The Unpredictability of Creativity

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The other day I was having a conversation in the pub with a friend about how unpredictable our bursts of creativity are. The following morning, appropriately, I woke up with this blog in my head and for reasons I can’t understand, this one too. Normally hangovers (2 and a half pints – that’s embarrassing) and lack of sleep conspire to prevent a single original thought entering my head, so why I woke up in a creative frame of mind is beyond me. It only goes to reaffirm the conversation my friend and I were having; creativity is a funny old thing.

 

How do we access our creativity? It’s a very pertinent question, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s very popular talk on TED goes to show that it’s one many of us are interested in. In her talk she reveals that on some days she sits down at her computer and that spark simply isn’t there – and this is from a bestselling author. It’s a conversation I’ve had many times with some of my more creative friends; some days it’s there, some days it’s not, and it’s hard to nail down why that is.

 

My take is that the triggers are deeply varied and complex, and I’m not so sure that a creative frame of mind is something that can just be switched on. Not to mention, each brain is different, and what works for one person may stifle creativity in another. What we can do is try to create the conditions that are conducive to creativity, that improve the likelihood of finding ourselves in a creative frame of mind. Although as I’ve said, these will vary from person to person. A few things that I find helpful are:

 

#1 Taking a mental break from whatever the creative activity is. I find that creativity comes more easily when my mind isn’t on the task and I’m not trying to force it. Somewhere in my unconscious ideas have been churning away, and I just need to give them the space to do so.

 

#2 Talking to people about the creativity activity. Interaction challenges and develops my ideas as I’m exposed to new ones. Sounds obvious, but sometimes we think people won’t be able to grasp our idea and so we stay quiet about it.

 

#3 Getting peace and quiet. There’s an unbelievable amount of noise in modern society, and so much information to be distracted by, which then occupies the mind. I know many writers who will shut themselves away somewhere isolated when they need to write, although this does make #2 difficult!

 

#4 Listening to music. This is a big one for me, but film and books can also inspire me. I recall reading not so long ago a neuroscience article about a study showing that music is good for creativity because of the areas of the brain it triggers activity in. There’s a good justification for playing music in the office!

 

#5 Mood. Confidence plays a big role in my creativity, so I need to be in quite a positive frame of mind. I know for some this is different – creativity is linked to any strong emotional state, positive or negative.

 

#6 Going for a walk! I’m not sure whether it’s the fresh air or the mild exercise, but after a walk I always come back refreshed with new ideas and focus.

 

What works for other people?

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Do economics and business make unsustainability inevitable?

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I believe that the most fundamental root cause of many of our current social and environmental problems lies with our institutions – primarily our institutions of economics, business and governance. Poverty, climate change, mounting debt…these can all been attributed, to greater or larger extents, to the institutions that modern civilization is built upon; institutions that are cracking and creaking as they prove increasingly insufficient for the challenges of the modern world.

Let’s look at sustainability. We have an economic system that requires constant growth in order to survive. We have a business system that has to play by these economic rules and thus also requires constant growth. This is a model of business (the corporation) whose bottom line and primary purpose is to maximise its profit. Neither of the business or economic institutions take any consideration of social or environmental impact, although this is very slowly changing. Both of these institutions in fact treat our environment as unlimited income (rather than finite capital) and, it could be argued, require natural resources in order to run effectively – in order to meet their inherent need for constant growth. Neither institution takes in to consideration the possibility of limits.

So, our economic institution, and by extension our institution of business, requires constant growth yet takes no consideration of limits. Our civilization and entire way of life is dependent on such institutions. Every nation (with the possible exception of Bhutan) and business on the planet is chasing economic growth, with almost no acknowledgement of the possibility of limits. When this is understood, it seems of little surprise that our path is so unsustainable. It seems quite clear that our impact on the planet, particularly in the form of climate change, and our inability to manage our resources sustainably is a result of the institutions we have built our world upon. Such problems represent a very serious threat. Overshooting limits has had a role in every civilization collapse in history. And here we are, building modern civilization upon institutions which take no consideration of limits. Clever.

It does not take a physicist to tell you that infinite growth in a finite system is impossible. Simple common sense is enough. And yet, this is what our institutions demand. Currently, in order to achieve sustainability we are fighting against the institutions which define modern society. They have served us well for a long time, but are becoming increasingly outdated. To succeed, it seems clear that these institutions will need to undergo significant change.

The limits of human understanding

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One of my favourite modules during my Neuroscience studies had almost nothing to do with the actual practice of science. This fact seemed to confuse some of the academics as to why it then existed, and I would identify this confusion as the mean reason it ended up with such a bizarre and inappropriate name of ‘Biology in Society’. In essence, it was about the development of science (not just biology) through the ages, beginning with the ancient Greek philosophers.

A couple of learnings I took from this module were that our methods of understanding the universe have evolved enormously through the centuries, and also that as of the 18th century science really began to take over from religion as the de facto way of explaining just about everything.

I believe science to be of huge value but also grossly imperfect. My thinking behind this is not so much to do with science as a method, but the exponents of it… i.e. us.

The human brain has evolved a certain way over many, many years. As a result, it has given us an understanding of the universe that far exceeds any other species we share the planet with (to the best of our knowledge anyway, we have no proof that snails can’t explain the creation of the universe). We can perceive, and explain much. However, we only have so much space in the brain and so many neural connections that can be made. Evolution has sacrificed certain abilities along the way, to enable others to flourish. The parts of our brain dedicated to sensory input are vastly inferior to many other animals. The eyesight of a bird makes us look blind in comparison; it can see farther, processes motion in a way we don’t, and can even see different light spectrums that are invisible to us. There are things in the world we simply can’t perceive because our brains are not wired that way (although the tools we create can compensate in some cases). You can find examples for hearing, touch, taste, smell…

But we’ve evolved differently. Our frontal lobe is enormous compared with most of the animal kingdom (apes aside). This has given us some unique abilities and advantages. But it does not make us perfect.

The universe is deeply complex. We are simply a product of evolution. Why do we think that evolution has given us the ability to understand and explain everything? We already know that there are many things our senses can not perceive…but what else is there that we do not yet know about? Are we so special, that it just so happens that the evolution of our brains allows us to understand everything about how the universe works? Oddly, that seems to be the expectation. On the whole, as a species, we see ourselves as some master race. We’re not; we’re just different to the others. And oddly, of all the species on the planet, we seem least able to exist in harmony with our environment.

There are many fundamental concepts we have been unable to explain. The way forces act on the universe (hence the creation of the as yet unproven forces of dark matter, dark energy and dark flow). Theories that there are four , five or even six dimensions. That other universes may exist around us.

Human thinking is somewhat binary in that there either is something, or there is not. Such thinking bumps in to obstacles. Although we have theories now around the big bang, they mostly seem to posit that a couple of random particles bumped in to one another. But where did they come from? How was there space around them in the first place? Somehow, there was once nothing and then there was the universe. Try and get your head around that. How did absolutely nothing at all turn in to something? That makes no sense. And how is that once nothing existed at all? Or perhaps the universe is timeless, it has always been here. But again that doesn’t seem to fit our way of thinking…how can we analyse that? Stick that in to our formula? Our brains don’t handle the concept of infinity especially well.

A similar example is the size and shape of the universe. There must be an edge right? Whatever shape it is, again this requires that there be something (the universe) and then…what? Nothing again? What is outside of the universe? And like with respect to time, perhaps the dimension of space is also infinite. So yet again, we bump against a concept – infinity – that we struggle to comprehend.

It might just be possible that in between nothing and something is a concept that we aren’t capable of understanding. That for all that our brains can do as a result of evolution, they can’t quite figure this one out. We can’t explain everything that is going on around us in the universe, because we have limitations. The universe did not develop specifically to fit in to the paradigms of understanding of just one its countless species.

And let’s think about this for a moment…thanks to evolution we have learned to better understand the world around us. This has been an adaptive mechanism that through developments such as medicine and technology enables us to thrive as a species like none other. Our understanding of our planet is phenomenal. However, why would it be adaptive in evolutionary terms for us to understand the universe? Up until midway through the last century we had never even left our own planet. In a fierce and competitive environment in which every little bit of space in our brains has evolved to give us an adaptive advantage, why would space be wasted trying to understand concepts like the beginning of the universe which have little to no impact on our ability to survive on Earth? Take the example of infinity – the Earth is finite and full of finite limits. Understanding infinity would not help us much here.

Of course, this does beg the obvious question of why we would even try to do so, and I’m afraid I have no answer to this.

We do a mighty impressive job, but I don’t believe everything in the universe fits within our limited way of understanding and explaining things. Heck, we don’t even understand our own motives most of the time.

Time to re-think our values?

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Over the last few years I have watched enormous resources (human, financial, material) thrown at various social and environmental issues. Organisations coordinating the programs all report back with tremendous positivity about the impact they are having. And yet…at a holistic level we don’t seem to be getting anywhere. I recall working on a project attempting to tackle homelessness, and we were told by the experts that homelessness has actually increased, quite remarkably, in parallel with the resources invested in tackling it. Have we really made such great progress in areas like health, education, economy, environment, poverty? There have been many leaps forward (we have met some of the Millennium Development Goals already), and yet personally I do not feel that we are making particularly impressive progress given the resource investment. Perhaps we are tackling the symptoms, and not the cause.

 

I believe to understand where all of humanity’s problems come from we must first accept a most uncomfortable truth:

 

We are the cause of every single one of them.

 

I have learned from my experience of depression as well as my time in social enterprise that we must first accept a problem in its entirety before we attempt to tackle it. Taking responsibility is perhaps also an important step, given how inclined we seem to be individually and collectively to absolve blame and point the finger elsewhere. By taking responsibility for a problem, we can then take responsibility for tackling it.

 

I am not telling you of course to take responsibility yourself for the entire 2 billion people living in poverty. A problem of such scale is not the fault of one individual, or even one nation, but the fault of billions of individuals collectively. Whether you like it or not, you have had a role to play though, as have the people you see around you. By buying materials and produce made by those living in poverty at such a reduced rate you are contributing. We buy from corporations whose greed-driven purpose is to maximise profit, by nature then exploiting those who have so little. On a systems level we are all players in the game of capitalism, which polarises wealth.

 

I see the fault for many problems we face lying within our cultural values. Here are some of the values that define mainstream society today:

Greed

Throwaway culture

Short-term interests maximised at long-term cost

Break down of close-knit communities

Quantity over quality

Demand for constant growth

Consumerism

Lack of respect for environment we wholly rely on

 

Unfortunately many of these values have spread from the ‘dominant’ west which much of the rest of the world aspires to imitate. The west looks impressive on the surface with its big shiny buildings, fancy technology and 2 cars per household, but that conceals the rotten core beneath. Record levels of obesity, stress and mental illness are hardly symbols to me of a flourishing civilization. I can think of few who feel particularly satisfied or purposeful in how they are living their lives. And all this for a lifestyle which is, quite simply, unsustainable.

 

The car crash of our misplaced values is playing out in slow motion, right before our eyes, as our economy wobbles with little sign of recovery, the climate inches ever closer to dangerous levels of warming, and ever more of us find ourselves fighting over ever fewer resources on this planet.

 

Such a state of things has been caused by contemporary approaches and contemporary values. To chart a more sustainable and prosperous course for ourselves going forward requires a new approach. It requires new values.

Why we need to drop GDP as a measure of progress

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How do we measure progress? There’s no question that the indicators we use to achieve this are of utmost importance as they underpin key high-level decisions. Since 1944, the measurement indicator we have used is GDP. I am going to work through the flaws of this measure, and suggest alternatives that would more accurately and universally reflect human progress.

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) can be defined as the value of a country’s overall output of goods and services at market prices, excluding net income from abroad.* In other words, the economic value placed on the amount of stuff a country produces. GDP has become the measure of progress. Countries use it to compare how they are doing against other countries. Governments use it to compare how they are doing against past governments.

In truth, it was never intended to be used in the way it is now. Simon Kuznets, the creator of GDP, said of it that, “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income.”** He disputed its accuracy as an indicator of standard of living. I’m inclined to agree, and I have serious reservations about GDP; honestly I find it astonishing that it is used as it is now. And that’s without even going in to the copious number of methods that governments have come up with allowing them to doctor GDP and present a falsely optimistic picture.

Pure production output fails to take in to consideration the physical or psychological well-being of the citizens, and indeed GDP has often been criticised for this recently. Some have called instead for ‘Gross National Happiness’ as a measure. I object to this, although it does have some merit. I take issue with happiness as a measure, because happiness is a fleeting emotion and my neuroscience background tells me that it exists (like any emotion) purely as a feedback mechanism rather than a long-term state of being that we can attain. I would argue that ‘Gross National Well-being’ is preferable, as our general sense of well-being is less transient than happiness. Perhaps for some people they are one and the same though and I am simply being pedantic.

GDP also fails to consider two concepts which I feel will become of increasing importance given current global trends. Those concepts are resource efficiency and environmental footprint. As we bump harder and harder against the natural limits of the planet, both of these will have to be used as measures of progress. How efficient we are at using resources and minimising waste will matter because of the growing scarcity of global resources. Countries ought to be incentivised to be as efficient as possible with the resources available to them. Similarly, we are making living conditions increasingly precarious through runaway climate change. Widespread deforestation is a danger given the crucial role that trees play in regulating the delicately balanced composition of elements in our atmosphere that we depend on. These are just two examples of environmental footprint; there are many others.

Somehow, it is in our human nature to keep on developing and moving forward; to learn and to create. Improving our sense of well-being and standard of living would seem to be at the heart of this, as we continue to make our lives more comfortable, more safe and more efficient. So this sense of well-being must remain in any measure of progress. Well-being does not go hand in hand with material wealth/output however, and yet GDP as a measure of progresses incentivises material production. By removing material production from progress indicators, you free up other means of improving well-being such as sense of purpose, sense of community, and leisure time to name a few.

So I believe a better measure of progress would incorporate well-being, resource efficiency and environmental impact. In this sense you are capturing the key indicators of progress – the country’s ability to sustain itself and its citizens’ well-being.

The Happy Planet Index developed by the London-based think tank New Economics Foundation is an excellent example of what a true measure of progress could look like – check it out. I would also recommend looking in to the recently launched Social Progress Index.

 

 

 

 

*Taken from The Business Dictionary http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/gross-domestic-product-GDP.html

**Taken from Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_Kuznets

Are we destined for an international government?

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Some time ago, life was organised in to community living. People lived in small villages, everyone knew one another and they sourced all that they needed from the land in the village. We then started building towns and cities; great population and resource hubs. This required more sophisticated governance and management. Nations came next, made of multiple cities and towns and requiring yet another level of governance and management. I believe that we are approaching another stage, that of international governance.

 

For one, it seems a natural next step forward from the progression listed above. From community governance to city governance to nation governance to international governance.

 

Secondly, never before has our world been more interconnected. Few (if any) countries are entirely independent, as countries have come to rely on others for crucial resources such as food and oil. Nations now are even buying farmland in other countries to use for crops. Now if one nation struggles, then it has a knock-on effect on the rest of the world. We also feel empathy for those in other parts of the world, an empathy that goes beyond the borders of our nation. We are truly interdependent. The bizarreness of North Korea is the only obvious exception to this interconnectedness, but I’m sure that too will change in time (peacefully, I very much hope).

 

Thirdly, we are already seeing international bodies that represent something not so far off international governance*. Perhaps the closest example is the European Union, with its parliamentary process and shared currency – tying these nations closer together. The United Nations of course comes to mind as an international political body. The UN is a membership body rather than a governing body however, and has little power to issue directives to other nations, thus it can easily be undermined by the actions of a single nation (more so than the EU). Its charter is built around the principles of global peacekeeping, building relations between nations and solving international problems. It is the last principle here that I feel makes international governance inevitable.

 

Never before have we faced planetary limits as we do now. In the past, when a nation or civilisation has exceeded its natural limits it has collapsed largely in isolation. Now is very different, as any environmental crisis we face will be international in nature and thus require an international solution.

 

Climate change is perhaps the greatest threat humanity has ever faced, and requires every nation to commit to action on it. Yet we saw what happened in Copenhagen. With the whole world watching, no agreement was made. Even if every country but China were to drastically reduce carbon emissions, then so long as China continued their rate of emissions the disastrous impact would affect all of us and the good work would be undone. China have been obstinate on reducing carbon emissions, because providing a decent standard of living to their citizens requires continued industrial output and thus continued emissions. That would be all well and good if China had an atmosphere to itself, but unfortunately the atmosphere is not divided up by nation and we all must share the same one. International cooperation is imperative to tackle carbon emissions and we must commit to action as a global community; nation borders only prove an obstacle and lead to mixed motives. I could have used deforestation instead of carbon emissions as a very similar example.

 

The above is an example of our environmental impact, but the other side of the coin is our resource consumption. Our current consumption is beyond what the planet can regenerate, and we are overshooting by about 40% (and rising). Obviously, this cannot continue. And again, this requires international cooperation. Population size requires stabilisation, resource consumption needs regulation and global efforts need to be directed towards more efficient resource usage.

 

The UN in its current guise does not have the power to tackle the global challenges laid out above. How you would do it I have no idea and it would be plagued with issues, but international governance is required if we are to all live together on this planet. Nationhood is no longer sufficient in a global interdependent world facing global challenges.

 

The UN was born out of the most devastating international tragedy in human history. It will take something similarly catastrophic born out of the environmental sphere to mobilise nations in to international governance, but it will happen. It must happen if we are to work with the necessary international urgency and cooperation to tackle the global challenges we now face.

 

 

 

*Other examples are regional bodies such as the Arab League and ASEAN, and international membership institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund

Growth: a uniquely human pursuit?

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I was reflecting this morning on the ‘growth-collapse’ paradigm of human behaviour I wrote about recently. It’s hard to understand why we have developed such a transfixion on the concept of endless growth, when history (and present circumstances) suggest that it doesn’t serve us so well.

 

It seems somewhat maladaptive that by and large we are unable to within our environmental limits. Past civilizations (with a few notable exceptions) expand until they go beyond their limits, and consequently collapse. A much more adaptive response would surely be to live in equilibrium with the environment.

 

This is what has me fascinated with some of the indigenous peoples around the globe. Take the Australian aboriginals, for whom the land and environment is not something to be consumed and exhausted, but rather a gift to be thankful for. They view themselves as custodians and protectors of their environment, rather than consumers of it. Whether it is due to genes or other factors, they have developed a certain equilibrium with their surrounds that has allowed them to survive for 60,000 years whilst countless great civilizations around the world have risen and fallen. For me, this makes them a wiser and more emotionally evolved culture than the modern industrialized culture. But cultures like that of the Aboriginals are the exception, rather than the rule. Some island cultures (like Tikopia and Tonga) have come close to a clash with environmental limitations, and responded by implementing measures of population control and more sustainable agricultural techniques that have enabled them to live in equilibrium with their environment. Imagine, instead of dedicating excess resources towards growth, those resources could instead be diverted towards prosperity and wellbeing.

 

Whether this constant drive for growth is a uniquely human trait is uncertain. It is possible that other species would grow and grow if they were not subject to normal population limiting factors such as predators and disease. In fact, there are examples in which this has happened. When European settlers moved to Australia, they introduced a number of foreign species to make the environment more familiar. This proved an incredibly naïve and devastating error of judgement.

 

Australia’s ecosystem is quite unlike many of the others in the world (it has a startlingly high percentage of species unique to the continent – link http://www.dfat.gov.au/facts/flora_and_fauna.html) and is delicately balanced. When European rabbits were introduced to the country it was a disaster. They had no natural predators in Australia, and were not controlled by natural disease. And after all, rabbits do mate like…

 

Rabbit population growth boomed uncontrollably and aspects of the environment were damaged beyond repair. I recall from reading Bryson’s book Down Under, that much of the delicate inland vegetation was lost forever to the hungry stomachs of unstoppable rabbits. It was only human intervention through scientifically designed diseases that brought the population back under some sort of control.

 

Perhaps it is simply that this drive for species growth is inherent within all species, but it is the mastery humans have developed over their environment and other species that has enabled them to overcome population limiting factors. Our science and technology means that we are not under threat from predators, and we have been able to eradicate an extraordinary number of lethal diseases.

 

There’s also the point that our brains have evolved to be hardwired to tackling immediate, short-term problems that we are faced with. We are not so tuned in to complex, longer-term challenges. I’d suggest that the challenges presented by growth, unsustainable living and bumping in to limitations build up over time and until we reach tipping points, they fall in to the category of long-term challenges. Past societies only have typically only responded when lack of sustainability becomes an immediate problem (usually food shortages). So in a sense, our mastery of the environment means that we now bump in to problems that we haven’t evolved to know how to tackle – the limitations of our environment.

 

Only, this would be the first time we bump in to global limitations, rather than local limitations like past civilizations have done. What the consequences of this would be, we really have no idea. This is a unique period in human history.

 

The challenges may seem scary, but it’s a very exciting time to be around.

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