As an economist, I find myself spending most of my time thinking about what kind of policies we can implement to foster innovation. A recent piece in The New Yorker (Jonah Lehrer, Annals of Science, “The Eureka Hunt,” July 28, 2008, p. 40), cuts down to a much finer level – the brain. What I find fascinating about this work is that much of what we think about the creative process – making connections between ideas that people hadn’t seen before; that radical innovation sometimes becoming harder as you become more of an expert in an area because you are familiar with a particular set of ideas – shows up in studies of the brain and appears to have a neuro-foundation.
As an economist, I always want to think of things in terms of the policies we’d want to pursue. To me this work suggests the advantage of being in environments where you are exposed to ideas that you wouldn’t typically encounter. That is a feature of highly interactive environments, whether it is Google! or the Niels Bohr Institute, where a ideas bounced around freely leading to a tremendous amount of creative science.
For more on the underlying research see Mark Jung-Beeman, who has a very cool website, and John Kounios on the cognitive neuroscience of solving problems with insight; Jonathan Cohen; Earl Miller; Sohee Park on schizophrenia and creativity; Jonathan Schooler on problem solving more generally. Here is a link to a longer piece on the relationship between this work and work on creativity in other fields.