I recently returned from another conference (my previous post was also inspired by conference attendance). The topic of this one was Creativity in Higher Education. My presentation, snippets of which can be found in other postings, was entitled “Teaching Habits of Mind for Creative Entrepreneurship: Three Action-Oriented Pedagogies.”
My colleague Alex Zautra presented an overview of the importance of social interaction in improving executive function and various ways in which we can develop the social connections that improve executive functioning in support of creativity. One of the concepts he discussed was that de-objectifying others enhances executive function. He suggested that spending time in other cultures could improve executive function and, by extension, creativity. He didn’t need to explain this concept using lab results and multi-variate regression, because he was making his presentation in Chengdu, China. The positive effects of culture shock were apparent to everyone in the room. “Everyone” included Chinese from at least four regions of that vast country, westerners from the U.S., U.K., Australia, and The Netherlands, as well as the deputy education minister of Tanzania and her colleague and students from Sichuan University and other Chinese institutions of higher education.
For three days, we were immersed not only in each other’s scholarship, but also in each other’s company. Executive functioning can be understood as “the cognitive processes that are involved in sustained attention, problem solving, verbal reasoning, and mental flexibility.” Being with such a diverse group necessitated a different kind of verbal reasoning than I practice in an English-speaking group (although, thankfully, my own presentation was in English), sometimes requiring me to find multiple ways to express myself in order to be understood. Mental flexibility was exercised because not only were we from many different countries, but also from an equal diversity of disciplines: psychology, education, public policy, law, medicine, literature, the arts. Unlike U.S. conferences where there tend to be concurrent sessions and one can pick and choose what to attend, at this conference, all sessions were plenary. The sustained attention required to understand the arguments being made across the diversity of disciplines and language (with simultaneous translation) is another component of my colleague’s definition of executive function.
Having, for the most part, recovered from the jet lag incurred by two 27-hour journeys in a week’s time, I need to find ways to maintain that higher level of attention and focus so that I can apply it to the projects back here at home.
Almost exactly a year ago, I was fortunate to have attended the Prague Quadrennial of Scenography. While I “participated” in the exhibits there, I did not experience, as I did in China, the kind of culture shock that boosts one’s executive function. I adored Prague, but I did so in part because I felt comfortable there; I was not recognizably different than the inhabitants, could sound out the letters on street signs and maps, and heard my own language spoken everywhere. The cultural distance between The U.S. and Europe is so much smaller than that between the U.S. and China.
Another concept Zautra discussed as foundational to executive functioning is one well known to artists, especially theatremakers: empathy. My brief experience in Asia has consciously increased my empathy for “others” — those not like myself. I hope that effect is permanent.
I am very fortunate that I’ve been able to make these international trips and hope to continue to be able to do so. I highly recommend a little culture shock for you too – it very likely could improve your creativity.