Creativity vs. Quants

The New York Times

By Timothy Eagen

March 21, 2014

Here’s how John Lennon wrote “Nowhere Man,” as he recalled it in an interview that ran just before he was murdered in 1980: After working five hours trying to craft a song, he had nothing to show for it. “Then, ‘Nowhere Man’ came, words and music, the whole damn thing as I lay down.”

Here’s how Steve Jobs came up with the groundbreaking font selection when Apple designed the Mac: He had taken a class in the lost art of calligraphy and found it “beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture.” Ten years later, it paid off when Apple ushered in a typeface renaissance.

And here’s how Oscar Wilde defined his profession: “A writer is someone who has taught his mind to misbehave.”

We’ve bottled lust. We’ve refined political analysis so that nearly every election can be accurately forecast. And we’ve compressed the sum of education for an average American 17-year-old into the bloodless numbers of standardized test scores. What still eludes the captors of knowledge is creativity, even though colleges are trying to teach it, corporations are trying to own it, and Apple has a “creativity app.”

But perhaps because creativity remains so unquantifiable, it’s still getting shortchanged by educators, new journalistic ventures, Hollywood and the company that aspires to be the earth’s largest retailer, Amazon.com.

An original work, an aha! product or a fresh insight is rarely the result of precise calculation at one end producing genius at the other. You need messiness and magic, serendipity and insanity. Creativity comes from time off, and time out. There is no recipe for “Nowhere Man,” other than showing up, and then, maybe lying down.

The push for Common Core standards in the schools came from colleges and employers who complained that high schools were turning out too many graduates unprepared for the modern world. That legitimate criticism prompted a massive overhaul affecting every part of the country. Now, the pushback, in part, is coming from people who feel that music, art and other unmeasured values got left behind — that the Common Core stifles creativity. Educators teach for the test, but not for the messy brains of the kids in the back rows.

In relaunching his data-driven FiveThirtyEight website this week, Nate Silver took a swipe at old-school commentators. He recalled the famously off prediction of Peggy Noonan, who criticized people “too busy looking at data on paper” to pick up on the “vibrations” of a Mitt Romney victory in 2012. “It’s time for us to start making the news nerdier,” Silver wrote in his manifesto.

Data journalism has certainly done much to clean up the guesswork in a profession still struggling to find its way in the digital age. On election eve, it’s far better to look at the aggregate of all scientific polls than to listen to a pundit’s hunch. But numbers, as Silver himself acknowledged, are not everything in the information game. Satire, journalism’s underappreciated sibling, belongs to the creative realm. And there are no quants on the planet who could write Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” or a decent episode of “The Daily Show.”

Nor could they produce an original film. Sure, they’ve tried. Most of Hollywood’s big budget, so-called tent-pole openings are the net result of exhaustive crunching of the elements of a hit. A robot can write a screenplay — about robots fighting one another! — that is just as effective at the box office as the fart-joke formula of an Adam Sandler movie. Before a major release, audiences are tested and polled, and producers fix and calibrate.

In the end, it’s just product, matching audience preferences. So it was encouraging to see a big-name Hollywood director, Darren Aronofsky, the filmmaker behind the upcoming epic “Noah,” show some defiance against the numbers men. “Ten men in a room trying to come up with their favorite ice cream are going to agree on vanilla,” he said in The New Yorker. “I’m the rocky road guy.”

Book publishers, cowering in the shadow of Amazon.com, deserved their kick to the head when the online company forced them to drag their archaic business practices into the 21st century. But they can take heart that Amazon, trying to crowd source and metrically mold its way into producing its own “content,” has stumbled. Amazon works by gathering data on millions of readers and then giving the same thing back to them. The oldest tale of publishing, or filmmaking for that matter, is the orphaned, oddball story that became a smash. Everyone rejected it because, well, it wasn’t like anything else.

At Amazon, the quants rule. Daydreaming, pie-in-the-sky time and giving people room to fail — the vital ingredients of creativity — are costly, the first things to go at a data-driven company. As a business model, Amazon is a huge success. As a regular generator of culture-altering material, it’s a bit player. Why? It has marginalized messiness.

Adolescent Girls Report Dance Has Positive Influence

By Gina Cairney on January 25, 2013 

Parents looking for worthwhile activities for their children may want to consider dance classes, especially for daughters who don’t seem interested in sports that come off as “too physical,” or may be experiencing low self-esteem or lack confidence.

Researchers found that dance intervention had a positive influence on self-rated health for adolescent girls in Sweden, which lasted up to a year after the program ended.

Some 140 girls, ages 13 to 18 years, participated in the study, published in JAMA Pediatrics. The girls selected for the study had visited the school nurse with complaints often associated with stress or low self-esteem, symptoms not serious enough to warrant a mental health referral. About half of the girls were randomly assigned to the intervention group, where they were given dance classes twice a week for 8 months. Each class lasted 75 minutes with an emphasis on the joy of movement, rather than performance, the study says, with various themes like African dance and jazz.

By the end of the program, 48 girls remained and were surveyed on their experience, with 43 of the girls rating it as a positive experience, three girls rating it neutral, and only one girl who found it to be a negative experience.

Adolescence is the time of life where everything seems awkward, and all that can go wrong, seems to go wrong. This and other stressors have an effect on how young people perceive themselves, and according to Statistics Sweden, girls are three times more likely than boysto rate themselves to have poor health.

This study’s suggestion to use dance as a preventative health measure is also supported by another study which looked at the prevalence of dance participation in the United States, and its contribution to total moderate-to-vigorous physical exercise in adolescents.

The Swedish study does acknowledge some limitations to its research however, noting that evaluating self-rated health is very subjective and the participants may have reported higher values to please their instructors.

Regardless, the potential influence dance has on young girls who are experiencing emotional problems appears to be significant. It’s also important to consider the factors that make dance an appealing physical activity to girls.

Based on survey responses, the study found three possible key factors explaining why the girls reported feeling better:

• The dance intervention was enjoyable and undemanding,
• There were opportunities for girls to offer input in music selection and dance choreography, and
• The opportunity allowed them to make new friends who had similar interests, which may be the most critical factor in maintaining interest in the program or activity.

While all physical activity of some kind is important for the overall well-being of a child, dance programs may be the ideal ticket for some parents who have children—daughters and sons—who want to participate in a social activity without the overbearing competitive nature of sports like soccer and basketball.

Arts as Antidote for Academic Ills

A New York Times article about the importance of arts in schools.

Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

The artist Chuck Close giving a private tour of his show to students from Bridgeport, Conn.

Stationed in front of one of his large self-portraits, the artist Chuck Close raised his customized wheelchair to balance on two wheels, seeming to defy the laws of gravity.  The chair’s unlikely gymnastics underlined the points that Mr. Close was making to his audience, 40 seventh and eighth graders from Bridgeport, Conn.: Break the rules and use limitations to your advantage.

The message had particular resonance for these students, and a few educators and parents, who had come by bus on Monday from Roosevelt School to the Pace Gallery in Chelsea for a private tour of Mr. Close’s show. Roosevelt, located in a community with high unemployment and crushing poverty, recently had one of the worst records of any school in the state, with 80 percent of its seventh graders testing below grade level in reading and math.

Saved from closure by a committed band of parents, the school was one of eight around the country chosen last year to participate in Turnaround Arts, a new federally sponsored public-and-private experiment that puts the arts at the center of the curriculum. Arranging for extra funds for supplies and instruments, teacher training, partnerships with cultural organizations and high-profile mentors like Mr. Close, Turnaround is trying to use the arts to raise academic performance across the board. “Art saved my life,” Mr. Close told the children. And he believes it can save the lives of others, too.

So now he was giving a pizza party and answering a question about why he started to paint.

“I wanted people to notice me, not that I couldn’t remember their faces or add or subtract,” he said, referring to the learning and neurological disabilities that set him apart from his classmates when he was growing up in Monroe, Wash.

A terrible writer and test-taker, Mr. Close used art to make it through school. Instead of handing in a paper, he told the children, “I made a 20-foot-long mural of the Lewis and Clark trail.”

Starting in Pace’s large central gallery, where his giant portraits of other artists like Philip Glass, Paul Simon and Laurie Anderson looked on, Mr. Close told the group that “everything about my work is driven by my learning disabilities.”

Born with prosopagnosia, a condition that prevents him from recognizing faces, Mr. Close explained that the only way he can remember a face is by breaking it down into small “bite-sized” pieces, like the tiny squares or circles of color that make up his paintings and prints.

“I figured out what I had left and I tried to make it work for me,” he said. “Limitations are important.”

With Mr. Close were a few other members of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, which helped develop the Turnaround program. One of them, Damian Woetzel, a former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet who is a mentor to two other Turnaround schools, picked up on his theme.

“In dance we limit ourselves, as well,” he said. “There are five positions and everything comes from that,” he added, quickly demonstrating the basic ballet poses.

Filling out the cultural spectrum were the Broadway producer Margo Lion, a chairwoman of the committee, and the musicians Cristina Pato, Shane Shanahan and Kojiro Umezaki, all members of the Silk Road Ensemble, an international collaboration founded by the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who is also a committee member and a mentor. One by one, they entered from different doors, startling the students with an impromptu concert featuring a tambourine, a gaita (a Spanish bagpipe) and a Chinese flute.

Clapping and stamping in time to the music, Mr. Woetzel soon turned the gallery’s open space into a dance floor. A couple of students whipped out phones to record the proceedings, while others raced across the room to avoid getting pulled in as participants. One reluctant dancer, captured by Rachel Goslins, a filmmaker and the executive director of the president’s committee, rolled his eyes and mouthed “Oh my God” as she circled him around the floor. Other students joined hands and began dancing as Ms. Lion and the school principal, Tania Kelley, her head flung back, swung each other around.

Mr. Close swerved through the crowd in his wheelchair.

“I never danced before,” Carolyn Smith, 13, said excitedly when the music stopped. “Usually I sing.” Carolyn was the lead in the school’s production of “The Wiz” last year. A brain tumor had caused her to miss so much school that her literacy teacher initially wanted her to turn down the part and focus on catching up, Ms. Goslins said. But being in the play — and reading and memorizing the script — helped her reading skills so much, Ms. Goslins said, that the literacy coach later told her, “I’m a believer.”

The afternoon offered a series of firsts for many of the students. Most had never seen such instruments, heard of Mr. Simon or Mr. Glass, or even visited Manhattan.

“It’s pretty cool to be in New York,” said David Morales, 14, who later asked Mr. Close about his technique, explaining, “I like how he makes it, how it comes all together.”

David, like the other Roosevelt students, had studied Mr. Close’s work in class and met him when he visited the school last month. So Mr. Close patiently answered questions.

“Is it easy to make these pictures?” (Well, it can take a while, Mr. Close replied.)

“How do you know what colors to use?” (Trial and error.)

“Can you draw? (Yes.)

“There is no artist who enjoys what he does every day more than I do,” Mr. Close told the group, setting off applause from the students. Repeating advice he often gives to young artists, he said: “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up for work.”

When the bus arrived for the return trip, Ms. Pato and Mr. Shanahan again took up their instruments, this time to lead a parade of clapping students and teachers out the door.

Carolyn Smith, a pink rose in her hair, paused at the doorway and turned to Mr. Close. “I had a blast,” she called out. “Bye, Chuck. See you later.”

Early Music Lessons Have Longtime Benefits

Early Music Lessons Have Longtime Benefits

By PERRI KLASS, M.D.

When children learn to play a musical instrument, they strengthen a range of auditory skills. Recent studies suggest that these benefits extend all through life, at least for those who continue to be engaged with music.

But a study published last month is the first to show that music lessons in childhood may lead to changes in the brain that persist years after the lessons stop.

Researchers at Northwestern University recorded the auditory brainstem responses of college students — that is to say, their electrical brain waves — in response to complex sounds. The group of students who reported musical training in childhood had more robust responses — their brains were better able to pick out essential elements, like pitch, in the complex sounds when they were tested. And this was true even if the lessons had ended years ago.

Indeed, scientists are puzzling out the connections between musical training in childhood and language-based learning — for instance, reading. Learning to play an instrument may confer some unexpected benefits, recent studies suggest.

We aren’t talking here about the “Mozart effect,” the claim that listening to classical music can improve people’s performance on tests. Instead, these are studies of the effects of active engagement and discipline. This kind of musical training improves the brain’s ability to discern the components of sound — the pitch, the timing and the timbre.

“To learn to read, you need to have good working memory, the ability to disambiguate speech sounds, make sound-to-meaning connections,” said Professor Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University. “Each one of these things really seems to be strengthened with active engagement in playing a musical instrument.”

Skill in appreciating the subtle qualities of sound, even against a complicated and noisy background, turns out to be important not just for a child learning to understand speech and written language, but also for an elderly person struggling with hearing loss.

In a study of those who do keep playing, published this summer, researchers found that as musicians age, they experience the same decline in peripheral hearing, the functioning of the nerves in their ears, as nonmusicians. But older musicians preserve the brain functions, the central auditory processing skills that can help you understand speech against the background of a noisy environment.

“We often refer to the ‘cocktail party’ problem — or imagine going to a restaurant where a lot of people are talking,” said Dr. Claude Alain, assistant director of the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto and one of the authors of the study. “The older adults who are musically trained perform better on speech in noise tests — it involves the brain rather than the peripheral hearing system.”

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, are approaching the soundscape from a different point of view, studying the genetics of absolute, or perfect, pitch, that ability to identify any tone. Dr. Jane Gitschier, a professor of medicine and pediatrics who directs the study there, and her colleagues are trying to tease out both the genetics and the effects of early training.

“The immediate question we’ve been trying to get to is what are the variants in people’s genomes that could predispose an individual to have absolute pitch,” she said. “The hypothesis, further, is that those variants will then manifest as absolute pitch with the input of early musical training.”

Indeed, almost everyone who qualifies as having truly absolute pitch turns out to have had musical training in childhood (you can take the test and volunteer for the study at http://perfectpitch.ucsf.edu/study/).

Alexandra Parbery-Clark, a doctoral candidate in Dr. Kraus’s lab and one of the authors of a paper published this year on auditory working memory and music, was originally trained as a concert pianist. Her desire to go back to graduate school and study the brain, she told me, grew out of teaching at a French school for musically talented children, and observing the ways that musical training affected other kinds of learning.

“If you get a kid who is maybe 3 or 4 years old and you’re teaching them to attend, they’re not only working on their auditory skills but also working on their attention skills and their memory skills — which can translate into scholastic learning,” she said.

Now Ms. Parbery-Clark and her colleagues can look at recordings of the brain’s electrical detection of sounds, and they can see the musically trained brains producing different — and stronger — responses. “Now I have more proof, tangible proof, music is really doing something,” she told me. “One of my lab mates can look at the computer and say, ‘Oh, you’re recording from a musician!’ ”

Many of the researchers in this area are themselves musicians interested in the plasticity of the brain and the effects of musical education on brain waves, which mirror the stimulus sounds. “This is a response that actually reflects the acoustic elements of sound that we know carry meaning,” Professor Kraus said.

There’s a fascination — and even a certain heady delight — in learning what the brain can do, and in drawing out the many effects of the combination of stimulation, application, practice and auditory exercise that musical education provides. But the researchers all caution that there is no one best way to apply these findings.

Different instruments, different teaching methods, different regimens — families need to find what appeals to the individual child and what works for the family, since a big piece of this should be about pleasure and mastery. Children should enjoy themselves, and their lessons. Parents need to care about music, not slot it in as a therapeutic tool.

“We want music to be recognized for what it can be in a person’s life, not necessarily, ‘Oh, we want you to have better cognitive skills, so we’re going to put you in music,’ ” Ms. Parbery-Clark said. “Music is great, music is fantastic, music is social — let them enjoy it for what it really is.”

Original article