A few months ago I reported on a 2009 study out of the Kellogg School of Management by William Maddux and Adam Galinsky. Through a series of five studies Maddux and Galinsky found that students who traveled abroad scored higher on tests of creativity (for example, they solved Duncker’s candle problem more frequently). That is, walking the streets of Berlin, Bangkok or Beijing influences us to see things from multiple perspectives, it leaves a residue on our minds that makes it easier to see one thing as having multiple meanings.
Recent experiments out of Indiana University demonstrate complementary results. In one study, professor Lile Jia and his colleagues asked participants to list as many different modes of transportation as possible. Here was the twist: they told half of the participants that Indiana University students studying in Greece (distant condition) created the task; the other half were told Indiana University students studying in Indiana (near condition) were the creators. Jia and his team found that participants in the distant condition generated more modes of transportation and were more original with their ideas – even “psychological distance” boosts creativity.
“[T]he Author of Nature has determin’d us to receive… a Moral Sense, to direct
our Actions, and to give us still nobler Pleasures.”
That appeal was made in 1725 by Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson, and it captured one side of a debate that tries to answer the question: Where does morality come from? On the other side were thinkers like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes who believed that morality is the product of experience. That was the extent of the discourse for most of history; morality was either prepackaged or learned. End of story.
Recent psychological research tells us the answer is somewhere in the middle. Yes, babies come into the world predisposed with a set of moral intuitions – morality can’t be entirely self-constructed. But what babies consider right and wrong and which moral intuitions they value, develops from experience. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt puts it: “We’re born to be righteous, but we have to learn what, exactly, people like us should be righteous about.”
Sometime later today, I’ll get tired. Coffee induced inspiration will guide me through the morning and into the afternoon, but eventually my muse will leave me for another lowly writer. Doubting basic cable will keep my attention, I’ll collapse onto my bed, close my eyes and slip into dreamland.
For something as universal and consequential as sleep it’s remarkable how little attention it receives. We all do it; we’re all bound by it. Yet we never stop to think about how we spend nearly a third of our lives. That’s where journalist David K. Randall comes in.
Sometime in 1952, the American experimental musician John Cage put the finishing touches on a composition that challenged the definition of music. It was a three-part movement written for any instrument or combination of instruments. He called it four minutes and thirty-three seconds (4:33) and debuted it at Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York. David Tudor, an experimental pianist, performed it on the piano.
When Tudor walked onto the stage at Maverick Concert Hall he sat down at the piano, opened the score and sat in total silence for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. When it was over, he left the stage. Tudor’s performance was flawless.
4:33 became one of the most studied and scrutinized pieces of music in the 20th century because Cage left the score blank; the job of the performer was to remain silent for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. I learned about Cage and his soundless composition from a music teacher in college. Cage initially struck me as one of those avant-garde types that only obscure art critics studied, but we performed 4:33 in a music theory class and I was immediately drawn in, seeing it as something more than nothing. Does silence count as music? What is music?
In his autobiography, The Moon’s A Balloon, British actor David Niven writes about an instance when the American playwright and screenwriter Charles MacArthur approached Charlie Chaplin for advice on how to improve the classic banana peel sequence, in which a person slips on a banana peel and falls to the ground. MacArthur wondered if his scene should start with a shot of a fat lady and then go to the banana peel or vice versa. Chaplin suggested that MacArthur start the scene with the fat lady, cut to the peel, cut to a wide shot of the fat lady approaching the peel, back to the peel, and then, right before stepping on the peel, she steps over it and falls into an open manhole.
Why is this funny? Despite their surface diversity, most jokes are built using the same set of blueprints: they lead us down a path of expectations, build up tension, and at the end, introduce a twist that teases our initial expectations in a clever way. Humor arrives when we figure out how the punch line both broke and fulfilled our expectations. When this occurs we experience mirth, the reward of successfully connecting the dots of a joke. It’s the “a-ha” moment of comedy, or what we feel when we “get” it.