Where Creativity Comes From

Creativity has enabled humans to conquer every corner of this planet. Indeed our yen for innovation is one of the most salient characteristics of our kind. Yet our species is not the only one given to inventiveness. Researchers have documented the capacity in a growing number of other creatures. And some of their findings run counter to received wisdom about the origins of creativity and how to foster it in human minds.

The old adage about inventiveness, of course, is that it stems from necessity. Based on his studies of orangutans, primatologist Carel van Schaik of the University of Zurich has come to a very different view. “When food is scarce, orangutans go into energy-saving mode. They minimize movement and focus on unappealing fall-back foods,” he observed. Their strategy in this scenario is quite the opposite of innovation, but it makes sense. “Trying something new can be risky—you can get injured or poisoned—and it requires a serious investment of time, energy and attention, while the outcome is always uncertain,” van Schaik explains.

Research on humans faced with scarcity echoes van Schaik’s orangutan findings. In 2013, Science published a study by economist Sendhil Mullainathan of Harvard University and psychologist Eldar Shafir of Princeton University describing how reminding people with a low income of their financial trouble reduced their capacity to think logically and solve problems in novel situations. A subsequent study found that Indian sugarcane farmers performed much better on the same cognitive performance test after receiving the once-a-year payment for their produce, temporarily resolving their monetary concerns. (Farmers who did not take the test previously did comparably well after getting paid, so it is unlikely that the improvement was simply the consequence of prior experience with the test.) People will do whatever it takes to survive, of course, which may occasionally lead to innovations. But as these and other studies suggest, if one’s mind is constantly occupied with urgent problems, such as finding food or shelter or paying bills, there will not be much capacity left to come up with long-term solutions to better one’s livelihood.

So where does creativity come from? Insights have come from the surprising observation that orangutans can be incredibly creative in captivity. “If food is provided for and predators are absent, they suddenly have a lot of time on their hands, free from such distractions,” van Schaik explains. Furthermore, in their highly controlled environments, exploration rarely has unpleasant consequences, and there are many unusual objects to play around with. Under such circumstances, orangutans appear to lose their usual fear of the unknown. In a study published in the American Journal of Primatology in 2015, van Schaik and his colleagues compared the response of wild and captive orangutans to a newly introduced object, a small platform in the shape of an orangutan nest. While captive orangutans approached the new object almost immediately, most wild orangutans, though habituated to the presence of humans, didn’t even go near it during several months of testing—only one eventually dared to touch it. Such fear of novelty may pose a significant obstacle to creativity: if an animal avoids approaching any new objects, innovations become rather unlikely. “So if you ask me, opportunity is the mother of invention,” van Schaik remarks.  

Similarly, studies of a variety of bird species, as well as spotted hyenas, have shown how individuals that are more eager to explore new things tend to be the most innovative ones. Could such curiosity be a driving force behind the emergence of creativity in humans as well? To answer that question, experts have typically attempted to study innovative problem-solving in children. But such investigation has turned out to be quite challenging, not least because kids do not seem to be very innovative. In a study published in 2011, researchers of the University of Birmingham tasked British children of various ages with retrieving a bucket of stickers that sat out of reach at the bottom of a hole using only the straight but pliable pipecleaner they were given. Nine years earlier, in 2002, a captive New Caledonian crow named Betty made headlines when she solved the same problem, bending the straight wire into a hook to fetch the bucket, which in her case held a tempting payload of food. (Scientists have since observed her species making hooks and bending sticks in the wild.) But the challenge flummoxed most 5-year-olds and about half of all 8-year-olds. A 2013 study by psychologist Mark Nielsen of the University of Queensland showed that Western children were not the only ones stymied by the task: children of South African Bushmen find it just as hard.

The youngsters’ lackluster performance on the hook-and-bucket challenge may stem in part from the conditions under which the experiments were carried out. A pilot study published earlier this year in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, was conducted in the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, where active exploration and manipulation of tools is encouraged. The 4- to 5-year-olds in this experiment did significantly better than children tested in earlier studies, who occasionally expressed surprise that bending the wire was allowed when the investigator showed them the trick. “But we really need a larger sample to be more confident in our findings,” says educational psychologist Kimberly Sheridan of George Mason University, who led the experiment together with Abigail Konopasky of the same institution. 

A new wrinkle in the innovation story emerged on September 14, when Christian Rutz of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and his colleagues reported in Nature that another species of bird—the Hawaiian crow, or alal—also makes and uses tools. Although this bird is extinct in the wild, almost all of the captive adults and nearly half of the captive juveniles the scientists tested used sticks and other objects to retrieve food from hidden locales, often altering the tool materials to do so. That so many of the birds in this species spontaneously use tools, along with the fact that the youngsters develop it without observing their elders, suggests to Rutz that the behavior may be a feature of the species, rather than a recent innovation. Still, tool use in these birds might have originated as a creative innovation in the evolutionary past. The increased foraging success of birds with a penchant for using tools may then have led to natural selection acting to promote the genetic factors underlying that advantageous tendency. In that case, the bird’s ecology may have played a role in that first, creative step toward tool use and modification: with few predators or competitors on its island home, the Hawaiian crow had the freedom—the opportunity—to try new things.

Attempts to find out which personal characteristics might explain differences among children in their ability to solve the task have so far been largely inconclusive, says Jackie Chappell of the University of Birmingham, who has worked with birds (including Betty) as well as children. “Only age and vocabulary size are predictive.  One possibility is that above a certain level of intelligence, variation in innovation is mostly due to external factors, and it is useless to look for child innovators. We’ll see.”

Evolutionary biologist Joe Henrich of the University of British Columbia, who recently wrote a book on the role of culture in the success of our species, expects that will indeed turn out to be the case. “I think the idea that innovation depends on individual geniuses is misguided. History shows that inventions invariably build on earlier findings that are recombined and improved upon. Most of the things we use every day are inventions that no single human being could ever design within her lifetime,” he observes. “Rather than the product of individual innovators, these inventions can be thought of as the product of our societies. Innovations rely on individuals learning from others—in that way, human society functions like a collective brain.”

And to an important extent, individual intelligence measures such as IQ may be a product of this exchange of knowledge with other members of society, adds Henrich’s collaborator, psychologist Michael Muthukrishna of the London School of Economics. “In this way, sociality may be the mother of invention as well as intelligence: the size and interconnectedness of society, enabling us to connect and share more ideas,” he reflects. Like van Schaik, Henrich and Muthukrishna believe that innovation should benefit from diminishing, rather than increasing, costs of failure. Says Muthukrishna: “By reducing the risk, a social safety net may stimulate innovation.”

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