Stefan Klein, born in 1965, is the most successful science author in German. He studied physics and analytical philosophy in Munich, Grenoble and Freiburg. He turned to writing because he “wanted to inspire people for a reality that is more exciting than any crime thriller”. His book “Die Glücksformel” (2002) was on all German bestseller lists for over a year and made the author known internationally. In the following years, other highly acclaimed bestsellers appeared, such as “Alles Zufall”, “Zeit”, “Da Vinci’s Legacy” and “The Sense of Giving”, which became the 2011 Science Book of the Year.
NewsABC.net: In your new book “How We Change the World” you write that creativity is not a special talent. Everyone is able to think creatively when we embark on a fruitful discussion. So does my creativity depend on which friends I surround myself with?
Stefan Klein: For sure. Because people not only stimulate, they are also something of a sounding board for your ideas.
BI: Does that mean I need input from others?
Small: You need exchange. Nobody thinks for himself alone. The idea of genius hatching great thoughts in a quiet little room is a romantic myth. All the people we adore as geniuses, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Einstein or Marie Curie, were all very closely integrated into a close-knit network of colleagues and friends. We are like sponges that soak up ideas, impressions and concepts from our environment. The young Albert Einstein thought with a college of three, later four friends – an early think tank.
BI: If we try to force an idea by making extra efforts, it won’t come. The muse only kisses us when we stand in the shower or ride our bikes through the forest or drive past an intersection. Do flashes of inspiration come when the mind is idle?
Small: I wouldn’t call it idle, but in a different operating state. One of the great, surprising insights in brain research in recent years has been that our brain has multiple modes of operation when we are awake. In a first mode, we perceive the outside world by thinking purposefully and critically. In another operating mode, our attention is directed inwards, and thought processes are broader and more associative. We also judge our thoughts less because we are not out to achieve a specific goal. In this operating state, external perception is greatly reduced. In the brain there is a certain circuit called the default network, activated.
BI: A certain state of consciousness corresponds to this state.
Small: Exactly, and we do not get into this state if we are always consciously pursuing goals or exposed to external stimuli. That is why it is dangerous to try every free minute to deal with cell phones, social media or whatever else is busy. The brain is extremely active in this inward-looking mode two, even if you do not perceive any external activity.
BI: Is mode two the creative operating state of our brain?
Small: Well, without mode two, there are no creative thoughts. But that is not enough. We need an interplay between these two states of consciousness. In recent years it has been shown that people who are creative above average are better able to oscillate between these two states. That’s the trick.
BI: We are bombarded with information around the clock. What role do breaks play for our brain and creativity? I need time to get into this state. I can’t tell myself that now I have half an hour to let my thoughts flow freely. It has to arise by itself.
Small: That’s the way it is. If I’ve got stuck somewhere while writing, which doesn’t happen that rarely, I get up and go for a walk. And surprisingly often just getting up is enough. When I’ve got down from the study downstairs in the house, I already have a solution for simpler problems. With more difficult problems, it can take a whole walk through the Berlin zoo, where I live. Or even several days and nights. Sleep and dreams are very important. Most of the time, when we feel blocked in our thinking, it has something to do with the fact that we haven’t understood the problem properly or that we lack the mental tools to deal with the problem. Then the mind needs time to vibrate in mode two. Because this mode enables new insights. In it we invent concepts with which we can cope with unfamiliar problems.
BI: What happens when we fill every free minute with information. When we no longer allow the impressions around us to work on us while waiting. It makes a difference whether I watch people go by and cars go by. Do we have less opportunity to develop creative thoughts?
Small: In our information society we kill a lot of creativity by telling ourselves that we have to react to everything immediately. Just think of the apps on your smartphone: They are specifically designed to get you engaged. It is precisely this need to react immediately that prevents one from entering operating mode two, in which the brain can wander, try out and associate.
BI: Computers can now think too; artificial intelligence has overtaken the human brain in certain areas. Will artificial intelligence make us redundant?
Small: No. Even if AI is developing incredibly quickly – in my lifetime and those of my children we will certainly not be superfluous.
BI: What can we do that computers cannot?
Small: We can dream. AI processes programs. These may be complicated, but that doesn’t change the fact that even supercomputers only stubbornly process instructions. They are soldiers. Within a certain framework that is set for them, they can produce a certain amount of novelty. One can write programs that compose a three-part invention in the style of Bach. In a sense, it’s a creative effort. But AI will never produce its own development in music that later leads to jazz or the Beatles. A machine has very narrow goals. And she can’t set her own goals. A computer only does what it is told to do.
BI: What creative tasks can AI be used for today?
Small: For example, she can design scripts for commercials. Or paint pictures in a certain style. But once again: a machine always only plays according to the given rules, it cannot do anything else. We humans, on the other hand, can change the rules of the game. A composer can say, for example, that I am now not composing the conventional film music that my producer ordered, but that I am adding rhythms to my melody that I took from Afropop, but transformed. A human composer can invent a new genre.
BI: You dedicated the book to your children. What makes children creative?
Small: Children are infinitely curious and capable of learning. Naturally, children live less in a world of fixed ideas and fixed convictions. They try more unusual things. You are less calibrated to achieve something. Their minds are more frequent than that of adults in operating mode two, in which we associate further attention.
BI: How can you empower children? What role does free play play?
Small: I would be happy if we didn’t constantly hinder and block them by completely planning their free time. There are terrifying numbers that free play time has decreased dramatically over the past 15 years. And then we also inhibit the child’s thirst for discovery by giving them more and more toys that have a very narrow framework. We turn young people into machines by giving them precisely defined rules in a virtual world. And not just in the virtual world. When my parents made me happy with Lego, I got a box with colorful plastic bricks of various kinds. Then it was said: “Now do something”. It was up to me to find out what “something” could be. If you give Lego to a child today, you buy a kit for a spaceship, garbage truck or R2D2. This kills creativity and doesn’t encourage trying for yourself.
BI: You write that we have to see the world more like children again, where existing norms, rules or to-do lists do not prevail.
Small: It is precisely the rise of AI that makes the ability to be amazed, break rules, and try out completely new paths so essential. Because we’re doing something that machines can’t. Here our human abilities are irreplaceable. Socially, too, we have come to a point where it is clear that in many areas we cannot continue to play according to the rules that we know.
BI: In which environments and in which moments are you particularly creative?
Small: On walks, in my house in the country where there are no charms, connected to nature. And very important: in conversations. When I meet people, there is such a state that resonance arises. They don’t always have to be close friends. Just a certain basic sympathy, that is what it takes. In conversations like this, I can grow beyond myself.