How creative partnerships work.

Why two is the magic number. 
Sept. 13 2010 7:50 PM

Two Is the Magic Number

Introducing a Slate series on creative partnerships.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

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? On one level, these are obvious questions. Collaboration yields so much of what is novel, useful, and beautiful, and it's natural to try to understand it. On another level, 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 beginning of modernity, and the philosophical tradition most forcefully articulated by René Descartes. "Each self inhabits its own subjective realm," Descartes 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' notion that the natural state of man was "solitary" (as well as "poor, nasty, brutish, and short.")

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Following this line, the first modern psychologists focused on the individual alone. 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.

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 aspect of our relation with others—the way we speak—was shaped by individualism, according to Noam Chomsky's ideas of language as an expression of inborn, internal capacities.

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 Shruggedsecond only to the Bible as the book that made the most difference in American readers' lives.) The triumphant Western position in the Cold War made individual liberty and individual choice 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—have been made into headlines for dysfunction. Meanwhile, 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. "control" is telling. Even our fundamental unit of meaning, the dictionary, tilts in favor of the self.

If traditional physical and social science has lionized the individual, a new body of research has begun to show how growth and achievement actually emerge from relationships. The new science begins with infancy. For centuries, babies were seen as blank slates who did nothing more than fill their stomachs, empty their bowels and bladders, and cry and sleep in between. To the extent that anything significant happened, kids 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 a 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.