Terren – Edison Light Bulb, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3401005

Five years ago I would’ve read that title and thought I was crazy. But it’s what the mathematical model says… Creativity, almost by definition, is taught to us as something that you’re born with and cannot be developed or predicted, let alone calculated. That’s why this is going to take some time.

Please, before we get into this, take a moment and write down when, where, and how you feel when inspiration, originality, and creativity hit. We’ll need this towards the end.

Originals, Outliers, and new Paradigms

We’re not taught to be creative because ‘creativity’ is incredibly challenging to teach. We don’t know how to teach it because we don’t know the physics for how creativity works. But we have to start somewhere. So just what is ‘creativity’? Google says: “The use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of artistic works.” One of my favorite books about one of my favorite educators, “Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens – Frank Oppenheimer and the World he made up”, quoted Frank as saying, “Art, for it to be valid, must correspond to a plausible human experience.” Slamming these two definitions together we arrive at a definition for creativity: original and creative ideas that expand one’s view of the possible. It’s important for creativity to be relative to the individual — beauty is in the eye of the beholder as everyone’s human experience is different. Hence creativity is directly related to empathy. More on this and it’s relation to mentoring here.

I’m in a book club that has been investigating creativity for awhile. We just finished Adam Grant’s book “Originals” which is very similar to Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers”. Both books exemplify how the probability of generating creative and original ideas is entirely predictable — from seemingly unrelated factors such as the month of the year you were born, the order of birth relative to your siblings, the amount of time you’ve spent practicing, and the guiding principles of your organization. Both books are mostly right, fun, surprising, very similar in style, and a commonly shared read. They also both “cherry pick” from a host of careful studies to plaster together a sometimes shocking case for selling books. This approach is susceptible to a problem known as cum hoc ergo propter hoc — correlation does not imply causation. It’s not too hard to conflate correlation with causation in shocking ways — did you know that shoe size is a key predictor of reading ability?  Of course it is! Your shoe size increases as you get older. What both Outliers and Originals ultimately lack is a common, non-arbitrary, physically grounded framework for predicting creativity and outlying original contributions. Without that framework, creativity still seems to be magical in the sense that it’s driven mostly by being good enough and in the right place at the right time.

Engineers, much like artists, cannot rely on the luxury of random feats of brilliant design insight or being in the right place at the right time. Engineers need non-arbitrary processes, a.k.a. heuristics that reliably produce designs that perform and push, or even totally disrupt, what was formerly possible. Dr. Chuck taught me how to teach design as a process of working through the following layers:

  1. Empathizing with the need/client and available resources/externalities. Sometimes known as a client/stakeholder interview/analysis, or a literature review.
  2. Constructing a non-arbitrary rubric/model for quantifying what factors/constraints are most important and how these connect to overall design performance.
  3. Generating multiple (typically at least three design paradigms that can be assessed and refined.

After these three it’s mostly iterative design refinement and prototyping. All of the process, taught from within course lectures, can be accessed here. But it’s the third level that people typically associate with creativity or original ‘design’ thought — when an original solution emerges from the milieu.

Let’s try a simple exercise. Go ahead, write down THE FIRST color, flower, tool, and furniture that come into your head. Now click on this link to see if I guessed them. This shows the class they are not entering with the full solution space at their disposal. The question is: why can I reliably predict what 66-90% of my students, and probably you, pick for those questions given the infinite possible outcomes?

The answer comes towards the end. But first, it’s important to understand how I can get students to generate original ideas at all. Just like their solutions to color, flower, furniture, tool, the times in which we are all creative are predictable. I’ve thought about these common themes for several years now but recently realized how social thermodynamics is the common mathematical framework that controls how and when we are creative.

The Social Thermodynamics of Creativity

Creativity, going back to the original definition, is when we have an idea that expands our view of what is possible. When we have this moment of insight things change. Remember our equation for predicting social phase change:

g = u + Pv – Ts

where u is the internal energy or values you’re bringing to the problem, P is pressure or stress, v is the inverse of density, T is temperature or resources, and s is entropy or empathy. If the change (g2-g1) in Gibb’s energy is negative (the value for g is less after something happens then before) phase change will spontaneously occur. In other words, if g2 is less than g1 we’re going to have a breakthrough! There are five ways this can happen:

1. Drop in or simplification of values/internal energy (u): Sometimes it helps to simplify problems to try to realize what really matters most, or what the real problem is. The classic, “can’t see the forest through all the trees” problem. Sure, you know a bunch of things are contributing, but only slightly, clearly now this one or a couple of things are the key problem/opportunity. I’ve found that adding more constraints/values in problems tends not to increase the number of creative solutions, in fact quite the opposite. It’s only helpful if you identify a more simple and encompassing constraint that allows you to remove several ill-formed constraints/values. Once you know what matters, it’s much easier to push the boundaries of what is possible.

2. Drop in pressure/stress (P): People don’t design well when stressed. That’s why most will say their ah-hah! moments come in the shower, when taking a bath, having a massage, preparing for bed, meditating, or having beers with friends. Some will say during exercise as high performing athletes often use exercise as a form of stress release. Relaxation is different for everyone, but odds are, most of you wrote down some form of relaxation as when you have your creative insight. Why? Dr. Chuck has used the Siegel model for the brain to show how the amygdala controls exchange between brain hemispheres. Here’s a recent article from Scientific American backing up the model. If you’re relaxed, you’re literally thinking with more parallel pathways in your brain and more likely to think in the way needed to solve a problem.

3. Drop in volume (v) or increasing density: What happens when your sports team is on the ropes teetering on a loss? The coach calls a time out, and brings everybody in. Let’s figure this out. Let’s get on the same page. Let’s bounce some ideas back and forth. If anything, the increase in density of the agents just facilitates an easier exchange of resources and information, which usually helps lead to the creative insight, not hurt. This is of course provided that the increase in density is not offset by an increase in pressure, for instance if you didn’t get along with your teammates.

4. More resources (T): With more resources, we can gain access to the key widget/thing that enables entirely new ways of thinking, like 3D printing or a smart phone. What is possible has now changed. Many of my authoritarian friends are immediately thinking, “nope, creative ideas come from a lack of money, not more.” Enter a quote from one of my favorite authoritarian friends, Winston Churchill: “Gentlemen, we’ve ran out of time and money, it’s time we start thinking.” — What Churchill is doing here is simplifying the values/solution space, because money and time may not be the key values needed for solving the particular problem. That said, more resources are not a guarantee of creativity either, but simply an enabler. It’s a statistical problem.

5. More empathy/entropy (s): “I never thought about it like that before!” “Well now that you say it like that…” “The new camera has allowed us to observe…” That new piece of quality information that “changes everything” about the client/problem/resources/constraints. Whatever it was, it got you out of your thought rut, into a new paradigm, and new ways of thinking. It connected more things on an entirely new level. As long as that way of thinking is important to solving your problem, it’s a breakthrough. Remember that the entropy and empathy of a mixture of people and values is higher than any of the individuals alone. When you connect more values, in more ways, the odds are you are more creative.

All of these properties relate to when it’s time to take agency and get work done, versus when it’s time to talk things through. In thermodynamics the u + Pv terms are the work terms — when it’s time to exert your values onto something — not the time to get creative. When it’s time to work, stopping to think about the related existential problems gets in the way of that work. Usually well before or after your window to do work, it’s time to think about the ways it could or could’ve be or been. This is where the Ts terms related to the transfer of information (equivalent to heat) kick in. When you have time to relax and think about what happened, your hippocampus (through hippocampus indexing theory) begins running a tape of what happened and the ways it connects to the other memories and knowledge structures in your brain, which is how you form long-term memories. Work (u+Pv) and Heat (Ts) form a dichotomy that naturally counterbalance each other. Hence the origin of the sophistication vs. evolution post. Also remember that thermodynamics is a statistical problem, these indicators and properties, with sufficient numbers of attempts/people/molecules will hold, but not for every individual attempt. Dr. Chuck has an approach for trying to predict this for individuals through differential equations.

How’d I do in predicting when you are creative? Missed some? Send me your stories: jacob.leachman<at>wsu.edu.

As you can see, the framework for predicting creativity is complicated. What’s more, with thermodynamic fluids, all of the above properties are related by a single equation of state/thermodynamic potential surface. When you change one property, you change all of the others. The question is, based on your particular region of the surface and phase you are in, how sensitive the other properties are. Pressure changes a bunch with density of liquids because the atoms and molecules are already on top of each other — not so much for a gas or plasma. We won’t have an equation of state for social systems anytime soon as quantifying all of these values for people with a single equation will be a challenge. But we have a good start using the spiral v-Meme value scaffolding as analogous energy modes.

How to be creative

Clare Graves, the research psychologist who originally developed Spiral value Memes in the 1950’s and 1960’s sought to answer the problem of what makes some more creative than others. Graves was famous for surveying about personal values and beliefs in different situations. He would then have Teaching Assistants (TAs) sort the survey participants into as few distinct groups as possible. Funny thing, regardless of the TAs, the same general groupings emerged.

These groupings became the fundamental Spiral value-Memes I write so much about. Graves noticed that at level seven, what he called the first 2nd-tier level (a.k.a. the Systemic vMeme), the creativity and validity of responses to open ended design questions increased immensely in a non-linear fashion. In other words something changed, and that something is key to this discussion.

Remember that the levels are scaffolded — your ability to get to a higher level necessitates development of a lower level. The typical classroom environment is reliably low-empathy, legalistic-authoritarian and, as a result, so are our students. They’re in class to do work, and usually under a lot of pressure, deprive of resources, and not relaxed or thinking in multiple ways. That’s why I can reliably predict what students will think on flower, color, furniture, tool. There are only a handful (2-3?) number of ways the authoritarian-legalistic vMeme allows as possible solutions. Enter Dr. Chuck’s quote, “Every authoritarian has a scape goat and a golden child.” No wonder we have a hard time really designing in a classroom.

Level 7, the Systemic vMeme is the first vMeme where awareness and acceptance of the other vMemes takes hold. Systemic individuals have experience in each of the common value systems. Of course they should be able to generate more creative and reliable solutions — they have the experience coupled with multi-paradigm thought processes. In other words, Systemic individuals know they need the ability to empathize with other’s values to solve their problems. They are also very aware individuals to know when they need to get to an environment/place where they can be creative. Building someone up to the systemic level is very hard, and takes a lot of time and resources. You can imagine a systemic person quickly being able to digress into a survival state if needed. It’s hard to imagine someone in a survival state suddenly thriving as an ecosystem manager.

But when you’re really creative — it works on many levels. The more levels it works on, the more likely it is to push those boundaries of our human experience. In many ways, the more empathetic your contribution, the more levels it will work on.

So you want to be a creative and original outlier? A real professional designer/artist/master? Here’s my quick process:

  1. Get involved in a problem/opportunity that has real resources attached. It helps if you have a specialty with good connections, or, indeed, are just in the right place at the right time. Did I mention that thermodynamics is a statistical problem?
  2. Master the rules and constraints that humanity knows govern the problem.
  3. Build a supporting community/team with varying values/experiences that you can empathize with regarding the problem.
  4. Know when the values, stress, density, resources, and empathy are in just the right balance to take agency with your new idea and solve the problem.
  5. Then relax. Let that hippocampus engage in metacognitive drift. The creative thoughts for the next cycle will come with time.

In short: empathize, analyze your resources, team up, know when to act and when to relax.

This generally follows the design method we teach that I referred to above. As Dr. Chuck says, all constructed knowledge is first magical, then a process/heuristic, before finally becoming algorithmic. We’ve now taken the magical creativity and made it a process. Once we have the equation of state, it will be algorithmic and we will  be able to quantify when creativity will happen within a margin of error. And if that has you worried about skynet, or taking the fun out of creativity, don’t be. The complexities of human systems are much greater than fluid systems, and we’re still hardly able to accurately predict the behavior of multi-component fluids.

So in the mean time, you can self-teach the creative process. Here’s a start:

Start small, build your way up.

Think about it. Do some work trying it out. Then empathize. Repeat.

Time to get creative.

(Note: this post is one chapter of what could become a book someday. The other chapters can be found here: https://hydrogen.wsu.edu/dr-jacob-leachman/ )