Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Coherence

Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius,” by Robert Weisberg, 1993,

Neural Activity When People Solve Verbal Problems with Insight,” by Mark Jung-Beeman, Edward M. Bowden, Jason Haberman, Jennifer L. Frymiare, Stella Arambel-Liu, Richard Greenblatt, Paul J. Reber1, John Kounios2, PLoS Biology, April 2004, (from ZenPundit).

Whorf hypothesis is supported in the right visual field but not the left,” by
Aubrey L. Gilbert, Terry Regier, Paul Kay, Richard B. Ivry, PNAS, published online 30 December 2005, (from University of Chicago News Office via Slashdot).

It’s the blogs v. the books, as links from Slashdot and ZenPundit help to smack down Dr. Bob Weisberg.


I. The John Kerry of Creativity

Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius by Dr. is a hard book to describe. It is written poorly. It is readable. It is informative. It is original. And it is written badly.

The author, Dr. Bob Weisberg, hides his thesis in bits and pieces through the text. The book apparently has two main claims: that analogical thinking is superior to horizontal thinking and that small logical leaps are superior to big logical leaps.

Along the way he makes other questionable claims, such that there is no unconscious thought or that Thomas Edison is an example of a typical “creative” person. Or rather, Dr. Weisberg appears to state this.

Imagine if John Kerry wrote a book on cognition, and you’ll imagine how tortuously Dr. Weisberg’s thoughts are obscured.

The claims of Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius by Dr. seemed so strange, that after a hundred pages I had to go back to the beginning. He’s half right. About everything.

He criticizes horizontal thinking and praises analogical thinking. But both horizontal thinking and analogical thinking are important.

He criticizes “big leap” thinking and praises “small leap” thinking. But both big leaps and small leaps are important.

I will attempt to describe Dr. Weisberg’s thinking. But it’s difficult, so I apologize for this post’s rambling nature.

II. Analogical Thinking v. Horizontal Thinking

He spills ink to attack horizontal, or “lateral” thinking

A related concept was developed by Edward deBono, one of the leaders of the creativity-training movement, whose theorizing is often cited by psychologists and others who have written about training creativity. According to deBono, solving many problems, especially the most important ones, requires a fresh viewpoint, one not provided by ordinary “tried and true” logical thinking. This different mode of thought (the intuited mode) is what deBono calls “lateral” thinking since it moves “sidways,” to a new way of looking at a situation.

Everyone has come across the type of problem which seems impossible to solve and then turns out to have an obvious answer. These are the problems that elicit the remark: “Why didn’t I think of that before?” Many inventions are obvious once someone else has thought of them… Lateral thinking seeks to get away from the patterns that are leading one in a definite direction and to move sideways by re-forming the patterns

Although they have different histories and come from different backgrounds, deBono’s notion of lateral thinking seems to be very similar to Guilford’s concept of divergent thinking. Both have as a central idea that overcoming old habtis (that is, being flexible, moving laterally), is the crux of creative thinking.

but a number of investigators in the field have conclucded that divergent-thinking tests do not measure either creative thinking or the capacity to become creative

yet Dr. Weisberg praises analogical thinking

In the examples just discussed, solutions were brought to mind as the result of what is called “analogical transfer” in problem solving. Attaching a candle to a vertical surface and attaching one to a horizontal surface are analogous situations, since they have the same structure (attaching a candle to a surface), which means that information from the already familiar situation can be retrieved when the problem is represented, and can then be transferred to the problem, to serve as a basis for behavior…

The use of analogical thought in problem solving has important implications for our understanding of creative thinking. If one were to ask the problem solver why he or she thought to use the wax as glue, say, the response might be that the thought simply popped into mind, intuitively. The thinker might eb tempted to assume that if a solution came to mind suddenly, with no logical reasoning involved, in must have been brought about by unconscious thought process, but that does not follow. The lack of explicit steps of logical reasoning only supports the conclusion that logical reasoning was not involved; it provides no direct evidence for unconscious or any other processes. Furthermore, analogical thinking explains retrieval of a solution without assuming that either logical thinking or unconscious thought processes. were involved. Analogical thinking is not unconscious, since the thinker is obviously conscious when it is carried out and it does not use “primary-process” associations, but t does not utilize a string of explicit steps that can be reported (98-99)

I consider horizontal and analogical thinking closely related. Looking at Mark’s diagram of thought:


We see that horizontal thinking allows an expert to find analogous concepts.

But while this debate may be a question of wording, Weisberg is wrong on a deeper matter, too.

III. “I’d vote for the Left Hemisphere Before I’d Vote for the Right”

An arcane theme of the book is that “remote associations” are unimportant, and that even “ah ha!” moments are just the result of a series of “close associations.” In other words, Weiseberg denies that highly creative people make “mental leaps” at all, and that there thinking is really just incremental.

Simonton likewise believes that creative geniuses (those who have made extraordinary contributions) do so in part because they possess many mental elements, which enable them to form many permutations. In addition, these elements in the genius are not strongly interassociated, so that more remote combinations can be produced more easily. Simonton has applied his theory to a wide-ranging set of phenomena, including the changes in creative productivity in age and the relationship between quantity and quality of creative output over a career. (57)

The concept of remote associations as the basis for creative thinking also has not received strong support. First, Midnick’s RAT [Remote Association Test] has not had great success in predicting creative ability in individuals…”

Based on the studies reviewed earlier in this chapter, which have found no evidence for remote analogical transfer to the radiation problem without overlap of surface information

Yet MRI studies which examined problem studies have discovered that “ah ha!” moments are not at all the same as figuring something out. While regular thought may indeed by step-by-step, eureka thinking is biologically different

Recent work suggests that people are thinking—at an unconscious level—about the solution prior to solving problems with insight. Specifically, while working on a verbal problem they have yet to solve, people presented with a potential solution word read the actual solution word faster than they read an unrelated word (Bowden and Beeman 1998). This “solution priming” effect is greater—and in fact people make solution decisions about presented words more quickly—when words are presented to the left visual hemifield, which projects directly to the right hemisphere (RH), than when words are presented to the right visual hemifield, which projects to the left hemisphere (LH). This suggests that RH semantic processing is more likely than LH semantic processing to produce lexical or semantic information that leads to the solution. These RH advantages occur only when solvers experience insight—the “Aha!” or “Eureka!” feeling that comes with insight solutions (Bowden and Jung-Beeman 2003a). Moreover, when subjects try to solve classic insight problems, they benefit more from hints presented to the left visual field (i.e., the RH) than from hints presented to the right visual field (i.e., the LH) (Fiore and Schooler 1998).

Once again, Weisberg is half-right. Left-brain thinking is indeed based on “close associations” and careful thought. But insight and eureka do exist — and when they happen they occur in the remotely-associating right hemisphere of the brain.

Further evidence for this is based on studies of how language effect thinking. The words used for colors effect how people see those colors — but only when the information is processed by the brain’s left hemisphere:

Scholars have long debated whether our native language affects how we perceive reality — and whether speakers of different languages might therefore see the world differently. The idea that language affects perception is controversial, and results have conflicted. A paper published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences supports the idea — but with a twist. The paper suggests that language affects perception in the right half of the visual field, but much less, if at all, in the left half. The paper, “Whorf Hypothesis is Supported in the Right Visual Field but not in the Left,” by Aubrey Gilbert, Terry Regier, Paul Kay, and Richard Ivry — is the first to propose that language may shape just half of our visual world.

This finding is suggested by the organization of the brain, the researchers say. Language function is processed predominantly in the left hemisphere of the brain, which receives visual information directly from the right visual field. “So it would make sense for the language processes of the left hemisphere to influence perception more in the right half of the visual field than in the left half”, said Terry Regier of the University of Chicago, who proposed the idea behind the study.

Ultimately, Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius is an annoying book. It is slow and (physically) disjointed in present its hypothesis that it is difficult to argue from. When it sets horizontal thinking against analogical thinking, the author seems to be boxing shadows. Likewise, the author’s denial of leaps of insights and other such claims makes him more argumentative than informative.

IV. What does this all mean?

Coincidentally, Mark posted a brain teaser on his blog

” A man approached the border in a black Cadillac. The driver, John Jones, was well-known to customs officials as a suspected smuggler so they went through his car and personal belongings with a fine tooth comb. Under the wheel of the spare tire in the trunk, the customs agents found a small package. Delighted at their discovery they hurriedly unwrapped it and found it contained only some glass beads, a few paper clips and some string. Deeply puzzled, they reluctantly had to let Jones cross over the border.

This process repeated itself, every day, seven days a week for ten years. Every day, customs officials searched Jones’ car and every day they found a small package filled with glass beads, paper clips and string but nothing else. In frustration, the officials began confiscating the package but they had to let Jones continue on his journey and every day he appeared with a new package, always hidden underneath the spare tire.

Then, one day, Jones failed to appear. Nor did he show up the next day or the day after that. In fact he never returned to the border again. Then, one day, a customs official happened to be on vacation in the neighboring country and he ran into Jones in a bar and approached him in a friendly manner.

” Look here” he began ” every day for ten years you crossed the border and we never found a thing. I know you were smuggling something ! What was it ? “

In a comment, I added

Now here’s the question — would the percentage answering it correctly increase if they read it with only their left eye open?

This relates to the two articles — the left visual field feeds into the right hemisphere of the brain. This is the more creative and less “linguistic” part of the brain. Based on psychological studies, subjects should answer this riddle faster if they look at it exclusively through big mental leaps, and not small ones.

2 thoughts on “Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Coherence”

  1. “In other words, Weiseberg denies that highly creative people make “mental leaps” at all, and that there thinking is really just incremental.”

    Well, if he does say that, then Weisberg's peddling rubbish easily refuted by an endless series of examples from the history of physics, music or art.

    Beethoven, for example, may have created symphonies in the laborious manner Weisberg described but Mozart generally did not, frequently ” hearing” music in his head. Beethoven, Edison and George Washington Carver were ” tinkering” incrementalists as creators – Mozart, Tesla, Archimedes and so on were insighters who at times had ideas that apparently were not preceded by anything directly relevant to their discoveries, except perhaps, acute observation. Both methods are useful in the sense of being productive but they are not the same thing in terms of cognition.

    DeBono's methods involve methodical examination so he's wrong on that as well. Intuition comes into play later but DeBono's initial exercises are structured and logical. He doesn't start with intuition but with a frame – ” Plus, Minus, Interesting”, “Consider All Factors”, “Purpose, Input, Solutons, Choice” and so on.

    Good post. Gibberish is an apt description.

  2. Mark: “Well, if he does say that, then Weisberg's peddling rubbish easily refuted by an endless series of examples from the history of physics, music or art.”

    Weisberg: “Furthermore, there is no convincing evidence for the occurrence of insight during creative thinking. The Gestalt psychologists and their followers postulated leaps of insight, which were assumed to result in the sudden appearance of complete solutions to a problem.”

    Yet note the hedge that follows:

    “Contrary to the Gestalt view, scientific attempts to study insight have found that solution of insight problems depends on detailed knowledge about the type of problem being solved.”

    In other words, Weisberg is arguing against leaping horizontal thinking, because vertical thinking is also important. The thinking is muddled.

    Weisberg spends time criticizing self-reports generally, and the standard view of Mozart specifically

    “The few Mozart sketches that do exist indicate that he typically wrote the melody and bass lines as he composed, and filled in the other parts later, which contradicts the naive view that Mozart simply had the whole composition mentally available.” (224)

    Weiserg also mentions the “Mozart letter,” and is rather dismissive of what would be an amazing feet

    “However, the use of the term “parts” in the “letter” refers not to the parts of a composition, such as the movements of a symphony, but to the parts of the orchestra. This mans that he hears in his imagination the whole orchestra playing together, which is not the extraordinary feat that has been inferred from the lettter.”

    Regardless, Weisberg concludes that Mozart never wrote that letter at all (46).

    Somewhat relatedly, Slashdot [1] just linked to an article on human bayesian calculations [2] that's worth reading.


  3. Well then he's arguing that Mozart somehow managed to have acquired enough vertical expertise in music by age four to begin composing via sequential reasoning.

    And symphonies (!) by age eight

    I haven't read the book but $ 5 says Weisberg is full of shit.

  4. The book explains that Mozat's work at 8 was essentially a fingering exercise, though it implies his father may have written it.

    In Weisberg's defense he would argue that Mozart acquired enough vertical expertise by four to compose via analogical thinking, similar to Edison applying four or so basic concepts over-and-over-and-over again, until he got a “hit.”

    Weisberg could write a very valuable and readable book on the importance of left-brain thinking and analogical thinking. But by outright-denying insightful thinking, and bizarrely attacking horizontal thinking, he limits his reach.

    So far the reading list has been entirely interesting and thought-provoking, which already puts it heads-and-tails over “1 good book” [1] classes, and the prof is excellent.


  5. It occurs to me from a class discussion that by “analogical thinking,” Weisberg means “substantive horizontal thinking.” By “lateral thinking,” he means “superficial horizontal thinking.”

    He's still wrong on a good bit, but this clears up some of my misunderstanding.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *