Friday, 29 May 2009

Creativity, IQ and cultural bias

Last week's New Scientist featured research on the existence of a 'creativity chemical'.

The University of New Mexico's Rex Jung (with a name like that, don't you already believe everything he is going to say?) explored whether the chemical N-acetyl-aspartate, which is already associated with neural health, metabolism and intelligence, could also play a role in human creativity.

Jung measured the NAA levels, IQ and 'capacity for divergent thinking' in 56 adult volunteers. His findings:

Overall, volunteers' creativity scores correlated with levels of NAA in a brain region called the anterior cingulate gyrus (ACG), which regulates the activity of the frontal cortex - implicated in higher mental functions. But while low levels of NAA in the ACG correlated with high creativity in people of average intelligence, in people with IQs of above 120, the reverse was true (The Journal of Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1523/jneurosci.0588-09.2009).

Jung speculates that if there is less NAA to regulate frontal cortex activity in "average" brains, they are freer to roam and find new ideas. In highly intelligent people, however, tighter control over the frontal cortex seems to enhance creativity. Perhaps this is because they are more likely to come up with new ideas anyway, and the tighter control allows them to "fine-tune" that ability.

"People say you have to let your mind wonder freely to be creative," says Jung. "For people of average intelligence, perhaps it's true that you need to utilise more areas of your [frontal cortex] for something truly novel and creative to emerge, but in more intelligent folks, there's something different going on."

If this is true, it would imply a completely different approach to the development of people's creativity, depending on their IQ. With a two decade old O level in Chemistry, I am not going to challenge Jung's lab work. However, the problem may lie in the testing. The history and critique of IQ testing is well known; many believe that cultural and class biases are inherent. How about testing for 'divergent thinking'? Compared to the huge IQ industry, testing for divergent thinking has less profile, status and research. But if given similar scrutiny, would we also discover that these tests are equally flawed, if not more so?

The other problem is that divergent thinking is just a part of what makes us creative. Convergent thinking can help too, amongst other attributes.

Meanwhile, expect Holland and Barrett to soon stock a creativity supplement, somewhere near the fish oil.

Last word to Mr Jung: 'I would have loved to see what Einstein's ACG looked like'.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Following my Leader

My wonderful ex-boss Matthew Taylor is often used and abused by the media as an 'ex spin-doctor'. His Blog reveals far more depth and substance.

Commenting on a recent RSA seminar, Matthew describes a contribution from the Director of the Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy, Professor Anton Hemerijck. 

In presenting the core arguments of his forthcoming book on the welfare state in Europe after the financial crisis, Hmerijck gabe five dimensions of welfare state recalibration:

• Functional: what should the welfare state do?
• Normative: what are the duties and values underpinning the welfare state?
• Distributive: who gets what?
• Institutional: how is the welfare state organised?
• Referential: who do we compare ourselves with?

Take out the word 'welfare', and these are really useful dimensions for thinking about the state more generally. Reapply them to the arts, and we could have the start of a helpful new framework.

An Artistic Theory of Everything?

In our island's troubled, introverted times, it pays to look any direction but down. The US has always provided fertile terrain for innovative writing about politics and policy, but the recent stimulation of a new president and an economy in crisis is generating some brilliant thinking, even on cultural policy, an area the US mainstream often ignores.

Whatever your views on physics, you should check out Eric Booth's essay on
An Artistic Theory of Everything. Applying Einstein's 'unified field theory' to the arts world, his conclusions include:

"Practitioners of different art forms just don’t think of themselves as part of a larger functional entity. Even though multidisciplinary performances and presentations are increasingly common, the various artistic tribes compete more often than they cooperate, believing that the concerns they share are less significant than the ones they face on their own..."

"This fundamental act of art occurs when we find the right word in a poem or the dance move that captures what we know and cannot say. We spark the arts connection when we enter a "world" made by someone else (a work of art, a spoken image, a story, an eloquent gesture) and find a personally relevant connection inside it. We fire the art connection when we pick just the right song to play for a suffering friend and when we listen deeply to a friend's story and connect to its unspoken core. We slip into the physics of art when we resonate inside with the note just played, when we experience a sense of eternity under a night sky...

"What can we do, as believers in the power of the fundamental act of creation, to align our actions, our creations, our organizations, our intentions and interactions with everyone inside and outside the arts to maximize that power? How can we create environments that effectively, irresistibly support and nurture that power? What events can we devise that are dedicated to that power, not merely to the presentation of artworks that we hope will contain it for those few who pay to attend?"

I laid a similar challenge for the arts education sector in my 'culture change' article about the Find Your Talent programme. But, like Eric, I was better on the diagnosis than the prognosis. I have no other answers as yet, but in seeking them I will also remember another Einstein theory - "you can't count everything that counts".

Friday, 22 May 2009

No ads, no art?

My multi-talented brother in-law Alex Osman's has a cracking Blog, Rambunktion. This post directed me to Add-Art, a free and clever application, that turns internet banner advertisments into curated art. As someone with the will but without the balls to be a real adbuster, I love the idea of doing this virtually. The problem is this. Much of the art which replaces the art isn't very good, and in some cases is even more irritating - albeit without the hyperactive flickering of most internet banner ads. With their 'high production values' (is this just a euphemism for big budget?), maybe it is inevitable that ad-art produces better art than add-art.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

No ads, no comment

I contacted the Guardian to ask about possible columns this week. They got back to me in haste, promising me to look at my ideas, but not promising too much, since the size of their supplements are shrinking by the month. The decline in advertising revenue is catching up with them.

Today the DCSF announced that Tribal had been awarded the contract to create a schools recruitment service. '
This programme aims to reduce the cost of advertising and fill school staff vacancies through ‘talent pooling’. Sounds sensible, rationale, and hits all the cost-cutting buttons. If it works, it will also hit the TES hard, and affect those other education supplements people leave on the bus, unread. The TES is unlikely to die, but fewer ads means fewer pages, both news and comment.

Does this matter? The DCSF needs to do the right thing with our resources for our schools. But are they also quietly rejoicing in their role as curtailers of the powers of the press? Is this the most boring conspiracy theory ever?

What me, a cultural critic?

Who the hell am I to judge culture? If I knew how to knit, maybe I would stick to it, but I have always skated on a thin veneer of knowledge, so why should my relationship with culture be any different?

My only recent qualification is having seen a fair amount of theatre in a short space of time. Here is a layman's view of four of them.

The one where the film was better than the play
Matinees are special - worth the ticket price just for the feeling of coming out blinking into daylight - the sunnier it is, the better the guilty feeling. At the National Theatre, in an audience of hundreds of pensioners I saw
'Burnt by the Sun', a Russian play set during the inception of Stalin's purges. Based on a recent film, it left me aching to see the movie. Despite the usual National Theatre Lavishness, I am not sure what a stage production added. Maybe I need to see the film before judging.

The one where the book was better than the play
Then, at the Arcola,
Monsters told the story of the Jamie Bulger murder. I chose this because I loved As if, Blake Morrison's profoundly moving account of the same events. Written by Niklas Rådström, a Swedish Playwright, I expected those new insights that sometimes only foreign writers can bring to a situation. Instead, we received a far too generalised message, removed from the cultural context, especially around class and place, that Morrison mined to make his book so compelling.

The one where the Play was not a Play, or a Dance, or anything else
My fellow Clore Fellow Kate produced a piece with the
Clod Ensemble, set in the Village Underground, a warehouse in Hackney. I am not even going to go close to trying to describe or critique this piece of theatre, but the music and movement gave me strange dreams for days.

The one where Children's Theatre may improve on the original
Finally, at the Unicorn, I took my nine year old and her half-Spanish friend to
Twelfth Night. The kids occasionally lost the plot, and thought Shakespeare 'mad' for 'using old-fashioned language', but it was engaging enough for them to want to stick with it. Barely pared down, let alone dumbed down, for the audience of over-10s, the production squeezed everything it could out of its small and versatile cast and set. One soliloquy was given new meaning through its transformation into an indie-boy ballad. Best of all, an actress chose my knee to sit on over Jude Law's.

Other highlights: England at the Whitechapel, and the magical Coraline in 3D.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Primary Passions

After over a year of haggling, the Government has finally launched the official consultation on the new Primary curriculum.

It's mainly good news, and the arts has a real opportunity to raise the quality and quantity of provision for 5-11 year olds.

Strange, however, that there is no attempt at all nationally to consult with pupils on their curriculum. Let's hope that schools do this anyway, but hopefully somebody somewhere will create some national tools to help them.
years ago, ippr and the RSA attempted to create a Primary Baccalaureate. We received lots of interest but no funding. My article on the idea focuses on how to give primary aged children a greater sense of choice and control over their learning.