What is creativity?
14 November 2013
This autumn, a team of scientists is going to measure the emotions, brain activity and subjective feelings of a writer (Arnon Grunberg) as he creates a new book. The measurements will be correlated with the text he writes. When he writes about anger, does he feel the emotion himself? What factors influence the creative flow?
A Noldus portable observation lab is going to be put to a unique use. The first measurements will take place in the writer's study, in New York. The study will be transformed into a living lab, filled with equipment to measure various aspects of what the author is thinking, feeling and doing as he writes. In a second phase, a selection of readers will be measured as they read his book in controlled circumstances. In the third phase, the reactions of thousands of readers are measured, for example by using a special app for reading it in the form of an e-book.
Arnon Grunberg is a notable Dutch writer of novels, essays, columns, poems and plays. He has been awarded a great number of literary prizes and his books have been translated into 26 languages.
The setup is a Noldus portable lab including screen capture and with the addition of physiological measurements; EEG (brain activity), GSR (skin conductivity) and ECG (heart rate). Video feeds from two IP cameras will be fed to Media Recorder, and also to FaceReader for emotion detection. The text of the writer's word processor will be recorded as a screen capture, so that all signals can be correlated with the text. Physiological data will be captured with the Mobita from TMSi. Arnon's subjective feelings will be recorded using a questionnaire. All the data will be integrated and synchronized using The Observer XT.
A portable lab based around The Observer has been used more often for this sort of experiment. What is unique in this case is the combination of the attempt to understand the creative process, and the duration of the experiment, which will last for at least two weeks. Such measurements are normally carried out for minutes or hours so this experiment is really moving beyond the state-of-the-art.
What does it mean?
Arnon Grunberg explains, "This summer I was 'embedded' in a psychiatric hospital, having previously been embedded with soldiers, chamber maids, masseurs and a typical family in the Netherlands (where I come from) and train personnel. Now I'm going to be embedded with myself, under scientific guidance. Or I'm going to be embedded with my readers. That depends on how you look at it. My research questions are as follows:
What am I actually doing when I'm writing? And how does that differ from other activities like arguing with the train conductor or flirting with an older lady in the sauna? You could call it the demythologizing of writing.
Secondly: Can you reveal yourself, not by using stories and interviews, but by data? What should I allow others to know about me and why do I allow certain things and not allow others? And can you control what is known about you? This is especially relevant for writers who are public figures. You could call this the demythologizing of privacy.
Finally. Can measuring lead to self-knowledge? Who or what controls me? I would also really like to know more about what readers feel and experience when they are reading my books."
Noldus is supplying the software and hardware for the portable lab. Mobile physiological recording is provided by TMSi, a specialist developer of portable equipment for physiological data. Jan van Erp from the Perceptual and Cognitive Systems department of TNO (a leading Dutch organization for research and technology) is providing scientific expertise and management. Ysbrand van der Werf (Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience VU Medical Centre Amsterdam and the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience) gives input as a neuroscientist and Christian Vermorken of EagleScience is responsible for system integration and carries out the measurements.
The photograph is © Keke Keukelaar 2010. The paragraph 'What does it mean' is a translation of a text written by Arnon Grunberg about this experiment.