How to Measure Imagination

Scott Barry Kaufman

Aspen, Colo. — A couple of days ago I took a walk down a narrow, somewhat perilous mountain trail with Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the Imagination Institute. The trail began near the Aspen Institute’s campus here in this immensely beautiful, immensely wealthy town, where the institute holds its annual ideas festival, a gathering of scientists, artists, corporate executives, and miscellaneous thinkers who mull such topics as the future of smart cities, the future of fatherhood, and the future of robotics. They also enjoy a lot of wine and cheese.

There is no reason you would have heard of the Imagination Institute. It’s brand new—in fact, its website just went live Tuesday morning. The institute is a non-profit offshoot of the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, and it’s backed by the Templeton Foundation, which kicked in $5.6-million to get it off the ground (the institute will soon start handing out grants of around $200,000 to creativity researchers). Kaufman has been on the job for only a couple of months; before that, he was at New York University, where he did research on creativity and general intelligence.

The institute’s primary goal is to develop a better way to measure imagination. Researchers are pretty good at measuring other cognitive abilities, less so with imagination and creativity. The institute will also advocate for the societal value of creativity in hopes of changing the prevailing educational mindset, with its emphasis on standardized testing and information regurgitation.

Educators “like things to be measurable that are predictive,” Kaufman says. “We are not selecting creative kids. We are selecting quick learners.”

This is more than professional for Kaufman. He calls his own early school experiences “horrible”; for a time, because he thought differently and struggled with test anxiety, he was placed in special-education classes. He doesn’t want other bright kids told that they’re below average because they’d rather write science-fiction stories than fill in bubbles on a Scantron sheet. In his 2013 book, Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, Kaufman writes that “we stamp people with the label ‘learning disabled’ really early on and treat those kids as if they actually are disabled.”

The tools that we now have to measure creativity are fairly crude. A researcher might ask someone to list alternate uses for a bowl and then count the number of ideas he or she comes up with. That’s interesting, but it doesn’t get at the deep creativity necessary to become a brilliant physicist or a mind-blowing sculptor. Something else is going on there, and it’s worth figuring out what it is.

Some researchers are trying. In a talk on creative genius at the Aspen festival, Rex E. Jung, a neuropsychologist at the University of New Mexico, explained how he was attempting to understand the chemical and structural makeup of the creative brain. Some of what he’s found is surprising. It’s been shown, for instance, that a thicker cerebral cortex correlates with higher intelligence. While that’s true, Jung’s lab has found that, in certain sections of the cortex, thinner appears to be better.

“It was as if less cortical thickness was allowing ideas to propagate more fully throughout the brain,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mark Beeman wants to unpack epiphany. One thing Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, has found is that, before a sudden insight, people show increased activity in several parts of the brain including an area known as the anterior cingulate cortex. Also, before an insight, people tend to be focused on something other than the problem they’re trying to solve, like playing with their kids or taking a shower.

“When it comes to you, it comes to you with a lot of confidence,” Beeman says. “All of a sudden—boom!—the answer jumps in from another angle.”

Neuroscientists like Jung and Beeman make a distinction between creative thinking and what we usually define as intelligence, between imagination and IQ. So does Keith Sawyer, a professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill whose new book, Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, argues that creativity is about process—coming up with ideas and following through on them despite false starts and setbacks.

“If, at the age of 22, people get out of college and all they have done is memorize facts and procedures—of course they need to learn all that—but we haven’t prepared them to build on it,” says Sawyer.

That’s why Kaufman is on a mission to change how we evaluate students. The person who hired him to run the Imagination Institute is Martin E.P. Seligman, the father of positive psychology, who had noticed an omission in the field’s research.

“Once we start to think about how people simulate and evaluate possible futures, the faculty of imagination looms large and with it the processes of creativity,” Seligman writes in an email. “But little sound work has been done on imagination and creativity.”

Seligman goes on: “Knowing too little about these topics myself, and considering the problems too knotty for me, I looked for the brightest young mind in the field to spearhead the effort. Hence, Scott.”

When you watch Kaufman work a crowd you can see why Seligman thinks that. Along with his easy command of the science, you sense that this stuff really matters to him on a visceral level, that he remembers being the kid who was told by a school counselor that he wasn’t smart enough. Says Kaufman: “We need to shift our cultural priorities from evaluating potential to bringing out that goddamn potential.”

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