A design from Viktor&Rolf’s 2017-2018 fall/winter Haute Couture collection (PATRICK KOVARIK / Getty Images)

A design from Viktor&Rolf’s 2017-2018 fall/winter Haute Couture collection (PATRICK KOVARIK / Getty Images)

By David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt

For countless millennia, birds have built their nests the same way, spiders their webs, and beavers their damsBut humans aren’t like that, we don’t just tweak around the edges, we remake things wholesale: today’s “smart home,” with its web-connected appliances, are nothing like the homesteads of yesteryear. Our ability to innovate is unique in the animal kingdom.

But why do humans have creativity? For starters, there’s our brains’ processing power – while the brain of a bee has one million neurons, a human brain has one billion neurons, giving humans a larger repertoire of behaviors. On top of that, our brains are organized differently. Animal brains come largely hard-wired, their instinctive behavior the result of fixed neural pathways. The massive expansion of the human cortex unhooked huge swaths of neurons to form more flexible connections. We have more brain cells between sensation (what’s out there?) and action (this is what I’m going to do)—and more suppleness in how those neurons collaborate. This allows us to take in a situation, chew on it, think through different alternatives, and eventually take action. The majority of our lives take place in the neural neighborhoods between sensing and doing, and this is what allows us to be so resourceful.

Our brains are energy-hungry, burning up a fifth of the calories we consume every day. As a result, they’ve evolved to be ruthlessly efficient. When our brain gets used to something, it displays less and less of a response each time it sees it—a phenomenon called repetition suppression. The more familiar something is, the less neural energy we spend on it.

But, there is a problem with a lack of surprise. The better we understand something, the less effort we put into thinking about it. Familiarity breeds indifference. Repetition suppression sets in and our attention wanes. In fact, the neurotransmitter system involved in reward is tied to the level of surprise: rewards delivered at regular, predictable times yield a lot less activity in the brain than the same rewards delivered at random, unpredictable times. Surprise gratifies.

Brains seek a balance betweenexploiting the knowledge we’ve earned and exploring new surprises. In developing over eons, brains have gotten this tension well balanced – an exploration / exploitation tradeoff that strikes the balance between flexibility and rigor. Too much predictability and we tune out; too much surprise and we become disoriented. We live in a constant tug-of-war between routine and novelty. Creativity lies within that tension.

Because our neurons connect promiscuously, we have a mental agility other species don’t have. This makes us capable of behavior determined by deliberation and not automation — it allows us to consider possibilities beyond what is right in front of us. And that’s a large part of the magic of human brains: we relentlessly simulate what ifs.

“What if” thinking is so much a part of our daily experience that it’s easy to overlook what an imaginative exercise it is. We endlessly speculate, often spending more time in the hypothetical than the real. Human designed so that we can easily upload our simulations to each other. “If you’d taken this job, you’d be rich by now.” “If the manager had left the pitcher in, the team would have won the game.” Hope is a form of creative speculation: we imagine the world as we’d like it to be, rather than as it is.

Humans’ creative process is helped along by the brain’s social nature. In order to bond, we can’t afford to be on auto-pilot: as any married couple will tell you, repetition suppression is the enemy of a lasting relationship. As a result, there is a virtuous loop between our ability to generate what ifs and our need to engage with each other. We bond not only through physical contact but also through our inventiveness — humans win attention by surprising one another. It is what we’re wired to do for one another, and it is what we seek in one another.

All of us are running the software of creativity—it comes bundled with being a human being. To fully leverage these abilities, there are four facets of human creativity that can enable us to be more innovative.


1. Use the Past as a Launching Pad

Human creativity doesn’t emerge out of the thin air: it depends on remodeling what we’ve learned and experienced. Generation after generation, we chisel away at the cliffside of history for the raw materials of tomorrow. For instance, the iPod was based on schematics created a quarter of a century earlier by British inventor Kane Kramer. Kramer’s vision of a portable digital music player was developed the same year as the Sony Walkman, a portable cassette player, which was descended from the first reel-to-reel tape recorder, and so on, back through history. Everything comes from a lineage.

And thanks to the restlessness of human brains, we don’t just set out to improve imperfection – we tamper with things that already seem perfect. When Picasso painted Cubist versions of paintings by Velasquez and Manet, it was because he loved them. Even something as seemingly unsurpassable as a Stradivarius violin isn’t necessarily the end of the line: violin-makers are developing carbon fiber instruments that are less susceptible to wear-and-tear with a tone that can fool the experts.

So the first lesson of a creative mentality is: the past may be treasured, but it is not untouchable. Our storehouse of knowledge and experience provide the fodder for our inventiveness. Anything in that storehouse can be placed back on the workbench.

2.  Proliferate Options

Whether it is a jazz great improvising night after night on a standard, or an architect iterating model after model for a building, or a scientist running experiment after experiment, proliferating options is a cornerstone of the creative process.

Our brains are a forest of connectivity. Within that forest, certain connections become reinforced, creating paths of least resistance. Habits form, ready answers come to mind. In order to proliferate options, our brains need to get off the path of least resistance and reach more widely into its networks. This means not settling for the first solution that comes to mind, but constantly searching for more. To that end, Thomas Edison set idea quotas for his team. The physicist Richard Feynman said that the key to his problem-solving abilities was that he was constantly seeking as many ways as possible to arrive at a right answer.

The lesson here is: when confronted with a problem, don’t just deliver a single solution, instead – birth an entire population.

3. Tolerate Risk

Creative output typically requires many failed attempts. As a result, across human history, new ideas take root in environments where failure is tolerated. Consider the Dyson vacuum cleaner: it took James Dyson 5,127 prototypes and 15 years to nail the model for the first bagless vacuum cleaner that finally went to market.

Beyond the time it can take to get the idea right, the public can also say no. Human culture is littered with ideas that have been rejected by the public and passed into oblivion. Does anyone remember the concrete piano designed by Thomas Edison? It was intended to be more affordable, but the public wasn’t interested in making music with a keyboard that literally weighed a ton.

And what about the Edsel — it featured such forward-looking features as standard seat belts, warning lights for oil level and engine overheating, and an innovative push-button transmission system for shifting gears. And yet, the car was widely ridiculed. The Ford motor company is estimated to have lost $350 million dollars in just three years.

In spite of these failures, Edison and Ford soldiered on, garnering countless successes—all because of their high tolerance for risk.

4. Scout to Different Distances

As the example of the Edsel shows, there is a pervasive problem in generating useful creations: you never know what the world needs and how it will receive it. Instead of remaining at a fixed distance from community standards, an optimal strategy is to generate a range of ideas, some of which stay closer to home while others fly farther.

For instance, the fashion designers Viktor&Rolf make ready-to-wear clothing that would be at home in any corporate boardroom. But they also experiment with haute couture featuring wearable sculptures and other unconventional designs. Similarly, industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes created a vast catalogue of successful commercial products—everything from ovens and refrigerators to radios, dishware and furniture. But he also envisioned flying cars and wall-less houses whose room dividers could retract like garage doors. Leonardo da Vinci improved the canal locks in Milan; but he also designed a working parachute long before human flight. Car manufacturers are constantly upgrading today’s models, but they’re also stretching away from current technology: for instance, Mercedes Benz engineers have envisioned the “Biome Car,” a bio-degradable vehicle grown from entirely from seeds. Even as they tweak their current products, the home improvement company Lowe’s has a staff of science fiction whose job it is envision the households of the future.

So when proliferating ideas, it’s important not to remain at a fixed distance from the familiar. Someone who only tinkers with prior art is unlikely to make a breakthrough product. On the other hand, someone who only experiments with time machines and underwater housing may never develop the competencies to build anything that works. It’s important to train ourselves to explore the vast expanse from nearby to distant possibilities. That diversity of approaches increases the odds that we will create something that will land successfully.

So digest the world around you. Try out a lot of ideas, and be prepared to let most of them die. Embrace risk and error. Venture different distances from the familiar. Embrace the creativity that makes you uniquely human.

Adapted from The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World