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Neuroscientist David Eagleman and composer Anthony Brandt explain how creativity works

Neuroscientist David Eagleman and composer Anthony Brandt explain how creativity works


‘Bend, blend, break’

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Image: Catapult

What makes humans special? Some credit should go to the opposable thumb and the larynx, says neuroscientist David Eagleman, but a lot of it has to do with our ability to be creative and constantly think up new ideas.

Eagleman, a professor at Stanford University and writer, collaborated with composer and Rice University professor Anthony Brandt to write The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World, published this month by Catapult. Throughout the book, which is filled with photographs and illustrations, they narrow down and explain the three main components of creativity: bending elements (Frank Gehry’s buildings), blending elements (mash-ups), and breaking (Picasso).

Image: Catapult

The Verge spoke to Eagleman and Brandt about how these processes work, the relationship between creativity and quality, and their own favorite examples of creativity. The interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

The Verge: David, you’re a neuroscientist, and Tony, you’re a composer. How did this collaboration happen?

Brandt: David and I met a little over a decade ago. We became friends and a few years later David spoke at a conference on “music and the mind.” I wrote a work based on his story “The Founding Mothers,” which traces a maternal line back through history, and we met in the medical center food court, just talking about ideas for the piece. We had a three-hour lunch and we found that we agreed 99 percent and by the end of that conversation, David said, we should write a book about this together.

Eagleman: What we found so cool is that we were coming from these different perspectives. Tony has great interest in the brain and I have great interest in the arts, but our lives are in these different worlds, and what’s so exciting is that our views converge. We had no interest in writing something about, you know, “here’s advice on how to be creative…,” in part because people are so different in what works for one person and what works for another. We were interested in instead is the issue of what underlies creativity. What is happening that makes us absorb ideas and kick out different versions of those ideas?

So your argument is that we are always bending, blending, and breaking. How did you come up with these three techniques? What was the research process like that came to developing this?

Composer Anthony Brandt
Composer Anthony Brandt
Photo: Lynn Lane

Brandt: We were just looking at various disciplines, drawing out from what we knew. It felt like these three strategies were pretty all-embracing. It’s kind of exciting that in our presentations, no one has said, but what about X? They haven’t been able to come up with something that isn’t covered in some way from those three strategies. In music, bending is a theme in variations, just taking an original and remodeling it in some way. Breaking is fragmentation of a theme, it’s motifs. And blending can be counterpoint where you’re playing multiple melodies at the same point. What we found as we’re researching is that those basic principles could be just reimagined and reapplied and sort of endlessly be fulfilling themselves.

David, are there neurological correlates for each of these operations?

Eagleman: It is not clear at this moment in time how the brain does this. There’s so much at this point that we still don’t know. It’s not a very basic question like, how are inputs stored? It’s something that awaits the better technology and future discoveries.

Got it. Can you really separate these three techniques?

Brandt: Our argument would be that those three cognitive strategies are always intertwined. It’s not that they so much exist in a pure form, but you can highlight the presence of one or the other as being really important for a particular thing. It’s hard to in real life separate them out.

Eagleman: This is the basic cognitive software that’s running under the hood. The thing that we value about our computers is that we stick a file in and when we pull it out two years later it’s exactly the same zeros and ones. But the really wonderful part of the human brain is that you put information in there and it gets all smushed up with other information, and blended, and broken with other things and then we’re constantly generating this stream of novelty that way.

This is the thing that has set our species apart. Obviously, a little bit of credit needs to go to the opposable thumb and larynx, but fundamentally it’s about this massive mashup of ideas that we have. We’re constantly evaluating new ideas. Most of them stink, but occasionally, something gets generated that works for our society.

What about taste, though? There are plenty of things, like performance art, that people will say is “creative,” but they also say it’s bad. How should we evaluate? And how do we know how creative to be, or if it’s possible to be “too” creative?

Brandt: We describe creativity as kind of a conversation between personal impulse and the community that sees it. The community’s judgment can be fickle. So we would caution against any kind of rush to judgment, especially with children and making some sort of selection process based on some test when they’re five.

Eagleman: There is no way to know exactly how far out you need to be. The theme we pursued is that the really important thing for individuals and companies and so on is to cover a spectrum of options where some of the things you create are relatively close to community standards and some are wacky and far away. When an auto manufacturer makes a concept car, these are super wacky and it’s not that they’re intending to build that concept car, but it’s a way to plant a flag on the horizon. Clothing manufacturers do the standard stuff, but also haute couture, because you can’t know exactly how far you should be from community standards. It’s important to feel out the border of the possible.

One thing you discuss is the myth of the genius loner, when research shows again and again that we’re social creatures and creativity is nurtured in social environments. Why is this myth so pervasive?

Eagleman: This happens in all fields. As a society, I think it’s easier for us to understand a discovery as belonging to a particular face and name, but the important piece is that it always emerges from a crucible of ideas that come together.

Brandt:If you’re gonna cultivate creativity, especially in kids, you have to have a more accurate view of what’s involved. This mythology of the genius loner is all about novelty and not about tension between novelty and familiarity and the conversation between a time and a place and the person working there. That myth of the loner leaves people in a distorted direction in terms of thinking, what do I need to do in order to be more creative? We argue: You take in the world around you, set challenges for yourself that mean something to you, you constantly generate new solutions, you don’t treat anything as if there is an end point. That’s a more sustainable and a more actionable way of living a creative life than one based on some of the myths are.

What about education? Are there ways that we can teach creativity across different fields?

Eagleman: What’s intriguing about both the arts and sciences is that it’s easily possible to teach them incorrectly. Even if schools have the arts, it doesn’t mean that kids are actually learning creativity. They can learn about past masters and how to paint like them, and all they’re doing is an exercise in copying that way. And on the flip side, one can be extraordinarily creative in a math course. So the key thing about education is being able to teach creativity by making sure that students have the fundamentals, but then they use that as they springboard into the future.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman
Neuroscientist David Eagleman
Photo: Mark Clark

I’m happy to say that we’re seeing that more and more in the sciences. You learn the fundamentals, you go and make a project, code your own thing. I happen to live in Silicon Valley and that’s happening all the time and I think kids have more and more opportunity than ever before than to be able to access the world’s knowledge on the internet and springboard from that and create something new.

What are your personal favorite examples of creativity?

Brandt: My favorite is Beethoven’s Große Fuge. We tell the story about Beethoven writing this massive fugue finale for one of his string quartets and he’s so nervous about the premiere and how it’s going to be received. He can’t bear to be in the audience and goes to the bar across the street from the concert hall. And someone comes and says, the audience didn’t like it. But to me it’s a textbook example of creativity, anything you would want a human mind to do with some source material he did, so I’d give him total A+ credit for that.

Eagleman: I met this guy who lost his arm in an industrial accident, so he got a prosthetic limb. And one of the cool things is that the engineers who put that together realized that there’s no point in having the constraints that a normal hand has. So when he rotates, it just keeps rotating. There are no tendons that hold it in place, so he can turn his hand 360 degrees and keep turning it 720 and so on. When I met him and I saw him hand, I thought, what a lovely example of taking something from nature but being able to bend it and improve on it. It’s like flight: We look at birds and try to come up with airplane wings like that, but then we bend what we find in nature and capture the principles that we like, but in a better way.