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Creative Research Center

Creative resonance: Fostering “aha!” moments through interdisciplinary connections – a letter from Ashwin Vaidya

Posted in: Guest Essay

a pile of lego bricks
Lego bricks sit on a table in the cafeteria at the Naver Corp. headquarters in Seongnam, South Korea, on Tuesday, April 28, 2015. Naver, the parent company of Line Corp., operator of Japan's most popular instant-messaging platform, is scheduled to report first-quarter results on April 30. Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images

[Ashwin Vaidya, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the departments of Mathematical Sciences and Physics in the College of Science and Mathematics at Montclair State University. He is interested in the kinds of mathematical theories that explore nonlinearities, connections, and emergence in nature; and deeply committed to using these ideas to create a more engaged classroom. Contact Dr. Vaidya directly:]

Dear Neil

Over the years we have had some wonderful conversations about different topics — especially creativity, a subject that has consumed a good fraction of both our scholarly lives. I must confess, however, that while I have read the works of philosophers, psychologists and educators on this subject, and constantly preach the value of creative thinking to my students, I have struggled to get a firm grasp of this notion. Dictionary definitions are clichéd; and psychological treatments of creativity, while rich, provide little or no tangible clues about how creativity emerges. Most explanations are a posteriori. I have also found wanting exercises that claim to release one’s inner creativity as though every person with his/her inner quota of creative energy exists in a vacuum. While there may be some merit to such practices, they fail to take into account the key role of the environment in this process.

However, I am (cautiously) excited to tell you that I may have found some hints about the nature of the creative process in the theory of ‘complexity’, an interdisciplinary branch of mathematics which I spent a lot of time studying during my recent sabbatical. I welcome the opportunity to write this note to you as a means to develop an interpretation of creativity through the lens of complexity science, and will let you and other interested readers set me straight on the logic of my epiphany.

Before I go any further, I should probably tell you a little about the field of complexity or complex systems theory which you may have heard of under the name of ‘systems theory’. The central idea of complex systems theory can be stated simply as “everything is connected”. You may think this is fairly obvious, for, after all, we see life through the lens of cause and effect and attribute a ‘natural’ temporal connection to events in our lives and beyond. But a complexity theorist would argue that such causal, isolated connections are overly simplistic and have been forced upon us by a linear, Newtonian worldview which emerged during the enlightenment period. Complexity theory, which sees the world, rather, as a network of spatially and temporally connected events, promotes a nonlinear causal structure and presents a far more interesting picture of the world. The oft-repeated example of “a flutter of the butterfly’s wings in Brazil can set off a typhoon in Japan” is a classic example of the main idea of complexity theory1.

So now I hear you asking, “What has this to do with creativity?” I will answer this question through an analogy:  Lego blocks!  Legos are among the favorite toys for children around the world. They hold such universal appeal because they can provide children the opportunity to ‘create’ freely. The ability to ‘connect’ (blocks) and make new meaning out of old ones is precisely how we think of creativity. But there is something deeper in this analogy. Imagine a Lego kit filled with blocks of the same shape, allowing only one link. While there is still room to play and create with such a Lego set, the outcome will inevitably be ‘linear’ and predictable, and kids would soon become weary of it. In addition to connectivity, I would argue it is the diversity of shapes in the kit that allows imagination to roam free, and provides for unexpected ‘Aha’ moments and nonlinear outcomes.

Drawing from this analogy, I am tempted to think of an academic institution, an ideal one, as not so dissimilar to a Lego kit.

The American liberal education model as articulated in the well-known “Yale Report of 1828”2 argued for a broad curriculum which caters to the educational needs of the student and the nation; a curriculum designed to develop the human being and the citizen. However, our modern curriculum does not sufficiently capitalize upon the diversity of disciplines on campus. We are adept at producing graduates with very specific disciplinary skills; however, without breadth and perspective, these skills allow one to see the world only linearly. We are teaching to produce specialists and — despite the constant drumbeat about the values of interdisciplinary learning — such efforts occur in isolation. What complexity theory appears to be telling us is that the university is a veritable playground of ideas, and the job of teachers is to lay the groundwork to create connections for the students so they may freely roam and “play” in this space. Our job is not always to tell students what or how things “are;” there must be room in our education system for students to create new knowledge out of old ideas.

To use a physics analogy, creation, or work, is the realization of the potential energy of a system. Creativity, therefore, is nothing but an emergent property of any complex system, including education, where new knowledge and ‘ways of understanding’ can arise spontaneously — provided the curriculum is founded upon and accepting of diverse ways of knowing.

To test out the practicality of these ideas, where connections and diversity are intrinsic to the curriculum, some of my colleagues and I have initiated the LASER (Linking Art and Science through Education and Research) program, which aims to bring together faculty from diverse disciplines (arts and science at this stage): Mathematics, Physics, Photography, Music and Education. Our plan runs the gamut, from merely guest lecturing in each others’ classes to team-teaching courses and even having our students work with us on research projects such as the mathematics of music, the physics of painting, visualizing flows and the fluid dynamics of vocal music, to name a few. Feel free to take a look at our website on the CSAM page3 which contains some of our ideas. My colleague Mika Munakata and I have also experimented with some of these ideas in our mathematics courses over the past few years and have shown success at fostering creativity and engagement in the classroom4.

I realize that this “Lego-philosophy” of creativity can only be validated, in time, with the maturation of The LASER Project. I will keep you posted about the outcomes. In the meanwhile, let me know your thoughts about this. I have benefited tremendously from our Creative Research Center-related conversations. Similar talks with colleagues from other disciplines here at Montclair State have made me see things in a new light and, on several occasions, clarified things I believed I already knew. I am hoping the same can happen for our students.

As 2019 takes hold of our lives, I wish you and the followers of the CRC, a new year filled with creativity!