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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

1+1= infinity

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.

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.")

Creative Pairs: Lennon and McCartney

Paul McCartney and John Lennon
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.

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.

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.

The Myth of the Lone Genius

If relationships shape us so fundamentally, how—in the study of creativity—could they also be so obscure? Why are we preoccupied with the lone genius, with great men (and, more now than in the past, great women)? Evolutionary psychologists might point to how our ancestors focused on the alpha male of a pack or the headman of a tribe. But there are contemporary explanations.

For one thing, male-female acts have often kept one partner behind the curtain. The eminent psychoanalyst and social theorist Erik Erikson acknowledged that his wife of 66 years, Joan Erikson, worked with him so closely that it was hard to tell where her work left off and his began. But he drew the salary; his name went on the cover of Young Man Luther. He is among history's most famous social scientists; she doesn't even have a Wikipedia entry.  


The custom of hidden partners is often industry standard: Tenure committees insist on judging individual work, even though collaborations are core to academic culture. CEOs have become like synecdoches for their companies, though their effectiveness depends on partners and teams. (Could Steve Jobs have reinvented Apple without his design guru Jonathan Ive?)

To illustrate the consistently hidden partner with an obvious example: Book editors don't put their names on covers. Their reputation largely depends on authors—who can be notoriously ungrateful and committed to the idea of their solitary genius. Jack Kerouac's On the Road sat on slush piles all around Manhattan until Malcolm Cowley, then an editor at Viking, undertook the laborious effort (literary, political, emotional) of shaping it for publication. But afterward, Kerouac and the Beats portrayed Cowley as a villain who muddied the famous unbroken typescript, which they claimed was powered by Benzedrine and holy light.

The other reason the lone genius myth persists is that "collaboration" gets defined so narrowly, as though the only relationships that matter are between peers of roughly equal power. In fact, it is often the most independent virtuosos who need relationships the most. Take golf, for example. By PGA tour rules, professional golfers play the links without coaches or managers. So the role of psychologist, strategist, and counselor falls to the caddie. Tiger Woods, now infamous for his promiscuity, has stuck for nearly 11 years with caddy Steve Williams. Their bond is so tight that Williams not only supports his boss but taunts him—and even misleads him. At the 2000 PGA Championship, on the fairway of the 71st hole, Woods needed a birdie to catch the leader. Williams calculated 95 yards to the flag—but he told Woods 90. "Tiger's distance control was a problem," Williams explained to Golf magazine. "So I would adjust yardages and not tell him." Woods ended up hitting the ball inside two feet from the cup and went on to win. Williams has said that he gave Woods incorrect yardages for the better part of five years.
Steve Williams and Tiger Woods
If you don't know golf intimately, you'd never consider the caddie relationship. Same goes for many fields. With surgeons, who thinks of the indispensable nurse? Few outside the film industry pay attention to the director of photography, but insiders know that Wes Anderson's aesthetic is shaped in large part by Robert Yeoman. The architect Frank Gehry leans heavily on his deputy, Craig Webb.

But myths take hold for a reason. It's easy and satisfying to reduce a big, complex cast to a single character—giving Edison sole credit for the light bulb, or Freud for psychoanalysis.

The human mind depends on narrative, characters, and concrete action, while the idea of interdependence easily dissolves into abstraction. Say, for example, we trace the influences on Einstein, and draw concentric circles around him, first with his immediate peers (including Michele Besso, with whom Einstein worked out the theory of relativity in conversation), then to the scientific circle of his era, then to the influences of the previous generation. Where do we stop—with the ancient Greeks? Even if you acknowledge the depth and breadth of Einstein's connections, it's near irresistible to call him a genius and go on your way. Give an audience a big enough ensemble cast, their eyes will naturally seek a star.

1 + 1 = Infinity

To take on the myth of the lone genius, we need not only to draw on the best science and history, we also need to focus on the fundamental social unit: the pair. As Tony Kushner writes in his notes to Angels in America, "the smallest indivisible unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction." Buckminster Fuller got at the same idea when he wrote that "[u]nity is plural and, at minimum, is two."

In the sphere of romantic love, most of us already accept the primacy of pairs. And much of the new relationship science is focused on romantic and personal intimacy. But love, at its essence, is private and inscrutable. Long-bickering couples often outlast their placid neighbors, and this oddity layers on top of another problem: What's our unit of measure for "good" relationships? Is it fiery passion? Is it duration? Is it the number of kids who go to the Ivy Leagues?

With creativity, by contrast, we start with a public text that can be subjected to reasonable (if not perfect) tests. Whether or not you like the Beatles' music, it's perfectly straightforward that most people accept their work as novel, useful, and beautiful.

Does 1+1= infinity?

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