13 - Optional Interview with Dr. Robert Bilder

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Coursera – Learning How to Learn

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13 - Optional Interview with Dr. Robert Bilder

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Dr. Robert Bilder directs the consortium


Neuropsychiatric Phenomics, which is a

team of

more than 50 investigators most centered


the University of California in Los


This consortium aims to understand


phenotypes on a genome wide scale.

Through a combination of human research,

basic research, and informatic strategies.

Basically, Dr. Bilder is digging to create

a fundamentally new understanding of how

to look at personality disorders and

diseases that have an effect on


In this regard, Dr. Bilder also directs

and co-directs a slew of other important


But of the most interest to us, Dr. Bilder

is the Director of the Tennenbaum Center

for the Biology of Creativity

one of the most

important programs

in the country involved in the study of


So with that, it’s a pleasure to speak

here with Dr Robert Bilder.

Thank you so much for joining us here

today Dr Bilder.

You’re one of the world’s foremost experts

on creativity.

So I have a question for you, sometimes my

students will tell me.

Now, wait a minute.

Other people have solved this problem


So, if I think about it and figure out how

to solve this problem, I’m actually

not being creative while I’m solving this


because other people have already solved

this problem.

What are your thoughts on that situation?

Well, I think until you’ve solved

the problem yourself you haven’t exercised

your brain

and made the unique connections in your

brain, that are needed to solve that


So, we could distinguish between those


that are created for the world, which

that may not be creative with respect to

everything else that’s been done before.

But if we think about what’s been done

that’s unique for you, something new

for you and that has value to you, then

that satisfies a criteria for creativity.

And it’s important for your, your brain to

do that in order to pursue other creative


Well, I couldn’t agree more.

So I, I’m glad you made that point.

When you’re trying to learn something new,

and you

speak publicly, sometimes you, like

everyone, is criticized for it.

What advice do you have for handling this

kind of criticism?

You know, someone told me something


I’m surprised I only heard a few weeks


And they said leadership is the ability to

disguise panic.

And I think that if I had to think of all

of the occasions i’ve had when i’ve

had great concerns about what was going

on, or about handling criticisms, and

I think that it may only be through


experience that one learns how to cope

with that a little bit better.

Always difficult but I think the only

advice I can give to others is to always

adopt the

same kind of curiosity about your own

shortcomings and

your own difficulty getting the big


and understanding the entire scope of the

problem that you would apply to others and

to, to any problem in general.

I like that too, sort of be,

be willing to accept discomfort sometimes

because that’s necessary.

You know, some people would say that it’s

only when you

experience some discomfort that you’re

actually accomplishing some kind of


So, to the extent that one wants to make

progress, it’s necessarily going to

involve some degree of discomfort.

That’s the nature of change.

Physical change in the brain has to

involve some

work and that work has to involve some,

some discomfort.

But I couldn’t agree more.

I’m reminded, my old swimming coach

used to say no pain, no gain.


Yes, indeed.

And that may also be true of the brain.

Sometimes those old proverbs are really

so true.

You know, that’s why they’re proverbs.

You have some very interesting

insights regarding creativity and being


Could you give our viewers just a little

bit of insight about that.

Sure, sure so it’s interesting that


we have studied personality it turns out

that there

are various models of personality, or

temperament or character.

But they pretty much all boil down to five

factors, and these have been very reliably

seen over time.

And the way that I find easiest to

remember those five factors is

to use the acronym OCEAN, which stands for


conscientiousness, extraversion,

agreeableness, and neuroticisim.

And now that we’ve looked at that

personality characteristics of people and

then tried to relate their personality

characteristics to their degree of

creative achievement.

We find that there are two correlations

here one of them’s not surprising at all.

Openness to a new experience is associated

with great achievement.

But then we find something that’s perhaps

not quite as intuitive,

there is a correlation also with

agreeableness but that correlation is


So it means that people who are less


or more disagreeable tend to show higher

creative achievement.

And I think that we might consider this to

be a facet of nonconformism.

Those who tend to challenge the status

quo, challenge models,

and don’t believe things just because

other people have said them.

I think that these are our folks who are

more likely to be creative achievers.

I think so, too.

That’s, that’s a very interesting and it’s

a counter-intuitive finding.


Usually people think agreeableness is, you

know, a nice, positive trait.

And, indeed, agreeableness is a nice,

positive trait.

yet, there are occasions when


Can push the envelope, help us to

challenge prior conventions and make

the kinds of pushes forward you know, that

are outside the box.

I think sometimes it’s just, it’s hard


walk that fine line between being being a,

being agreeable.

Because things make sense.

And then sometimes stepping back and being

willing to be disagreeable because it


make sense to you, and then sometimes you

find out, actually, it does make sense.

But sometimes, you’re right to be


So finding that fine line of where to

agree and where to disagree, and being

willing to disagree if you think that

something is not quite right,.

I think that’s an important important line

to find.

Yeah, it’s, it’s difficult to know how

to balance the correct approach.

And indeed, I think that’s one of the

cornerstones of

creativity, just by following from the

root definitions of, of creativity.

Which typically emphasize on the one hand

whatever the

product is, to be considered creative has

to be new.

But then it also has to be useful or

valued by someone.

So, this involves a kind of attention

between doing

something that may be totally driven by

your own

vision of things, and those things that

are going

to end up being adopted or used by others.

So it means that you can create things

that may be novel, wonderful, and strange.

But if they’re too novel, too strange,


they’re not going to be considered

wonderful by others.

So finding this sweet spot in the range

between what

you find to be the newest and most

valuable and exciting.

And what others believe is I think that’s

a life long process of, of deliberation

and balance.

That’s so true.

I, I think writers in particular, writers

and inventors are both,

they have to face what other people’s

opinions of their work are.

And sometimes it’s just surprising what

they’ll come back

with, something that you thought was

perfect, a real gem.

People will come back and, and give you

insights that

allow you to understand that maybe your

perceptions weren’t quite right.

That’s right, yeah.

I’ve gotten that feedback you know quite


and [LAUGH] may be a little defensive at


And then, you know try to warm up to it,


try to understand well, what, what do they

have in mind.

Any particular tips on how you learn

most effectively?

Well, I think people vary a lot in

terms of

the degree to which they are dominated by

words or images.

You know some verbal versus visual

learning styles.

And so I find that I do best if I can go

between the two.

Because I love words and language.

I was actually once accused by my students


being a sesquipedalian and got a little

plaque from them.

I didn’t know what sesquipedalian meant

until I got the plaque.

And then anybody who watches this can then

look it up.

Anyhow I love words, and so there’s a

nuance there that I really like.

But at the same time I feel like I don’t

have a complete understanding unless i’ve

somehow mapped it, graphed it.

Or visualized it.

And so I like to go back and forth between

those two kinds of approaches.

The other thing that I really like to do,

and sometimes we’ve recommended this in

exercises to enhance creativity.

Is to do a powers of ten exercise.

And for those who haven’t seen it, there’s

a great video.

You can easily get it online.

Well you just look up powers of ten video

I think that will do the job.

It basically starts with an imagine of a

man sitting or lying in a hammock.

And then the camera zooms ten feet above,

then 100 feet

above, then 1,000 feet above, it goes by

powers of ten.

Ultimately you’re exploring the cosmos in

outer space.

And then it zooms back down into the man.

Then it goes powers of ten inside the


Goes into the cell, goes down and reveals

the molecules, and then finally, and

what’s really

mind blowing, is how far you have to

go when you start getting into subatomic


Where you’re really surrounded by


More vast than the universe itself.

So I think that getting that kind of

exercise, getting that perspective.

Trying to figure out what’s the higher

altitude view, stepping back

from a problem and thinking about well,

why am I doing this?

What’s the bigger picture?

But then also drilling into individual

facets and details,

by zooming in and zooming out from a


I usually find I get a much better idea

of the problem scope and different

perspective on that problem.

That is very worth while.

I’ve never really thought of problem

solving in that perspective.

I think that’s maybe a little bit what you


A bit subconsciousness or is it just

naturally when you get away from the


I mean, do you get new perspective when

you’re just going out for a walk.

Or something like that?

But that’s an interesting perspective.

Zooming in and zooming out.

I think the brain probably does

some of this spontaneously and

particularly during sleep.

Because if you think about what happens

during sleep.

You’ve got a washing away of all of

the conscious, top down, cognitive control

over your thoughts.

And it probably permits different neural


to assemble themselves in ways that may

make sense spontaneously, but are free


the guided process of our top down mind.

And so I think that’s one of the reason

why people will awake

from sleep, dreams, or other relaxed

states, when they’re not thinking about


And all the sudden have come up with a


All components were there that required a

release at least temporarily of the

constraints, that would be applied to the

problem to recognize a new solution.

That may be how August Kekule recognized

the benzene ring,

from seeing that snake biting it’s tail.

Yeah I think it’s sometimes, I like to

think of

it as an octopus of attention, and turns

off during sleep.

And so the tentacles of the octopus can

randomly go about

and that’s what helps create some of the

innovative new ideas.

Well, that’s interesting.

You were, I think you were reading my mind

because when I

was thinking of August Kekule, who dreamt

about a snake biting his tail,

I was also thinking of well, what if

instead of a snake biting

it’s tail, he imagined a spider, or it

could have been an octopus.

But, then we’d have a completely different

structure of organic chemistry before us.

We would never have discovered the benzene


Well that’s what they say, insights

that rise from

the subconscious like that, they are, they

can sometimes be invaluable.

But you always gotta check ‘em because


they may seem right, but they’re not

actually right.

That’s right, yeah.

And there, you know, I’m mindful of

speaking of spiders,

the fantastic experiments that were done

in the early investigation

of LSD, the hallucinogen, where different

drugs were given to

spiders and see what impact it had on

their webmaking skills.

And while many people felt that they

became incredibly creative while under

the influence of LSD, and while many

people felt they had great

insights while they’re under the influence

of LSD, the spiders it turns

out, made really lousy webs when they were

under the influence of LSD.

And I think a lot of people who had been

putting down

what they were thinking about at the time

that they were doing

LSD, found later, when they were no longer

under the influence, that

the products that they had created were

not exactly what they had hoped.

(See also “LSD: My Problem Child” in reading list)

That’s, that’s, I think that’s true,


interesting perspectives from history of

different people’s insights

whilst under drugs and not under drugs,


sometimes I think it’s, it’s actually

surprisingly good.

But other times, it’s surprisingly


So so there’s definitely a mixture there.

This is, this is true.

I was just reviewing with a class

different kinds

of visual representations of dualities or

balances between opposing forces.

So we were talking about the yin yang

symbol, the Tibetan eternal knot.

But one of the symbols that’s one of my,

one of my favorites probably because I

understand it

the least, is the intersecting gyres or

intersecting cones

that were described by Yeats and his wife


And those, those images were probably


while they were under the influence of


I will definitely have to go look those

up now.


So, Doctor Bilder, I, I, I

so appreciate your, your an abecedarian



So I greatly appreciate your

insights here, and on behalf of all the

students of learning how to learn.

I, I thank you.

Thank you, Barb.

It’s always great talking to you.


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