Dennis Hong (RoMeLa, Virginia Tech) in his TedxNASA talk in September 2009 talked about biologically inspired tripedal robots, smart wall climber robots, cheap hydraulic arms, anthropomorphic football player humanoids, and even an unmemorably named artificial amoeba that is capable of chemically induced locomotion. His imagination of designing such autonomous mobile robots is not limited by the fact that very few of these exact motions exist in nature (i.e., take his 3-legged STriDER for example).
However for a cognitive psychologist, the really cool stuff is not these futuristic technological solutions, but Hong’s self-explanation about the source of his creative thinking when around 11:55 he asks himself a question: “Where do we come up with these ideas?”
He identified 5 sources of creativity:
Inspiration from one’s own dreams is what he calls out first. Every social scientist should be relieved that finally a real computer scientist dares to talk about the necessity of such soft human processes as dreams in the process of creative thinking. At nights when Hong goes to bed and about to fall asleep, he jots down on a paper notepad his wildest ideas (“..I scribble everything down and draw things before I go to bed”, 12:53). The next morning, he deciphers the ideas. Most days, there’s nothing on the page or nothing interesting, but occasionally he has something that he call a “Eureka moment”. When it happens, he logs these ideas carefully on his computer. What happens to these Eureka-ideas? Hong uses them to write RFPs (Request for Proposals) for his future research projects. In other words, he already has some answers for upcoming research questions and doesn’t have to wait for the inspirations to come.
Dreams on a group level could be called brainstorming sessions. Since individual ideas are not enough, Hong and his group have group brainstorming sessions. To facilitate discussion and make sure that students don’t feel intimidated, the golden rule is that nobody can criticize the other person’s ideas. All sorts of wacky ideas fly around, just like in one’s dreams. Once these ideas are recorded, people can decide which idea to pursue.
Does school education really kill creativity? The fact is that to challenge the grand questions of science, you need tools. These tools are maths, physics, linear algebra, biology, etc. (neuroscience and philosophy are my additions to this list). While schools may not promote creativity per se, they provide the essential basis for students.
4. Work hard
The really good indicator of a creative and productive researcher labs – according to Hong – is that students and researchers are working on their ideas 3am in the morning. Not because they have to, but because they enjoy it.
5. Play hard
Finally, he admits that having lots of fun is the key. No need to explain this to anyone who has ever felt the joyous moment of a research Eureka-moment in their life before…