creativity needs just enough social connections

During this pandemic and various lockdowns  there have been many discussions about the need for physical contact and how it supports creativity.

The writer and scientist, Isaac Asimov, reflected on — How do people get new ideas? — after a short stint at an MIT spinoff company in 1959. New ideas are not often received well by those in positions or power or influence Asimov noted.

It is only afterward that a new idea seems reasonable. To begin with, it usually seems unreasonable. It seems the height of unreason to suppose the earth was round instead of flat, or that it moved instead of the sun, or that objects required a force to stop them when in motion, instead of a force to keep them moving, and so on.

A person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance. Since he occurs only rarely, he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us. A person eccentric in one respect is often eccentric in others.

Consequently, the person who is most likely to get new ideas is a person of good background in the field of interest and one who is unconventional in his habits. (To be a crackpot is not, however, enough in itself.)

Once you have the people you want, the next question is: Do you want to bring them together so that they may discuss the problem mutually, or should you inform each of the problem and allow them to work in isolation?

My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it. (The famous example of Kekule working out the structure of benzene in his sleep is well-known.)

The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing. For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display.

Asimov felt that isolation is required for creativity.

A different conclusion was made by Professor Katherine Giuffre in — Half the Right People: Network Density and Creativity — while examining the social networks of Emily Dickinson, Paul Gauguin, and Charlotte Bronte — legendary loners. Giuffre defines creativity as either an attribute, an action, or an outcome, and focuses this paper on the correlation between creativity and social networks, specifically the density of social connections while creative, as evidenced from the correspondence of the three writers.

Based on the different network properties, we can conjecture that it was not when the artists were alone, linking wildly different ideological worlds, that they were most creative, but when they were attached to others in a more moderate way and when those others were close to each other, although, again, not so close as to form one cohesive group.

There seems to be a ‘sweet spot’ between not enough and too many social connections to encourage creativity. Dickinson’s creative period of 1859-65 bears this out.

emily dickinson social network

Image: Half the Right People — Network Density & Creativity

Giuffre uses the content of many letters that stood in for face-to-face conversations, as these often asked for critical comment.

While the contents of the letters are interesting and indicate how the artists were sharing ideas about their work with others in their networks, I emphasize that for Dickinson, Gauguin and Brontë, the letters were an important substitute for many face-to-face interactions. The letters are a record of interactions – both the content and the pattern. That record would not have existed if the artists had been in positions to have more casual connections to their networks.

Giuffre concludes that creativity is rather social, similar to the conclusions of Christakis & Fowler, “As part of a social network, we transcend ourselves, for good or ill, and become a part of something much larger. We are connected.”

By thinking of outcomes, rather than individuals, as creative, this paper argues that it is possible to compare creative with non-creative time periods in the individual’s life in order to make a case that there are indeed attributes that correlate with creativity. These attributes, however, are social rather than individual. Creativity is correlated with a social attribute, but is also conceived of as an action that has an outcome. The correlation with particular network patterns suggests an explanation for the life-course findings about changing creativity over time: social network patterns are changing over the life course. The changes in the shape of the networks may also be tied to external changes, from the changing nature of the art market to the possibilities or pressures to join an artistic movement.

The challenge in doing creative work is having just enough regular social connections with just the right group of trusted, but diverse, people. I doubt there is a magic number but one can log their creativity and compare it with their social connections. Not enough? Time to reach out. Too many? Time to self-isolate. At least we know there is a correlation. Now we can start watching for patterns.

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