Category Archives: Creativity

What’s this for? The teleological instinct

We are in Budapest again for April/May 2015. Everyone in the CEU Cognitive Science Department has moved to a splendid 19th century town house close to the CEU main buildings. The Babylab has extended its space, and, no question, it feels and looks like the best in the world. Here’s a conversation we had with Gergely Csibra, director of the Cognitive Development Centre. His incredibly distinguished list of publications has earned him a wide influence. We were having lunch with him  in a typical small Hungarian restaurant in the city centre. After the difficult business of choosing the most typical Hungarian dishes – Rakott krumpli for me and Pörkölt for Chris – our conversation turned towards books we would like to write, and moreover, are committed to write.

UF: So, Gergö, what are your books going to be about?

GC: One of them could be about our propensity for teleological thinking.

UF: Ah – you have been thinking about this for a long time!

GC (lifting the elaborate serviette holder standing on the table): a human being would immediately ask, what is this for?

UF: So?

GC: The point is that only humans would ask this question. All animals are programmed to pursue certain goals, and they are able to select the best means of achieving the goals. But humans can start with the means and then ask about the goal they can achieve.nuts&bolts

CDF: We wonder a lot about purpose and meaning.

GC: We even ask “what’s the meaning of life?”

UF: We keep asking, even if there is no answer. Continue reading What’s this for? The teleological instinct

CDF: We often love the means even more than the goals: look at this amazing tableau from the National Museum which proudly displays the huge variety of bolts made by a factory. We embellish tools and work on them to make them beautiful beyond the merely functional. Also, there is a whole chain of actions that is provoked: we make tools to make tools. We are very inventive about this.

GC: But actually, humans are not very inventive. Innovation is rare. Instead of finding new means to achieve an end we tend to consider the opposite: what can this old object or action be used for?

CDF: Innovation in ends may be rare. But not in finding uses for an object. You can easily find 101 uses for a brick, as required by a well-known psychological test.

GC: People have invented lots of tools that were rubbish. Just occasionally somebody produces something that turns out to be really useful.

UF: Can you imagine individual differences in teleological thinking?

GC: Not really. It’s not a skill, it’s a motivation. Even an obsession.

UF: Lets consider this then: Can you imagine what a person would be like who lacks this motivation?

GC: Interesting… I don’t know.

UF: Would this be the case with severe depression? To depressed people nothing makes sense and they are not interested in making sense either. Life has no meaning.

CDF: A depressed patient lacks motivation for anything. So this is not a good example. We’d have to think a bit more about what kind of pathology could create an absence of this particular lack of curiosity in what things are for.

UF: I wonder. We are also constantly asking questions about the names of things, what’s this cake called, this flower, this bird? Could this be related to theteleological instinct, if I’m allowed to call it that?Budapest Central Market Cakes

GC: It could be. The name may often give a clue to the function or purpose of something. This is because both names and object functions are culturally determined.

UF: Ah – now we come to a key concept in social cognition, culture. Cultural knowledge is built on the expectation that all things have a meaning, and exist to serve a purpose. The serviette holder is for holding serviettes. The serviettes are for protecting my clothes from food being spilled. And here I am trying to tack a very flimsy piece of paper into my skirt. I better be careful because it wouldn’t serve the purpose very well!

CDF: Some people would claim we have an urge to attribute causality. Would you separate causal thinking and teleological thinking?

GC: They’re supposed to be completely different explanations – think of Aristotle’s efficient and final cause -, but often they can be translated into each other. There’s this interesting thing about Darwin: he turned the teleological questions into causal explanations.

CDF: Something like this: Natural selection by fitness creates (causal) the functions that animals have (teleology)?

GC: He attempted to explain how teleological functions are brought about by blind forces of selection.

CDF: I wonder if clever animals using tools have teleological thinking.

GC: Animals use tools for the immediate ends they are motivated to pursue. They never have any lasting interest in the tool. Humans do. They take the tools with them in case they need them again. They even value objects for their potential use in the future. Even if they have no idea what use they could be put to.

CDF: When the bicycle was invented it was at first not a very useful tool to get from one place to another.

UF: We are always asking for the meaning of things, but we are never satisfied by the answers. Perhaps that’s what religion ‘is for’: it’s something that is always ready to satisfy the need to get answers to the big questions, especially giving reasons for terrible suffering – perhaps it’s meant to teach you a lesson; to punish you; or,  to make you a better person.

GC: I don’t think religious behaviour is any more teleological than other behaviour. It’s a drive that is present in very young children long before they are exposed to religion.

UF: What about science? I presume here you don’t ask what something is for, but what made it happen? Science is about causes, not purposes.

CDF: But even scientists, being human, are still highly attracted  teleological thinking.

GC:There are a number of papers by Deborah Kelemen on teleological bias in domains such as biology or religion, and in science.

CDF: There’s an interesting study where she tested physicists in speeded conditions. In this case they were more likely to endorse teleological than causal explanations of natural phenomena. Just like everyone else. To quote from the abstract: ‘Specialization as a scientist does not, in itself, … ameliorate scientifically inaccurate purpose-based theories about the natural world.’

UF: Isn’t this teleological bias helpful for developing technology?

GC: Teleological thinking serves not so much the development of new technology as the learning or understanding of existing technology.

UF: One downside is that there are unforeseen side effects. As you say, tools can often lead to things that were not envisaged before, and not even intended.

GC: Tools allow us to create new options. This is not the case when animals are using tools. Their options are unchanged by the tools.

UF: I look forward to your book. It is such a fruitful idea and we need to relate it to social cognition.

GC: The idea is not new, but I think it has not received as much attention as it deserves. I have thought about this topic for a long time. Whether I will make it a book or just a paper – you will see it in a year’s time.

Image credit: Cakes in Budapest’s Central Market Hall

A Danish Breakfast with Andreas Roepstorff


Breakfast with Andreas

We are very fond of the light, bright, functional Scandinavian style of our apartment in Nobelparken, Aarhus University. It has been our home during our many stays, short and long, over the last ten years. The reason that we are coming here to the Interacting Minds Centre, and keep coming back, is Andreas Roepstorff. One of our special treats is if he comes to breakfast and brings with him freshly baked bread. Today he has also brought a chokoladestang, a classic Danish pastry, extra special. Actually, Danish pastry is called ‘wienerbrød’. All the ingredients of a ‘hyggelig’ breakfast are here. Also candles, thin chocolate slices, honey, jam, cheese, rullepølser, and plenty of coffee. Perhaps there are some other essential Scandinavian style ingredients, an open plan flat and some open plan minds.  Continue reading A Danish Breakfast with Andreas Roepstorff

In this context anything can be discussed. There is no need to be afraid of the big and awkward questions. We started talking about overall goals, long held beliefs, what we would really like to accomplish. Andreas suggested straight away that we need to think of hierarchies of goals, referring to Etienne Koechlin. Koechlin has mapped out hierarchies of goals in the Prefrontal Cortex. Long held beliefs will be kept in the background and other more short term beliefs will be nested within.

It’s all about upholding alternative views of the future, Andreas says. Then Chris throws in “Mental time travel”. I say “Episodic foresight” – as in a pleasant game of ping-pong.

AR: There is the open future – there are several possibilities in front of you.

UF: Ah – so like you to say this. The Viking spirit and your trademark – the Blue Ocean.

CDF: This is where other people give these alternative views.

UF: Where culture = other people.

AR: Okay. Think of the Blue Ocean – we can navigate in the future. We explore.

CDF: Not only finding out what world is like, but creating a world as we’d like it to be.

AR: Creating the world in your image. God-like.

UF: ??

AR: Religion is an extension of the social image. It’s a hierarchical story. You create the top of the hierarchy.

UF: Go on.

AR: The world is unpredictable. But we believe there is a real world – this constrains us.

UF: ??

AR: The other problem is: other people have different perspectives. We have the Ukraine example.

UF: If everyone had the same idea, what then?

AR: Maybe it’d be like China in the old days.

— We pause to help ourselves to more bread, butter and stuff to put on top.


AR: Here is a long held belief: the openness of the human cognitive system.  But there are constraints. Low level behaviour is constrained totally by immediate environment.

CDF: The higher up in hierarchy, the less constrained.

AR: The ability to share possible futures, to co-create, undoes the straight jacket that is there otherwise.

CDF: Humans are good at creating new niches.

AR: Yeah, and at changing the world to fit them. Imagining the future.

Aarhus sybilsUF: I have always been struck by the deep human interest in forecasts. You can see it in ancient archaeological sites, like Stonehenge, or the oracle of Delphi. There are the lovely medieval pictures of the Sybils in Aarhus cathedral. People have been obsessed by predicting the future. They have lots of devices for doing so. Why?

AR: You need external help, devices to forecast. Astronomy is way beyond human time scale. How long do you need to know that something is cyclical?

CDF: The Babylonians knew about the 18 years moon cycle.  They had to have instruments to monitor their observations over such a time scale. And once you start monitoring…there comes control.

UF: Are there some practical suggestions here? I would like to predict our own future.

AR: I have devised this exercise for postdocs: This is what I ask them when they first come:  Imagine yourself in five years time. Everything has gone as well as possible. It is 2019. You are invited to give keynote speech at a big conference. In Hawaii, no less. How did you get there? What would you want to tell people? Who is in the audience? Whom would you like to impress, living or dead?

UF: Nice.

AR: Some students know on the spot. They can then write a grant application.

UF: There is the curse of the here and now. An eternally extending tree of possibilities. The more you think about it the more choices you have.

AR: Exactly. You cannot see the path from here that will lead to a future endpoint. There are just too many branches. But you can, if it’s the other way round: Start from the endpoint and go back to the present.

postdicting the future

CDF: This is analogous to Daniel Wolpert’s solution to the motor problem by minimising endpoint variability.

UF: We have a theory now.

CDF: When you make an action there are an infinite number of ways to proceed. You first choose the endpoint and then you can minimise end-point error.

AR: Cultural experience allows a blueprint for the future. People do have expectations of their future. Ideal scenarios have an internal logic. You get all this from your culture and can frontload it in a ‘cognitive app’.

UF: So the blue ocean has some pre-defined spots to aim for?

AR: The critical thing is to place a buoy out there. Then you have to do something to get there.

CDF: Your exercise for postdocs is all very well. But what it doesn’t allow for is taking advantage of unforeseen opportunities that happen to occur. You should take this up and then you could go into a completely different direction.

AR: Reconfiguring is always fine. It is easier to follow a tangential line when you have a larger perspective. If your goals are too short term then this doesn’t work, and you can go off course.

UF: The proper Long Term perspective is from death.

AR: From beyond death. You have to see yourself from other people’s point of view in the far future. Think of your legacy.

CDF: What my mother used to call “the backdrop of eternity”.

— More helpings of coffee and chocoladestang are now necessary. Chris offers to make more coffee.


AR: Going back to the Blue Ocean and the exercise for postdocs. It’s necessary to anchor the imagination in a specific place. Hawaii. And there need to be specific people who the post-doc would like to be in the audience, and he would like to impress.

UF: I like this idea that specific constraints like these concrete anchor points actually get the imagination going.

AR: If you don’t have these far flung anchor points, then you can get into cognitive apathy; the more you think about it, the more choices open up, and it becomes even more complicated. I have been there….

CDF: In the Tower of London game where you have to plan future moves, there is this interesting observation: if there are two equally good moves, then you slow down. You would have thought you could speed up, since it doesn’t matter which one you choose! Now here’s an experiment: Would performance be improved if you asked people to think about planning their moves backwards rather than forwards?

UF: Good – we always need to finish on a suggestion for a new experiment!

image credit: groenling at flickr (1989): Sybils in Aarhus cathedral

Eureka stories: Five easy pieces of advice from science historian Anna Marie Roos


Archimedes: Wikipedia 

It is well known that “Eureka” is Greek for “I have found it” and is connected with Archimedes making his discovery of the principle of buoyancy when taking a bath.

This story has been repeated until it has become legendary.  And that is the problem.  Eureka stories are told with the benefit of hindsight and to eulogise the investigator.  Did Archimedes discover the principle of hydrostatics?  Most likely.   Did he streak through the streets of Syracuse to announce it?  That is less certain.  Most of what we know about him comes from secondary accounts from Plutarch and Livy, who wrote centuries after Archimedes died in 212 BC.        Continue reading Eureka stories: Five easy pieces of advice from science historian Anna Marie Roos

Let’s take the other most cited Eureka example, Newton and the Apple.  It comes from the Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life written in 1752, not penned by Newton, but by the antiquarian William Stukeley, a friend and fellow Lincolnshire man.  Stukeley wrote:

on 15 April 1726 I paid a visit to Sir Isaac . . . din’d with him…after dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden, & drank thea under the shade of some appletrees, only he, & myself. amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind.   


Author at Woolsthorpe

Newton gave the discovery of gravity to the world in his Principia Mathematica (1687).  But did he make these discoveries in 1666, when he was at Woolshorpe, the family farm in Lincolnshire, sitting under the apple tree?

Historian Simon Schaffer has noted, “the historical record reveals that until the mid-1680s, Newton never developed a concept of universal gravitation and stayed firmly wedded to Cartesian models” of planetary motions in which fine-particled ethers in the atmosphere moved the planets in their orbits.  “Only in 1684 did he finally invent the term “centripetal force” to describe the action pulling bodies towards their orbits’ centres.”[1]  We also have to remember that by 1797, Newton’s heirs institutionalised Stukeley’s story to establish his reputation as a precocious genius.  So, Eureka stories are problematic as historical sources.

[1] Simon Schaffer, “Making Up Discovery,” in Dimensions of Creativity, ed. Margaret A. Boden (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996), 15.

First proviso:  Be careful of heroic parables

Picture 007 Woolsthorpe Manor, Newton's birthplace

© The Royal Society

Both of these stories, however, tell us a little about creativity.  Archimedes and Newton made analogies between disparate things and combined them together in unique ways—the bath and displacement of the metal; the falling apple and gravity.

Second proviso:  We need to remove blinkers that are created by sheer familiarity

figurefiveThe second thing we notice in the Eureka stories is that both discoveries were made when Archimedes and Newton were relaxing.  Comedian John Cleese compared creativity to a tortoise that will only come out slowly and shyly.  Basically, the creative tortoise (image courtesy The Royal Society) needs to feel safe to express itself, and having time to relax and be quiet each day is important for creative work; excessive external stimuli kills creative thinking.   As Cleese says “We don’t know where we get our ideas from. We do know that we do not get them from our laptops.”

Third proviso.  It is important to quiet the mind for creative thinking. Get off the mobile.  Walk

L0057059 Whalebone walking stick, owned by Charles Darwin, England

Some recent studies at Stanford University suggest walking is effective to stimulate creativity.  Experimental results indicated that 100 percent of those who walked were able to generate at least one high-quality, novel analogy on a “divergent thinking test” compared to 50 percent of those who remained seated.  Interestingly, walking did not affect focussed thinking, the ability to solve one problem at a time.   Uta Frith’s blog post has more to say about the necessity of a dual-pronged approach to solving tricky problems.

It does appear though that several creative achievers routinely walked to generate ideas. Darwin had his thinking path at Down House, knocking flints out of the way with his stick as he ambled. The picture is one of his walking sticks.  When the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson walked, he said that his head was “bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space—all mean egotism vanishes.  I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing, I see all.”  How is that for a manifesto of improving empirical observation?    Artist Christopher Cranch portrayed Emerson as a giant eyeball in a suit.

So, you laughed at the caricature of Emerson?

Fourth proviso. Laugh and play, in and out of the laboratory 

We have all heard of the “accidental discovery” by Alexander Fleming of Penicillin.  What we don’t hear is Fleming actually cultivated a form of chaos and play.   He loved games, modifying the rules, for example putting golf holding the club as a snooker cue.  A member of the Chelsea Arts Club, he also fashioned art from bacteria “painting on the petri dish” figures like houses, or even a ballerina.

To do his live paintings, he constantly would cultivate different species just to see if something interesting developed.  Using his deep knowledge of microbiology, Fleming was courting discovery by courting the unexpected.

Let’s go back to Newton and the Apple.  Stukeley related in his conversation with Newton:  “he began to apply this property of gravitation to the motion of the earth, & of the heavenly bodys . . .  & thus he unfolded the Universe”.  Newton was, if anything, intellectually courageous, a quality characteristic of creative scientists.

A number of Newton’s colleagues were also intellectually courageous as well, thinking, for example, about busting the boundaries of flight and space.  John Wilkins wrote The Discovery of a New World in the Moone (1638) and he and Robert Hooke purportedly spent time in the courtyard of Wadham College, Oxford designing flying machines powered by giant springs to “boing” us up to the lunar surface.   Their work together reminds us that counter to most Eureka stories, creative science is often collaborative, not done by a lonely genius.  Our colleagues are important in the development and refinement of creative ideas.figureeight

Wikipedia Commons

Science fiction involving lunar travel also made its appearance at this time with Kepler’s Somium (1608), as well as Francis Godwin’s  Man in the Moone (1638), in which his space travellers went to the moon in a ship powered by giant swans [2].  Such theories about bird migration were thoroughly developed in the seventeenth century, reflecting the new interest in the heavens. Charles Morton (1627–1698), best known for his work the Compendium Physicae, compiled a treatise in 1686 in which he hypothesized that birds migrated to the moon and used Godwin’s work as a guide.

[2] Anna Marie Roos, Luminaries in the Natural World: the Sun and the Moon in England, 1400-1720 (Basel and Oxford, 2001), chapter four.

Need you laugh, this book contains one of the first descriptions of an earth-rise:  Then should I perceive a great shining brightness. . . So that it seemed unto me no other than a huge Mathematicall Globe, leasurely turned before me, wherein successively, all the Countries within the compass of 24 howers were represented to my sight. figurenine

Bill Anders, NASA, Wikipedia Commons

And Newton’s work of course helped us actually see the earth rise, but it began with a dream.

Fifth proviso:  DREAMfiguretenS

Photo by Author: Anderby Creek, Lincolnshire