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  • Nicole Avakyan

Converging on divergent thinking

Updated: Jan 8, 2019

By Sophie Park

On November 14th, I had the opportunity to attend a student workshop led by the Convergence Initiative and entitled “From divergent thinking to convergent solutions: including creative thinking in your research.” Held at the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) as part of the Healthy Brains for Healthy Lives (HBHL) workshop series, the event consisted of presentations followed by interactive exercises designed to let science students explore the artistic process and help them incorporate creative thinking into their research. As a science student who lacks artistic instincts and training, I couldn’t help but wonder how the workshop would unfold. Will they teach us how to paint and draw?

As the last wave of students rushed into the room, Cristian Zaelzer, Convergence Initiative founder and director, began his talk. He first pointed out that there was, and still is, a dichotomy between rationality and feelings, knowledge and creativity, science and art. Through a book called “Denying to the Grave” by Gorman and Gorman, Cristian explored the reasons why people refuse to consider scientific evidence to make an informed decision. It all came down to how the information was presented to people, not whether the information was available or not. To people, stories and images speak louder than facts and numbers. However, scientists only speak with statistics and data and try to remain as objective and emotionally detached from their research as possible. On the other hand, arts elicit emotions. Arts elicit responses in us. This, Cristian argued, is why arts can be so effective in communicating science to the general public. He finished his talk by highlighting the importance of vulgarization: the effective communication of science relies on the ability of scientists to speak in simple terms, not on the ability of general public to understand.

Cristian Zaelzer (Left) and Bettina Forget (Right) giving their talks at “From divergent thinking to convergent solutions: including creative thinking in your research” (part of the HBHL workshop series). Credit: HBHL.

The next presenter was Bettina Forget, Fine Arts director at Convergence. As a PhD candidate in Art Education and an artist herself, she shared with us what it was like to think and work as an artist. “Being an artist is more like a way of thinking. It’s an attitude,” Bettina explained. While scientists work to come up with a single best answer to a specific question (i.e. convergent thinking), artists try to find as many solutions as possible (i.e. divergent thinking). “Every answer is a good answer, but the key is to find the one that is unique to you,” she added.

Two types of thinking processes. (Adapted from IVE)

To help discover new creative ways of making art, she continued, artists make use of creative prompts. Prompts are like game rules that set the artists at a starting point and provide little constraints. “It’s a framework but you have lots of room to bounce around and work something out,” Bettina described. For instance, the artist Richard Serra’s creative prompts are actions words. His artistic process starts with him writing down as many action verbs as he can on a piece of paper. He then chooses one action verb from the list to build a massive sculpture that reflects the word. Bettina referred to one of Serra’s sculptures called “To Lift”. Cold, hard steel was transformed into some sort of soft fabric that seemed to rise from the ground. It looked beautiful and powerful. This was the beauty of artistic prompts: there was no definite endpoint, only a starting point to help artists explore and experiment.

Richard Serra, Verblist (1967-68) [left] and To Lift (1967) [right].

As the science students in the audience were slowly grasping the idea of creative prompts, Bettina moved on to explain what it was like to work as an artist. Artists question assumptions. Artists embrace uncertainty: they invite accidents and allow themselves to lose control. Sometimes, uncertainty becomes part of their artwork. There are no mistakes in art, only unexpected results. Artists explore materiality. To my surprise, Bettina took a scientist as an example. The biophysicist Andrew Pelling from University of Ottawa used an apple as a scaffold to grow human tissues. This unprecedented project is a real-life example of how science meets art. The scientific inquiry to find the most cost-effective way of growing human tissues led him to explore an unusual material, resulting in beautiful human tissue-apple hybrids.

Daniel Modulevsky and Andrew Pelling (Pelling lab).

Artists also observe and document what is around them. “Noticing is fundamental to artistic practices. I’ve gone on a workshop with artists. We were in Death Valley. We were supposed to walk 3 meters down this canyon and it took us an hour because everyone was [looking at everything.] We lost three people at the beginning because they were sketching,” Bettina said. However, at the end of the day, artists create art in their own unique way which they’ve tailored for themselves. There are tools to help them to be more creative, but there is no such thing as the “right” artistic method.

I was beginning to see a resemblance between the fields of art and science. Both artists and scientists questioned, explored, wandered and sometimes – more often than you’d imagine – got lost. At the same time, I was also realizing how art and science education differed so much in their way of teaching despite the importance of creativity in both fields. Based on my experiences, science was taught as a collection of formulas and facts to memorize rather than a problem to solve. Thinking back, I never really had an exposure to the phases of questioning and exploring hypothesis until I started my Master’s degree.

The presentations were soon followed by group activities in the hall outside of the conference room. The first activity was to find 3 words in newspapers and magazines that can describe one’s own research. Using these 3 words in 3 sentences, we had to explain our research to the rest of the team as if we were talking to a 5-year-old kid (with no scientific background). It wasn’t easy, I had to work with whichever words I found in 3 minutes, but I was surprised to see how well we all described our research without using scientific jargon. Can you imagine how powerful science could be if all scientists tried to effectively communicate our research to those not within the world of science but who are very much affected by it?

Students in search of 3 words to describe their scientific research. Credit: HBHL.

For the second activity, each team was given a specific scientific question. My team had to find ways to convince the stakeholders to improve the quality of animal facilities. We were asked to write as many solutions as we can think of. I was excited to finally put into practice the concept of divergent thinking. My team decided to write down all the ideas that came to mind before group discussion. As we shared our ideas, we realized that our approaches were very similar. We all wanted to present studies and statistics to support our argument. We also thought of ways to provoke emotion in the stakeholders.

When we were contemplating at our answers with satisfaction, Bettina came by. She listened to our answers and said, “You guys are not crazy enough. Go wild. Explore further.” And that’s when we really started “diverging.” Should we create a mascot? Why don’t we put the stakeholders into cages like we would do with mice and do experiments on them to make them see our point? Don’t ask me how, but we went so far that we found ourselves discussing about human ears grown on mice. By taking the approach of an artist, we were able to discover creative solutions that we would not have otherwise thought of. This was the power of divergent thinking.

The next task was to come up with a new question based on the team discussion we just had, and the last exercise of the day entailed producing an artistic response to another team’s question. My team was given a set of colored pens, but I found out later that each team had to use different materials – exploring materiality!

Students presenting their artwork – each team got to explore different types of materials. Credit: HBHL.

These activities allowed me to put what I had learned theoretically into real-world practice. Through the exercises, I had the chance to vulgarize my research, to practice divergent thinking and to explore materiality. At first, I had trouble letting my mind wander and explore all the possible solutions to a problem. However, as I allowed myself to think less analytically, new ideas presented themselves. This is when I realized how the artistic approach to a problem can be applied in the field of science to generate fresh perspectives, creative insights and innovative methods.

“The mere formulation of a problem is far more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skills. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advances in science.”

- Albert Einstein

I would like to end this article with one of my favorite quotes from Albert Einstein, because it shows how the scientific inquiry is not all about working through reasoning and formulas. The quote also summarizes elegantly the importance of creativity in the field of science. To solve a problem, scientists need to adhere to the scientific method, use statistics and formulas and carefully interpret their results. However, when it comes to the journey of scientific discovery, we all know that it doesn’t happen magically in a logical way. It is a non-linear path, an ongoing quest for knowledge, that requires lots of deductions, revisiting assumptions and thinking outside of the box – a path that requires lots of divergent thinking. Art and Science never seemed so closely related.

Editing: Nicole Avakyan

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