Full Show Notes
How does imagination and creativity work? And how can we help our teens to think outside of the box? This week we spoke with Jim Davies, a leading expert on the science of imagination and the author of the book Riveted. He explained that the key to raising teens who can think for themselves is to reward them when they take risks–even if the risks don’t end up turning out very well.
We also have to be very careful about how we offer feedback on our teens’ work and progress. It is important to encourage teens and offer praise but it is also important to be realistic. You need to be able to tell them when they aren’t doing a good job.
How can you walk this fine line as a parent? Jim explains it this week on the podcast.
Complete Interview Transcript
Jim: Yeah, my book’s called Riveted, and that’s as of yet my magnum opus of research. And that’s my theory of why we find things interesting, so the nature of art and religion and sports and conspiracy theories and why all those things are like candy for our mind and why we just eat them up like that. I try to describe the underlying psychological reasons for anything being interesting at all.
Jim: My day-to-day research is modeling human imagination with computer programs. So we try to make software that thinks the way people do and imagines visual scenes in the same way that people do imagine. And we ended up with interesting questions. Like, if I say, imagine a scene with a mouse in it, you can do that, and most people can do that. But when we gave it to our software, what it ended up doing was, it was picking a couple of things from the animal mouse and a couple of things from the computer mouse. So it had like a computer tower and a cat, and it doesn’t make any sense.
Andy: Some cheese.
Jim: How does the mind know if I just say, “Imagine seeing the mouse in it.” I didn’t tell you which one it was, and no one had ever really thought to ask, “Well, how does the mind…?” Does it first decide on what kind of mouse it is?
Andy: You have to choose one, right.
Jim: Or does it come up with a big list of things that co-occur with mouse and find that they don’t mutually co-occur and swap them out into… This is the kind of thing that you don’t know what even questions to ask, right? So making the program forces you to get very detailed about the information processing going on in the underlying psychology. And I’m not saying everybody should be doing computer modeling, but that is its value. We get to have to answer questions that other psychologists don’t think of.
Andy: So then, what is it about some people, someone like an Einstein or Steve Jobs or these people that we think of as being so able to think outside the box? Is there something different about the way their brains do that process or are wired that allows them to maybe not just take the first four things that come up but make a leap and connect it to something that’s a little novel or something like that?
Jim: There are a couple of ways to look at that. Creativity involves two kinds of thinking processes. They’re called divergent and convergent thinking. In divergent thinking, it is more of the idea of generation phase. And then the other side is convergent thinking where you restrain the ideas to what is feasible or appropriate or works well or optimized or something like that. They’re very different modes of thinking. If you start looking for it, you’ll see it in the people you work with. People are specialists in different areas, right?
Andy: Absolutely, yeah.
Jim: Some people are just wild with ideas, but they can’t ever nail it down to something useful. Other people are useless at coming up with new ideas, but they’re perfectly happy picking on everyone else’s and finding problems with every solution. And I think some of the greatest creative people are the people who can do both in different modes.
Jim: Now, how do you get somebody to be like that? I think those are tools that people can pick up as they intellectually mature. But I will say that studying widely and reading widely really does help with this kind of thing. And you can look at the history of science. A lot of the greatest breakthroughs in scientific history have involved the merging of scientific fields that weren’t previously related.
Andy: Yeah. Absolutely correct.
Jim: Isaac Newton was the first person to think that the physics that determined where a ball went when you tossed it in the air was the same exact equation that predicted where the moon was around the earth. That was mind-blowing because ballistics and astronomy before Newton were completely different fields. They didn’t even talk to one another. No one had the slightest idea that something as pedestrian as a ball being tossed in the air works the same way as the heavens, right?
Jim: Or look at Einstein. Einstein worked in a patent office being exposed.
Andy: All he does all day is get exposed to different ideas.
Jim: Look at new ideas. I’m a cognitive scientist. Cognitive science is an interdiscipline in itself. We have linguists and philosophers and psychologists, computer science, neuroscientists. And I find that very exciting because we all have different ways of looking at it.
Jim: I’ll talk about imagination just as an example. I’m writing a book on imagination now. My research field is imagination. You talk to psychologists, what do they talk about? They talk about, how can thinking about your life make you feel more depressed or less depressed? I’m a computer scientist. What are the computer scientists dealing with? How do we make a machine that can create a visual scene for a video game? You know, totally different. And then we have the philosophers who are concerned about, okay, if you imagine you can fly, how come that doesn’t get used as a real belief?
Jim: I love the fact that I can look at things from different perspectives. So the fact that I do have three degrees in three different areas, I feel like gives me that kind of creative leverage. I haven’t made any major scientific breakthroughs, or maybe my book Riveted is a scientific breakthrough. History will determine.
Andy: Not so fast.
Jim: We’ll see. But yeah, that’s a long-winded answer to this idea. Aside from just this pure divergent-convergent thinking, which is a very low-level way to look at creativity, we also have different lenses you can learn.
Andy: So, this idea of, how do you raise kids who think for themselves? I think every parent wants to raise a kid who is accepted by his peers and can find his place in the community but also is a little bit of a leader and not just a follower. I’m so fascinated by how you can encourage this kind of thinking in your kids.
Jim: One sense of being a leader is that you aren’t a mere follower and you will try new things. This is a wonderful skill to have. It helps with innovation. It helps with all kinds of things. But the other sense of leader, which is that you’re leading other people, I don’t think we’re talking about that right now. We’re talking about independent thought, finding new ways of doing things. And part of the difficulty is that you want your kids to do it right. When they do something, you probably know how to do it better. 90% of the time, especially when they’re very young, it’s very easy to just say, “No, that’s not the way we do it. We do it this way. Don’t color outside the lines. Don’t use the wrong colors,” all the way up to, “Don’t set the table like that,” and everything else. Correcting people has its place, but you need to be mindful that while you are correcting them and making them more competent, there can be a sacrifice in their willingness to try new things.
Jim: I’m a professor, and I teach writing, and a lot of the students come in and their writing is really bad. And there are a lot of people out there who think that you should basically fill the page with red marks. But studies show that’s really a dangerous thing to do, because it makes them not like writing. But because we tend to train students like this, we’re ending up with people who can write perfectly-crafted essays that are totally boring and meaningless but they’re spelled correctly.
Andy: And unoriginal.
Jim: Unoriginal, right. I understand that it is kind of tricky though. But when a child tries to do something new, praising that and rewarding the fact that they tried something new, even if it’s not as good, is, I think, something that is really a great thing to do, because someday they’re going to come up with stuff that’s actually useful and actually better. For anybody in any new field, and kids are new in every field, but even into a new field, your first while could be years. Your stuff is going to be really, really bad. That’s the hard part. You know it’s bad, and you’re doing bad things. You’ve got to keep going anyway until you get good enough that you’re competing with the best.
Andy: That’s where that trade-off happens, where it’s almost like in the short term, it’s faster to just tell them, “No, here’s how you do it. No, no, no, no, no. That’s not it. Do it this way.” And maybe they get to a point of competence more quickly, but then it’s almost like that teaches them that the answer is to just do it the way you’re told or the way everyone else does it and not to experiment for yourself.
Andy: I was thinking, in terms of cognitive behavioral therapy a lot, it’s like we need to be able to notice as parents when we are doing that, when we’re jumping in and prescribing almost or correcting. What is an okay time to do that? When do we want to not do that? And in the times that we maybe want to try to not do that, what should we do instead?
Jim: Yeah. I think it’s really hard to answer in the abstract, because you want to give feedback about how to be better. You don’t want to just tell kids that they’re just wonderful all the time. That’s also destructive. Praising them on how hard they worked, I’m sure you’re familiar with the research, you’re supposed to praise their behaviors and not their talents. If a kid brings you every drawing they bring you, and you’re like, “Oh my god, this is a masterpiece,” eventually they’re going to figure out that they’re not making masterpieces, and they’re not going to trust you. But they also might feel like that this special talent that they had is now gone. So I think you got to weigh it for the child.
Jim: And I’m saying child, but this really goes for anybody in your life that you’re mentoring. If you’re a boss or you’re a teacher or anything like that, you need to know how much critical feedback to give. Some people, particularly early on in an endeavor, need to be rewarded with what they’ve done, even though there’s going to be a lot of things wrong with it. At the end after some praise, you can say, “Oh, it might be even better if you did this.” Or, “Next time you could do this.” You don’t want to hit everything wrong with it, but a couple of things that they see might really help them. But yeah, you’ve got to be careful with it.
Jim: I remember somebody very close to me gave me a poem, and she didn’t write a lot of poetry at the time. I had written more. And so, I just got it in a Word document and I kind of rewrote the poem. I put on Track Changes, and then I sent it back to her. I guess with the email preview, she only saw the final version. She just saw what I sent back. And I think it really discouraged her, and she just felt like I rewrote her poem instead of giving her ideas about what I liked about it and maybe how she might think about making it better. Instead, I just made it something of my own. I’ve tried to never do that again. I think that’s a failure story of how you can discourage somebody from something by giving too much feedback.
Andy: I saw an interview with Jessica Chastain, the actress. And she said something that’s really stuck with me ever since I saw this interview. She was talking about an early mentor that she had at Julliard who was really an acting teacher who had really shaped her as an artist, and she said that what a really good mentor does is they say, “Well, you have got something.” And then they say, “You’re going to have to work on this, this, and your breathing is totally off.” And then, what’s your technique like there, right? I feel like she nailed it because it’s like you need to give them something to work towards, right? You need to, like you’re saying, not make them think, oh, great, good job, it’s wonderful. But at the same time, you do need to also reward them for, yeah, you took a risk there, and it might not have been perfect, but wow, I really see what you did there, and that was cool. Now, let’s talk about-
Andy: An interesting facet of this that we also were talking about earlier is the question of how much influence parents really have on some of this stuff and how much of it is related to the peer group. As social creatures, we are just so hardwired to want to fit in. And I think there’s a lot of research showing that in a lot of cases, peers are maybe even more influential than parents, even if you spend more time with parents, because you just want to fit in so badly with the peer group. I don’t know if there’s a solution, but it’s interesting just to think about, how can parents maximize what little influence they have and recognize it in this strong, innate desire to fit in?
Jim: Yeah. I think kids would hate it, but it seems like the research points toward parents curating their kids’ friends. I don’t want you hanging out with this kid because they’re a bad influence, you know? Kids hate that, but is your reading of the literature the same? That’s actually a big deal?
Andy: Yeah. Because in the literature on parent influence, parents have an influence on the peer group that they’re able to associate with, which then in turn influences the students’ behavior.
Jim: And let’s talk about peers for a minute. When we say peers right now, we’re referring to other kids the child’s age, right?
Jim: But psychologically speaking, your peer group is the group that you identify with, and it doesn’t need to be necessarily the people your own age. Even your parents could be your peers if you were raised in a particular kind of environment. Or if you’re in a hunter-gatherer group of 150 people, your peers are everybody in that group. But yes, the reality is that in industrialized societies like we have, your peer group tends to be your classmates.
Andy: Yeah. And the same-sex classmates, when you put kids in that big of a group, they start to segregate. There’s research on, like what you were saying, hunter-gatherer societies. In tribal societies like that, there tends to be two large groups of children. There’s a younger kids group and an older kids group. And so, the kids graduate or they move up the ranks until they’re one of the oldest kids in the younger kids group. And then they graduate, and they move up to the older kids. And then once they graduate from the older kids group, they’re an adult. That’s the way that we are naturally in the group size that we evolved in, but we now have created this culture where we take such a huge group of kids and throw them all together and segregate it by year, by class. There’s 35 kids. They’re all going to be in one room, and they’re all exactly the same age, and it changes the way that the social dynamics occur, I think.
Andy: So I think as a parent, like we were saying earlier, you do want your kid to be able to find their place in that group and to be accepted as a member of that group.
Andy: I love this theory of optimal distinctiveness, where it’s like as humans, we adjust the way we present ourselves based on whatever group we find ourselves in to show that we’re similar to everybody else but we’re also a little bit different.
Jim: Is that a cross-cultural thing?
Andy: Oh, I don’t know about that. Definitely in Western cultures, individualism is big. We want to show that we’re our own person, but still we also want to fit in the group.
Andy: Today, we have just amplified this with social media and all of these online tools that amplify our instinct to fit in and be a member of a group and to be really conscious of the way we’re presenting ourselves.
Jim: Right. We would definitely want to fit in, but we also want to distinguish ourselves. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that there’s limited influence you can have without causing undue resentment. Certainly, I think, when they’re younger that you can put them in programs like camps or classes or whatever that are around students who are interested in things that are good for them. Even the extreme of moving to a city in a different school district to reset the friend thing maybe to a better place if your kid’s in trouble, that might be the most effective thing you could possibly do.
Andy: People are talking a lot about helicopter parenting and bulldozer parenting. But I feel like also it’s not necessarily that we solve all of our kids’ problems, but just that, preemptively, if we can see that they’re headed in the wrong direction, we shift them to try to shift into a better direction to save them from having to go through that and also to save the time, because, hey, look, we got to get you ready for college and…
Jim: Right. And this brings up the problem of grit and this idea that if we’re never letting our kids fail, they don’t learn how to deal with it. This idea of grit is like the bulldoggedness with which you approach life and its problems. I think it’s a better predictor of success than IQ, right?
Jim: So, really a big deal. How do I put it? This whole idea of never failing, where everybody’s a winner, I think is something that came into the school system a lot after I graduated. I graduated high school in ’89, I think. I think after that, there was a big movement of this. The positive thinking movement really affected things. They wanted kids to have self esteem and stuff. I think there’s a big cost to their persistence and resilience that has resulted.
Andy: Yeah, sure. We feel the need to give people participation awards now. Everyone gets the same-sized trophy just because you did it, good job. It seems like it’s okay to encourage them to try things that they’re maybe not going to be that good at, and then the trick is being able to push them in those directions. But then, it’s like the divergent-convergent thing almost. At first, we need to be able to say, “Hey yeah, try it.” But then at a certain point, do we need to come back and revisit it and say, “So how’s it going?” You know what I mean? Get that-
Jim: And I think that something that a parent, everybody in our culture, should strive to do is to become more tolerant to fault and failures, et al. Teaching your kids is one thing, but if you don’t have the right mindset, it’s going to be very hard. One thing that we know intellectually but is very hard to live by is that if you aren’t failing a lot of the time, you’re not trying hard-enough stuff. People who succeed all the time are probably playing it very safe. And credit to this, particularly, American culture. I think Americans, particularly, they’re better at this than almost anybody on earth. They’re more tolerant of failure. For example, if you have a failed business, you’re more likely to get funded the next time, because they think, oh, this person knows something, they learned something.
Andy: They’re due.
Jim: In China, you not only are untouchable, but you’ve shamed the entire history of your family line. You can see why in a culture like that, you play it very safe because the failure is such a major stigma. It’s less of a stigma here. But I think it could be even less of a stigma.
Jim: I keep going to the arts. But you have a kid trying to play music. If they just play the stuff that they’re good at all the time, that’s guaranteed success. If they never push themselves to the point where they are failing, that’s where the learning really happens. Praising people for failure is a very counterintuitive thing, but if they tried hard and they failed, that is a sign that they are working at capacity.
Andy: Yeah. They’re right in their zone of proximal development.
Jim: Exactly. Yes, zone of proximal development.
Andy: Yeah, and there’s a quote by a Nobel prize-winning economist, I think it’s George Stigler, that I love that seems like it sums up exactly what you’re saying, which is, “If you never missed a plane, then you’re spending too much time in airports.” I feel like it’s the same sort of thing. It’s like, if you’re playing it so safe in everything that you do that you’re not failing and you’re not getting in trouble and you’re not going down dead-ends sometimes, then you might be playing it too safe.
Andy: And so helping your teenagers find that balance, and as a parent, being able to reframe failures as, this is a good thing, and my teenager is actually maybe right on track, they’re finding that balance, and then, to be able to communicate that to them saying, “Hey, I’m really proud of you. I know that took a lot of courage,” I think that’s a fascinating conversation.
Andy: Seems like we should wrap it up here. Thank you so much.
Jim: It was my pleasure.
About Jim Davies
In addition to being a full professor at Carleton University in both the Institute of Cognitive Science and the School of Computer Science, Jim Davies is also the director of the Science of Imagination Laboratory, has won awards for his teaching and research, and is the author of Riveted: Why Jokes Make Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry, and Religion Makes Us Feel One with the Universe.
Jim has given three TED talks, including this fascinating one on the science of imagination, he’s written for the Huffington Post, and he is a frequent contributor to the popular science magazine Nautilus.