Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Left-brain creativity

One commonly cited way to improve or maintain mental health is to do something creative, such as painting, drawing, writing, dancing, making music, knitting or cooking. So what's the strategy to gain these benefits if you're not creatively inclined in these or any similar ways? What if you're, say, a statistician or a software engineer?

This post is about acknowledging other, more mathematical means of being creative, that aren't general thought of as traditionally creative. I'm calling these 'left-brain' creative means, which is reductionist, but easy to convey. Whether any of these are artistic in any way is irrelevant.

Martin Gardner was a master of left-brain creativity. He wrote books of mathematical puzzles and novelties, including a version of mini chess mentioned here. Making these challenges was absolutely creative. I would argue that the process of solving these puzzles would also be creative because it requires imagination and decisions that are novel to the solver.

Reiner Knizia has a PhD in mathematics and makes board games for a living. His visual artwork is rudimentary, which is fine because it's meant merely as dressing for the real creative work of abstract sets of rules meant to inspire clever player behaviour.

I mention these two first because I have been disparaged before for being un-creative when I would rely on similar abstractions as outlets. For instance, when told by (now ex-) girlfriend to go try to do something creative, I started working on a farming game I had envisioned, and decided to start with a list of livestock and a draft of their prices in the game. This didn't impress her.

With building toys, I usually made abstract patterns rather than anything that would traditionally have been considered creative. With Lego / Mega Blocks, my most memorable builds were a giant hollow box for holding hockey pucks, and an extremely delicate staircase. With K'nex, my work was always abstract shapes made in an ad-hoc manner.

I enjoy the concept of building toys a lot more more than actually building anything with them. It's a dream of mine that Capsella toys will make a return through 3D printing. Capsella was a toy make of clear plastic capsules with gears inside. It would be difficult, but doable.

There's also this game called Gravity Maze, in which the goal is to drop a marble in one tower of cubes and have it land in a target cube. The game comes with a set of puzzle cards which include a starting configuration of towers and a set of towers that you need to add to finish the maze. The game only comes with 60 such puzzle cards and additional ones aren't available for sale. On one vacation, I took it upon myself to draft a program that could randomly generate configurations and see if they were solutions. It's still in a notebook somewhere. Is this creative? It feels better if I think of it that way; doing this gave me the same joy I imagine someone gets from more traditional creative exploits.

On another vacation, I wrote a proof of concept for Gaussian elimination of a 4x4 matrix where the matrix was populated with fractions. The point was to write the entries of the resulting matrix each as a single fraction. That way, an ASIC (Application Specific Integrated Circuit) could later be made to solve such a matrix in fractions, which avoids the computationally slow method of subtraction, which is typically done through iterated subtraction. Was that creative? It felt a lot like doodling or sketching to decide upon this and solve it.

I was a big fan of Dungeons and Dragons, and later Rifts and GURPS, when I was younger. I almost never played roleplaying games, but I spent a lot of time reading rulebooks and compendiums, and writing my own material such as new monsters. To someone expecting creative work to look more like art, this probably resembled accounting.

This clearly isn't a new discovery to a lot of people. Just looking at websites for chess variants and chess puzzles tell me that much, along with the large custom card making subset of the Magic: The Gathering community tell me this much. There are many people that seem to enjoy making up challenges and rulesets and get creative joy out of it.

If there's a thesis to this post, it's that if you're not inclined to make what would be typically considered art, you can still reap the mental health benefits of being creative through more 'left-brain' means. Other activities worth mentioning, but not from personal experience, include making crossword puzzles, nurikabe puzzles, maps, and fractals. Do something that involves building or making and a lot of small decisions, and don't worry about whether it's expressive, artistic, or traditionally considered creative.