Going the distance for creativity

Yesterday I watched a thought provoking PopTech video lecture by Jonah Lehrer called "Creative Insights". Lehrer is the author of "Proust was a Neuroscientist" and "How We Decide". The central thesis was that looking at a problem from an outsider's perspective stimulates creative thinking and novel ideas. This resonated with me, as I've been thinking a lot about this idea recently (this relates to a couple of my blog posts from last week ("Creativity in Contradiction" and "NYC Sojourn"). I also found several related articles on his blog, "The Frontal Cortex."

He consideres three different aspects to being an outsider: 1) physical distance, 2) cultural distance, and 3) intellectual distance. He cites studies that have seen a correlation between creative problem solving and a perceived physical distance from some core aspect of the problem. For example, one study gave two groups of American university students the task of listing as many modes of transportation as possible. One group was told the task was conceived by researchers in Greece, while the other group was informed the task was posed by researchers from down the hall. The first group was able to come up with significantly more transportation possibilities than the other group. Lehrer discusses this idea further in a Guardian article as well as a blog post that references a related Scientific American article. What's intriguing is that not only does traveling help us widen our sphere of conceptual associations, but even simply thinking about distant places can help expand our thinking.

He also cites studies that found a correlation between experiencing a foreign culture and creativity. Living in a different country exposes one to new ways of solving familiar problems. For me, memories of being fascinated with the bathrooms in other countries come to mind: it wouldn't occur to you that there are other ways to design a toilet for example, or that other countries would build a special apparatus (a bidet) for washing the genitalia and butt. It's remarkable how the constant bombardment with alternative solutions to everyday problems has a way of stimulating creative thinking.

Finally, he talks about how many strokes of insight occur to people who are outsiders to the field of their discovery. He cites results from the website Innocentive, which is an "open innovation" company that connects companies like Procter and Gamble or Eli Lilly, who pose research problems, with individuals trying to solve those problems for a monetary prize. Quite often the problems are solved by people who are just on the outside of the research field. It takes a special balance between being just far away from established and entrenched schools of thought about a particular problem, but at the same time being well informed and technically proficient enough to have the tools to carry out the novel plan of attack.