At Play in the Fields of the Mind

By Ben Peterson

Mary True, professor of psychology, says that when her children find milk in the cupboard or cereal in the refrigerator, they say, "Oh, Mom must be thinking big thoughts."

It’s because, she says, the most critical part of her creative process is "following an idea with 'light thinking,’ free of goals, worries and a 'to do’ list." And light thinking sometimes sends her into a different kind of consciousness, wandering around the house as she puzzles through her research findings.

Illustration by John Hersey

For True, there’s a yin and a yang to creativity in research. "The scientific process is analytical — systematic observations, hypothesis, data collection, analysis, conclusions. This is necessary, but not as much fun as figuring out what it all means. It’s taken me a long time to let go and trust that good things will come of this process. In many ways, it’s playful!"

Creativity configured by chance

There are countless theories about the psychology of creativity — from those who hypothesized links between madness and creativity to physician-philosopher-psychologist William James, whose ideas informed Dean Keith Simonton’s "chance configuration theory." Consider the invention of Post-its, a failed adhesive developed by one scientist at 3M and its "aha" use by a fellow scientist who wanted to mark places in his choral music without permanently altering the music or sending little loose marking slips cascading to the floor. It is the story of a "failure" finding success through accident and repurposing. But whatever the theory, the idea of playfulness or some period of letting go seems central to any creative process. True also brings a sense of playfulness to creativity in her teaching. "It differs from research because I know the concept I want to get across, but … how best to do it? I try to develop a process that engages the students’ brains in different ways: thinking, feeling, sensing." To teach emotional contagion — how we "catch" emotions from each other — she creates an experiential opportunity for students. "They face each other in pairs, make eye contact and then I give the signal to smile for one in each pair. The partner smiles back and soon the room is filled with laughter. They have caught happiness from each other."

The 'tango high’ and other mysteries of the mind

Hiroko Nakano, associate professor of psychology, is intrigued by what happens when people get in the kind of zone or flow top-performing athletes experience, and why that experience is addictive. She taught a Jan Term class in Argentine Tango to explore why the "tango high" is addictive in that same way. "We say 'it takes two to tango,’ and that’s technically true. Dancers have to connect instantly, communicate back and forth, right there in the moment." Her next step? To measure brain activity during the dance. She’s already discovered that the trancelike state experienced during meditation is similar to what happens in athletes’ brains.

In "Tracing the Spark of Creative Problem-Solving" [New York Times, December 7, 2010] Benedict Carey reports on something we know intuitively — all the processes, all the preparation, still need that sudden flash of insight to make some magic. Neuroscientists are discovering that the pleasure of "I’ve got it!" in solving a word puzzle or Sudoku moves the mind to a more nimble state.

All of which may explain why puzzles are so irresistible. Carey quotes "The Puzzle Instinct: The Meaning of Puzzles in Human Life" by Marcel Danesi, professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto. "It’s imagination, it’s inference, it’s guessing; and much of it is happening subconsciously. It’s all about you, using your own mind, without any method or schema to restore order from chaos."  

The argument for playfulness is one that’s been attached to many out-of-the-box thinkers, including the Nobel Prizewinning physicist Richard Feynman. Famous for his insistence that any theory, no matter how complex, had to be explainable to a freshman in college, he used humor and play in his own research as well. He was unapologetic about the sheer joy of the pursuit of the unexplored. Or, as he once observed, "Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it."

What is "it?" It’s the inexplicable combination of rigor and discipline — and then the moment of abandonment, when imagination transcends facts and figures and takes wing. Whether that looks like an improvisational moment at a Saint Mary’s Jazz Band rehearsal, an alum’s breakthrough idea for a new business or what True calls "daydreaming my way to a research insight," the brain is making new connections. It is nothing less than human creativity at play in the fields of the mind.