I recently returned from my first Society for Neuroscience annual meeting – it’s something I’ve been excited about attending since I started my PhD some 4 years ago, so it was great to finally attend! For those unfamiliar, it’s an annual meeting of ~30,000 neuroscientists, from all disciplines, over 5 days, and this year it was in San Diego, a city I’ve never visited and was keen to see!
My current research focusses on the pain field, and despite coming from a strong neuroscience background, had only ever attended pain specific conferences – so I was psyched about the prospect of 5 days of EVERYTHING to do with the brain. I attended lectures on addiction, sex and aggression, “NeuroLaw” (something I’ll be covering at a later date – it was fascinating!) and saw posters running the gamut from control of bird song, oxytocin in social behaviour, crazy new techniques for activating/deactivating very select parts of the brain, all the way to artificial intelligence and bioengineering – there really was a lot of ground covered!
However, the first lecture I attended, and arguably the one that made the greatest impression was one given by Ed Catmull on The Creative Culture.
Creativity is something I feel is undervalued in scientific research – say the word “Creative” to most people, and they will think of artists, designers, possibly even marketing… forgetting, or perhaps not realising that to be a good scientists, you also must be creative. Being able to facilitate creativity, and form a group where ideas thrive is integral to solving scientific problems and understanding complex data.
So what did Catmull, President of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios and one of the three co-founders of Pixar, have to say to a room full of neuroscientists?
Firstly he spoke about his experiences in Pixar and Industrial Light and Magic, where he work from 1979, and how the experience changed when in 2006, Disney bought Pixar and put him charge of jump-starting the flagging Burback animation studios.
He felt that
smart creative people were making dumb decisions that led to decreased creativity within a creative environment
Why was this? He quickly realised that individual contributions to a creative process were irrelevant – no one person could be responsible for either creating or destroying creativity as it is all part of working as a team – and so instead of thinking of how to increase creativity, he went about trying to understand the blocks to a creative environment, and how they could be released.
What he came up with can be summarised as follows:
- Mistakes and Failure
- “Feed the Beast”
1. Candour, rather than honesty, implies not only openness and honesty, but also fairness and sincerity. People working within a group towards a creative goal need to feel their opinions are valued and taken at face value. Individuals can feel unable or unwilling to speak out due to respect, fear of embarrassment, a desire to be polite – this creates an atmosphere where only the most senior or most vocal member of the group can have the most sway, often inappropriately.
In science, this is key – scientists often work in isolation, and confer with colleagues only as a last resort for fear of criticism or theft of ideas. Most laboratories will have frequent meetings to discuss data and any issues anyone might be having, so it is vital that everyone feels able to speak up. We are told over and over that “there are no stupid questions”, yet the fear of being made to feel stupid because you didn’t quite understand something you are working on, or unexpected data, can lead to reticence, particularly in junior researchers
2. Failure can have both negative and positive connotations, but when considering creativity, zero errors are neither desirable nor practical. If you want to try something new, chances are, it won’t go right the first time round. Rather than working to prevent errors, it is important to be comfortable in accepting them, as it is only through making and understanding mistakes that you can really understand what you are doing and how to do it better.
Errors are a necessary consequence of doing something new
3. ”Feeding the Beast”, as a concept in the film industry, refers to being aware of the audience, and also of producers and investors who may have their own view on how a project should go, without necessarily understanding the processes involved. Succumbing to this demand is inappropriate in creativity – a creative group should have the freedom to develop ideas without undue outside influence. The nature of creativity is such that the more constraints you put around it, the less it will flourish
Creativity is protecting the undefined
He also stressed the importance of maintaining separation between information flow and hierarchical structure – it is easy for information to become distorted as it moves up a hierarchy (e.g. what is seen and heard by a manager compared to someone more intimately involved with the project at the ground level), and how views can become warped and biased.
When he took over responsibility for the Disney animation studio, after being president of Pixar for 20 years, he was faced with the decision whether to merge the two groups, or keep them separate. He decided to keep them separate, partly to safeguard Pixar, but also to allow the right environment to develop in Disney without any loss of identity.One of the most important things that emerged from the questions following his lecture, was the idea that small groups, with an odd number of members, are best for creativity – too large and there are too many voices clamouring to be heard, an even number and the possibility of stalemate is increased – he considered 3, 5, or 7 people to be the optimum number to facilitate free discussion and flow of creative ideas. Along similar lines, he mentioned that the influence of finances on creativity follows a bell-curve distribution, with an optimal peak, followed by a drop in creativity as funding increases beyond a critical point – a perfect illustration of why throwing money at a problem won’t necessarily have the desired effect!
If your goal is to make it easier and simpler, don’t get in the boat
Creativity is not about simplifying – it is not an easy or quick process, and never should be. It should be enjoyable, stimulating, occasionally frustrating and possibly even depressing, but the outcome will be something memorable, educational, informative, and/or entertaining, depending on your field.
As a final point, he mentioned the difficulties faced by someone new to a field, and particularly new to a creative team. There is often a temptation to look for rules, unwritten or otherwise, which can quickly instil unnecessary caution and fear of breaking said rules. A newcomer should instead be aware that they are bringing fresh eyes to the problem, and pointing out something you think could be done better or differently to better effect is the most valuable contribution you can make – ignore the natural tendency to be polite, and get involved! Organisations are inherently unstable – speaking out is the only way chance will happen.
So there we go. As a scientist, and as someone with a somewhat creative bent, I found it fascinating, and will remember the lessons learnt as I go on to finish my PhD and beyond!
Oh and as an aside, Ed Catmull, life-long employee of the visual arts, gave his talk without a single slide or even hint of a powerpoint… Fresh