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Mind Games


By Joan Voight

Published Jul 1, 2009 10:49 AM

Creativity is a restless spirit. It thrives when new ways and new thoughts are a necessity and old habits and assumptions are easily dismissed. Which means creativity has a pretty important job in the 21st century. At UCLA, there is no shortage of fascinating opinions on how art and science combine in a world transformed by technology.

In this digital age, when technology is transforming everything, the very essence of creativity is being tested. Some see digital screens — on computers, video games, mobile phones, iPods — as the death knell of imagination or originality. We see kids Twittering and texting instead of talking and thinking. It feels like the pure volume of raw, random data and messages is drowning us.


We asked artists to share their visions of creativity: here is "Creative Sparks" by Hugh Kretschmer. Click here to see it larger.

But look again.

Thanks to those screens, the creative process has gone public, with access to everyone. It has also become fast, fragmented, collaborative, cross-disciplinary and impatient, say UCLA scholars in science, art, architecture and humanities.

"There is the creative genius of an Einstein or Mozart," says Robert Bilder, co-director of the UCLA Tennenbaum Center for the Biology of Creativity and professor of psychiatry and psychology, "but as the world becomes more connected, experts are especially interested in the more common creativity, which we all possess in varying degrees."

Which leads to the irony of creativity in the 21st century. As we shift into a fully Web-connected world, our biggest creative challenge may be how to harness the power that fuels our creativity — the tidal wave of data the Internet sends our way. Rather than a life raft to protect us from being overwhelmed, what we really need is a surfboard to catch the wave.

"We need to put soul into the data dump," is how famed entertainment industry veteran Peter Guber, a member of the UCLA Foundation Board of Trustees, winner of UCLA's University Service Award and a 30-year member of the School of Theater, Film and Television faculty, puts it.

But how to do that? It's a question that vibrates across the Westwood campus because of the depth and breadth of interdisciplinary partnerships. At UCLA, engineers work with artists, scientists work with designers, and all sorts of interesting team-ups occur all the time, in an ongoing exploration of what it means to be truly creative in today's world.


Creative Sci-art

For more on the future of creativity, spend some time with these related articles:

Sidebar: Digital Humanities: UCLA professors are combining science, art and technology in mysterious ways, from an in-depth look at ancient cities to a unique and progressive way to learn more about meth addictions. Visit each online project for yourself.

Sidebar: The Digital Poet: English Professor Brian Kim Stefans makes his mark in electronic writing, setting letters dancing on film and other innovations.

Visions of Creativity: We asked three artists to share their visions of creativity, which appear in small scale throughout the Mind Games article. Visit Visions to see the images as they were meant to be seen, big and bold.

Flights of Fancy: Bruin faculty from North and South campus offer their unique visual perspectives on creativity.

Learn anew: How are technology and new media changing how we think and learn? Watch this video to get the 30-second take from techie-humanist Todd Presner, associate professor of Germanic languages and Jewish studies and creator of HyperCities virtual time-lapse maps:

A good place to start is with the Tennenbaum Center. Scientists at the center examine the molecular, cellular and cognitive mechanisms that explain extraordinary creativity. First, they had to zero in on three key creative abilities that are amenable to the analysis of their underlying brain mechanism: the ability to flexibly generate novel products or ideas, a memory strong enough to contain and use lots of relevant information, and the ability to substitute habits with new actions in order to solve new problems. Bilder says it's not yet known whether "extraordinary creative performers" have all three in some creative blend, or may be high in just one or two.

The hope is that a better scientific understanding of what makes the brain creative will reveal new ways that average people can unleash their innate abilities. Google and the rest of the Web, for instance, are ripe for creative improvement, says Bilder. Search engines and other sites tend to present material in a "hierarchical, linear manner that doesn't allow people to direct it for their own purpose," he notes, adding that there are other, more intuitive ways of manifesting creativity in a digital world that could prove to be more useful.


In the new creativity, culture and technology are married, says James Gimzewski, UCLA chemistry professor and nanoscientist. Since a nano is only a billionth of a meter, yet matter on that scale can affect every aspect of our lives, understanding the implications of Gimzewski's work takes a vibrant imagination.

To help average people make the creative leap, Gimzewski regularly links his scientific, South Campus thinking with North Campus artistry, in an ongoing collaboration with Victoria Vesna, chair of UCLA's Department of Design | Media Arts. Their events include the 2008 art exhibit Blue Morph, which showed breathtaking nanoscale images and the sounds of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly.

"Traditionally, scientists have been trained to be reductionists — reducing complex data and phenomena to simple terms. But that approach has reached its limits," Gimzewski says. New scientific concepts and paradigms are not extensions of existing knowledge; they go beyond the sum of the components. Therefore, success depends on the ability to be "metadisciplinary," rather than a specialist, he asserts.

Because of that shift in approach, the new generation of scientists has a hunger for a creative mix of science and art. Classes that cover biotech and culture, for instance, are overloaded with science majors. To give his students' creativity a workout, Gimzewski crafted a final exam that asked them what new technology — real or imagined — they would pitch to get $100 million in U.S. stimulus money. They came up with everything from a machine that turns dreams into physical images, to narrow-band antibiotics that target specific pathogens, to a solar-powered thermos that turns salt water into drinking water.

Today's creative problem-solvers outshine their peers by joyfully examining a situation through different points of view. That's where the work of Marco Iacoboni, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences, comes in. Iacoboni is director of the Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Lab at UCLA's Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center. He studies the mirror neurons in our brains, the "smart cells" that prompt us to automatically imitate others, allowing us to understand what they feel.


We asked artists to share their visions of creativity: here is "Brainstorming" by Heads of State. Click here to see it larger.

Iacoboni's work frequently involves the study of creativity. His much-publicized investigations of the advertising on the Super Bowl and in the 2004 presidential campaign are vivid demonstrations of the cross-boundary creativity that characterizes imagination in the 21st century.

To see smart cells in action, just look to our president, says Iacoboni, who authored Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect With Others in 2008. "Obama has this instant empathy, an instinctive quality for knowing how to connect," Iacoboni says. "In the beginning of his campaign it wasn't there — he was taking a very rational approach. Then midway through, he changed styles and became a powerful communicator."

In today's world, where artists, writers, philosophers and entrepreneurs can easily connect, we can expect more empathic-based solutions. "A fine example is online microloan programs," says Iacoboni. Microlending websites, such as, let busy Americans easily lend small sums of money to poor villagers in the developing world who start tiny businesses. Early microlenders had to make the process very convenient for lenders, but they also "had to get into the shoes of people who have nothing, to see how to help them," he says.