Engines of Creating

According to a study out of IBM,  60% of CEOs said creativity is the most important characteristic for a CEO to have.

As the characteristics of industry have shifted, so too have the properties of design that influence them. What this means is that we’ve shifted to an information economy. We are currently racing toward the internet of things, ubiquitous computing, and radical abundance through advancements in machine learning, robotics, and increasingly powerful computers which continue to incorporate more and more tasks that have traditionally been occupied by human workers.

This dramatic shift in the demand of work has resulted in tectonic shifts in how we perceive work itself.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the US, “goods producing” sectors in the US have decreased in the number of jobs by 23%, while “professional and business services” have increased by 15%. This shift is consistent across a number of domains. As another example, the average business has a 15% chance of survival over 4 years. Software companies, on the other hand, have a 75% survival rate.

The central component of this shift in economics surrounds our ability to creatively manipulate ideas. It’s no wonder that Silicon Valley titans like Google and Cisco are vehemently pushing their teams to greater and greater heights of creativity, applying a bevy of neuroenhancement tools to achieve that end. This includes potent nootropics, stimulators, wellness programs, free music lessons, nutrition and exercise, and much more.

But how do we engineer creativity?

First, realizing the understated, but important fact that all creations emerge from people, and just like any productive system, that person can be optimized to the creative state by engineering the conditions under which ideas are manipulated and created. The neuroenhancement perspective views the human as a complex system of mind and body that is reducible to the the lowest levels of neuroanatomy, genetics, molecular biology, and physics; but which is also integrated into a holistic system from which thoughts, being, and mind can emerge – a principle elegantly espoused in Douglas Hofstadter‘s seminal book Godel, Escher, and Bach, and well-summarized in his follow-up book, I Am a Strange Loop.  With the human being viewed as a complex system, there is a tendency to compare the human creator to, for example, Elon Musk’s gigafactory.

But unlike an assembly line, creativity is more than a linear algorithm of converging productive parts. As engines of creation, we absorb vast amounts of information and integrate it across divergent contexts and faraway domains. This quality is the same whether you’re composing an epic poem or organizing the architecture of new code. Symphonies come into existence through the confluence of many instruments cooperating at once, under the framework of a composer’s dream, and a conductor’s calculated movements.  The brain is also a convergent computing device, and the optimal paths to integration and production of ideas can be engineered.

Were you ever caught daydreaming in class as a kid, and received a stern warning to pay attention? Well it turns out that compelling research suggests that daydreaming may play a central role in creativity. When Archimedes proclaimed Eureka, and discovered displacement of volume – it was while he was relaxing in the bathtub, not while poring laboriously over diagrams.

Furthermore, that creative state can be engineered through optimizing what’s known as the flow state. Entire programs have emerged to induce this state, such as the Flow Genome Project who famously cite studies where CEO productivity increased 500% during the flow state, able to do a week’s work in a single day.

The global quest to hack creativity and productivity is a spectrum of extremes, where DIY neurohackers shock their brains with trans cranial stimulators (as I have done), or dose with nootropic drugs known to enhance cognition, like Modafinil. But creativity isn’t just about being smart, in the sense of fluidly intelligent, it’s also about divergence.

Research suggests that divergent thinking is deeply related to creative thinking, through functional connectivity to the Default Network Mode – a state of “wakeful rest” in which the mind is not focused on the outside world.

But how do we induce this elusive state? Poets and artists throughout history have questioned the nature of inspiration and human creativity for thousands of years, with theories ranging from Divine intervention to memetic evolution.

The answer lies at the convergence point of brain optimization, flow, and process. Many artists fail to produce their completed masterpieces because they lack the ability to either induce states of hyper-creativity, or lack the means to harvest that creativity and be productive. The most classic case involves the writer with 100 book ideas and not one that’s been completed. Inspiration and intuition are vital tools in the box of the Creating Engine, but the blueprint that organizes the use of those tools is equally important.

So how do we hack creativity in a holistic way?

First, take a neurohacking approach. Within this framework of thinking we find branches of wellness that include meditation, nutrition, and exercise – but there are also ways to engineer the environment around and inside you. One easy neurohack is to remove distracting stimuli. For example, a bowl of chocolates on your desk, or a television with Judge Judy on it.

One can also train the underlying cognition of inhibitory control with a neuroenhancement training regimen alike to a gym membership. Another hack is applying strategic relaxation to improve creativity. This helps to induce flow, and also to stave off burnout.

In my personal neurohacking regimen, I play piano and write music for 30 minutes a day, and take time to actively daydream and stimulate the default network mode.

Central to this approach of systems creativity is the notion of probabilities. One must ask, what is the likelihood I will enter the creative flow state given the current conditions? If there is, for example, a baby crying into a megaphone nearby, what is the impact of that stimulus on the probability? And what is the impact of putting in earplugs as a fix?

In engineering the creative environment, there are two general realms one can engineer: external, and internal.

In your external environment, keeping clutter to a minimum can help to focus, but alternatively, having calculated mess that amalgamates the ideas you’re juggling is also advantageous.  For instance, I keep a manual on neuroanatomy open on my desk at all times. I also have upwards of thirty extra large pages that contain business planning, marketing initiatives, book ideas, and poetry on transhumanism pasted on every wall of my office.

Engineering your internal environment involves wellness activities like mindfulness meditation, nutrition, exercise, and stimulation training. It also involves guiding your mind-state – and there are variations in the cognitive need that a task demands.

For instance, answering e-mails doesn’t require me to be creative, it requires me to be efficient. Those are two distinct processes and therefore two distinct internal environmental conditions. Creativity prioritizes daydreaming, and e-mails prioritize urgency. This emphasizes the notion of context. As Engines of Creation, we must always ask ourselves what we’re trying to accomplish, and how best to condition ourselves as people toward that end.

With that in mind, learning new tasks is equally important to engineering cognitive systems, indeed, learning itself induces neurogenesis, the birth of new brain cells.

For instance, I am not as experienced in marketing as I am in neuroenhancement – so as I am operating my business, it’s important to take a little time every day to improve my understanding of search engines and web marketing.

At the center of all this is the idea that we are essentially imperfect human beings – and admitting our weaknesses helps us to identify the areas we need to improve, and draws a roadmap to mitigating the risks that come with our imperfection; through self-honesty and a strategic approach (even when that strategy involves a lack of strategy and free creation).

As we transition into the New Economy, a world of automatons and exponentially accelerating ideas, we are called as stewards of this new ethos of creativity, to become more than we are. This is the character of the human spirit – to reach beyond our grasp, for we are dreamers, builders – the Engines of Creating.


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