This episode of the podcast features Scott Barry Kaufman, a cognitive scientist and educational philosopher. He discusses the development of intelligence and creativity, the core drivers underlying creativity, and key practices to promote creative thinking.
1:18 Learning disability as a child
4:40 Finding workarounds for learning disabilities
6:58 Redefining education from remediation and reaching standards to self-actualization
8:49 Applying nonlinear dynamics to human development to identify human potential
11:31 Creativity as an emergent property
12:34 The future of work in the face of technological automation, AI, and robotics
16:26 Redefining intelligence and creativity
17:59 One of the core drives underlying creativity is the exploration drive
19:48 How Creativity Works
24:28 Developability vs innateness of creativity and intelligence
26:22 Creative traits not actively developed in education
27:11 Multiple paths to greatness theory of intelligence
28:54 Daydreaming, mindfulness, solitude and compassion
34:21 Future-oriented thinking as a predictor of lifetime creative achievement
35:15 Difference between creating a vision for your future vs doing what’s expected
36:54 The more you transcend yourself, the stronger your sense of self
38:55 Your Unique Self by Marc Gafni
43:28 What we think of as human nature is really bad science
44:28 Key human characteristic is adaptability – genetics selected for memetics
45:36 Most of ‘being human’ is still bad conditioning
46:25 Mental health in an insane society
52:43 Practices to make it more likely for creativity to emerge
54:30 How to form a healthy relationship with novelty-seeking and exploring the unknown
56:29 Psychedelics and being radically present
58:23 How meditation could stifle creative awareness
1:00:17 Why just being present in the moment is problematic
Connect with Scott Barry Kaufman:
Selected Links from the Show:
- Wired to Create – Scott Barry Kaufman
- Ungifted – Scott Barry Kaufman
- Your Unique Self – Marc Gafni
- The Sane Society – Erich Fromm
- One Skeptical Scientist’s Mindfulness Journey – Scott Barry Kaufman
- The Power of Now – Eckhart Tolle
Daniel : Welcome to the Neurohacker Collective podcast. My name is Daniel. I’m the head of research and development here. We are delighted to have Scott Barry Kaufman with us today. He is a cognitive scientist and educational philosopher. He is a professor of positive psychology at University of Pennsylvania and has written a number of really kind of defining works in the topic of intelligence and creativity and positive psychology human potential. We are here to divide into today to what creativity is, how do we identify it, how do we develop it, what its relationship is with intelligence and other interesting human capacities and wherever else the conversation goes. Scott, welcome.
Scott Kaufman: Thanks man, that was a really kind into. Thanks, it’s great to be here.
Daniel : It’s fun to have you here. We’ll just dive right in. I know that you get asked this all the time but I think it is worth actually just doing a minute what got you in this path. You were diagnosed with learning disabilities and then you end up graduating top of your class at Yale, PhD in psychology and going on to be in the top of your field. How does that happen?
Scott Kaufman: I didn’t start off with that potential. It would be very hard to forecast that if you’re looking it from age 0 to 15-16. There have been no indications of potential for that. I was in special education as a kid because I had a lot of fluid in my ears. Actually, the first three years of my life I was essentially deaf because I could barely hear what other people were saying, there was so much fluid in my ears.
When people are blind, they can do amazing operations for people to see. They don’t actually see anything, it’s not like you go a whole life not seeing and the day they do the operation you start to like … There’s a big top down part of that. You actually have to learn what it means to see. When I had an operation for my ears, I had to learn what it meant to listen and to process things in real time for the first time so I was behind.
I remember just thinking a lot as a kid about what am I capable am, feeling a dual identity. Feeling on the one hand, being held back because of the expectations of others based on this learning disability. But then on the other hand, I felt within me potential. Not just potential, a yearning for intellectual challenges. It was a very difficult thing to reconcile with each other. As I moved on in the grades and eventually did the self-determination to take myself out of special education in high school and see what I was capable of accomplishing, it was like wow and then I actually started to accomplish in high school. I was like, if I was capable of all this before, really? I had no idea. Then I thought about others, how much potential is in them is possible if they just actually try and really apply themselves or really get engaged. I like the word engaged now a lot. We can circle back to that later if you want.
It really started those research interests. I was lucky to discover in college a whole field devoted to studying human intelligence. I started off in the human intelligence with IQ and all those traditional metrics and I’ve been slowly more and more about human potential more generally but I started off in intelligence. Is that a fair sort of summary? That was quick.
Daniel : Yeah, definitely. You actually had a physical medical issue that was not a neurological issue, it was actually the mechanics of your ears that created an auditory processing and then by the time you could actually fix the mechanics of your ears, the whole dynamic of making meaning from words and auditory processing had not neuroplastically developed in the same way and so you had to redevelop it. How may kids and people have some sensory processing challenges that might not be as severe as yours but subclinical that end up leading to a lower degree of function in life, psychological or cognitive function that they can figure out work arounds or corrections for?
Scott Kaufman: That’s a great question, and you asked about auditory in particular but if I broaden that for a second, I’ve been on this mission to find that information across the board of all learning disabilities. There’s this emerging field that I just wrapped up a book on trying to get it more into public consciousness. It’ll be coming out next year, a new classification it’s called Twice Exceptional. You grow up and you can be an adult who is twice exceptional in the sense that you have on the one hand lots of areas of strengths that go to the gifted level and on the other hand, you have lots of difficulties or some particular learning disabilities in one package.
What I have been noticing, and I think this relates to your question, is that a lot of people who fit that classification, their gifts may mask some of their real learning challenges and also their learning challenges can mask some of their gifts and you get all sorts of interesting, unique outputs from that. You may get just neutrality. You might get someone who just looks average but has these amazing gifts that really want to come out and express themselves. You may have the situation, you have someone who looks really disabled but they have all these gifts. The other possibility we identified in this book is the person in the gifted classroom that is so smart that they’ve compensated so well for any difficulties that they don’t get support for their really difficulties. The teachers say, “You’re gifted and therefore you can’t have difficulties.” I really want to reconcile that false dichotomy.
Daniel : They’re on both ends of the bell curve at the same time.
Scott Kaufman: At the same time. Within [inaudible 00:06:55] standard deviations.
Daniel : Obviously, learning how to work with their strengths is a huge aspect of it. Also, learning how to ameliorate or support some of the things that are challenging for them. Is that a lot of your focus?
Scott Kaufman: Yeah, it’s a big part of it. There’s just this general idea, we could talk about creativity later, but how can we get them engaged in the creative process in a way that really draws on their strengths. There’s such a focus in our school system on remediation and standards and reaching standards as opposed to reaching greatness or reaching some sort of optimal … I’m actually not a fan of greatness as much anymore as I used to me, more of self-actualization is more interesting to me. How people use their full powers or full potentialities. I think we’re doing a terrible in our school system of that. It’s not a goal at all in school. There really does seem to be this goal of getting people to standards.
Daniel : There’s something so powerful about your story, obviously, which is that you are helping to redefine for education as a whole for what the whole world understands, what intelligence is, what creativity is, what self-actualization is, what education could be and should be that helps realize human potential in people and none of that would have been predicted from who you were for the first decade-and-a-half plus of your life. That’s a very profound thing because there are so many people who might be listening to this, who even if they went further before realizing it, have some glass ceiling on what they think their potential cap and that’s obviously not a fixed ceiling.
Scott Kaufman: Absolutely. We share a common interest and it’s relevant in this and I’ve been trying to apply it to my work and that’s nonlinear dynamics. I know it’s a scenario we’re both interested in. When you apply it to human development, you start to get a better sense of what potential look likes and you realize just how we’re going about this correctly in terms of identifying potential. We’re really letting so many people fall by the wayside. I can give you an example. My college at Penn in the School of Education, Mike Nako has this phrase, the crooked As. Those are the students who took a crooked path to straight As but you never would have predicted them ahead of time. When you look and do a systematic of these so-called crooked As, I’m not as big a fan of actually his crooked As, it makes people think of crooked like crime. You get it, nonlinear, a crooked path.
When you actually do a really good analysis of these individuals, you find that in a lot of ways the setbacks and the challenges they overcome actually is what made them really push ahead later on. We don’t take that dynamic into account at all in our school system to the extent to which you don’t fall in line of a standard sequence of development is actually considered a bad thing as opposed to perhaps a good thing for growth.
Daniel : It’s very interesting with regard to sensory processing disorders in particular and what one might do to compensate for that that leads to some kind of orientation or capacity. Bucky Fuller ended up crediting a lot of gave him the uniqueness he had to his early childhood farsightedness and blindness. I’m sure you know the story but he was so farsighted that all he could see were things very far away and outlines and big pictures. He became known as one of the greatest forecasters and generalists who could see very far away and outlines and big pictures and there was kind of a wiring towards looking at big pictures and far away first and that even once he got glasses later, that wiring continued to be meaningful.
When he had to first build structures and he couldn’t see, he did it tactically. When he did it tactically putting toothpicks and peas together, he found that triangles had a lot more integrity than squares do, which led to insights that the geodesic dome came from later. It was applying a tactile intelligence to something that would almost always be visual. That story shows that again and again in so many stories of remarkable capacity was coming at it through a nontraditional direction that led to novel insights and that even once the disorder got corrected for, if it did, those capacities stayed online.
Scott Kaufman: I love that example. When you talk about creativity, creativity almost necessitates a nonlinear path. I almost create a definition if you define creativity as being able to come up with something novel and useful and novel and meaningful. Another area of interest we have, and I’ve really enjoyed watching some of your talks online, is emergence. With creativity, I really think creativity is just emergent property where you don’t know where you’re going to get there. When you analyze and a do a systematic analysis of creative process of Picasso, of how great works of art or great scientific discoveries were made, these weren’t things that were planned out in advance. I really don’t think we leave enough room in our education system for emergence. I’d love to see what you think about that. But another way of putting that is we don’t leave enough room in our models for children to surprise us and to surprise themselves.
Daniel : Yeah, totally. I’ll share a pretty pejorative view on what modern education has been and I think the history on it is not that far from this, which is we have been developing children not for unique self-actualization and self-realization but we develop them at first to be able to be assembly line workers or fulfill any particular kind of fungible role. Then also to be warriors or soldiers but really where they were identified with a set of fungible skills and you could take someone out and put someone else in, I’m looking for an MBA. That meant that you had to take whatever the uniqueness of that being in terms of their interests, their passion, their proclivities, their whatever and craft it into some unique fungible role.
In the face of technological automation today, artificial intelligence and robotics, it’s such a deep insight to realize all of those are the things that will be automated. Over the next very short period of time, any kind of predefined here’s a function that society needs, let’s commission the human to be that function, those things will all be automated. No one actually has a lot of intrinsic motive to be an automatable function. You actually have to create a [inaudible 00:13:57] system to extrinsically motivate people to do the shitty jobs, whether it’s a labor job or an accounting job that ultimately doesn’t have deep creativity in it because we are only intrinsically motivated to creative functions.
Here’s the interesting part. As soon as we have, the current best estimate is something like, conservative estimate, a third of all current jobs are automated in the next 15 years and on an exponential curve that continues to automate jobs and they are not recoverable. That is the end of what we have known of as capitalism so far because a society with that many unemployed people breaks down. We are looking at people like Elon Musk and Zuckerberg and etc. saying we need a universal basic income to be able to deal with that but do what, we’re in this really neat place that one of the core concepts underneath capitalism that society has all these roles that need people to do them. Even though the roles aren’t fun, how do we create an education system that trains people for the workforce?
As soon as we actually can automate most of those things, and where the jobs don’t need the people, then you can also start to make a macroeconomic system where the people don’t need the jobs and then you can make an educational system that is not focused on making fungible task doers but on really facilitating intrinsic motivation. What is this one passionate about, fascinated in, have proclivity towards? It’s a completely different goal set.
Scott Kaufman: I love that. I absolutely love what you just said. I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t, I really do. You really do run that thought experiment, you really played that out in your mind. What could the workplace look like in that world? You change the concept of a workplace. There would be a real difference in terms of you’re not trying to send out resumes to fit a predetermined job but you’re actually telling society … I don’t have any trouble with what you’re saying, which I think would be really conducive to creativity. It would be ideal to get to a point where you could show society what you could uniquely contribute.
Daniel : Yes.
Scott Kaufman: Therefore, it’s 100% intrinsically driven. The whole idea of the resume, of the job interview, of the college acceptance, that would reimagine … That would be so hard for people to imagine that but I feel like would could imagine that.
Daniel : Totally. What intelligence is in the day where Kasparov is beaten by Chess, an early AI that are on an exponential curve and Go players are being beaten. It means ever more today to really think about what intelligence is being that very narrow definitions of intelligence humans aren’t even that relevant in the very near future. But broad definitions of intelligence and creativity are still things that humans have unique capacity at and it also happens to be not only an incapacity but it’s where all of the intrinsic joy of life happens to come and so this kind of definition between problem solving and problem finding where problem solving you have a predefined problem/solution space.
Now I’m looking for the solution, deep learning can just beat the shit out of humans. But school is developing people almost exclusively to do that so far, which is we already know what good is. We have predefined as a society what it means to be a good surgeon or a good mathematician or a good whatever and you are fulfilling some functions within that. Problem finding is actually redefining what good is. What is actually fundamentally interesting and meaningful that we want to move into as new spaces and that is really deeply aligned with the creative impulse, which is not how do I get good at a predefined set of things but how do I explore territory of what is actually meaningful that has not already been explored?
Scott Kaufman: The core drives that underlying creativity exploration drive and this is a drive that my colleagues and I have been trying to unpack in all of its various forms. It’s a very [inaudible 00:18:16] dopamine system but there are different dopamine projections.
Daniel : Did you say the inspiration drive?
Scott Kaufman: I’m sorry, exploration.
Daniel : Exploration.
Scott Kaufman: Exploration is correlated with the inspiration. The fundamental drive is exploration, which is associated with dopamine production but that’s a very simplistic model just saying dopamine. But you can actually start mapping out the projections and realize that they’re more evolved in the course of human evolution. Yes, we have some of these subcortical dopamine [inaudible 00:18:52] that are associated with reward sensitivity to primal drives like sex, power, and money but what my colleagues and I have started to chart out is a different dopamine system. Primarily, I want to give credit to Colin DeYoung, my closest collaborator who has really done a lot of really great work mapping out this other drive that is more recently evolved, which is has to do with the reward value not of our ancestral rewards like I just said, money, power, and sex but the value of information.
The exploration of information. You could just stop there and say the reward value of information and that would make enough sense to you. I think it’s so interesting that we still in our society we focus so much on the reward value of these ancestral things. We have so much potential in us as a human species that we don’t tap into.
Daniel : Your most recent book is on this topic of creativity, right? You identify a number of core drives or practices that are key to the creative impulse. Obviously, anyone who is interested in this topic should go read the book but can we just do some highlights. What are some key highlights of how the creative mind works, how the creative brain works, how the creative process works, and some things that people can do to actually … First I’ll just ask, is creativity innate or developable? To the degree that it’s developable how?
Scott Kaufman: It depends on how you view creativity. I like to view it in a way that is by definition developable. It’s sort of a way of being in the world. It’s a way of constantly relating to ideas, relating to ideas, relating to people. We have 10 things in the book and one of them is nonconformity. Nonconformity to involve really not being so susceptible to external ideas, to really think something through yourself and make sure you really have arrived at a conclusion that you’re satisfied with and that you’re constant asking questions and you’re constantly questioning yourself, not yourself but questioning ideas and being playful in it. I say being playful in it because play is another one.
There is a certain [inaudible 00:21:28] of people, what’s the word for it? If I say playfulness, that’s just like saying the same word in a different way. A certain levity in a sense or being able to take ideas and be willing to turn then on their head and just have fun with the whole space of possibilities. Daydreaming is another big one, I don’t think we build enough time in our day in the workplace and school to really let people daydream about possible futures and things that could happen.
There’s one trait that we talk about in the book that is sensitivity, I call it sensitivity. That one is maybe not as learnable as the others. I think that probably they all differ to the extent to which there could be explicit exercises or programs. But the sensitivity one is interesting because there does seem to be certain temperaments that are more conducive to creativity because they’re more attuned to the world, they’re more attuned to soaking up little subtle parts of what’s going on and they see things that they’re able then to connect the dots. I find that really interesting. I’ve been studying that trait and I’ve been studying its close cousin is called openness to experiences. Openness to experiences is, I found in much research, the number one measure of creativity.
It’s interesting about the learnability of open to experience, I want to be honest with you, the empirical evidence, the jury is still out on just how that much like what we can do to intentionally improve that because we’re finding some interesting research. At the very lower level, people who score higher on this trait of openness to experience they visual system is more complex. They’re actually able to see more colors, more hues. My dissertation showed that they’re faster at implicit learning like unconsciously, intuitively soaking up patterns. I bring this up not to discourage any of the listeners who are saying, “Darn, I’m really low on openness to experience.” That’s not my point.
I feel like when I try to reconcile my work is on the one hand, I’m really curious and I want to study stuff scientifically. I want to make it clear that the science of creativity, it’s not always easy how to translate that into the trainability realm of life. I find it just really interesting that this openness to experience idea is so correlated. I wonder if we could really create exercises for people to be more open and aware and perceptive of their environment and of people and of larger patterns. I’d love to get your thoughts on that.
Daniel : You said creativity is an emergent property of a number of things. You’re mentioning four here, you’ve got ten in the book. I think each of those in themselves emergent properties of lots of different causal factors, influencing factors. I think one of the problems when we start thinking about developability versus innateness of intelligence, creativity, talent, whatever is that we’re thinking of it in a radically true reductive sense. We might look at something like visual perception difference leading to a statistically increased chance of openness to new experience but then there are some blind people who have radical creativity and openness to experience. If we just look from a statistical point of view, what that means is, a whole lot of determining factors that we’re not paying attention to and we’re averaging out the way they all play together. Because from a statistical point of view, you shouldn’t have succeeded.
Scott Kaufman: You’re raising a terrific point.
Daniel : I’m raising your point. With regard to something like the developability of all these, the idea that there might be certain kind of intrinsic orientations, let’s call it genetic and whatever else. But the genetic expression itself is being modulated in real time, right? Epigenetic modulation is a huge factor for what [inaudible 00:25:58] are coding and neuroplasticity is a huge factor even within genetics and epigenetics. Pretty much all of our traits are whatever our nature is through whatever our nurture is, a combination of those and the nurture is always modulatable. Then we start looking at it might be developed the exact same way for everyone. There might be slightly different developmental paths.
Scott Kaufman: That’s the key.
Daniel : The thing that you said that I actually want to dive back into is all those traits that you’re describing are traits that are only not actively developed in education but pretty commonly seen as undesirable things. Daydreaming is, there are pretty common psychological assessments where the amount of daydreaming is correlated with negative assessments on the kid. You’re actually saying this a place where for the most part we wouldn’t have to cultivate daydreaming, we would just have to stop repressing it and actually tell people, “No, it’s not bad.” Say more about these. All of these, nonconformity, playfulness, these are pretty much innate to most kids and we train them out.
Scott Kaufman: There’s just such a great Abraham Maslow quote, he’s one of my heroes. There’s a great quote of his about self-actualization is something that springs out once you pull away all of these blocks that’s in us. I wish I could remember the exact quote but that’s sort of how he thinks of it. I think creativity is similar like that. By the way, he viewed self-actualization as an emergent property as well. I think people really mischaracterize what he meant by that. He actually never drew a pyramid. That was people after he died that drew that.
I think that the idea that there’s, circling back to the idea you said about multi-potentiality or multiple paths to the same … That really gets to the core of my theory of intelligence that I proposed on Gifted was the multiple paths to greatness. Really viewing whether it’s intelligence or creativity as part of self-expression. You don’t have to divorce it from the self. You don’t have to make it external to what we naturally want to do. I think the less we divorce it from that, the easier it will be to get it out of people, not in a forcefully willful way. Also, I really loved your point as well about, the point that you reflected back on me. It was really neat how you did that. I’ll stop there for now.
Daniel : I want to talk abut daydreaming for a minute. It is as pejorative a thing as I think there is that kids daydreaming or an employee’s daydreaming is a sign that they are disengaged, uninterested at best and at worst, have some kind of ADD and are incapable of focusing. The sense of someone being a dreamer or daydreamer as a pejorative term and obviously, Steve Jobs tried to re-frame that and a number of people did, but it’s still, they’re just daydreaming. They don’t know how to implement or make thing practical. Speak to that dialectic. Why is daydreaming a good thing? Or when is it a good thing, when is it not? How do you cultivate the right kind of daydreaming? I would love to hear more.
Scott Kaufman: That’s a great question. With all these characteristics and some of these characteristics are potentially at odds with each other, you can’t do them at the same time. A big part of what you see in the creative emergent process is that you’re reconciling or you’re switching, you’re constantly being adaptable and switching back and forth in different modes of thought. For instance, I don’t see mindfulness as incompatible to daydreaming. We’ve kind of set up this false dichotomy. I’m going to be mentioning lots of false dichotomies today, it’s going to be probably the theme of this conversation. We really set that up because one can be intentionally mindful that they’re daydreaming. We don’t allow people the full opportunity to develop that capacity to be comfortable with themselves.
There are psychologists who have argued that solitude is one of the, your ability to embrace solitude is one of the greatest hallmarks of development, of human development, one of the highest levels of human development. To really be comfortable with your mind, your imagination processes. To be intensely mindful of that tends to be correlated, and to activate a particular brain network we’ve been studying called the default mode network or I like to call it the imagination network. The more that you can tap into that imagination brain network has been correlated, again statistically, with things like compassion, a sense of self like meaning, meaning in your life. Most schools don’t give a damn about these things. How many in the charter of the school, we really care more about increasing meaning and compassion in our students than standards? That’s coming from the imagination brain network, it’s not coming from the executive attention network by itself, which is what we tend to focus so much on as the executive or your ability to focus on the goals of others and keep them in your working memory.
Daniel : You’re saying something that I’m just so delighted by, which is how much false dichotomy where it’s actually rather than these things being in fundamental mutually exclusive dichotomy they’re dialectic and there’s actually a synergy between the dialectic. One’s ability to be totally in the moment and their ability to dream about the future, one’s ability to accept what is and their desire to make it better. All of those different kinds of functions are actually radically synergistic when you realize how to have them synergistic rather than try to kill half of it or have them be a flip flop. In doing that, you’re actually taking deep aspects of the human experience that have been seen as negative and re-embracing the positive meaning of them. The default mode network has actually got a bunch of shit lately as being what takes people out of flow states and that in flow states we want to decrease the activity of the default mode network and decrease our sense of daydreaming and identity and etc., which is obviously part of a dialectic. The other part is I think really critical.
Speak to us a little bit, I know in the book you identified a bunch of highly creative people and their relationships to daydreaming. Can you just share little bit about, and I would love for people for themselves but also if anyone who is listening to this who is a parent, to have some of examples of daydreaming actually being relevant to someone creating in life.
Scott Kaufman: I wrote that book a while ago and I’m having trouble thinking of examples but you see a lot of those kids who have imaginary friends. That’s part of daydreaming as well because it’s not like the person is real so where else is that coming from, obviously you’re daydreaming. There are people who have vivid imaginary stories, like worlds, imaginary worlds in their youths. You find that a higher proportion of children who had this or also had what is called a fantasy orientation are represented in the MacArthur Genius Awards for instance compared to the general population or average college students. There’s lots of forms of daydreaming, not just fantastical things but lots of examples of individuals who were constantly thinking of what they would look like in the future, like future oriented thinking.
It seems to be that kind of future oriented thinking is a really great predictor of [inaudible 00:34:49] creativity. E. Paul Torrance found that. He found the extent to which these elementary school kids fell in love with a future image of themselves and I think that can come from giving the opportunity of daydreaming is when you actually discover that. That predicted 50 years later creative achievement better than any measure of school performance, any measure, if his tests of creativity, his paper and pencil tests of creativity. That’s a big one.
Daniel : Was there any distinction there between … We all kids who had parents who kind of had the kid’s life planned out for them ahead of time at least in some features, what religion their spouse is going to come from and at least what level of education and economics they’re going to achieve. That kid actually has a sense of their future self but it is not their own future self and they might actually have a lot of attachment to that because their parents are not going to approve of them otherwise, etc. Was there any distinction that you found, obviously, it’s an easy one to hypothesize between someone who had a future vision of themselves that really emerged from their own proclivities and imagination versus one that was largely imposed?
Scott Kaufman: Someone fed them the dream?
Daniel : Yeah, you know, you’re going to grow up and be a good doctor or a senator or a whatever. Like so many kids who grow up have a very strong sense of what they have to be that is based on social expectation, parental expectation but that doesn’t mean there’s actually real intrinsic drive, it’s all extrinsic.
Scott Kaufman: We did talk about some examples. We talked about that in the nonconformity chapter a bit as well also the importance of authenticity I see as a big one or not being susceptible to external influences. To answer that question I think in order to reach that level you really need to understand the boundaries of what are the values that mean the most to you. You really have to distinguish self from world in a lot of ways. I think there is other false dichotomy that a lot of people think that transcendence means losing your identity. Losing yourself is not the same thing to me as your identity. I think that’s not really discussed even some Buddhist scholars don’t really nail that point. I think what we’re finding in our research is the more that you transcend yourself, the stronger your sense of self. That seems like the biggest dichotomy, paradox, etc, etc, etc. We’re finding that in so many samples now. We’re finding that those who get outside themselves, they love outside their selves.
We’re actually creating a new scale of what Maslow called the be love or being love, which loving the being of others and deficiency love, which is loving from a place of you need others to fulfill an empty part of yourself. You can actually differentiate these two forms of love. We’re creating a scale to measure that. You just look in all these ways about how it’s that growth aspect. The more that you go towards that growth aspect, which is seemingly getting away from yourself but actually you’re affirming yourself. You’re not being as influenced by others. It’s an interesting paradox. A lot of people it might be hard for them to wrap their head around including some Buddhist scholars would even maybe disagree with that even if show them the data. I think that’s a truer picture of reality.
Daniel : I agree completely. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen my good friend, Mark Gaffney wrote a book called Your Unique Self where he’s outlining this ontology and relationship to Buddhist True Self with a capital T, which is no self, which is having an experience of consciousness that’s undifferentiated. There is basically subjectivity or experience but there is not an I and there is not thinking in English words and identity, etc. But to just stop there, the only way to really just stop there is to say all of this illusion and engaging in it is meaningless, which is a really bummer nehilistic perspective that is one interpretation of Buddhism in which this is my solution and it’s also the suffering that when you buy into it causes problems.
There is a much more beautiful and I think well supported perspective, which is if we take universe as we experience it as real, not the only real because obviously we’re experiencing the tiniest sensory bandwidth of all that is, but we take it as real and then meaningful. We see that there is actually a trajectory. Evolution has changed with a direction towards more orderly complexity and with more orderly complexity new emergent properties and that’s not just physical but it’ the co-evolution of objective and subjective. At higher degrees of neurological complexity, we get different kinds of expressions of consciousness and also even expressions of love and meaning.
We can see the kind of evolution of the universe into greater orderly complexity as having an interior story, which is also moving into greater degrees of consciousness, creativity, love, and that is actually an emergent meaning of the universe. We have a possibility to really participate with that and then in that sense, our identity, most of our identity is the … What I’m hearing you say and the way I see it is most of our identities are the compensation for early trauma where we believed that we weren’t enough, we weren’t really lovable and so then hopefully we get some strategy to prove that that isn’t true and so we become smart or we become funny or become good at sports or whatever it is where we can get some validation and then we really identify with that and then of course, we have to be in radical competition with anyone else who has that same metric because we define ourselves in a very small set of metrics.
Then if anyone else is better at those metrics, we’re just fundamentally not that valuable. That is all the response to trauma, of not feeling lovable and not actually knowing who we are because we aren’t how much money we make or how high our IQ is or how good we are at baseball. That is one tiny little capacity. If we see ourselves as this kind of synergistic emergent of all of the factors that make us up, it is really not reducible to any of those factors. There’s no way to compare that to anyone else’s synergist emergent factors. They’re actually completely noncomparable as you can only compete on the same metrics and as soon as you recognize yourself at not metricable. Then you end up getting a unique self that has a unique perspective and unique things to contribute that is not actually in fundamental competition with anyone. Then you say, well shit, they have a unique self, they have something to offer the universe that I can’t and I live in a more full universe if I help them self-actualize too.
Scott Kaufman: That was very well put. I think that’s a great state of being but it requires moving from the deficiency realm to the being realm. That’s a lifelong process. I want to be very clear, no one reaches it, it’s not a stage. I don’t trust anyone, if there’s any guru out there who would come up to us and say, “I’ve reached that.” No, you haven’t. You’re still human. You can’t escape that in a certain sense. What you can escape is the attention to it. You can still be human but shift what you attend to and sort of not let certain aspects of our humanity play any role in our lives.
Daniel : This is a very controversial topic but one that I’m passionate about is that I think most of what we think of as human nature is really bad science. Because we have studied human behavior where there has been common ubiquitous conditioning, meaning we have win/lose game theoretic dynamics. We have pretty much zero sum win/lose theoretic dynamics that condition maximum jealousy, selfishness, competitiveness, etc. Then because those systems are ubiquitous, we treat it as if they don’t exist and then take human behavior within that system as if it’s nature and attribute it to genetics and then do evolutionary biology that’s like weird pattern fitting, confirmation by its pattern fitting. Then if we find an indigenous tribe that doesn’t fit that, throw them out as an outlier.
Really, I think the key insight about humans is that our genetics selected for memetics, they selected for neuroplasticity. Then part of why we neotenous, we are fetal for a year-and-a-half and can’t do shit and every other animal is doing interesting stuff in the first few minutes including the other primates. It’s also why for one generation to the next, they are mostly the same. Even if a gorilla uses a tool, they use a tool the way they did 10,000 years ago. We are totally different. Not just from generation to the next but even within the course of lifetime and so we’re born with mostly not a lot of hard wiring because as toolmakers that modify our own environments rapidly, we have to be adaptable because throwing spears is not that useful anymore, texting is. We have to be adaptable to the new environment that we come into. Really, our genetics selected for neurologic capacity to be very firm wired by our environment.
Scott Kaufman: I think modern evolutionary psychology folks would agree with that very much.
Daniel : When we get that, when you say like, we’re still human, most of that that is still human is still we’re badly conditioned by the ubiquitous bad conditioning of that we all went to the same shitty school systems and the effects of living within consumer capitalist society, nationalism supported by military industrial complexes. Those dynamics condition the shit out of everybody. What does it been to be human in a possible near term future world where the whole education system is just facilitating the unique brilliance and creativity of each kid rather than trying to standardize them and not comparing on the same metrics to everybody else and where they’re not being prepared for a workforce. I think what we think of as human that we didn’t have to transcend completely changes.
Scott Kaufman: You said a lot of really interesting things there that I could respond to about five of those different threads. Which one do I want to start with? One thing, I don’t know, do you read a lot of Erich Fromm? The Sane Society, I was re-reading that the other day and I think it’s really cool because he kind of makes, he would agree with you if he were alive today. That we spend so much time in people maladjusted or insane or having mental health issues as opposed to thinking of how can we create … It’s the society that’s insane, it’s not the individual who is insane. I think that relates to your point, first of all. The Sane Society, [inaudible 00:47:15].
Daniel : It really relates to the first point that you said was important in creativity, which is nonconformity to an insane society.
Scott Kaufman: Correct. Sometimes the greatest trait of mental health is being not adjusted to your society.
Daniel : Krishnamurti’s famous quote.
Scott Kaufman: What did you say?
Daniel : Krishnamurti’s famous quote.
Scott Kaufman: Also, Maslow talked about that as well. In our talks about abnormality, the DSM-IV and all that, our whole model thing about psychiatry that is not really thinking like that.
Daniel : Right. Krishnamurti said, “It’s not a good measure of mental health to be well adjusted to a profoundly insane society.” It’s pretty easy for us to see other societies as insane. We can look at the Dark Ages and say, they were just batshit crazy. Women who used herbs and they burned them at the stake as witches because they didn’t only use prayer. We’re like, wow, they were just ubiquitously fucking crazy. That value system is crazy. Or we can look at another religion that we weren’t very close with at all, take a voodoo society or whatever it is. Most people are culturally comfortable looking at parts of Somalia and Northeastern Africa where 90% of the girls get their clitoris cut off in childhood for religious reasons and say, wow, that’s like a ubiquitous mental illness. They have such sexual shame, shame on the body, on femininity, etc. that they are doing female genital mutilation ubiquitously. We just see that whole culture as being off. That they’re world view is just off. But then of course, they don’t see that and the previous ones didn’t see that at the time.
Then we don’t see so we’re extincting 13 species a day. Our solution to differences with other is war and we’re utilizing resources faster than the planet can replenish them heading toward extinction and yet, not recognizing that as actually batshit crazy. We have a situation where pretty much everybody has body image issues. Everybody has low-grade anxiety and anhedonian depression. We can say, all right, we have a society that has ubiquitous mental health issues. Being sane, really sane, does mean being not just not adjusted to this society but someone who would actually have the impulse to help recreate a new one.
Scott Kaufman: In this model, is it better to be sane or insane?
Daniel : Insane but the bad definition of sanity, which is normalized to a shitty culture but sane compared to a meaningful definition of human well being, flourishing, flourishing of life, etc.
Scott Kaufman: Given that we fundamentally re-conceptualize what’s seen, I’m with you, I want to be clear here. That’s cool. There’s a big book there.
Daniel : A few of us have been having a conversation a lot about writing a book called Ubiquitous Psychopathology.
Scott Kaufman: Being talked about, it does. This stuff really does need to be challenged more and this idea, in particular is there going to be an adjustment to society as the marker of mental health. That’s a big chestnut that needs to be cracked, a big one.
Daniel : When you look at Salvador Dali or Buckminster Fuller or Picasso or whoever you study in creativity and intelligence, they were almost all doing something that was profoundly outside of the existing definition of good. Salvador Dali’s paintings were not good photorealism or good renaissance art and Bucky was not doing a good job of orthogonal architecture. That’s kind of fundamental because if being well adjusted to it as it is and then just adding to it, at best they will make an incremental improvement but not something really innovative. Really innovative means that it’s not just the next step on the path of what’s already happening.
Scott Kaufman: That’s right. There’s a lot of five, six steps that may … Like insight, we didn’t talk much about insight today but that’s a huge aspect or a leap of faith is another way of putting it.
Daniel : Okay, for people that have listened to this and are interested practically in saying okay, I’m interested in cultivating, to the degree that I can, my own creativity, my insightfulness. We talked about being less, I think first was less deferring to authority.
Scott Kaufman: Being influenced by external …
Daniel : Having more of an internal locus of control, having more playfulness with life. What are a couple of things you would suggest are valuable practices or at least insights one can apply to what arises for them that can help them move in the direction of increased creative impulse?
Scott Kaufman: I would say be more attentive to the seemingly familiar. You find in a lot of people where creativity emerged, you noticed I’m not saying in creative people, but I’m actually phrasing it, you notice a lot when this happens. You find there are people who constantly find new meanings in old things. I think a very practical thing for listeners to take away and that could be a whole way of life. When you tasted your cereal in the morning, you may have had the same cereal for how many days but you actually think, are there any new sensations going on here that I never had before?
That’s the most basic level but it’s a whole way of being and you can build up from that very simple thing of the cereal to when you listen to someone talking like a friend and you think you know everything about that friend like dropping that idea that you know everything about that friend and actually listen, really listen and really see a person for the first time as though it’s new, that’s the key. See everything as though it’s new. You find that process statistically, and I’ll end on this, it makes it much more likely for creativity to emerge.
Daniel : I think this is radically important because like you mentioned the exploration impulse being dopaminergic, we are oriented to seek novelty and in dialectic with being scared of the unknown to a certain degree. I think one of the signs of deep mental health is the degree to which one has a more positive relationship with the unknown and so they have kind of more excitement around novelty than wanting predictability and getting the same. There’s an impulse towards novelty and for a lot of people that looks like breaking up with spouse and getting a new spouse every year or a new partner. It looks like wanting to travel and jump out of planes and get normalcy externally. You’re actually saying that increasing our sensitivity to novelty everywhere …
Scott Kaufman: That’s the key. The key is not the former of what you just described. That’s the stereotype of what people think when they think of exploration but actually, you get deeper meanings the more that you stay with one stimulus. Again, this is another false dichotomy. That’s what you should label today’s full episode. These things like having divorce rates are so high and with think the reason that is, some people posit, that’s because we’re really a non-monogamous species and I don’t think that’s really thinking about it the right way. I don’t think that people when they enter relationships, well first of all, they bring a lot of expectations of what a relationship should be and that right away already gets my point. You’re already bringing all those and you’re imposing that on a reality as opposed to letting things deepen and grow because you’re constantly cultivating all from within as opposed to all from without.
Daniel : It’s interesting because what you’re saying right now is a kind of classic Buddhist beginners mind teaching. Don’t think that you know who your partner is or that you have seen these trees on this walk a million times before. One of the things that blows people’s minds when they first take mushrooms is if they take a very high dose, they’re seeing things that aren’t there. They’re having visual hallucinations. If they take a low dose, they see the tree and they start crying because it’s so fucking beautiful it overwhelms them and they could be in devotion to it forever but it looks the exact same. It’s not purple and differently shaped, it’s still green. They’re like, “Why is it so fucking beautiful?” They realize because they’re radically more present with it and they’re seeing it with new eyes to see.
Now here’s an interesting thought, and that is one of my favorite practices by the way if someone is experimenting with mushrooms and they experience that is for them to start practicing seeing reality as if they were on mushrooms afterwards intentionally when they’re really opening their eyes to that. I would say that historically most branches of Buddhism are really oriented towards novelty and creativity. There’s a lot of kind of traditional orientation. Even though they’re seeing everything with new eyes so life feels like of creatively full, that doesn’t translate to a creative impulse. They might pain a tonka the same way it’s been painted for 10 centuries. What is the translation between seeing the world with new eyes so novelty is coming in and then the transition where then novelty is then coming out.
Scott Kaufman: I love it. Okay, I do a lot of thinking about this trying to reconcile. There’s another thread that relates that you said about half hour ago, which I’ve been waiting to respond to, which in the meditation literature if you read Kabat-Zinn for instance, he treats the default mode network as evil. To the extent to which you deactivate that is the extent to which you’re more enlightened. I called BS on that, I wrote a whole article, which I can send you from Scientific American, reconciling both executive attention with default mode coupling as opposed to being apart from each other. I can send you that.
I think that relates to this latest thing we’re talking about and the point that you just raised is that I think that a lot of people when they practice return of the breath meditation too much, whatever is currently in the moment in the purview, they’re hyperfocused and get wonder and awe from that but I don’t think that is enough for creativity. Yeah, you could hone that practice but what you really should be honing and what I think kind of takes you to another level of creative awareness, it is not looking at these categories as like, this relates to this, this relates to that but keeping your mind really open to connecting the dots between what you find beautiful and wonderful in that moment and then ten moments in the future, that’s wonderful too.
What you find with a lot of hyper meditation experts and the reason why I think they actually are at lower chances of creativity is that they’re so moment to moment, they’re not connecting the dots between the moments. I’ve never really articulated this out loud so I’m glad that you pushed me on this because that’s how I would see the big difference. You can have both.
Daniel : I’m so delighted to hear you saying this. After Eckhart wrote the Power of Now, which honestly I loved for the part that it speaks to but there’s a part that it doesn’t speak to that by itself is actually really problematic. I wrote a paper called The Power of Other Than Now. It started by saying if you want to be totally present in the moment without past or future, there’s a very easy way to do that has about 100% chance of success, which is a frontal lobotomy. You’re actually be pretty happy most of the time and really present and excited with what is and no one wants that.
It’s an important insight is that I think from an evolutionary point of view, our capacity for abstraction, the homosapien capacity for abstraction is such an evolutionary new function that we just don’t know how to use it that well yet and so we cause beautiful things but we also have a hammer and we’re hitting our thumb with it rather than just the nails because we’re just not that good at it. Then there are certain ideologies that say look at all the pain to thumbs that have come from hammers, just get rid of them as opposed to learn out to use it well.
There is a lot of interpretation of Eastern wisdom that says, look at when you notice or think about the past, you get all regretful and remorseful and nostalgic and when you think about the future, you get anxious and worried so just don’t think about the past or future, only be in the moment. They don’t notice when you think about the past, you can learn really beautiful things and when you think about the future, you can imagine a more beautiful world and help to create it. There’s a learning manual for your prefrontal cortex in how to do the uniquely human things well as opposed to just saying, we don’t know how to do so let’s reject it and be like the children and animals.
Scott Kaufman: I completely agree. I think it’s the perspective, it’s a new perspective. This needs to be written about more. A bunch of things we said today I feel need to be written about more. Just saying, I hope you added good stuff.
Daniel : It’s been a delight. We touched a lot of fun topics. I hope people do go get Wired To Create and I look forward to doing another dialog soon or maybe we can go into some of the topics in more depth because obviously we’re just scratching the surface on these here.
Scott Kaufman: I plan on visiting San Diego at the end of this year, so I can be there in person. It was honor to be on the show. Really, thanks a lot for having me on, Dan.
Daniel : Thank you, my friend. Take care.