Humans are creative because we’re curious about the world

Creativity is always on the list in conversations regarding what attributes are uniquely human and unlikely to be replaced by machines any time soon. To be creative means to be able to generate alternatives, link ideas together in novel ways, or reinterpret something by breaking it down into its parts and recombining those parts in surprising and valuable ways.

Curiosity is the innate human drive to discover new information about the world. When we sense that we can learn something new, we become curious and this motivates us to explore new intellectual territory. Curiosity feels good because we anticipate the reward of new knowledge.

Curiosity resides in a sweet spot—if we think we have too little to learn, we are bored and have no motivation. But with too much complexity, we will be put off by how long learning will take. Curiosity may be piqued by an anomaly or a pattern we don’t understand.

If you Google “what’s the most complex thing in the universe?” Google answers with “about 220,000,000 results” in 0.71 seconds and the answer is “the brain.” But complexity doesn’t mean that the brain has no limits. As we’ve seen so far in this section, brains have quite constrained capabilities. The primary job of the brain is to provide just-in-time resources to the body in just the right quantities. Our evolution makes brains good at sensing other humans, moving the body, and navigating the physical world.

Brains are less adept at debating with logical rigor and reason, grasping an abstract idea, and dealing with complex information accurately. With the complexity of the modern world, our brains are not up to the task in some key areas: maintaining focused attention, having reliable memory, staying motivated and on task, and demonstrating skilled reasoning and abstract thinking.

Our response has been to think harder, to double down on what the philosopher Andy Clark calls “brainbound” thinking. But increasingly there is evidence that this is the wrong way to think about the problem. Instead, we need to access “extra-neural” resources. In The Extended Mind, Anne Murphy Paul makes the case that we can learn to think with and through our bodies, our spaces, and our relationships.

We outsource our thinking to the world. Much of our information is stored in the world and we access it through movement. Moving in and through the world gives us important feedback. Without movement and curiosity that goes along with an urge to discover the world, we do not learn about the world and we are hampered in our ability for abstract and ambiguous thought, which is what inspires creativity.

Great Human Strength: We are driven to close gaps in our understanding of the world. Curiosity provides this mechanism and much creativity comes from information seeking.

Great Human Weakness: Our curiosity and creativity can be limited if we can’t make use of non-neural resources.

Machine Opportunity: Designs that encourage creativity and curiosity by providing ways to  engage a diversity of extra-neural resources—physical as well as digital.

Machine Threat: Designs that limit our ability to be less brainbound.