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Welcome to the website of the

Studies of Creative and Evolutionary Processes (SCEP)

Research Group at UBC Okanagan

 

TOPICS

PEOPLE

 



TOPICS

Current Research Topics

Up-and-Coming Projects

Students who might like to do research related to any of these topics are welcome to drop me a line at liane.gabora[at]ubc.ca.



Cultural Evolution

Theoretical Framework

Because we are at a time in history when culture is evolving faster than ever before, there is an unprecedented need to develop a scientific framework for this process. For much of my career the overarching goal my research has been to develop a scientific framework for cultural evolution that is as sound as our scientific framework for biological evolution, and apply it to the tasks of reconstructing our past, exploring possible futures, and furthering human wellbeing. Developing a scientific framework for cultural change will provide us with a stronger understanding of where we came from, where we are now, and where we are headed. For example, it can help us understand and make predictions about the co-evolution of (1) human pattern detection abilities and (2) interactive visualization tools for making sense of large quantities of data.

Over time, technology adapts to our needs and art changes in ways that reflect current trends and tastes, leading many to view culture as an evolutionary process. However, it has not been established in what sense culture evolves. Attempts to develop a scientific framework for cultural evolution have generally framed it as a Darwinian process of competitive exclusion and survival of the fittest. A hint that this view was on the wrong track was that it is difficult to reconcile with the highly cooperative nature of human societies. It turns out there are deep theoretical reasons why cultural evolution is not a Darwinian (or 'selectionist') process. In biological evolution, acquired change is not transmitted (e.g., you don’t inherit your mother’s memories or her tattoo), so change over time is attributable to differential replication of variants in response to selection. However, in cultural evolution there is no mechanism for discarding acquired change (e.g., once one cup had a handle, all cups could have handles). Acquired change accumulates orders of magnitude faster than, and overwhelms, change due to differential replication of variants in response to selection (the mechanism Darwin proposed). This prohibits a selectionist but not an evolutionary framework for culture, and suggest that cultural evolution research would benefit from paying attention to the increasing recognition of the role of non-Darwinian, epigenetic processes in evolution. Research on the origin of life suggests that early life consisted of autocatalytic protocells that evolved through a non-Darwinian process of communal exchange, and that natural selection emerged later from this more haphazard, ancestral evolutionary process.

It is proposed that cultural evolution has more in common with the evolution of these earliest life forms than with modern-day organisms. Specifically, what evolves through culture is peoples’ internal models of the world, including knowledge and how it has is made sense of, as well as ideas, hopes, attitudes, and habitual patterns of thought and behavior. An internal model of the world is referred to as a worldview. The evolution of worldviews is both externally and internally driven. People affect how their worldviews evolve indirectly, by changing their environments, and directly, through abstract thought, fantasy, and so forth. This may be fueled by a sense of fragmentation or dissonance that arises in the course of play and exploration, or in response to life problems, injustices, or a lack of consistency in one’s knowledge and ideas.

A human worldview is able to exert change from the inside, and thereby recover from perturbations that disrupt dynamical equilibrium, because it has the following properties. It is self-organizing in the sense that we constantly use new information to update our understanding of people and things and how they are related. It is self-mending in the sense that just as a body spontaneously heals itself when wounded, if something unexpected happens we can't help but try to figure out why, i.e. to revise our worldview to accommodate this unexpected event. And finally, a worldview is autopoietic; that is, the whole emerges through interactions amongst the parts.

A worldview does not self-replicate like modern-day organisms do; it self-regenerates in the same haphazard sense as the earliest life forms. An adult shares ideas, stories, and attitudes with children (and other adults), influencing little by little the formation of other worldviews. Of necessity, a worldview acquires and expresses cultural information in the form of discrete units (e.g. gestures or artifacts). However, between transmission events this information ‘acquires traits’ as it is thought through in light of the individuals’ ever-changing needs, perspectives, and experience. Different situations expose different facets of a worldview (like cutting a fruit at different angles exposes different parts of its interior). Ideas and artifacts are thus how a mind reveals or manifests its current evolutionary state.  

The hypothesis that culture evolves through communal exchange is supported by analyses conducted using a computational model of cultural evolution (EVOC) and a conceptual network based program for documenting material cultural history (WE), and it is consistent with high levels of human cooperation.

To the left is a schematic depiction of how worldviews reorganize themselves through communal interaction, and thereby evolve not through survival of the fittest but through transformation of all. Individuals are represented by spheres, and their worldviews are represented by networks within the spheres. Birth is represented by the appearance of a new sphere, and death is represented by when a sphere turns grey. Worldviews tend to become more complex over time, as represented by the more elaborate networks, and more adapted over time, as represented by the transition from dark green to light green. Some individuals (e.g. the one with a blue network and the one with a red one) are more compelled than others to take what they learn and 'make it their own', i.e. put their own spin on it and connect it to what they know. This may lead them to have a more unique and nuanced internal model of the world. I refer to such individuals as having a self-made worldview. Self-made individuals may be more likely to exert transformative effects on the world such as through the creation of artifacts, which may influence the shape of new worldviews long after they themselves have died.

Natural selection operates by randomly generating lots of possibilities such that by chance at least one of them is bound to be fit, or adaptive. Culture works by generating few possibilities, but biasing their generation such that they are more likely than chance to be adaptive. So I soon realized that in order to develop a comprehensive theory of how culture evolves I had to understand how experience and intuition guide the generation of cultural novelty. I had to understand creativity!

References:

Gabora, L. (2013). An evolutionary framework for culture: Selectionism versus communal exchange. Physics of Life Reviews, 10(2), 117-145. [http://arxiv.org/abs/1206.4386]

Gabora, L. (2008). The cultural evolution of socially situated cognition. Cognitive Systems Research, 9(1-2), 104-113. [http://arxiv.org/abs/0803.2568]

Gabora, L. (2004). Ideas are not replicators but minds are. Biology and Philosophy, 19(1), 127-143. [q-bio.PE/0402002] [pdf]

Non-academic Articles:

How a Generation Was Misled About Natural Selection (Mindbloggling, May, 2011). (over 20,000 hits)

The Sadness of Potted Plants: Darwinian versus Non-Darwinian Conceptions of Humanity (Mindbloggling, May, 2010).


 

EVOC: A Computer Model of Cultural Evolution

EVOC is a computer model of cultural evolution that enables us to investigate how factors such as barriers to cultural diffusion, the presence and choice of leaders, or changes in the ratio of innovation to imitation affect the diversity and effectiveness of ideas. It consists of neural network based agents that invent ideas for actions, and imitate neighbors’ actions. Runs of EVOC exhibit an increase in mean fitness (or effectiveness) of actions over time, and an increase and then decrease in the diversity of actions (see below).

This is output from a run of EVOC. Each cell of the grid represents an agent (a member of the artificial society). Its colour represents the action the agent is currently implementing. Watch how new actions get invented, and how they spread from neighbor to neighbor when they are fitter than the actions that are currently in vogue. For example, the gray action is overtaken by the purple one, which in turn is overtaken by the blue one, then the green, and finally the gold one.

The upper graph shows the mean fitness or value of their actions. Fitness increases as they creatively build on earlier actions and imitate neighbors that are implementing fit actions.

The lower graph shows the cultural diversity, i.e. the number of different actions. Diversity increases as the agents find new actions, and decreases as they converge on the fittest of those actions. The diversity never gets very high in this run, and by the end they are all implementing the same action, because (1) the population of agents is small, (2) all but 3 agents are set to be imitators who never invent, and (3) even the 3 creators don't invent all the time. These settings were chosen for this demonstration because in this run it is easy to see the spread of new actions. When the population is large (e.g. several hundred agents), all agents are creators, and there is no little or no imitation (i.e. the invention to imitation ratio is close to 1:0), action diversity approaches 100 at its peak, and they settle on about a dozen different actions.

Many other things can be explored with EVOC too. We have found that diversity of actions is positively correlated with population size and density, and with barriers between populations. Slowly eroding borders increase fitness without sacrificing diversity by fostering specialization followed by sharing of fit actions. Introducing a leader that broadcasts its actions throughout the population increases the fitness of actions but reduces diversity of actions. Increasing the number of leaders reduces this effect. Efforts are underway to investigate the conditions under which an agent immigrating from one culture to another contributes new ideas without disrupting what is already in place.

Non-academic Articles about EVOC:

Are Effective Leaders Creative? (Mindbloggling, Feb, 2011).

Should Everyone Be Creative? (Mindbloggling, Nov, 2010).

References:

Gabora, L., Chia, W. W., & Firouzi, H. (2013). A computational model of two cognitive transitions underlying cultural evolution. Proceedings of the 35th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 2344-2349). Held July 31 - Aug. 3, Berlin. Houston TX: Cognitive Science Society. [pdf]

Gabora, L., & Firouzi, H. (2012). Society functions best with an intermediate level of creativity. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 1578-1583). August 1-4, Sapporo Japan. [pdf]

Leijnen, S. Gabora, L. (2010). An agent-based simulation of the effectiveness of creative leadership. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 955-960). August 11-14, 2010, Portland, Oregon. [pdf]

Gabora, L. (2008). Modeling cultural dynamics. Proceedings of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) Fall Symposium 1: Adaptive Agents in a Cultural Context,. Nov 7-9, The Westin Arlington Gateway, Arlington VA, (pp. 18-25). Menlo Park, CA: AAAI Press. [pdf]

Gabora, L. (1995). Meme and variations: A computer model of cultural evolution. In (L. Nadel & D. Stein, Eds.) 1993 Lectures in Complex Systems. Addison-Wesley, 471-486. [pdf]



 

How did Humans Become Able to Evolve Culture?

Why are we are the only species to have evolved complex cultures, in which one invention leads to and builds on another (the Ratchet effect)? How did the human mind came to have the creative capacity to generate all these gadgets, languages, mannerisms, and so forth? Some suggest that culture arose due to onset of the capacity for a theory of mind (ToM), the capacity to reason about the mental states of others. I have suggested that it was the weaving together of discrete memories and bits of knowledge into an integrated internal model of the world, or worldview (see above). This would facilitate the capacity to reason about anything, not just the mental states of others. Two key steps are (1) the evolution of a finer-grained distributed memory structure, which paved the way for increased frequency of associations, reminding events, and thus conceptual integration, and (2) onset of the capacity to spontaneously shift between analytic and associative modes of thought. Using the fruits of one mode as ingredients for the other, it would be much easier to express oneself in a multitude of ways and come up with solutions to the myriad problems that arise in everyday life.

But herein lies a paradox. Until memories and ideas have been woven into an integrated internal model of the world, or worldview, how can they generate an ongoing stream of thought? And conversely, until one can generate a stream of thought, how does one weave memories and ideas into a worldview? How does a worldview -- an entity composed of complex, mutually transforming parts -- come into existence?

 

A possible answer comes from graph theory (Gabora, 1998, 2001; Gabora & Aerts, 2009). The idea can be conveyed by a simple metaphor. Spill some buttons on the floor. Tie two randomly chosen buttons together with a thread. Repeat this again and again. The number of connected buttons increases exponentially, but the number of strings increases even faster. Every once in a while, lift a button and see how many buttons get lifted. You soon find that you are lifting clusters of connected buttons. When the ratio of strings to buttons reaches about 2:1, it becomes inevitable that they reach what is called a percolation threshold, at which point the size of the largest cluster increases dramatically. The buttons form a giant cluster containing all the buttons, and no matter at which button you start there exists a means of getting to any other button, not necessarily directly by way of one string, but by way of some sequence of strings and buttons. The buttons-and-strings metaphor is demonstrated. The main window at the bottom shows buttons (red circles) getting connected by strings (yellow lines). The upper left window shows the largest cluster only. The graph on the upper right shows the ratio of edges (strings) to nodes (buttons).

Now imagine the buttons are memories and ideas, and the strings are associations between them -- ways one could remind you or lead you to think of another. Once memories and ideas are connected by way of a web of associations, the mind is more than a simple stimulus-response machine. Each situation encountered is not just stored in memory but merges into this conceptual web, and each response can be modulated and refined by remote elements of the web and how they appear in light of one another. It is suggested that this kind of integrated conceptual web could not come about until human memory encoded situations in enough detail that meaningful associations could reliably be forged bewteen items.The buttons-and-strings metaphor illustrated to the left provides one small piece of the puzzle of how the flexible, creative cognition of modern humans arose. The metaphor was actually first used by Stuart Kauffman to show how graph theory can shed light on the question of how life arose from an ensemble of catalytic molecules on primitive earth (Kauffman, 1993). Here, the buttons are the molecules and the strings are the reactions between them. As the molecules interacted, the number of different molecules increased exponentially, but the number of reactions by which they could interconvert increased faster than their total number. Thus, as their diversity increased, so did the probability that some subset of the total ensemble reached a critical point where they formed an integrated reaction web, the first primitive metabolism. The metaphor has also been used to explain the diversification of goods and services in modern economies; indeed self-organized webs of this sort may play a key role in the earliest stage of any complex, evolutionary process.

A similar buttons-and-strings animation here was provided by Chris Meyer of Monitor Corporation, who applies biological concepts to the growth of organizations.

Non-academic Articles:

The Power of 'Then': The Uniquely Human Capacity to Imagine Beyond the Present (Mindbloggling, March, 2010).

References

Gabora, L., & Kitto, K. (2013). Concept combination and the origins of complex cognition. In (E. Swan, Ed.) Origins of mind: Biosemiotics Series, Vol. 8 (pp. 361-382). Berlin: Springer. [http://arxiv.org/abs/1309.7407] [pdf]

Gabora, L., & Aerts, D. (2009). A model of the emergence and evolution of integrated worldviews. Journal of Mathematical Psychology, 53, 434-451. [http://arxiv.org/abs/1001.1399] [pdf]

Gabora, L. (2003). Contextual focus: A cognitive explanation for the cultural transition of the Middle/Upper Paleolithic. In (R. Alterman & D. Hirsch, Eds.) Proceedings of the 25th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 432-437), Boston MA, July 31-August 2. Hillsdale NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. [http://arxiv.org/abs/1309.2609] [pdf]

Gabora, L. (2000). Conceptual closure: Weaving memories into an interconnected worldview. In (G. Van de Vijver & J. Chandler, Eds.) Closure: Emergent Organizations and their Dynamics. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 901, 42-53. [pdf]

Gabora, L. (1998). Autocatalytic closure in a cognitive system: A tentative scenario for the origin of culture. Psycoloquy, 9(67). [adap-org/9901002]

For tentative implications for consciousness:

Gabora, L. (2002). Amplifying phenomenal information: Toward a fundamental theory of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 9(8), 3-29. [adap-org/9911003] [pdf]


Worldview Evolution (WE): A Network-based Computer Program for Reconstructing Cultural Lineages

This project combines crowdsourcing and patent application data to visualize cultural lineages—i.e., patterns of relatedness—in the evolution of new technologies. The goals of this project are to (1) document this important component of human history, (2) determine what theory of cultural evolution is more consistent with the data, and (3) detect patterns and trends and make accurate predictions to assist technology developers in this fast-changing, competitive domain. This project is a natural extension of a computer program I developed for reconstructing human material cultural history, called WE (for Worldview Evolution). WE allows the user to enter attributes of found artifacts, and postulates cultural lineages amongst them (“what led to what”). It uses not just attribute knowledge but also derived conceptual knowledge of how items are related to one another, because it has a (limited) conceptual network with which it can integrate information from different sources. For example, WE knows that artifacts might be related through analogical transfer (e.g., of the concept HANDLE from KNIFE to CUP), or complementarity (e.g., MORTAR and PESTLE). Finally, WE also makes use of cultural knowledge (e.g., trade between different cultural groups). Using as initial data sets collections of (1) early projectile points from the Southeastern United States and (2) Baltic psalteries, WE recovered previously unacknowledged patterns of historical relationship that were more congruent with geographical distribution and temporal data than that obtained with other approaches.

The next evolution of WE is a visual analytics project. Patent-holders are being invited to add their inventions to an internet-based visualization of the lineage of human technologies, which allow them to include information about themselves, the inventors. Their information is being corroborated with patent data. My students, colleagues, and I are exploring the effectiveness of different ways of visualizing the lineage (e.g., how interactive; what level of detail or abstraction; should time be represented spatially or through animation) for the detection and analysis of patterns and trends, and for the generation of insights into where technology should be headed. This project leads us to explore the process of insight as it arises in visual analytics, starting with developing concrete ways of operationalizing the concept and rubrics for measuring it.

A recurring theme in technological evolution is taking an existing object and applying it in a new context. The new context naturally suggests how the object needs to change; for example, in the context of pouring tea, the pot acquired a spout, and the teapot was born. Thus this project takes advantage of my experience developing a formal model of how concepts interact, and in particular how they shift in meaning when considered from new contexts. Although it is possible to mathematically describe this process, it is not possible to list (or even develop an algorithm that will list) all possible uses or contexts for an item (such as for example, copper or rubber). This has been referred to as the frame problem. In human-machine hybrid systems, human input is particularly useful at junctures that involve defining the relevant contexts (e.g., the possible uses of copper). I aim to (1) distinguish algorithmic from non-algorithmic components of cultural evolution, (2) computationally model the algorithmic components, and amass human solutions to the non-algorithmic (generally, creative) components, and (3) combine them to develop human-machine hybrids with previously unforeseen computational power that can be used to solve real problems. This work sheds light on the important open question of how best to allocate between human and machine processing for given tasks, i.e., what do humans do better than machines and vice versa, and why, and in what contexts.

References

Veloz, T., Temkin, I., & Gabora, L. (2012). A conceptual network-based approach to inferring the cultural
evolutionary history of the Baltic psaltery. Proceedings of the 34th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 2487-2492). Held August 1-4, Sapporo Japan. Houston TX: Cognitive Science Society. [http://arxiv.org/abs/1310.0737] [pdf]

Gabora, L., Leijnen, S., Veloz, T., & Lipo, C. (2011). A non-phylogenetic conceptual network architecture for organizing classes of material artifacts into cultural lineages. Proceedings of the 33rd Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 2923-2928). July 20-23, Boston MA. [http://arxiv.org/abs/1309.2981] [pdf]

Two examples of network output of the WE computer program given the same input data: a set of projectile points from the Southeastern United States. Circles represent particular samples. Numbered lines give estimates of relatedness (lower numbers more closely related). The output on the left makes use of superficial attributes only. The output on the right additionally makes use of conceptual meta-data. The fact that they differ demonstrates that it is not possible to organize cultural artifacts into historically correct lineages considering only attribute level without considering the conceptual-level knowledge.

we lineages



General Theory of Evolution as Context-Driven Actualization of Potential (CAP)

Probing the similarities and differences between biological and cultural evolution can deepen our understanding of how any sort of evolutionary process could take hold. With Diederik Aerts, I am working on a general framework for the description and analysis of evolutionary processes, according to which entities actualize their potential for change through interaction with their context. Thus evolution occurs through context-driven actualization of potential, or CAP. Evolving entities differ with respect to the degree to which they are sensitive to, internalize, and depend upon a particular context, and whether their change of state is deterministic or nondeterministic.

The CAP framework has implications that extend across the physical sciences, life sciences, and social sciences. With respect to the physical sciences, it suggests that the dynamical evolution of a quantum entity is not fundamentally different from collapse, but rather a change of state for which there is only one way to collapse. Natural selection is considered a unique branch of CAP in which impediments to vertical transmission of acquired change allow population-level dynamics to play a prominent role in the evolution process. The CAP framework illustrates how unusual Darwinian evolution is, and clarifies in what sense culture is and is not Darwinian. In culture, what evolves through CAP is peoples' internal models of the world, that is, their worldviews. Culture is a particularly interesting instance of CAP because the process by which a worldview actualizes its potential is not just externally driven but internally driven; people affect how their worldviews evolve indirectly, by modifying their environments, and directly, through abstract thought, fantasy, and so forth.

In sum, by facilitating cross-disciplinary comparison, the CAP framework helps us achieve a more general understanding of how something could evolve.

References:

Gabora, L. & Aerts, D. (2007). A cross-disciplinary framework for the description of contextually mediated change. Electronic Journal of Theoretical Physics, 4(15), 1-22. [pdf]

Gabora, L. (2006). Self-other organization: Why early life did not evolve through natural selection. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 241(3), 443-450. [nlin.AO/0512025] [pdf]

Gabora, L. & Aerts, D. (2005). Evolution as context-driven actualization of potential: Toward an interdisciplinary theory of change of state. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 30(1), 69-88. [q-bio.PE/0511007] [pdf]



Creativity

Honing Theory

Another focus of my research to date has aimed to understand how the creative process works using computational and mathematical models, as well as empirical studies with human participants. Creativity has given us the artistic masterpieces that inspire us, and the technological achievements that connect us. Research on creativity and insight not only sheds light on what is arguably our most distinctively human attribute, but has practical applications to problem solving, pattern recognition, data transformation, and the general issue of how to adapt solutions to new contexts or circumstances. An understanding of creativity can help us in ways that range from finding outlets for self-expression to finding unexpected uses for materials that are widely available or inexpensive.

I am working on a theory of creativity referred to as honing theory. Honing theory posits that creativity arises due to the self-organizing, self-mending nature of a worldview (see above), and that it is by way of the creative process the individual hones (and re-hones) an integrated worldview. Honing theory places equal emphasis on the externally visible creative outcome and the internal cognitive restructuring brought about by the creative process. Indeed one factor that distinguishes it from other theories of creativity is that it focuses on not just restructuring as it pertains to the conception of the task, but as it pertains to the worldview as a whole. When faced with a creatively demanding task, there is an interaction between the conception of the task and the worldview. The conception of the task changes through interaction with the worldview, and the worldview changes through interaction with the task. This interaction is reiterated until the task is complete, at which point not only is the task conceived of differently, but the worldview is subtly or drastically transformed. Thus another distinguishing feature of honing theory is that the creative process reflects the natural tendency of a worldview to attempt to resolve dissonance and seek internal consistency amongst its components, whether they be ideas, attitudes, or bits of knowledge; it mends itself as does a body when it has been injured.

Yet another central, distinguishing feature of honing theory is the notion of a potentiality state. Honing theory posits that creative thought proceeds not by searching through and randomly ‘mutating’ predefined possibilities, but by drawing upon associations that exist due to overlap in the distributed neural cell assemblies that participate in the encoding of experiences in memory. Midway through the creative process one may have made associations between the current task and previous experiences, but not yet disambiguated which aspects of those previous experiences are relevant to the current task. Thus the creative idea may feel ‘half-baked’. It is at that point that it can be said to be in a potentiality state, because how it will actualize depends on the different internally- or externally-generated contexts it interacts with.

Honing theory can account for many phenomena that are not readily explained by other theories of creativity. For example, creativity was commonly thought to be fostered by a supportive, nurturing, trustworthy environment conducive to self-actualization. However, research shows that creativity is actually associated with childhood adversity, which would stimulate honing. Honing theory also makes several predictions that differ from what would be predicted by other theories. For example, empirical support has been obtained using analogy problem solving experiments for the proposal that midway through the creative process one's mind is in a potentiality state. Other experiments show that different works by the same creator exhibit a recognizable style or 'voice', and that this same recognizable quality even comes through in different creative outlets. This is not predicted by theories of creativity that emphasize chance processes or the accumulation of expertise, but it is predicted by honing theory, according to which personal style reflects the creator's uniquely structured worldview. Other predictions are currently being tested -- come join us if you have related ideas or would like to get involved!

WHAT IS GOING ON IN YOUR BRAIN WHEN YOU THINK UP SOMETHING SOMETHING CREATIVE?

To the left is a schematized drawing of a portion of memory activated by a creatively demanding task, such as, say, the task of inventing a cozy chair. Each small black-ringed circle represents a feature that a particular neuron responds to, such as 'red' or 'squishy'. The blue circles indicate groups of neurons that respond together as a unit, referred to as a cell aseembly or neural clique.

You might start by approaching the task in a sensible, logical way. The white region indicates the portion of memory activated by the task in an analytic mode of thought. It consists of only neurons that respond to typical features of chairs such as ‘chair back’ or ‘chair legs’. If a solution is more forthcoming you might spontaneously shift to a more associative mode of thought. As indicated by the yellow region, more neurons are now activated. We refer to neurons in the fringe region of the activated portion of memory, those that are only activated in a associative mode of thought, as neurds. Neurds respond to atypical elements of the task; for example, given the task of inventing a comfortable chair, a neurd might be a neuron that responds to, say, ‘squishy’, It may have been activated because of the requirement that the chair be cozy. Perhaps the last time this 'squishy' neuron was activated it was in response to holding a beanbag. Although seemingly irrelevant to the task at hand, it may be a crucial step toward the invention of a beanbag chair.

Note that for the set of neurons that act as neurds is different for every different context. For example, given the task of making a chair for a doll, the neurd might have been a different neural clique, containing a neuron that responds to ‘miniature’.

chairooobeanbagooobeanbagchair

References:

Gabora, L. (2010). Revenge of the 'neurds': Characterizing creative thought in terms of the structure and dynamics of human memory. Creativity Research Journal, 22(1), 1-13. [http://arxiv.org/abs/1308.5037] [pdf]

Gabora, L. (2005). Creative thought as a non-Darwinian evolutionary process. Journal of Creative Behavior, 39(4), 65-87. [nlin.AO/0411057] [pdf]

Empirical Studies

My students and I are carrying out studies with human participants aimed at testing some of the predictions of the honing theory of creativity. For example, we have obtained support for the hypothesis that an incomplete creative idea is not a collection of well-formed ideas waiting to be selected amongst but an ill-formed (half-baked) idea waiting to be made concrete through interaction with internally and externally generated contexts. We have also obtained support for the hypothesis that a creator's style is recognizable not just across works within a domain but across domains. This is not predicted by theories of creativity that emphasize chance or expertise, but it is predicted by honing theory, according to which creative products are the external manifestation of an internal process of transformative reorganization of one's particular worldview.

References:

Gabora, L., O’Connor, B., & Ranjan, A. (2012). The recognizability of individual creative styles within and across domains. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 6(4), 351-360. [http://arxiv.org/abs/1309.2615] [pdf]

Riley, S. & Gabora, L. (2012). Evidence that threatening situations enhance creativity. Proceedings of the 34th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 2234-2239). Held August 1-4, Sapporo Japan. Houston TX: Cognitive Science Society. [http://arxiv.org/abs/1308.4245] [pdf]

Gabora, L., & Saab, A. (2011). Creative interference and states of potentiality in analogy problem solving. Proceedings of the 33rd Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 3506-3511). July 20-23, Boston MA. [http://arxiv.org/abs/1308.4241] [pdf]

Non-academic Article:

Holistic Creativity (Mindbloggling, Aug, 2010).


A Computer Model of Creativity

Steve DiPaola (Simon Fraser University) and I have begun incorporating elements of the honing theory of creativity as well as 'tricks of the trade' used by artists into a computer program he wrote that paints portraits. Below are examples of what it came up with after various numbers of iterations when asked to paint a stylized portrait of Darwin. Notice how it starts to focus on the oval shape of the face and the dark region around the eyes. Go here to try it out yourself!

References:

DiPaola, S., & Gabora, L. (2009). Incorporating characteristics of human creativity into an evolutionary art algorithm. Genetic Programming and Evolvable Machines, 10(2), 97-110. [http://arxiv.org/abs/1001.1401] [pdf]



 

A Contextual Theory of Concepts and How they Combine

At the heart of the issue of how creative thought is possible, and of how ideas adapt to new situations, build on one another, and evolve, lies the problem of understanding the flexible way we use concepts. Why is it that if asked to think of a tree, in the context of a desert island one thinks of a palm tree, whereas in the context of Christmas one thinks of a pine tree? In fact, when concepts combine with other concepts, they gain or lose properties. For example, when TREE combines with CHRISTMAS in the combination CHRISTMAS TREE, the property 'has leaves' disappears and the properties 'has needles' and 'has ornaments' appear, and given the conjunction FAMILY TREE one thinks of something with little in the way of typical tree attributes. What kind of structure can a concept be that its properties shift so readily? Although it was long assumed that concepts merely identify items in the world as instances of a class, for more than a quarter century, paradoxes of this sort have called this traditional view of concepts into question. Concepts do more than identify; they actively participate in the generation of meaning. An adequate theory of concepts will have to transcend the Cartesian worldview in which an entity is viewed as separate from its context or frame.

The approach taken by Diederik Aerts and I with input from Eleanor Rosch uses the state-context-property (SCOP) formalism, which allows us to describe the relational structure of a concept and how this structure emerges in interaction with the relational structure of a context (possibly one or mote other concepts). We describe a conjunction as an entangled state of the concepts of which it is composed. The model makes predictions that match very closely results obtained in preliminary experiments with human subjects. Thus although the approach is still very speculative and exploratory, we appear to be making genuine headway toward a theory of concepts that can account for their chameleon-like nature, which is a vital step toward understanding the adaptability and compositionality of human thought.

References:

We have tons of papers on this going back to the year 2000 but the most recent ones are:

Aerts, D., Gabora, L., & Sozzo, S. (2013). Concepts and their dynamics: A quantum theoretical model. Topics in Cognitive Science, 5(4), 737-772. [http://arxiv.org/abs/1206.1069] [pdf]

Aerts, D., Broekaert, J. & Gabora, L. (2011). A case for applying an abstracted quantum formalism to cognition. New Ideas in Psychology, 29(1), 136-146. [quant-ph/0404068]



The Visual Diary / 'Insight Orb' Project

Complex information can be understood at a glance when provided in a visual form, and accordingly, software exists for visualizing everything from weather to stock market fluctuations. However, the psychological aspects of life are not only directly connected to wellbeing, but intangible and elusive, and therefore in even greater need of visualization tools. Capitalizing on the universality of the metaphor between light and insight, the Insight Orb (IO) will be an art installation that uses visualization to transform input from across the city (collected at bus stops or from mobile devices) into signals that collectively portray how people are feeling and thinking. Visual analytics will be used (in the sense that it is a dialogic process of sense-making between humans and machine intelligence facilitated through visualization) to analyze the relationship between IO sensor data and weather data, economic indicators, and so forth, to better understand why the mood of the City is as it is and what factors effect it, and to detect trends over time. Ideally the IO will be viewable from a distance. It will, in a sense, be the soul of the city, a beautiful structure that symbolically unites and expresses the felt experience of all the city’s inhabitants.

The IO concept grew out of my Visual Diary software, which provides a systematic yet creative way for people to depict and express their interior life and interactions with others using the “language of light” metaphor. With it they can explore alternative life paths, or view situations from different perspectives (e.g., from a further removed or more distant perspective, or from the perspective of someone else). By depicting how their lives are unfolding, where their thought patterns originated, and what behavior they lead to, people can make sense of subtle and intangible aspects of their mental lives, and put personal trials in perspective by seeing how they fit into the tapestry of human experience. Visual Diary data will be correlated with behavioral outcomes to determine, for example, determine if certain ways of portraying oneself or others are indicative of excess drug use, or predictive of suicide or violence toward others. This will enable clinicians to take preventative measures on the basis of Visual Diary data, or use it as an assessment tool. In the coming years the software will be built, its effectiveness as a therapeutic tool will be assessed, and its social media possibilities will be explored. I will also determine what are the most productive and ethical ways of collecting and analyzing Visual Diary data.

References:

Gabora, L. (2011). Does understanding of culture as an evolutionary process lend meaning to life?  In (D. Aerts, B. D'Hooghe & N. Note, Eds.) Worldviews, Science and Us: Bridging Knowledge and Perspectives on the World, World Scientific, Singapore.



Behind a Sustainable World Lies a Sustainable Worldview

No other species is as creative as humans, and no other species has completely transformed this planet. Climate change, like the Mona Lisa, the roller coaster, and the stock market, is the product of the ingenuity of the human mind. Creativity is not inherently dangerous; its danger may lie when it is applied in a narrowly focused as opposed to holistic frame of mind.

To build a sustainable world requires a sustainable worldview. By sustainable worldview, I mean a way of seeing the world and being in the world that incorporates how things are interconnected and mutually affect one another, an internal model of the world that is ecological in character. It is sometime essential to categorize and compartmentalize in order to accomplish certain tasks. But if we take any sort of compartmentalization to be a faithful representation of what really exists, it can distort how we see the world, which can in turn distort how we act in it.

It is often assumed that climate change is a scientific problem. But is it? Science enabled us to invent things that turned out to be bad for the environment, and it may help us invent new things that are good for the environment. Science also provides statistics that tell us how bad things are. But statistics don't necessarily lead to a cleaner world, and an overly reductionist perspective can interfere with our capacity to think about the multifaceted downstream consequences of our actions, and feel empathy toward those whom we classify as different from ourselves. I propose that the core of the sustainability problem is our outlook on and relationship to the world, and the policies, incentives, and habitual patterns of thought and action that flow from that outlook. People dismiss the arts as irrelevant to climate change. But are they? Studies in art or music can help a child understand how contextual and interdependent the elements of a work are; each newly added element affects the harmony and balance of the whole. Creative writing can help one understand the interconnectedness of past, present, and future; if you change how the story ends, you have to go back and change what led up to that ending to make it believable. The arts enable us to explore 'what if', to play with categories and boundaries and learn not to take them too seriously, and learn as well what a serious matter this capacity to play and explore really is. The development of a clean, safe, and sustainable world depends on individuals who become creatively immersed in tasks that go beyond the self and the everyday life.

Sustainability requires not just understanding and solutions; it requires laying down habitual patterns of thought and action that foster sustainable outcomes, and that over time become second nature. If knowledge is presented in compartmentalized chunks, we end up with a compartmentalized understanding of the world, but if knowledge is presented more holistically, a more integrated kind of understanding may be possible. We are exploring how the potential for a deeply ecological worldview in a modern context can be cultivated using an imaginative new approach to the development of mobile apps.

Non-academic Article:

Un-family-ar Values (Mindbloggling, Jan, 2010).



PEOPLE

Principal Investigator:

Liane Gabora

Current Graduate Students:

  • Maegan Merrifield (PhD Student)
  • Apara Ranjan (PhD Student)
  • Maryam Saberi (MA Student, Simon Fraser University, co-supervised with Steve DiPaola)
  • Peder Sande (MA student, UBC Vancouver campus, co-supervised with Dan Skarlicki)

Current Undergraduates:

  • Nicole Carbert (Research Assistant)
  • Courtney Crusch (Research Assistant)
  • Simon Tseng (Research Assistant)

Graduating Alumni:

  • Mark Eyjolfson (Honours student 2005-06)
  • Madeleine Henderson (Honours student 2010-11)
  • Jasmine Schwartz (Honours student 2011-12)

All graduate students who work with me are expected to apply for institutional, provincial, and national-level funding that they are eligible for. See here for funding for graduate students. Undergraduates are also encouraged to apply for funding. See here for undergraduate funding opportunities.

Collaborators

  • Nancy Holmes (UBC)
  • Kirsty Kitto (Queensland University of Technology)