Creativity, Education and the Gift of 'Stress'

Psychologists have long recognized that for most of us there is a creative "sweet spot," or (perhaps more accurately) a "sweet zone," somewhere on the continuum between a complete lack of stress and disabling distress. Most of us need the variety of inputs life brings, including experiences of dissonance and difficulty and tension, in order to achieve some level of creative output. This "sweet zone," because it is broader than a single point on the continuum, varies from one person to another, obviously; but, for any particular person, it may also vary from one situation and activity to another.

For every Toulouse-Lautrec creatively thriving on the cacophony of the Paris nightlife, there's an Emily Dickinson whose creative life is unimaginable without solitude. And, for any one of us, there are some moments when we need the stimulation of a group to think creatively, and other moments when we really need to shut the door and turn off the music in order to collect our thoughts.

Recently, in an essay, "The Uses of Difficulty" in the cultural supplement, Intelligent Life (published by The Economist), journalist Ian Leslie explored the role the distressing pole of the stress continuum plays in creativity and learning. Leslie tells a story which may be familiar to fans of the The Beatles, how in 1966, after completing their Rubber Soul album, Paul McCartney explored the possibility of arranging for the group to record their next album in the United States where the recording studios were more technologically advanced than in Britain. The contract between The Beatles and EMI, however, made such a move impractical. So, John, Paul, George and Ringo, together with George Martin and his ingenious engineers, were forced to push, pull and manipulate their primitive recording equipment and all the instruments at their disposal to go beyond their previous efforts. Tripping over one another in the old Abbey Road studios, the group discovered that the obstacles they faced actually boosted their creativity, and consequently they created sounds that nobody had ever heard before, resulting in 1967, of course, to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Leslie goes on to comment on the obverse effect, the negative consequence of removing certain difficulties and making things easier. Drawing on an interview with the poet Ted Hughes in the Paris Review, Leslie relates Hughes' experience of judging a poetry competition for young writers. For some 20 years, beginning in the 1960s, Hughes had served as a judge. And during this time he noticed a change in the length and quality of the poems he judged. While many of the poems were "verbally inventive," they had also grown "strangely boring," especially at a length of some 80 pages.

What had changed during these two decades? The advent of the home computer.

"You might have thought," Leslie writes, "any tool which enables a writer to get words on to the page would be an advantage. But there may be a cost to such a facility."

John Gardner, the novelist and teacher of creative writing, in his classic study, The Art of Fiction, reflects on the obstacles presented to the writer of fiction who wishes to make creative use of historical material or well-known legends. A writer, he observes, "is to some extent stuck with these facts. If he changes things too noticeably, the reader may feel that the writer has made things too easy for himself - playing tennis without the net as Robert Frost said of poetry without rhyme." (J. Gardner, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, New York: Random House, 1985, p. 170). But, for whatever reason, our brains find such challenges, the imposition of limits and obstacles, stimulating and satisfying. This is why we find puzzles of various sorts and certain kinds of game shows so engaging. It is also why some of the most extraordinary works of art have emerged under the most adverse circumstances.

There is an even more important lesson in all of this, however, at least for those of us who are educators. For years, educational researchers have been telling us that difficulties and obstacles in the learning process can actually encourage greater depth of learning and retention of knowledge. One of the researchers mentioned in Leslie's Intelligent Life essay is the cognitive psychologist, Robert Bjork. Bjork's Learning & Forgetting Lab at UCLA has sponsored some fascinating research on the theme, "desirable difficulties," a concept introduced by Bjork in 1994.

In an online article published by Wired, titled, "Everything You Thought You Knew About Learning is Wrong," Garth Sundem relates an interview he conducted with Bjork. According to Bjork, the best strategy for learning new material and retaining what you learn begins first by rejecting the common method that many people adopt of trying to learn in discrete blocks, "mastering one thing before moving on to the next." Instead Bjork suggests the strategy of what he calls "interleaving," that is forcing yourself to move back and forth between subjects and ideas you are attempting to learn.

Imagine, for example, a learning situation where you were forced to leap from translating Hebrew to reading Jonathan Edwards and back to biblical Hebrew again, or of studying for an exam in church history over the first four centuries of the church's development interleaved with doing research into potential threads of Trinitarian thought in the Gospel of John.

This process of "interleaving," Bjork says, "creates a sense of difficulty" which actually increases your capacity to learn and to retain knowledge. "Successful interleaving," according to Bjork, allows the learner "to 'seat' each skill among the others."

"If information is studied so that it can be interpreted in relation to other things in memory, learning is much more powerful. There's one caveat: Make sure the mini skills you interleave are related in some higher-order way."

"If you study and then you wait, tests show that the longer you wait, the more you will have forgotten. If you study, wait, and then study again, the longer the wait, the more you'll learn after the second study session. When we access things from our memory, we do more than reveal it's there. It's not like a playback. What we retrieve becomes more retrievable in the future."

These insights are not only counterintuitive; they are countercultural.

We live amid educational, social and even ecclesial cultures that tell us at every turn that we are only successful if lots of people are participating in the activities we offer and that the best way to attract lots of people is to make our educational, social and church programs as simple, easy and fun as possible so these people will remain "happy." I remember being taught the instructional acronym KISMIF (Keep It Simple Make It Fun) years ago. This may be good advice for the entertainment industry. But it may not be the best advice for schools and churches. If what people are learning in our schools and churches really matters to the quality of their lives, indeed to the quality of our common life, and if we hope to increase their capacity for learning as well as to engage them in a deep and meaningful quest for knowledge and wisdom, we may just want to make the process of learning meaningfully and appropriately difficult. We may even find that this can be fun, too.