Creativity can bring science out of its silo

Nicky Clayton, Professor of Comparative Cognition at University of Cambridge and Scientist in Residence at Rambert

When I ask people to describe a scientist, ‘creative’ is never a word I hear.

Creativity supposedly belongs to the arts – from fine art paintings, film and photography, to literature, music, theatre and dance – forms of thinking with and without words and ones that appear spontaneous, existential and metaphysical. Many would consider playful and sardonic Banksy; personal and emotional Adele; and graceful, strong Darcey Bussell as typifying the ‘creative’. Meanwhile, science is painstaking, iterative, and purposefully devoid of subjective and emotional content – or is it?

People often think that artists and scientists must be unable to understand each other because of a fundamental difference in the way their brains work. This dichotomy plays out on a daily basis, where old fashioned ideas and erroneous notions of the dominant left or right brain bestowing logic or creativity are often used in the media to this day. This model was refuted long ago1 but stands to demonstrate the perceived difference between the two disciplines. Yet surely Da Vinci is proof that the two can be integrated in interesting and illuminating ways.

Today, I hope that I am living proof that combining these fields can lead to fascinating new ways of looking at the world. As a Professor of Comparative Cognition I study how crows and children think, with an emphasis on movements and behaviour. As Scientist in Residence at the dance company Rambert, I use my dance background and particularly my skills as a tango dancer to inform my collaborations with the Artistic Director, Mark Baldwin, on ideas for new choreographic works. Together with my tango partner, Clive Wilkins, who is a writer and fine art painter, we have founded The Captured Thought2, which explores perception, cognition and consciousness, memory and mental time travel, integrating evidences from science and the arts. There are striking parallels and improbable connections between these different fields.

Science can be just as creative as the arts or humanities and the usual differences that we imagine don’t stand up under scrutiny. For me, it’s useful to think of creativity as mental time travel, the ability to project the self in time and space, to observe divergent thinking, to explore how the patterns can be transformed and re-created from different perspectives. Our brains are constantly monitoring the past and imagining our future memories, and what happens in both is that the brain perceives and processes information. After all, “it’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards”, as the Queen of Hearts so insightfully remarked to Alice in Lewis Carroll’s epic tale. Mental time travel allows us to constantly reconfigure our memories and thoughts, supporting our need to contextualise the present and make it our own.

My scientific research focuses on cognition, on how intelligence develops in nonverbal animals and preverbal humans, and the ways in which we can use this knowledge to better understand the evolution of the human condition. It requires lateral thinking and inspiration from other fields to find solutions to the problems I find fascinating. This creativity is vital throughout science.

Like science, dancing and choreography require method and creativity in equal measure, for a key element in the practise involves repeating steps and moves hundreds or thousands of times to get them just right. This allows choreographers to piece together different elements and styles to create and recreate a structure. In both fields it’s about exploring edges and testing ideas to challenge our understanding and break new ground, in the hope of discovering new ways of thinking and new ways of seeing.

Research shows that new ideas and innovations are most likely to evolve slowly; we stand on the shoulders of giants and those game-changing light bulb moments are a rarity. While there are instances of incredible progress in both science and the arts (for example, the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure, or the ushering in of pop-rock by The Beatles), I’d argue that the majority of advances in both my chosen fields happen relatively slowly and steadily.

Even so, we are able to create beautiful, captivating ideas from these incremental changes. Malcolm Gladwell argues, in his book Outliers, that it takes ten thousand hours of practice to become world-class in any field4. While it has taken me many years to become proficient in my two fields, it isn’t necessary to be an expert to draw on the creative work of different disciplines.

It is often impractical to develop skills in such different areas but the experience has been incredibly valuable in each part of my career. When two disciplines are far apart you can cast a wider net, allowing you to draw on ideas and processes that are not always easily accessed. That’s why I find the collaborations with Mark Baldwin and Clive Wilkins so inspiring.

In his book Reinventing Discovery, Michael Nielsen explains how combining ideas from different fields often leads to notable innovations.5 He argues that more distant ideas have more revolutionary potential. The sheer volume of ideas is increased and this leads to acceleration in progress.

The art-science project Collide@CERN provides a space for scientists and artists to reflect and research their practice in light of each other’s experiences.6 Scientists involved in the project have explained that the artists they work with ask questions that would not normally arise when working with other scientists. Some say that this has helped to enrich their research, and I would concur.

There are hundreds of projects like this, aimed at creating connections between scientists and those in the arts and humanities.7 These projects build familiarity with other fields, breaking down epistemic barriers and galvanising often distant communities. Inevitably, however, these projects are taken up by those in each field that are already on the road to collaboration and already understand the need to draw from other parts of culture.

I would like to see far greater emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration in funding and sponsorship requirements for research. Each and every researcher and choreographer funded by taxpayers should be encouraged to build connections with people and ideas outside their comfort zone. We should aim for these to be long term engagements, with a deep understanding of the processes and knowledge required to create in each field.

Only with greater mutual understanding will science and art truly benefit from the pools of talent and innovation that each possess. The impact of this understanding will have a positive impact on us all – as patients, audience members, consumers and citizens.

  1. See: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%253Adoi%252F10.1371%252Fjournal.pone.0071275 [Accessed: 6 October 2015]
  2. See: https://claytonwilkins.wordpress.com/ [Accessed: 6 October 2015]
  3. See: http://phys.org/news/2015-09-human-trial-and-error-lightbulb-moments.html [Accessed: 6 October 2015]
    Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success. London: Allen Lane, 2008.
  4. See: http://press.princeton.edu/titles/9517.html [Accessed: 6 October 2015]
  5. See: http://arts.web.cern.ch/collide [Accessed: 6 October 2015]
  6. See: http://www.synapse.net.au/projects/ [Accessed: 6 October 2015]

Check out more of the 100 ideas