Robert Root-Bernstein

Robert Root-Bernstein - Sparks of Genius

by MTF Labs | MTF Podcast

Robert Root-Bernstein is Professor of Physiology at Michigan State University, but despite some groundbreaking work on auto-immune diseases, he’s perhaps better known for his interest, expertise and research into Creativity. 

He’s the author of several studies and books on the subject, including a true artist/scientist collaboration with his wife, a poet, Michelle Root-Bernstein. Robert’s an expert on STEAM education, the role of creativity in science and what it means to be (or not to be) a polymath.

Books by Robert Root-Bernstein


Dubber      Hi, I’m Andrew Dubber. I’m Director of MTF Labs, and this is the MTF Podcast. Now, here’s something you may have noticed about MTF Labs and the MTF community: we’re interested in more than one thing at a time. Call it interdisciplinarity. The intersection of science and art, creative innovation, cross-sectoral collaboration. It’s about taking things that aren’t always considered related, or even compatible, and people who might on the surface have no apparent reason to spend time in the same room as each other, let alone share notes or build something together, and collide them. Cross the streams.

Now, someone who’s studied and written about creativity in the scientific domain and the inclusion of arts into places that they’ve traditionally been left out of is Professor Robert Root-Bernstein. A physiologist at Michigan State University, Robert co-wrote a book called ‘Sparks of Genius: The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People’ with his wife, the poet Michele Root-Bernstein. He’s the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called ‘genius grant’, and has written extensively on topics such as autoimmune disease, molecular complementarity, as well as the history and philosophy of science. And he’s done it from a broad perspective that emphasises the importance and rigour of artistic and creative thinking.

Dubber      Robert Root-Bernstein, thank you so much for joining us for the MTF Labs podcast today. How are you doing?

Robert       Very good. Thank you for having me.

Dubber      You’re very welcome. It’s nice to see you, and somebody who is so widely published on the thing about which we are most interested in, which is the intersection of art and science. Do you want to tell us just a little potted history of what your job is and what that means?

Robert       Well, so my job description doesn’t have a lot to do with what I actually do. I’m a professor of physiology. I actually joined my current university, Michigan State University, in the department of natural sciences, which I really enjoyed because it had people from all the different sciences. We got to teach non-science majors there science, so trying to make it exciting and interesting to people who… Well, just to give you an idea, I’d ask at the beginning of the first class “How many of you hate science?”, and about ninety percent of the hands would go up.

Dubber      Wow.

Robert       Unfortunately, the university, in its wisdom, decided to get rid of that department, so I needed to find another home in a much narrower physiology department. My actual work does have a lot to do with biology. I work on autoimmune diseases and, oddly enough, the origin of life at the same time. Interesting intersections in the sense that very little is known about how the first receptors and transporters - which are often the targets of autoimmune diseases - were evolved in the very first protocells. So it’s a strange connection but one I like to make.

And then I’ve always been interested in what makes some scientists much more creative than others which got me into the subjects that I think are the ones that excite you the most, which is “Where does creativity come from?” and “How do you train people to be more creative?”.

Dubber      Well, here’s a question that might not be the ordinary one you get, but given your official title, it might be one that you’re qualified to at least address. Is there a biological source for creativity?

Robert       So that’s a really interesting and complex question. There seem to be changes in creative people’s brains - Einstein, perhaps, is the one whose brain has been most studied - suggesting that creative people have a lot more connections, particularly in the mid-brain, than lots of other people. That actually fits with what I know about or at least what I think creativity is, which is often combining parts of skills, knowledge, experiences in new ways.

So there are two things that you would have to have to make this all work, which is unusually broad experiences, or at least an unusual mix of experiences, and then some way to connect those in novel and interesting ways. And certainly by the time we get to look at your brain, which is after we’ve already identified you as being creative. So whether it was always there or it develops because of the way you live your life, those connections are certainly there.

Dubber      Yeah, it does raise the question of cause and effect there, doesn’t it? “There are these connections, and this person was creative.”. Which one made the other one happen?

Robert       Yeah. So I was once asked by a very, very rich multibillionaire if I could come up with a programme that he could fund that would somehow test all this stuff of “Were you born with it, or is this something that we can cultivate in people?”. And beyond taking a bunch of identical twins, splitting them up purposefully, giving one one set of experiences and the other the other set - which would be extremely unethical - I couldn’t really think of a way to do that, so never got funded. We may never know.

Dubber      What’s your hunch?

Robert       I think it’s probably a combination, just looking at people I know. And my own kids, for example, we try to give them pretty much the same access to different experiences, but their personalities were such that they went off in quite different directions. I think they’ve both become reasonably creative, but putting together very, very different kinds of information and skills and so forth. So I think part of it is what you feel you’re good at. Part of it is also environment.

For example, my son draws quite well, and in recent years actually took some drawing classes, but my daughter was phenomenal as an artist at a very young age. And my son was younger, so he’d look at what she was doing and what he was doing and decided “I’m terrible. I can’t draw.”. Now, for his age, he was actually really good. But, given his environment, it didn’t appear that way to him. And despite all the positive reinforcement we gave him and everything, it still didn’t quite catch on until a couple of decades later, actually. So some of it is who you grow up with and who you know and whether there’s competition. Whether it’s exciting for you.

I was supposedly a very good cellist when I was young, but my parents unfortunately hired a couple of music teachers who pushed me way too hard. So I was the youngest cellist in a youth orchestra, and it was simply… They were playing music that was beyond my ability. And it’s one of the few times where I’d run up against something where I’d come home and cry. It was no fun anymore. And so despite the innate talent I might have had, my experiences were not such that I developed that.

Dubber      Okay. Since we’re on the topic, that’s a phrase that I have to pull out and query. ‘Innate talent’.

Robert       Yeah. I think there is, to some extent, innate talent. Again, I think it’s a combination of the way you’re wired and your experiences. Whether it’s athletes or musicians or artists or people like that. There are people who very early on can control a pencil really well. They can figure out on their own how to play an instrument and get the sound they want out of it. They have to have training in order to utilise that to the extent of reaching professional ability and so forth. There are other people I’ve seen that it doesn’t matter how much time they spend on it. I’ve run into several people who are really “I’m going to learn how to draw.”, and they spent hours and hours and hours trying to do it.

There was a programme in the United States run by the National Public Radio, NPR, many years ago which I used to wait for every year. It was a competition for the worst musician in the country. And these were people who claim to practice hours a day, and they couldn’t sing. They couldn’t play their instrument. They couldn’t… It was horrible. And they would ask them “Do you really think you’re singing well?”, and they would say “Well, no, but I try. I really try. I love doing this, and I work at it every day, but no progress.”. So something wasn’t there for those people.

Dubber      Yeah. It’s interesting. I’m one of these people… I like to think I’m creative, and I like to think I have the enthusiasm but not the technical ability. I was a terrible guitarist. And I didn’t work as hard as perhaps I should have worked at it, but it was one of those things that I enjoyed, I had enthusiasm for it, and it was something that satisfied me in a particular way, but just that barrier of technical competence which… Is that an indicator of creativity, or is that something… I would like to think of it as a separate characteristic that I might have lacked.

Robert       Well, so one of the things that my wife Michele and I have been working on for quite a bit recently is whether you have to be really top flight to be able to combine different skills and experiences and so forth, and we pretty much concluded the answer is no.

So you clearly have a real interest in music, creativity, things like that. You may never be a great guitarist, but the experience that you had playing the guitar almost certainly allows you to ask questions to a musician or any other creative person that you would not even think to ask had you not struggled with trying to learn that.

And so what we’ve been looking at are avocations or hobbies as being a critical part of the creative process, and what we’re finding is that creative people often are really good at one or two things, but almost all of them will have these several other things that they’re not so good at. And yet, when you start asking them “Well, does this thing that you do just for your own satisfaction… And maybe you don’t sing out loud to other people because it’s too embarrassing, but are you learning anything from doing that which feeds into your work?”, there are a lot of people who will say “Yeah. So learning how to read music, for example, allowed me to then think about patterns and structures in new ways, so now I actually have adapted a music programme to analysing my geophysical experiments.”. And you sit there and go “Wow. So you wouldn’t have done that had you not had this strange hobby?”, and they say “That’s right. So I’m no good as a musician, but the knowledge I picked up there made this connection which has helped out.”. So we think that avocations are really critical.

And then the next part is simply trying to make that connection. Creative people tend to look for how everything they’re doing connects. “What can I learn from all my experiences and feed into every other experience?”, which is not all that typical, but I think that’s definitely a strategy that’s learnable. And it’s, unfortunately, a strategy which we are actually trained out of in most schooling.

I went to an elementary school where I don’t remember… And I’m sure we did have an English class and a geography class and a whatever class, but most of the assignments that I remember were highly interdisciplinary. So when we learned… Maybe it was geography. I don’t remember what they called it. But we had to hand draw a world map. So you’re getting your art there. Then we had to label them all and learn what the major economic exports and imports were, where the capitals were, what language they spoke. So the geography was also culture. It was a whole bunch of other things. And unfortunately, the way most schooling is, you have your English class, your math class, your science class, your whatever. So these are taught completely separately.

And Michele and I were actually invited - this might have been ten years ago at most - to a conference in one of the states, I think it might have been Utah in the United States, where for the first time ever, the people who taught math and the people who taught science came to the same conference and talked about “How can we actually teach math and science so that they integrate at some level?”. But that gives you an idea of how separated these… You would think math and science are integrally related, and you can’t really do one without the other. And yet, they were being taught for decades in this state completely separately.

Dubber      Right, wow. I know that you’ve talked about mathematics as being a language that describes particular kinds of science better than other kinds of science, and that’s maybe something that we’ll come to. But I’m really interested in this idea of being able to cross the streams and bridge the gaps between different types of knowledge and different types of thinking. Is that something that you can compartmentalise and maybe have each of these different specialisms in different people, but the collaboration being the point at which those things come together? Does that work?

Robert       Yeah. So there are two ways to do this. One is individually within yourself. The challenge there is to figure out… When you are reading something in art and something in science, for example, and the languages are completely different, and people are describing what they’re doing, it may look like what they’re doing is completely different until you try it.

So one of the things that I’ve found that is a way to make the connections is to focus not on product but on process. So the processes are almost always the same. People have to identify some kind of a challenge or a problem. Again, the language actually differs depending on the field you’re in as to how people describe these things, but there’s something you don’t understand that you want to be able to do or you would like to be able to do, and then you have to identify the skills and knowledge you need in order to be able to do that, and then almost everybody tries a bunch of different things to see what works and what doesn’t work. You learn that perhaps you are missing a skill, so you go back and… So this becomes one of these recursive systems where you go through this “Did I define the right problem? Do I have the right skills?” until finally something starts coming out of the whole thing. You test what you’ve got, and then there’s this wonderful process in getting it out to whoever your public is and identifying who those people are who might be interested and convincing them that you’ve done something interesting, exciting, whatever it is that your audience is looking for from the output. So that can be, certainly, taught. The languages can be taught.

So Michele and I have worked on a book called ‘Sparks of Genius’ where we went and interviewed probably about… I don’t know. Three or four hundred people, or read their autobiographies, things like that, trying to figure out what their creative process was and how they talked about it. And this actually started because I had done this first with scientists. And I would come home to Michele, and we’d have dinner, and I’d be saying “I read the weirdest interview with this famous Nobel Prize winner who says that the way he thinks about his chemistry is to become the electrons and run around inside the atom trying to figure out what he wants to do, and it’s very odd.”, and she’d go “That’s strange because I was just reading a poet and he said the same thing. If he wants to write about nature, he becomes the tree that he wants to think about, and wants the experience of a tree as a tree, not as you looking at it”. And we began to realise that these experiences were so common that we had to start bringing them together.

And interestingly, the further we got into that, it turned out people all use the same language. So - very surprising - Werner Heisenberg, the famous inventor of quantum mechanics, as a physicist described abstracting in virtually identical terms to Picasso. And this kept happening. So we basically just purified the language from the people who were describing what they did, and said “Okay, so here are what people are doing. They’re observing, and they’re abstracting out of their own observations various patterns. And from those patterns, they’re extrapolating to other patterns, and they’re making analogies between these patterns, trying to see connections, and they…”.

Everybody uses body thinking. There were some very strange things we didn’t expect. Scientists often talk about taking the whole system inside their body and imagining themselves as part of that system or how they would feel if they were a part of it. Things like that. Something, clearly, that musicians do all the time, artists do all the time, but not something we expected from the scientists.

And so that language then became a bridge for taking these experiences and learning how to manipulate them and purify them. And then that became, in a sense, the bridge to thinking about collaborations because now you have the problem of people in different specialities getting together. Without that common language, they often can’t see what they’re doing.

So one of the fun things I have done, and Michele’s helped with some of the arts areas, was to work with groups that are multidisciplinary and help them figure out what they wanted to do. And the two key things were, one, coming up with a well-defined challenge that they could all agree on. So “We all think this is important. This is all something we want to work on. We can see where some of our skills fit in.”, which gets you into that creative process of now trying things. And then the second was having this common language where they could say “I don’t understand what you mean by a problem. I don’t work on problems. I’m not a scientist. When I compose a piece of music, I don’t think of it as problem-solving.” and they go on and explain the language they use. Having ‘Sparks of Genius’ and that sort of language there, we have lots of examples from the different fields, and that often allows people to then find that bridge and decide “Well, here’s the term we’re going to use.”. And it doesn’t matter what the term is as long as they understand each other and can use it in a common way.

Dubber      Interesting. There’s obviously something about ontologies for cross-disciplinary interaction that raises challenges because, like you say, people have different languages for things.

Robert       Oh, yeah.

Dubber      But I was speaking to somebody this week for this podcast who is an artist who is very interested in science and works around cartography and working with artistic representations for science communication, and her position was that creative method and scientific method are the same thing. The approach is the same thing. So whether you call it a problem or whether you call it “This is the thing that I’m thinking about. Here is my hypothesis. This is what I’m going to lay out.”, it’s a really interesting parallel for that.

Robert       Yeah, I agree.

Dubber      So this marriage of creativity and science is something you seem to embody as a couple. Tell me a little bit about Michele.

Robert       So we met in graduate school. I did something very odd which is I always knew I wanted to be a scientist, but my training was, as an undergraduate, extremely narrow. And I’m interested in big picture questions, as you can tell.

That’s another interesting issue with creativity. There are people who like small well-defined things. Other people like to see broad. Again, for collaborations, getting a good mix of those people is very important.

So rather than going on and doing a PhD in science, I decided to take a PhD in the history of philosophy of science and to focus on modern developments so I could then get back into lab research afterwards. I had no idea how difficult that was going to be. It was not trivial at all. But we met in history classes because Michele was a history major - French Revolution era - and we just hit it off. It was one of those things where I was actually going out with someone else at the time, and one night I’m sitting at the dinner table talking to Michele, look at my watch and realise I’m late for my date with the other person. At which point, I realised “I think I’m dating the wrong person.”.

So we just had these great discussions where we would share all sorts of questions, problems, issues. As a scientist, I was really interested in whether there are trends in history that you could identify, the same way we had theories in science. And Michele would give me all sorts of reasons that couldn’t happen or could happen, or “Here’s a counter-example.”, and we really enjoyed the back and forth, and that’s the way we’ve been ever since.

I ended up getting a MacArthur Fellowship, which gave me a whole bunch of freedom. Ended up working at the Salk Institute for a few years. Michele could not find a job in the area, so what we ended up doing because of my MacArthur was I shared it with her, and she ended up becoming a writer. So she tried writing a novel and a play and then eventually decided what she was really interested in was poetry. So she’s now actually a very accomplished haiku poet. Very well known in the field. Does a lot of editing.

And that was also part of just developing our creative connection in that we decided as we were studying more and more about other people’s creativity that the only real way to ask the right questions and get at the essence was to constantly be trying to learn new creative things ourselves. And by becoming a novice, you just look at things differently. You have to ask all these basic questions that you wouldn’t otherwise. So it’s getting back to that point about you playing guitar badly. It’s not whether we did it well or not. It was simply getting in there and trying something you’ve never tried before so it forces you to think about “Oh, wow. I never realised I had to learn how to do this in order to do that and how much practice is involved.”. All those kinds of things.

Dubber      It’s interesting because in the book that you wrote together - the ‘Sparks of Genius’ - there is a passage in there which really stuck out to me which was about the difference between polymaths and dilettantes, and it sounds like what you’re saying is that the second of those is not necessarily a bad thing to be.

Robert       Right. We have actually redefined polymath at this point, very recently, to incorporate this idea of avocations and hobbies. So there is an ongoing debate within cognitive psychology as “Do polymaths really exist?”. So there is one group of people who “To be a polymath, you have to be as good as Einstein in physics and as good as Picasso in art.”. So the top of both fields at the same time. There are actually a couple of people who are pretty close to that, but they’re quite rare.

We’re more interested in, more basically, where creativity is coming from. Polymaths tend to be, obviously, very creative and are creative in many fields. But what we’re looking at is, more generally, creativity. And as we looked at people who are creative, they almost always had this thing they’re really good at but bring in these things from other areas as well. So you could call them dilettantes in that sense. But we’ve now made the distinction in the following way: that a polymath is an individual who tries to find the connections between things, whereas the dilettante just accumulates knowledge and information for the sake of it itself. And the best example I can think of is somebody I met when I was in college who had… I think he had something like thirty-seven master’s degrees.

Dubber      Wow.

Robert       I was like “So what do you do with all this stuff?”, and he said “Oh, I just love to learn.”. I said “Do you make any connections?”, “No. Anything that’s different that I’ve never done before, that’s what I want to do.”.

Dubber      Now that’s some serious dabbling.

Robert       Yeah.

Dubber      Amazing.

Robert       So that’s sort of overkill, but… And I’m sure there’s a continuum here. There are certainly people who are both polymaths and dilettantes at the same time because you can’t connect absolutely everything. It’s probably too difficult.

Dubber      You talk in the book about modes of thinking. There’s the idea of visual thinking and kinaesthetic thinking and verbal thinking and different modes, and people have different things. And it seems to be that being able to do all of those things would be a desirable thing to do. Is that possible? Is it learnable? I think of myself as being somebody with no visual imagination whatsoever. I’m completely auditory. I understand things by hearing them or by speaking them. But could I learn to be a visual thinker?

Robert       Yes, you could certainly improve it because it’s definitely a skill, and there are actually a lot of formal studies about visual thinking in particular. So the problem here in science which raised all these studies in the first place was that white males tend to do really well in science, whereas minority students, females, were not doing as well. And one of the things that popped up pretty quickly was that success in science is highly associated with visual thinking. The ability to see things in three dimensions, rotate them all, do things like that.

So the next question was, as you said before, “Is this innate, or is this something that’s learnable?”, and it turns out that it’s certainly highly learnable. The skill that we see in white males may have come from playing baseball and football and whatever. You’re developing your spatial ability just through sports and things like that. Who knows? Nobody’s really tracked all of this down. But it turns out that if you give people formal drawing, sculpting, computer-aided design, it doesn’t really matter what kind of training, all of their visual abilities will increase in terms of anything we measure. And, oddly enough, even without tying this directly to, say, science or math, people’s ability in science and math increased in terms of just passing the courses, standardised test scores, whatever. Their interest, whether they stay in a science, for example. So definitely trainable. And we’ve done a recent review looking at this for the other what we call ‘tools for thinking’: abstracting, analogising, pattern forming. Not nearly as good studies for those, but it appears that all of those are certainly trainable as well.

Now, to get at your point that you’re not particularly visual, I think there are people… Again, this has something to do with talent, but it probably also has to do with how you use your other senses as well. So you may privilege your oral ability because that’s what you get your kicks out of.

Dubber      Sure. It’s my thing.

Robert       Yeah. And so, initially, I was very sceptical that there were people who were completely non-visual, but then I began running into people who said “I can’t read a map. I cannot draw you where to go. But I can tell you as a set of operations that you go one block over, make a left, two blocks, and then make a right.” and all this. “I have this equivalent to what we call spatial.”, but they’re not seeing it. It’s literally a set of “I walk this far, and I do something.”. So it’s, in a sense, a mechanical sense which functions in the same way or replaces it.

And so I’m fairly convinced that although, yeah, it would be great if we use all of our thirteen thinking skills all at the highest possible level, probably nobody does, and it’s not even necessary. That what we get in collaborative groups is people who are really good at visual thinking but also people who are really good at other kinds of patterns like oral patterns, things you’d hear or see in music and things like that, because each of those people is going to bring a different way of thinking about a pattern or a different way of visualising something or a different way of expressing their insights, and that’s where a lot of the creativity would come from.

Dubber      I guess it comes down to, for me, when people say “Picture this in your head.”, do other people see pictures? Is it like literally seeing? Because that’s not something I experience.

Robert       Yeah, I do, and that’s why I had problems thinking people couldn’t do this. I’m like “I have no problem seeing a red pentagon which is flipping with a blue thing going through it.”. But then I’d been drawing before I could probably write, so some of this, I think, is definitely experience and just practice.

Dubber      Yeah. Well, I understand all the words and the concepts that you just said, but I did not have an image in front of me. I imagine other people do.

Robert       No, and I believe that. That’s actually what’s interesting about when you start thinking about these different tools.

Dubber      So let’s talk a little bit about what’s increased in popularity in the discourse of education is the shift from STEM to STEAM and the relationship of how the arts fits into that, because a lot of the way that you hear about it is that it’s not about teaching arts as a subject along the same value chain as science and technology, but it’s a way of using creativity to teach the STEM subjects. Is that your understanding of this?

Robert       That’s the common approach to it. I have my reservations. This is very strange because I’m - at least in the US - considered one of the big proponents for STEAM. But I’m not a proponent who sees this as the answer to creativity in science and things like that. Again, I think that what the arts do that science teaching doesn’t do - this isn’t science. I’m talking about the teaching of these things - is that if you are learning to play an instrument, if you are becoming a graphic artist, whatever, you have to do it. You have to get in there, and you have to actually try to play the instrument. You have to sing here. You have to compose. The artist has to draw something.

Dubber      You have to be bad at it for a while first.

Robert       Yeah, that’s right. And you’re going to fail, and that’s part of learning creative processes. Mainly failing. I don’t care what area you’re in. It’s very frustrating. So that’s part of learning that process, but also then developing those skills that are associated with it, whether it’s manipulative skills, or if you’re a musician, you’re transforming a bunch of symbols on a page into sounds, and you’re trying to add emotion to them. There are all sorts of things going on there which you have to eventually integrate and synthesise, which is our final tool. Synthesising everything together. You don’t just start there. Nobody just starts playing music that has technical perfection and emotion and all that stuff. It’s tough.

When you learn science, it’s almost completely passive. So “Here’s a problem. Here’s the solution, which we’re going to now apply to a similar problem.”. It’s really not doing science. It’s solving problems that other people solved. They’re the ones who were creative about it. They’re the ones who went through the process. We never have process in science at all.

So just to give you an example, I had a group of really, really bright honours students about ten years ago. I was talking to them after a class on physiology, and I said “Everybody now knows what insulin is and what it does and how it does it, so let me pose you a problem. Your grandfather is a diabetic. World War Three starts. The supply of insulin disappears. You live on a farm where they’re raising pigs and cows and so forth. So knowing what you know, can you figure out how to give your grandfather insulin?”. They just looked at me like “What?”. I said “So where does the insulin come from?”. So I went through all this stuff. They knew where it came from. They’d never seen a pancreas. They had no idea how to identify it. They’d never isolated anything out of a tissue, so they had no idea what the process of isolating something was. They didn’t know how to test for insulin activity other than “Well, it’s in a bottle and it works.”. It was really frightening. So they couldn’t… And then I asked them “Well, do you know who discovered it?”, “No.”, “Do you know who discovered anything in science?”, “No.”.

So unlike the musician who has to make the music or the composer who has to compose music, we’re graduating huge numbers of science students who know passively about the science, but in reality, they’ve never done any science. And so adding the art in there is giving them some of those skills, and some of those skills are becoming really rare. So I’m now getting more and more students in my lab who can’t handle a pipette. I had one kid who picked up this pipette, and you would have thought that he was holding a machete or something and sure that he was going to hurt himself or somebody with it. And that’s the way he tried pipetting. He was just squirting things all over the place. I asked him “What kind of experience have you ever had making or doing?”, and he said “Nothing.”. He’s never built anything, never made a model, never drew anything. He spent his entire life on a computer. And so STEAM is going to allow us to at least graduate students who can hold a pipette and have some hand-eye coordination to go along with it. Things like that. They’re also going to have a sense of what that creative process is, and so I think that’s very important.

There’s a third way that it can be useful, and that’s… There are areas where there are direct connections. So if you want to teach analogising, for example, or pattern forming, sometimes it’s hard to do that in science. We give kids the entire periodic table and say “Memorise it.”. They’re not seeing how to form that pattern. Whereas if you give them a simple art project where they have to take different colours and form patterns out of them, they can learn how to do that, and then you give them a small set of the periodic table, they can now try to understand what the principles are. How you would organise this in a logical way. There is logic to an art pattern, which is something that you would learn. So there are places where we can teach specific skills of use to the scientist through the art by teaching how to do the art itself. And so one of the things I’m very adamant about is that when we teach art within a science context, the art has to be taught as art. The principles of the art. The standards of the art. All those things have to be maintained. It’s not simply a handmaiden to the science. Otherwise, you’re going to lose what’s valuable about the art.

On the other hand, one of the things, again, that Michele and I just published was a look at Nobel Prize winners, and we had two goals in this study. So we looked at all 510 science - although I don’t remember how many… There’s many more of the economics, peace, literature, and so forth - and tried to figure out what were they doing, did they have these multiple hobbies, did they have multiple avocations or vocations or things like that. What we found was that virtually every Nobel Prize winner, as we would expect because they’re highly creative, they’re polymathic in some way. What we were somewhat surprised to find was when you moved out of the sciences, the arts became much less important. So in economists, art is almost unknown. There are very few Nobel economists who are musicians. That’s not where they’re getting their polymathy from. What they’re doing is they’re combining a real interest in social science and humanities with mathematics. So it’s a combination of this very hard modelling stuff with a very human set of problems and seeing if you can bring these together. So I think it’s a mistake to say “Art is going to necessarily give you creativity.”. Your creativity is going to come from bringing together things from different disciplines people have never done before.

And then we also have discovered that among the scientists, although there are a huge number of scientists who are artists, musicians, poets, playwrights, all the kinds of things that we see and one of the rationales for STEAM, we also found a fairly significant group of Nobel Prize winners in the science who had none of those things. But what they had instead was very formal training in usually three different sciences. Herb Simon, for example, one of the guys who invents economics artificial… Some of the economic principles, artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology. He’s involved in all sorts of different things. And he’s got this amazing set of different formal training that he gets involved with, and that’s very typical of another group of people. So, again, the art isn’t the necessary clue or skill. It’s one of the possible skills that you could bring in.

Dubber      Among the arts, is there something privileged or special about music, or is that just a particular bias that I have and share with some other people?

Robert       Maybe. It’s hard to tell. So the research is somewhat contradictory at this point. There does seem to be a real connection between mathematical sciences, math itself, and musical ability. Whereas I think maybe twenty percent of scientists in general have a music avocation that’s fairly highly developed, in Nobel Prize winners, it was close to fifty percent, and the mathematicians, it was something like ninety percent. So there’s definitely something going on there.

The studies where they’ve tried to introduce music into curricula and see if that improves, say, maths scores or math learning is somewhat iffy. What we think is going on often it’s just “Take music lessons. You’ll be better at math.”. Not necessarily, because most people aren’t going to make the connections unless somebody points them out. In the ones that work, somebody’s sitting down and going “Okay. What’s the musician trying to do with these patterns? Why are they repeating in this way? How do you overlay it with other patterns to get four on three polyrhythms?”, and things that you, if you’re not a trained musician, might not see that are there. And then “Let’s look at these equations. What are these equations doing? Oh, wow! Look at that! When you put them together, they’re creating a polyrhythm if we graph them out.”, or something like that. So when you do that, you definitely get some real increases in learning.

Dubber      Are there particular types of thinking that correlate with financial success, for instance? Because most of the artists I know… Art doesn’t seem to be the one that guarantees that.

Robert       Yeah. So that’s an interesting question too. I’m very active in the arts programme at Michigan State, and there are various groups that have been looking into what skills artists need to succeed. One of them is definitely being an entrepreneur, and most art schools don’t teach those skills. What the other set of the research is doing is not only “Do artists really need this? Because they’re often working in their own studio and selling their own work.”, is an interesting maybe selection for who artists are.

So lots of artists in a huge national survey here in the US admitted to having much lower incomes than they could have had they chosen all sorts of other things, and they definitely do have lower incomes on average. On the other hand, their life satisfaction was much higher than almost anybody else. So as long as they could make a living doing what they wanted to do, the artists were very happy earning a small amount and being able to do what they wanted to do rather than working for some corporation and making three times the salary or whatever.

So that’s also another interesting thing about creative people, is they’re often not motivated by financial gain. Things like that. They’re motivated by solving the challenge or the problem or creating the thing they want to create rather than working for somebody else.

Dubber      Sure. And the idea of art as a contribution is a particularly topical thing at the moment because there’s a lot of discussion about “What are the essential jobs?”, particularly with the COVID pandemic. And in a survey in Britain, the least essential job was seen to be ‘artist’. Is that something that you would go along with? Because that raised a lot of eyebrows.

Robert       Yeah, absolutely not. To begin with, if you look at what most people are doing in their downtime during the pandemic, it all has to do with the arts. They’re getting on YouTube, and they’re watching what people have created. They’re listening to music. The number of colouring books that are being sold and art supplies has dramatically gone up worldwide. People are finding ways… They’re knitting. Fabric arts are just booming. So when people have to be on their own, the arts are what we turn to to keep ourselves sane and happy. So just at that level…

Actually, all of these questions were raised during World War Two. I found a survey and a bunch of documents having to do with whether arts were something we could get rid of. Close all the arts schools in, say, Britain during World War Two because “We don’t need them. What good is art during a war?”. And interestingly, all of the top people in science and technology said “That’s the stupidest thing you could possibly do.”. And in their case, it came down to the argument I was making earlier that the skills that the arts are teaching, the ability to draw a blueprint, the ability to visualise a three-dimensional invention, all these things are not being taught in your typical engineering or science courses. And what they were finding was the scientists and inventors and engineers who could do these things almost all had art training of some kind. And then, of course, the great mathematicians. All the mathematicians were involved in music, just about. So that was just cutting off their legs in terms of their creative ability.

Dubber      Sure. There’s also the great Winston Churchill line about “Otherwise, what are we fighting for?”.

Robert       Yeah. And at the level of just culture, all of our values are embedded in our arts. That’s something that, unfortunately, we don’t have in science. And this may be why the most creative people are turning to arts along with doing their science or their engineering or things like that, which is that in the science, we have to take ourselves out.

Yes, I get very excited about, passionate about, what I’m doing in my laboratory and the discoveries we’re making, but when I put it out to the public, I have to put it in a form where the most virulent sceptic will still agree that I’ve reached the right conclusion. And so it’s not me. It’s not my excitement. None of that has anything to do with the output. And I think that’s a problem we have with science. That when we take ourselves out of it, we take the passion that goes into the discoveries, the public looks at the product and says “It’s soulless.”, and in some ways, it’s not. Not the way I make it. And somehow we need to have the art put back into it so that the way that I get there and the excitement that I feel and the collaborations that I have and the people I work with and all that humanity that’s there can be put back in. And, to me, that’s what STEAM would eventually do. It’s not just putting art back in, but it’s putting human beings back in at the centre.

Dubber      So, finally, what’s left for you to find out about this, on this front?

Robert       Oh, gosh. Huge amounts. So one of the things that I’m working on now is how you actually identify challenges and problems. So you would think this would be really obvious. This is where everything starts. How do you decide you want to write a piece of music? Or at even a higher level, when do you need a new style of music? Or how do you take two different styles and put them together? Or whatever. General questions like that aren’t hard to come up with, but they’re meaningless. I don’t know what to do with that. Asking that kind of question doesn’t get me anywhere. So how we work out what a problem is or its challenges that is really worth working on and define it in a way that I can actually start doing something about it. And we know almost nothing about that. And yet, if you think about it, that’s the start of all creativity. There has to be some challenge that I don’t understand, some problem I can’t solve, some whatever.

Then the other aspect of that is how do you know whether the problem you have identified is the right problem? So there is starting to be some research on this. But one of the biggest failings that we have is we often go about solving the wrong problem. We think we’re doing the right thing, but if you solve the wrong problem the wrong way, you often create new problems. And we’re going to see this with any real-world situation.

We’ve got a vaccine. How do we deliver it to the right people? Well, who’s ‘the right people’? What do you mean by ‘deliver’? FedEx or whatever could get the stuff where we need it, but if they don’t have a refrigerator that’s appropriate to storing it for long enough for the people to get it, that doesn’t do any good. And if my target group is elderly people who don’t drive and are afraid to get on a bus because of the pandemic, they may not come in to get the vaccine. So solving the problem of getting a vaccine isn’t necessarily the problem that I actually need to solve. It’s a very small part of the problem I need to solve. And so we often chunk things into little bits because we can solve the little bit, but that doesn’t necessarily solve the actual problem we need to solve.

So these are the kinds of questions I’m trying to work on, is how do we even start this whole creative process? And the ‘problem of problems’, which is what I call it, is basically unstudied at this point.

Dubber      Wow. So we’re good at finding creative answers. We just need to learn how to ask better questions.

Robert       Yeah. That is one of the most important aspects that we cannot solve at this point.

Dubber      It sounds like a good question to ask. Robert Root-Bernstein, thank you so much for your time. It’s been absolutely fascinating.

Robert       Thank you. This has been great.

Dubber      That’s Professor Robert Root-Bernstein, and that’s the MTF Podcast. I’m Dubber, @dubber on Twitter, and you’ll find MTF Labs at www.mtflabs.net and @mtflabs on all the social networks bits and pieces. This episode was made with the help of Jen Kukucka, and the music was by airtone and Kyle Preston. Thanks for listening.

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