“Creativity is not a team sport”: Interview Vincent Walsh, Prof Neuroscience UCL

34 Responses

  1. jordan g says:

    So you’re telling me psychedelics like LSD don’t boost your creativity? Total bullocks.

    • Ian Jamieson says:

      Fair comment, a lot of musicians have written music whilst high on drugs! However, this article is saying there are no drugs to help creativity in a subject that you have no prior knowledge in. Whilst taking LCD all the effects that your brain creates are still based on your own past experiences and knowledge.

  2. L. Elauterio says:

    I have studied, researched, and practiced creative thinking methods and techniques for 40 years and continue to actively do so. The argument you and Vincent Walsh present is not correct. It is partially correct and only for a subset of people. Creativity works in significantly different ways depending on many factors, i.e., left/right brain activity and use, psychological state of the individual’s brain, early childhood development, problem solving techniques subjected to during development years, level of secure thinking and state, and many more. The scenarios and results discussed occur IN SOME PEOPLE. It does not work for the majority, and it was found in many studies since 1957 that casual creativity can only sometimes work as you suggest. Unfortunately, the world does not operate on “casual” creativity. You and Vincent made the common mistake of oversimplifying and it assumes incorrect assumptions of your samples up front.

    In occupations like design engineering, people do their best creative inventing when pressed. The best artists and illustrators of the world have created their best work when pressed under schedules while addressing many other life pressures. The best problem solving and inventions have been created under very adverse conditions throughout time. Much neuroscience and psychological research has shown that many people need to be pushed beyond their limits to solve the most difficult problems or create the best artistic work possible. It’s easy to convince people that creativity when relaxed is best. Wouldn’t everyone want to relax and wouldn’t everyone want to solve problems. All very self-fulfilling.

    In your case, you appear to be a self-published author searching for someone to back up your book and promote your business. That’s understandable, and I commend your marketing attempts. However, your ideas in your book are also misleading. I assume Vincent is looking to promote a book pr a paper soon too. I respect the ideas of both of you, but your information is not correct. A subset of people fall into your sample, but the two of you are missing the forrest through the trees.

    • Vincent here. Happy to have disagreement. You concentrate on a particular segment of the discussion, which is fine, it’s not for me to tell people what to concentrate on. May I note, however that,contrary to your presumption, I have nothing to promote. This was an open, informal, unpaid discussion of two people thinking out loud. I have not (yet, and may never) written a book on creativity. For my own education, I would be grateful for the papers which you say show that “Much neuroscience and psychological research has shown that many people need to be pushed beyond their limits….”
      Best wishes
      V

      • Ian Jamieson says:

        Vincent, I think you probably should write a book on creativity to give you the chance to demonstrate the research behind the theories!

        • Ian (and everyone else). Thanks for the comments. The best book I’ve come across so far which includes references to a lot of the recent studies is called “Imagine” by Jonah Lehrer. It’s far from perfect as far as writing goes, but it does include a wealth of statistics, evidence from recent experiments and some interesting views on what they mean. I’d suggest getting a copy of that for anyone interested in the topic of creativity and neuroscience, mainly to help them form their own views based on the evidence at hand.

          • Ian Jamieson says:

            Thank you for the suggestion. I was put off by the £240 price tag for a new hardcover on Amazon. Just reading some of the reviews on there, apparently the author had fabricated many of the quotes in his book?

        • Is there really a conflict? There is no doubt that you very often have to work hard to find a solution to a problem. All that hard work and engagement make you learn many new things. Finally all these learnings are combined into a new idea. However, brain research as well as all other research on the human body, emphasizes the importance of rest. You will not be a successful 100-meter runner, if you train all the time. The body needs rest to prepare for the next training. That goes for the brain as well. Similar to how muscle fibers are rebuilt to be even stronger during rest, the brain creates new connections during rest.

  3. We CAN unlock creativity. This interview danced all around it and never mentioned it. You missed it completely. But the obvious has had a bad PR rap, called trivial, unproductive, the devil’s workshop. It is even poo pooed as childish and without value: perhaps a consequence of industrialization, mass production and assembly line thinking and behaviors?

    There is an emerging science that addresses this and more. Play Science. Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul… Stuart Brown, MD. From Play to Innovation at Stanford.

  4. ahz hole says:

    So, like so many academics, I appreciate the concrete and absolute verbiage used to describe something that we “believe” to be the case. Overall, I thought there was some interesting concepts, however, I think that if one were to try and embrace the concepts as described here, they would find themselves in conflict.

    For instance, “Creativity is not a team sport”. While I agree that an idea, that is, the “epiphanal moment”, is hatched within a single brain. However, often that idea is brought about by the team dynamic and collaborative banter around the problem. No team, no discussion, no discussion, no idea. Another absolute presented here was the idea that medicines or devices cannot foster better idea generation. His highly educated and complex response of animal dung, indicates to me a extremely high level of arrogance which will make it hard for him to learn anything about the subject. Applying basic logic to the statement makes it very difficult to embrace such an absolute.

    If we are willing to agree that our bodies are nothing more than complex bio-chemical reactions, then it is reasonable to conclude that ideas are merely a series of chemical reactions over time. If one could increase the time needed to connect these neurons, would it not equate to faster idea generation?

    The quality of an idea has NOTHING to do with how people perceive the idea. A great idea if measured solely by “quality” would require that we define what quality means. I think of quality as the ability to solve a problem for the lowest cost; cost further needing definition, but in short, “effort”. Case in point, if I need to tighten a flat head screw but have never seen one before, when someone says hey, use this tool called a screw driver. It is a great and valuable idea. Since I had no idea what the screw was, I probably too have no idea what a screw driver is; so does my idea hold no value? – ask again once the screw is tightened.

    We collectively no so very little about the world in which we live, let alone the body in which we live, I find a need to be dismissive about anyone claiming with such heavy absolute language that “this is the way it is”. Interesting ideas for sure, but not fact in my opinion.

  5. Sharbi says:

    Really enjoyed the video, but please work on the background noise in the future! Really distracting and relatively loud…

  6. I would argue saying “Creativity can be and should be a Team sport to generate better ideas”
    I enjoyed the video for first 11 minutes but then it suddently took a left turn when Prof Walsh suggested “Brainstorming doesn’t work, and you cannot unlock people’s creative potential, Creativity is no team sport”. Well, these are controvertial statement and I hoep Prof Walsh didn’t mean them 100%. Many experts here have argued against the statements made during the interview and I echo the same feelings. While I agree that a spark of an idea and many creative ideas do come when you are most relaxed, not truely thinking anything.. but that doesn’t mean creative ideas don’t come in brainstorming or group discussions. Infact I would go on to argue that NO GREAT IDEA is an individual’s credit. All ideas need polishing, massaging, and lots of work before they become GREAT. And this greatness comes from a series of ideas that other team members put together. A seed of an idea come from an individual’s mind need lots of inputs, nurturing, perspectives, and efforts from many others to make it worth. When I watched this video, I wrote a blogpost on ideasmile.com sharing my own experiences from corporate world and startup world. It would eat up lot of space here. @Nick I wonder how come you snap fingures when Prof said, “Creativity is no team sport and you cannot unlock people’s creative potential”. Isn’t that what you help companies with?

    • @Abhijit: I snapped my fingers when Prof Walsh said there are no drugs or brain implants which can unlock creative potential as a sort of instant solution, which would be the sort of Holy Grail, and was meant in a slightly humorous way. “Unlocking”, especially refering to some of the bogus studies in the media which the Prof and I were refering to, make claims that they could “turn on creativity instantly”. What my company does is help enhance creativity through coaching and team techniques, which requires several sessions and practice, much like fitness training for the brain’s ability to generate ideas.

      People always want an easy and instant solution to their problems, and often don’t like hearing that they need to put in the effort to see a change happen.

  7. Dear All, thanks for the numerous points. Some heated debate. What’s important to remember though is that this is a wide ranging subject, and this post only focused on one small aspect, specifically what happens in your mind to generate an idea, and really summarise it down for non-expert audiences. What happens after that moment, well that’s the important thing, otherwise the idea won’t lead to anything. In the vast majority of cases, especially in business and team-based situations, it will require further discussion to be evaluated and refined into something that turns into an innovation. How much additional creativity is added during these discussions will also vary (sometimes it will focus all on execution, sometimes new ideas will be generated and built upon, and sometimes the initial trigger idea will fundamentally change).

    Innovation is indeed a team sport, needing a diverse team to all have their own time and ability to be creative at the appropriate time. This is exactly why there are 3 Dimensions of Innovation, of which People’s individual creativity is one and teamwork, techniques and tools is another, and the Organisational Support to enable teams to discuss each others ideas and have the time to work on, refine and execute them is the final piece. You can find out more using the links in the header, and I’m happy to come and chat with your teams if it’s something you want to improve.

  8. Melissa M. says:

    Does Dr. Walsh agree that creativity can be improved through “training.” That’s a bit unclear from your post. If so, to what extent? Also, do you or does Dr. Walsh believe that training can close the creativity gap between people who start at very different places on the “creativity continuum,” that is, exhibiting different levels of creative performance? Perhaps this idea is similar to the fan effect of g. Is it possible that highly creative people will always be more creative, provide all domain factors are equal (or not exactly equal, but not grossly different)? Thanks! I’m working on putting a project and these points are confusing in the literature.

  9. Melissa, yes I think most things are changeable. Doing something meaningful is always an effort and sometimes people can tool up for that effort at different times of life as a result of circumstances, opportunity, inspiration or need. There is some science behind this and if I had to suggest one book it would be Carol Dweck’s Mindset. I don’t believe in Father Christmas so I’m suspicious of “gifts” and claims if people simply “being” more/better/gifted – everything can be worked towards. Besides, science aside, I think it’s healthy to believe people can grow meaningfully in any direction they choose if they put the work in. V

    • Melissa M says:

      Thanks for your response. I’m thinking of a couple neuroscience studies published over the last few years that show clear differences in brain area activation in people acknowledged for highly creative output compared to those who we’d consider ‘average’ creative, while engaged in (if I recall correctly) a creative uses assessment. Considering this and based on your response, am I to understand that you believe the less creative brain could eventually become as or more creative than the highly creative brain?

      Or is it more likely that the highly creative brain has more advanced neural connections, that are activated often. Is it possible that the highly creative brain continues to maintain its advanced state in comparison to less creative brains? Is it possible that potential gains in creativity through training would affect people more at lower and mid-levels of creative performance? Is it possible that such gains could not be great enough to increase creativity to a “highly creative” level? This idea is similar to research showing gains in intelligence for people of low and middle intelligence levels, specifically that gains decrease as intelligence increases. Doesn’t this suggest that highly intelligent people could always be more intelligent, despite intelligence gains for people with lower levels of intelligence (substantial gains for people with low intelligence)? Intelligence gains decrease as intelligence increases.

      Do you believe the same is or isn’t likely for creativity? Again, these are confusing areas for me. I appreciate knowing more about your thoughts on what could be considered a threshold theory for improvements of creativity through training. I’m curious about the extent to which creativity training can increase creative performance of people who, at the start of the training process, perform at lower levels of creativity. Through enough training, could a low to average creative person become a highly creative performer? If so, how much training would be required? I haven’t come across the answers to these questions in my literature searches. Does such research exist, or is the extent of creativity enhancement through training merely being speculated? Thanks for your input.

  10. I have found that interview of Vincent Walsh particularely interesting.
    Link betwwen conscious and unconscious process in creativity.

    When asking if I am procrestinating: I always answer that I am incubating (big difference :-) …. it incubates, while the consciousness is disconnected from the problem but when at the same time we are deeply engaged and care enough to solve the problem; and then the unconscious process keep on being activated (whule awake, half asleep or really asleep).
    I believe that the creative process is an internal one but indeed which can be stimulated and sort out in interaction with the external environment (expressed out (helps for clarification and transformation, exchanged with others and data, implemented with rectification -tries and error type)

    Laetitia Levy

  11. PS Dhingra, Principal Consultant, Dhingra Consultancy Group & Expert (Hall of Fame) at Lawyers Club India says:

    Except point 5 & 6 of the article, I am in total disagreement of the flop ideas of Prof Vincent Walsh of UCL.

    Pertinent question on his ideas arise –

    1) What is his measurement yardstick by which he thinks, “you’re only aware of less than 1% of your brain activity, and most creativity happens in the other 99%;”

    2) It is absurd to say, “if you want to stimulate an idea, you need to give your brain time to go off-line.” Does he want to say that a person cannot conceive ideas of improvement of his work & performance while at work and how innovation in his work and lifestyle?

    3) His idea “creativity is not a team sport,” also seems to be absurd. Although brainstorming is a terrible way to generate good ideas and can only be expected to generate rubbish ideas under compulsion by the management organising brain storming, but it is unbelievable that creativity is not a team sport. Rather, a question arises, if there is no team port and ideas are not implemented with team spirit, how the creative ideas can be expected to help any organisation, if implemented half heartedly or opposition of the team members?

    4) His belief, “execution of ideas is more important than generation, and previous failure helps this,” also has no ground. A question arises, if ideas are not generated, where arises the question of their execution? So, generation and execution of ideas are equally important.

  12. Ed Bernacki says:

    I just discovered the conversation. In defense of brainstorming and the work by Alex Osborn, many of these comments do not seem to reflect his actual ideas in his books. How To Thing Up! or Applied Imagination.
    Osborn spent almost 300 pages of a 310 page book offering insights for applying your imagination in more structured ways to solve problems. He explicitly states that the vast majority of ideas are developed by individuals. He also supports #2 in terms of stepping back from the problem to make connections. He offers many useful ways to make new connections. In the final chapter of Applied Imagination he then suggests that not all problems can be solve by individuals. For those situations, he shaped a series of processes to the harness the ‘brains to storm’ through a problem. What many seem to miss is that, by definition, Osborn defined brain storming in terms of solving a problem. You need to explore for a wider range of ideas to find new ways to solve the problem.
    In his case, it was the advertising problems of his clients.
    For anyone who truly believes that brain storming has little value, I suggest you go back to see the real original work to discover how sophisticated it was. In the 1942 book, How To Think Up! he outlines a typical brain storm session he advertising agency used that would seem ideal today.
    My experience suggests that what we call brain storming today has little to do with anything Osborn conceived 70 years ago.

    • What you say is true, Osborne isn’t really given the credit for how he refined his purposes over time. The issue is that in the business world, the vast majority of “brainstorming” sessions are still run based on his very simple first philosophies, crammed into a meeting room for an hour or two.

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