-conditioner humming in the background? What about the roar of the airplane overhead? When you’re at a cocktail party, can you tune out the conversations of other people? If so, you’re practicing latent inhibition. While this skill is typically seen as an essential component of attention – it keeps us from getting distracted by extraneous perceptions – it turns out that people with low latent inhibition have a much richer mixture of thoughts in working memory. This shouldn’t be too surprising: Because they struggle to filter the world, they end up letting everything in. As a result, their consciousness is flooded with seemingly unrelated thoughts. Here’s where the data gets interesting: Those students who were classified as “eminent creative achievers” – the rankings were based on their performance on various tests, as well as their real world accomplishments – were seven times more likely to “suffer” from low latent inhibition. This makes some sense: The association between creativity and open-mindedness has long been recognized, and what’s more open-minded than distractability? People with low latent inhibition are literally unable to close their mind, to keep the spotlight of attention from drifting off to the far corners of the stage. The end result is that they can’t help but consider the unexpected.
But it’s not enough to simply pay attention to everything – such a deluge of sensation can quickly get confusing. (Kierkegaard referred to this mental state as “drowning in possibility”. Some scientists believe that schizophrenia is characterized by extremely low latent inhibition coupled with severe working memory deficits, which leads to a mind constantly hijacked by minor distractions.) This is why, according to the Toronto researchers, low latent inhibition only leads to increased creativity when it’s paired with a willingness to analyze our excess of thoughts, to constantly search for the signal amid the noise. We need to let more information in, but we also need to be ruthless about throwing out the useless stuff.
The brain may concentrate certain processes in different locations but the mind puts these together in an indivisible whole. Human cognition is non-mechanical, but somehow modern society has cleaved itself to the idea that everything is mechanical, technocratic. Our material leaders in government and business are predominantly trained in ways that turn their thinking into simulacrums of actual human cognition, mainly through Law and MBA programs. Business people, lawyers, journalists and politicians are, for the most part, not creative thinkers because their professions are designed around isolated, mechanical thinking. Humanists (and for this moment I mean this as anyone who produces work in any of the plastic or performing arts, or writes creatively, does science or even had and values a Liberal Arts education) welcome distractions as an implicit part of the life of the mind. And what the studies call ‘low latent inhibition’ with a sense of value judgment, I call creativity, making connections between things that seem unrelated, like binary number systems and Einstein On The Beach. To me, it seems obvious, unremarkable, but to a CEO, journalist or Congressmen, it probably seems bizarre, unthinkable.
This is not just navel gazing bullshit, it’s real and it matters. Consider this; human civilization is predominantly the story of the accumulation of ideas about what is possible, and the two general fields of human endeavor where this accumulation has predominated have been Art and Science. Knowledge there constantly accretes. Knowledge accretes incidentally in business and politics, via the thinking of philosophers and even scientists, but in business and politics that knowledge is squeezed through the seize of ignorance, lack of imagination, inhuman mechanical thinking, and so “The Wealth of Nations ” becomes supply-side economics, “On The Origins Of Species ” becomes Social Darwinism and Post-Modernism becomes the politically correct notion that abstract American rights are trumped by the whine of a fauxtrageous ragegasm.
Human civilization began because humans wanted to come together to make something new, mainly to make music together and tell stories to each other (and also to get drunk). The tragedy of human civilization is that it was hijacked so early and completely by the technocrats, who created jobs, divided skills, organized hierarchies. There is a prevalent human weakness, a desire to be led, that made this possible. The triumph of the artists is that we have survived a hostile culture for thousands of years, and continue to produce work despite the odds. It’s because the skills that businessmen, lawyers, journalists and politicians see as their highest achievement are, for artists, the basics upon which we build our conscious thoughts and work. We are actually far more qualified to run a business and a government, because we have to do that just to survive. If it takes science to prove this to those who think they deserve to be in charge, then so be it.