Two is the magic number: a new science of creativity.

Why two is the magic number. 
Sept. 14 2010 7:00 AM

Two Is the Magic Number

A new science of creativity.

This article introduces a series on creative pairs. You can read the second piece in the series, a look inside the Lennon/McCartney partnership, here.

Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Click image to expand.
Paul McCartney and John Lennon 

What makes creative relationships work? How do two people—who may be perfectly capable and talented on their own—explode into innovation, discovery, and brilliance when working together? These may seem to be obvious questions. Collaboration yields so much of what is novel, useful, and beautiful that it's natural to try to understand it. Yet looking at achievement through relationships is a new, and even radical, idea. For hundreds of years, science and culture have focused on the self. We talk of self- expression, self-realization. Popular culture celebrates the hero. Schools test intelligence and learning through solo exams. Biographies shape our view of history.

This pervasive belief in individualism can be traced to the idea most forcefully articulated by René Descartes. "Each self inhabits its own subjective realm," he declared, "and its mental life has an integrity prior to and independent of its interaction with other people."Though Descartes had his challengers, his idea became a core assumption of the Enlightenment, as did Thomas Hobbes' assertion that the natural state of man was "solitary" (as well as "poor, nasty, brutish, and short.")

Following this line, the first modern psychologists focused on the individual. Emil Kraepelin, the godfather of biological psychiatry, looked for organic explanations of illness. Despite Sigmund Freud's interest in early-life relationships, he treated his patients by having them speak into silence and saw cure as a reconciliation of internal conflicts.

Creative Pairs: Lennon and McCartney

Beyond illness, the fundamentals of healthy life took root from the idea of the atomized person. Jean Piaget, who created modern development theory—the system of thought about how children's minds work and grow—emphasized relationships to objects, not people. Even the most basic relational tool—the way we speak—was shaped by individualism, following Noam Chomsky's notion of language as an expression of inborn, internal capacities.

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This focus on the self meshed tightly with Western ideology—the Ayn Randian notion of the rugged man forging his destiny on the forbidding plains. (A 1991 Library of Congress survey found Rand's Atlas Shrugged second only to the Bible as the book that made the most difference in American readers' lives.) The triumphant Western position in the Cold War established individual liberty and individual choice as the root unit of society—in opposition to the Marxist emphasis on collective achievement.

The ultimate triumph of the idea of individualism is that it's not really seen as an idea at all. It has seeped into our mental groundwater. Basic descriptions of inter-relatedness—enabling, co-dependency—are headlines for dysfunction. The Oxford American Dictionary defines individualism as, first, "the habit or principle of being independent and self-reliant" and, second, as "a social theory favoring freedom of action for individuals over collective or state control." This lopsided contrast of "freedom" vs. "state control" is telling. Even our primary reference on meaning, the dictionary, tilts in favor of the self.

But a new body of research has begun to show how growth and achievement emerge from relationships. The new science begins with infancy. For centuries, babies were seen as blank slates who just filled their stomachs, emptied their bowels and bladders, and cried and slept in between. As for any significant aspects of their environment, small children were seen as passive receivers. (And largely insensitive ones: For most of the 20th century, doctors routinely operated on babies without anesthesia, believing them exempt from pain.)

But a burgeoning field has shown that, from the very first days of life, relationships shape our experience, our character, even our biology. This research, which has flowered in the last ten years, took root in the 1970s. One reason, explains the psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik, was the advent of the simple video camera. It allowed researchers to easily capture and analyze the exchanges between babies and their caregivers.   In video of 4-month-olds with their mothers, for example, the two mimic each other's facial expressions and amplify them. So, a baby's grin elicits a mother's smile, which leads the baby to a full-on expression of joy—round mouth, big eyes. This in turn affects the mother, and so on in a continuous exchange that entwines the pair.

Emily and Sarah Dickinson. Click image to expand.
Emily Dickinson and Susan Huntington Gilbert

It's common sense that babies and mothers affect each other. But when you stop the tape and look at it frame by frame—as the researcher Beatrice Beebe and her team did in this experiment—you see how remarkably fast the exchange takes place, down to fractions of a second. It's not that a baby waits for stimulus from her mother and responds in kind. Actually, as the psychologist Susan Vaughan puts it, "both parties are processing an ongoing stream of stimuli and responding while the stimulation is still occurring." Another study of 2-day-old babies found similar results.

Emotions, Vaughan asserts, are "peopled" from the start. This dynamic turns out to play a critical role in the development of neural circuits that shape not only interaction, but autonomy too. In other words, the way we experience ourselves is inextricably linked to the way we experience others—so much so that, on close view, it's hard to draw a concrete distinction between the other and the self. (This in turn raises questions about what the "self" actually is.)

The sensation of "mirror neurons" helped further dissolve the distinction. About 10 years ago, a team of Italian researchers showed that certain neurons that fire during actions by macaque monkeys—when they pick up a peanut, for example—also fire when they watch someone else pick up the peanut. It's probably overblown to say—as many have—that this phenomenon can explain everything from empathy and altruism to the evolution of human culture. But the point is that our brains register individual and social experience in tandem.

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