By Jason Zweig | Jan. 18, 2011 4:17 p.m. ET
Image credit: Clara Peeters, “Still Life” (1611), The Prado
Here’s a guest contribution I wrote for Edge.org, the website run by intellectual impresario John Brockman, as one answer to the question: What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit? It was also featured in John’s book This Will Make You Smarter: 150 New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking. I was inspired to write it by years of dabbling in fields I knew nothing about, and by the brilliant book The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity by the sociologist Robert K. Merton. Before you read my essay below, I have to point out that while I believe what I wrote is excellent advice, I find it easier to urge other people to do it than to follow it myself. Ideally, you should follow this counsel every working day. I struggle to do it more than a few times a month. I believe I would do more — and better — work if I could structure much more serendipity into my daily routine.
Jan. 15, 2011
Creativity is a fragile flower, but perhaps it can be fertilized with systematic doses of serendipity. Sarnoff Mednick showed decades ago that some people are better than others at detecting the associations that connect seemingly random concepts: Asked to name a fourth idea that links “wheel,” “electric,” and “high,” people who score high on other measures of creativity will promptly answer “chair.”
More recently, research in Mark Jung-Beeman’s lab at Northwestern has found that sudden bursts of insight — the Aha! or Eureka! moment — come when brain activity abruptly shifts its focus. The almost ecstatic sense that makes us cry “I see!” appears to come when the brain is able to shunt aside immediate or familiar visual inputs.
That may explain why so many of us close our eyes (often unwittingly) just before we exclaim “I see!” It also suggests, at least to me, that creativity can be enhanced deliberately through environmental variation. Two techniques seem promising: varying what you learn and varying where you learn it. I try each week to read a scientific paper in a field that is new to me — and to read it in a different place.
New associations often leap out of the air at me this way; more intriguingly, others seem to form covertly and then to lie in wait for the opportune moment when they can click into place. I do not try to force these associations out into the open; they are like shrinking mimosa plants that crumple if you touch them but bloom if you leave them alone.
Robert Merton argued that many of the greatest discoveries of science have sprung from serendipity. As a layman and an amateur, all I hope to accomplish by throwing myself in serendipity’s path is to pick up new ideas, and combine old ones, in ways that haven’t quite occurred to other people yet. So I let my curiosity lead me wherever it seems to want to go, like that heart-shaped piece of wood that floats across a Ouija board.
I do this remote-reading exercise on my own time, since it would be hard to justify to newspaper editors during the work day. But my happiest moments this autumn came as I reported an investigative article on how elderly investors are increasingly being scammed by elderly con artists. I later realized, to my secret delight, that the article had been enriched by a series of papers I had been reading on altruistic behavior among fish (Lambroides dimidiatus).
If I do my job right, my regular readers will never realize that I spend a fair amount of my leisure time reading Current Biology, the Journal of Neuroscience, and Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. If that reading helps me find new ways to understand the financial world, as I suspect it does, my readers will indirectly be smarter for it. If not, the only harm done is my own spare time wasted.
In my view, we should each invest a few hours a week in reading research that ostensibly has nothing to do with our day jobs, in a setting that has nothing in common with our regular workspaces. This kind of structured serendipity just might help us become more creative, and I doubt that it can hurt.
For further reading:
Jason Zweig, Your Money and Your Brain
Robert K. Merton and Elinor Barber, The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity
John Brockman (ed.), This Will Make You Smarter