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    Stopping to Think, and Other Strategiesfor Promoting Scientific Creativity

    Number 27 July 2, 1990

    In a two-part essay last fall, we examinedseverrd aspects of science and creativity. IDefinitions of creativity were discussed, aswere various factors that affect and promotecreativity, such as mentor relationships. Therole of creativity in scient~lc discovery wasalso examined. Finally, the essay consideredhow creativity seems to k. dampened by theformal, highly structured system of educa-tion and career development within whichmany scientists must work.

    This last observation happens to serve,more or less, as the starting point for a paperby Craig S. Loehle, a research ecologist atthe Savannah River Laboratory, Environ-mental Sciences Section, WestinghouseSavannah River Company, Aiken, SouthCarolina. The paper, which appeared orig-inally in Bioscience, is reprinted here. z Ac-knowledging the many pressures and dis-tractions faced by working scientists today,Loehle offers a number of strategies aimedat fostering and improving scientific creativ-ity. Central to his premise is the idea thatcreativity is not strictly an inherent trait, butone that can be developed and cultivated.Among other matters, he discusses the im-portance of choosing the right problem, theneed to overcome mental and conceptualbarriers, and even the value of boredom andinactivity.

    Loehle raxived his undergraduate degreein forest science from the University ofGeorgia, Athens, in 1976 and an MS in for-est management from the University ofWashington, Seattle, in 1978. In 1982 he re-ceived a PhD in mathematical mology fromColorado State University, Fort Collins. Henotes that the dominant themes of his re-search have been modeling methods, evo-

    lutionary theory, plant-life history theory,and the philosophy of science, Before join-ing the Savannah River Laboratory, Loehlespent two years as a scientific programmer,writing program enhancements for theSPSS-X statistical software package. Topicson which he has published include catas-trophe theory, fractals, tree-growth form,and environmentrd-impact assessment meth-odologies.s He has also publishwi letters tothe editor in Nature; one of these, propos-ing that government funding agencies pro-vide grants to support a paid system of peerreview,4 was excerpted in ISp PressDigest last Novembers

    In a 1985 essay, we examined meditationand its effects on learning and creativity. bSeveral studies cited in that essay, as wellas anecdotal evidence, suggested that med-itation and other contemplative experiencesdo have a beneficial effect on creative andproblem-solving abilities. In their bookScience As Cognitive Process, Robert A.Rubinstein, Charles D. Laughlin, Jr., andJohn McManus also touch on this point indiscussing what they refer to as the intu-itive image in sudden insight and creation:

    Creative intuition generally seems to fol-low a long process of more convention-al, verbal wrestling with a problem. Thestructures of the mind work around, tryout, and examine a question from manysides. Yet it is usually during moments ofrest or distraction, when sympathetic ac-tivity is minimized and parasympatheticactivity increases, that the novel solutionis seen, often in the form of a visualimage or in a kinesthetic feeling for ananswer or solution.7


  • As I concluded in the meditation essay,one should perhaps be wary of creating anoversimplified picture of this phenomenonlest journalists, legislators, and the publicget the impression that all a scientist needdo to come up with a breakthrough idea istake a long walk or doze by the fire.

    Loehle, while avoiding such simplisticthinking, does argue convincingly for thevalue of unstructured time and unhurried,undirected thinking. And, mentioning sev-eral eminent scientists who managed toswitch topics every few years, he also champ-ions the notion that researchers should notrestrict themselves to expertise in a single,narrow topic. Such ideas, as L&de admits,may seem impossible for the scientist whocannot avoid dealing with the concerns ofthe academic department, the tenure track,or the grant application. However, he doesoffer practical tips for working within theconfines of the system.

    It is impossible to say whether the pro-cess of learning and doing science will everconform to the entirely different, flexibleapproach envisioned by Loehle. But theideas he puts forward are certainly intriguingand worthy of further discussion.

    As an interesting aside, I cannot resist ob-serving that, shortIy after reading Lodespaper, I received a letler ffom Julian Lieb,a psychiatrist and immunopharmacology re-searcher who, along with Dorothy Hersh-man, an artist, wrote Zhe Key to Genius. 8Lieb enclosed a reprint in which he andHershman discussed the relationship be-tween creativity and manic-depression in thelife of Isaac Newton.g As Lieb pointed out

    in his letter, l?se Key to Genius goes so faras to suggest that great success in the artsor sciences may be unattainable withoutmanicdepression. 10Kay R. Jamison, JohnsHopkins University Medical School, Brdti-more, Maryland, has also studied mood dis-orders in gifted people. 1I Clearly, thk is atopic with endless ramifications to which Imsure well return again.


    My thanks to C.J. Fiscus and ChristopherKing for their help in the prepar~on of thisessay.



    1. GarPield E. Creativity and science. Parts 1 & 2. Currem Conwnts (43):3-7, 23 October 1989; (45):3-9, 6 November 1989,2. I.mhle C. A guide to increased creativity in research-inspiration or perspiration? Bioscience 40(2): 123-9, IS90,3. ---- Personal mmmutdcaticm. 7 May 19$0.4. -. Letter to editor, (Peer review (continued).) Narure 340(6235):588, 24 August 19S9.5. Paying peer reviewers. Current Gmtems (4S): 15, 27 November 19S9. (1S1 Press Digest.)6. Garfield E. Meditation, Leamdns, and creativity. Parts I & 2. ,!lmzys of an in@maticm ~cienrisf; gfumtwriting and otfwr

    essays. Philadelphia 1S1 Press, 19S6. Vol. 8. p. 276-92. (Reprinted from: t%rem Comas (29):3-11, 22 July 1985:(30):3-10, 29 Jtdy 19S5.)

    7. Rubinsteln R A, Lm@dSn C D & McManus J. Science m cognitive process. Philadelphia University of PennsylvaniaPress, 1984. p. 156.

    8. Lieb J & Hetsbman D. 3fu key m genius. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1988.220 p,9. ------ IWC Newton: mcrmmy peiwtung or manic depression? LQmeI 2:1479-80, 1983,

    10. Lieb J. Personal comunicmion. 23 April 1990.11. Goodwin F K & K R. ,Wmic-depressiw illness. New York: Oxford University Rem, 1990. 1,024 p


  • Reprinkd with percussion from Bio.kience 40(2): 123.9, 1990.

    A guide to increased creativity in research-inspirationperspiration?

    by Craig Loehle


    This pa~rpro~ws sUategies forpromoting scientific crmtivi~. After discussing the importanceof selecting the right problem or question to inv@.igate, tbe author examines ways of reducing blocksto creativity. Hedsotivises agtinst ~otigmex~fl inaskgle, nmowfield. ~evdueofun-hurried, undirected thintdng, and the benefits of activities that give rise to reflective thought-suchas walking-are also discussed.

    T here are four requirements fora successful career in science:knowledge, technical skill,communication, and originality or cre-ativity. Many succeed with largely thefirst three. Those who are meticulousand skilled can make a considerablename by doing the critical experimentsthat test someone elses ideas or bymeasuring something more accuratelythan anyone else. But in such areas ofscience as biology, anthropology,medicine, and theoretical physics,more creativity is needed because phe-nomena are complex and multivariate.

    Innovative scientists are held inhigh regard, but the means by whichthey achieve innovation are notspelled out in any manual for gradu-ate students. Courses on the scientificmethod (which few biology studentstake anyway) do not mention thesubject. Philosophers of science aremore concerned with formal theorystructure, proof, logic, and epistemol-ogy. Karl Popper (1963), for exam-ple, invokes the generation of alterna-tive hypotheses but says nothingabout where one is to get them.

    The purpose of this article is topresent certain strategies that maypromote scientific creativity. Thepressures on scientists today opposetruly creative thinking. Pressures towrite grants, teach, and publish leavelittle time for undirected thinking. In-dustrial laboratories today are farmore directed than in the past, partic-ularly where costs per experiment are

    high. I also want to counter thewidely held view that creativity issomething one is either born with orlacks, with no hope of training.

    Choosing a problem

    Perhaps the most important singlestep in the research process is choos-ing a question to investigate. What



    Figure 1. Relationship between degree ofdifficulty and payoff from solving a prob-lem. Solving problems that are too easydoes not advance science, whereas thosethat are too difficult may be impossible forother scientists to understand, i.e., theyare premature. The Medawar zone refersto Peter Medawars (1967) reference toscience as the art of the soluble.

    most distinguishes those scientistsnoted by posterity is not their techni-cal skill, but that they chose interest-ing problems. There is some guidancethat may be given.


  • Picking fights. Science is supposed tobe an objective, dispassionate busi-ness. Students are advised to write inthe third person. Editor