Can knowledge get in the way of creativity?

‘I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination encircles the world’  – Albert Einstein

I’ve seen the above quote numerous times, although it’s usually only the Imagination is more important than knowledge bit. It’s a real Einstein quote, unlike many of the others we see floating about on social media (it appeared in an interview of Albert Einstein conducted by George Sylvester Viereck in 1929).

But is it right? It’s difficult to imagine something if I have no knowledge of the thing I’m imagining – if I have never seen a kangaroo, for example, I can’t imagine it, no matter how hard I try. This doesn’t downplay the importance of being able to imagine something. Imagination is important to creativity. That said, I’ve never seen a real unicorn either, but I can be a little creative and imagine myself riding off into the sunset, the sky full of rainbows. But I’m still utilising what I already know to create something that doesn’t exist.

Something cannot come from nothing

Thomas Ward of the University of Alabama asked people to draw a creature from another planet and provide information on its diet, habitat and other properties. The volunteers were incredibly creative with their drawings but there were many similarities amongst all the differences. Generally, the creatures had recognisable sensory organs such as eyes, as well as appendages like arms and legs. This is also the case in many films, television shows and books; the aliens at the Moss Eisley spaceport (Star Wars klaxon) were very different from humans, but they were also equally familiar. Even the heptapods from the 2016 film Arrival (probably one of the most beautiful science fiction films to date) possessed what could be described as legs (or arms).

The ‘Lion Man’.
Source: The British Museum

The Lion Man figure, discovered in Germany in 1939, shows a creature with the body of a human and the head of a cave lion. It’s around about 40,000 years old and is thought to be the first evidence of human creativity, fuelled by imagination. But the figure is still composed of things that are known.

Creativity is generally considered to be the ability to come up with useful and new ideas. It’s often measured using a technique known as the divergent thinking task where I would ask you to think of creative ways to use, say, a sock or a brick; your more unusual suggestions would lead me to think of you as more creative than someone who could only envisage a sock as an item of clothing to keep one’s feet warm. But all people are creative to some extent, what researchers refer to as little ‘c’ creativity; we can all improvise when we are making a meal but don’t have the exact ingredients stated in the recipe; we can make a card for someone who has fallen ill. But it’s the Big ‘C’ creativity that we see in Mozart and van Gogh or Edison, those groundbreaking discoveries and captivating canvases.

Roger Beaty and his colleagues at Harvard University discovered that creative people are able to get brain networks that don’t typically work together to interact, including the newly discovered and particularly exciting Default Mode Network (at least interesting for those of us who are fascinated by imagination and daydreaming). 

So creativity might be hard wired, but that doesn’t mean that Mozart didn’t need to work hard and learn ‘stuff’.

However, what we know can also impede creativity 

Consider the following well-known problem:

In a room, there is a table pressed against a wall. On the table are a candle, a box of tacks and a book of matches. I would like you to attach the candle to the wall above the table so that the wax from the lit candle does not drip onto the table or the floor.

If you’re having problems visualising the scene, don’t worry; you might like to refer to the diagram below. Some people are unable to capture images in their mind’s eye, a condition known as aphantasia

Duncker’s candle problem

This problem, known as Duncker’s candle problem, after the psychologist Karl Duncker, requires a degree of creativity to solve. Don’t be too concerned if you can’t solve because most people can’t. The solution requires you to think outside the box, or more specifically, about the box. 

If we empty the tacks out of the box and then fix it securely to the wall with the tacks, we can then light the candle, melt a little bit of wax into the box and press the candle into the wax to ensure that it stays upright. The wax will then drip into the box and not onto the table or the floor.

Problems such as this are often solved through insight, that aha moment when the solution seems to pop into your head. They are difficult to solve because we see the box as a container, a bias known as functional fixity, which makes it tricky when it comes to creative thinking. In this respect, what we know is actually getting in the way of creativity (at least a little bit). You can see a diagram of the solution here.

Consider the following problem given to participants in a study conducted by Pamela Ansburg and Roger Dominowski

Throw a Ping-Pong ball so that it will go a short distance, come to a complete stop and then reverse itself. You can’t bounce it against a wall or any other object and you can’t attach anything to it. 

Let’s start by examining what we know about Ping-Pong balls. They are used to play table tennis (or Ping-Ping) where opponents use small bats to hit the balls over a low net attached to a table. Our image of the Ping-Pong ball is of it being hit back and forth. 

We could try doing one of those flick things where the ball travels a short distance and then returns, but the ball won’t come to a complete stop – it will keep spinning before heading back to us. Throwing it against the wall will violate the rules, as will pushing it up against any other kind of object. There is a very simple solution, but what’s stopping most of us from reaching it is bound up in our knowledge of Ping-Pong balls. 

Would it make any difference if I swapped the Ping-Pong ball for a basketball? It might help some of you, but not all. The problem with a Ping-Pong ball is that our experience informs us that it travels on a horizontal trajectory, that is, back and forth from one player to another, but a basketball is more likely to travel vertically, that is, up and down. What if I throw the Ping-Pong ball up into the air? It will travel a short distance vertically, stop, and then drop back down into my hand. 

Just like the box in the candle problem, our fixed view of the motion of a Ping-Pong ball has prevented most of us from coming up with a creative solution to the problem. For some people, the introduction of the basketball primes them to think of other possibilities.

An inadequate conclusion

Does this then mean that knowledge prevents people from being creative? The answer is it can, but without knowing stuff we can’t be creative in the first place. This won’t be an adequate answer for some, who may prefer a simple yes or no, but such is the nature of the way cognitive processes operate. Knowledge is incorporated into our cognitive architecture in the form of schemas and schemas act as shortcuts, structures that allow us to use stored information to interpret current events and priorities. While such structures are vital, like anything else they can have their drawbacks.

As for Einstein, well, he wasn’t really like the rest of us. We can use what he said to try and support our own views, or highlight his hatred of rote learning and formalised education to argue against current educational trends, but what worked for Einstein won’t necessarily work for others. In science-speak; he’s not a representative sample.

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