22 February 2011


CREATIVITY AND INSIGHT. Andrea Kuszewski, psychologist and science writer, confronts several recent studies in The Neuroscience of Creativity and Insight -- The Good, The Bad, and The Absolutely Ridiculous. Her writing is lucid and easy to follow, and she pulls no punches in her assessment of weak science. In her article Kuszewski describes the 'Ah ha!' moment -- "the point at which everything rapidly and often suddenly comes together to form a whole, complete idea, sometimes out of nowhere. This is also known as the moment of insight, the pinnacle of the creative process. Anyone who's experienced this moment knows how addicting that feeling can be. For me, it's like being high on ideas -- scrambling to dictate, transcribe, and extract as much information as you can from this mental epiphany before it escapes into the haze of unrealized theories. When it hits you -- and you are in that moment -- it's heaven.

"And so, like most wonderful things, science wants to replicate it artificially. In fact, some scientists even claim they found a way to induce creative insight -- with a jolt of electricity to the brain .... So. Plausible? Possible? Hell, I'm just going to come out and say it -- you can't zap your brain and magically turn yourself into the next Leonardo, no matter how much electricity you use. Not even if you use a little fairy dust (although it does add a little flair) .... First of all, insight is a moment of clarity, the second a solution hits you. Creativity is a process, a way of thinking and feeling .... Knocking your brain free from a fixed pattern is helpful, but it doesn't give you an amazing, creative solution to a problem, it merely stops preventing one from coming in, the opening of a door. But you need to generate the info coming in the door yourself, it isn't provided for you. For people who are trying to solve a problem and get "stuck", I can see how this might be useful. But then again, so is stepping away from your work for a minute to clear your head -- to break free from that fixed mental state -- the good old-fashioned way. Added bonus: no risk of brain damage from electric shock!"

Kuzsewski goes on to critique other research based on faulty assumptions or weak methods. This is an integral part of science -- gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. Good hypotheses have replicable results, and stand the test of time and analysis. Poor hypotheses do not. It is important for both scientists and lay people to realize that just because a study has been published, doesn't mean that the hypothesis is correct or incorrect. Only after examination and questioning can this evaluation be made. Sharp observers like Kusewszki make the process easier and more transparent.

MAPPING SCIENCE. We're all familiar with maps as symbolic representations of geography, objects or even ideas. In Mapping Science, Iris Monica Vargas describes a meta-level of mapping -- portraying the total amount of digital content that humans have produced. Ever. "Just like maps of Earth that have long helped travelers -- especially seafaring men and women -- take to the oceans, find their land destinations, and return safely to their loved ones, these new maps of science will, ideally, help their users understand where they are on the landscape of science. Given the abstract way that science is often taught in today's classrooms, this landscape can strike many students as foreign ground. It's as if scientific disciplines weren't interconnected. It's biology and chemistry and physics ans astronomy, but you don't really know how they all go together. But there are very interesting networks of connections and dynamics between them.

"Increased computing power and visualization software allowed a team from SciTech Strategies, Inc., to render a map of similar purpose using the largest set of scientific literature yet mapped .... On the resulting Maps of Science .... each colored node represents a discipline or set of journals in a discipline -- biology, physics, math, earth science, and chemistry, among others -- that cite a common literture. The lines between nodes symbolize shared citations. Thus, closely related disciplines like computer science and math will also share a dense network of lines, bringing them closer together over the spherical surface .... Using this map, researchers can search for common patterns, identify emerging trends, and explore relationships across disparate fields, from computer science to infectious disease to the humanities."

Twenty years ago when I was teaching (just as the Internet was becoming popular among the general public), I was a firm proponent of cross-discipline teaching, integrating history, language, music, poetry, art and popular culture into my science and math classes. It is the most effective way to help students understand why a seemingly dry or alien subject is actually relevant to their lives. The Maps of Science project would have been a wonderful illustration tool. Below you will find one of many maps produced by the project, this one portraying institutional strategies at NASA. Click on any image to enlarge.

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