Friday, January 27, 2012

CultureLab - Creativity takes teamwork

Kelley Swain, contributor
(Image: Mark Baldwin, Artistic Director of Rambert Dance Company

"Creativity is a precious thing, but sometimes we are too precious, too emotional, about it," announced Geraint Wiggins, professor of computational creativity at Queen Mary University in London, UK, to a packed room at the British Academy, the home of the UK’s national academy for social sciences.
Wiggins’s was the opening address to the first of three multi-disciplinary discussions on "The Creative Process", which will explore what creativity in science might look like, and whether there is a benefit to scientist-artist exchange.
The first discussion brought together scientists Wiggins, who is a composer alongside his scientific career, and Nicky Clayton, who researches animal behaviour at the University of Cambridge and is also a dancer, along with Alison Prendiville, director of the Centre for Competitive Creative Design.
Steering clear of the murky waters around definitions of ‘creativity,’ ‘inspiration,’ and even ‘instinct’, the panel dived right in to challenging stereotypes. Turning on its head the common conception of scientific deduction as rote and uninspired, Wiggins declared that "deduction is imagination backwards, à la Sherlock Holmes", raising a murmur of approval from the packed room. But what is the best route to tap into inspiration?
Wiggins looked at the solitary creative. Einstein, Newton, Kekulé, and Young were scientists who experienced moments of inspiration while working alone, he argued, which led to the great discoveries of the theories of relativity, gravity, the structure of benzene, and the wave-particle duality of light.
Prendiville and Clayton, on the other hand, painted a more collaborative view of the creative process. In her own work, Prendiville marries design and technology. Bringing the two together provides "many creative opportunities because they are so different", she says. When she was asked to design a new piece of medical equipment for full-body scans, for example, Prendiville sent students into a hospital to emotionally map the patient’s experience. By asking: "How might the day-to-day use of medical scans influence the design process of the equipment itself?" Prendiville’s method redefined the values of medical equipment design to focus on the person in centre stage: the patient.
Beyond her role at Cambridge University's department of experimental psychology, Clayton works as scientist in residence at Rambert Dance Company. Discussing her collaborations with choreographer Mark Baldwin on pieces interpreting change in evolutionary biology, the importance of play, and expression of sexual desire, she emphasised the importance of talking ideas over, letting thoughts "brew", and "relying heavily on intuition - if it smells or feels right."
Clayton and Baldwin’s collaboration serves as a way to interpret scientific ideas in new ways, a process that itself can spark inspiration. Collaborations, especially across disciplines, are beneficial for creativity, the panel concluded. As the session’s chair, John Sloboda, a researcher in the psychology of music at London’s Royal Holloway University, summed it up: creativity is largely a "social process", though, he added, it benefits from ”a bit of tension”.

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