A summer of browsing through art galleries continues. After the old masters in Venice in July, I stopped past some humble venues in the Lake District to pay my respects to John Ruskin, Kurt Schwitters and even Beatrix Potter.
The conventional wisdom is that gazing at art improves the soul: it might make me a better person, or at least a better draftsman. It seems absurd to suggest that it will make me a better economist.
Yet perhaps it will. A few years ago, a team of researchers (Jaclyn Gurwin and colleagues) arranged for 18 randomly chosen first-year medical students to take a short course in art appreciation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. During six 90-minute sessions across a three-month period, the students learnt to study, describe and criticise works of visual art. They were tested against a control group of 18 fellow students before and after the art course.
Each student was given ophthalmologic tasks — observing, describing and diagnosing images of diseases of the eye. The students trained in art showed substantial improvement in these tasks; the control group had actually declined. In this small but rigorous trial, medical trainees became better eye doctors if they spent time studying art. If we want to get better at what we do, then, perhaps we would benefit from taking a break and doing something different. It’s a kind of cross-training for the mind.
The journalists David Epstein and Malcolm Gladwell dub this idea the “Temin Effect”, after the brilliant biologist Howard Temin, a Nobel laureate with interests ranging from social activism to philosophy and literature. It might seem a stretch, and I certainly would not place too much weight on a study of 36 participants. But that study is by no means the only evidence that variety feeds creativity.
Exhibit A: David Bowie. In the build-up to his trilogy of Berlin-based albums, Bowie had collaborated with John Lennon, starred in the film The Man Who Fell to Earth — and worked inconclusively on its soundtrack — lived in Geneva, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, and drafted an autobiography. In Berlin he alternated his own albums with producing and writing for Iggy Pop.
Exhibit B: Michael Crichton. Originally a doctor, in the 1970s and 1980s he wrote novels and directed a mid-budget thriller, Westworld, but also wrote non-fiction books about art, medicine and computer programming. The fruits of all this variety? In 1995 Crichton had achieved the scarcely believable feat of creating the world’s best-selling book (The Lost World), television show (ER) and film (Congo); in 1996 he did it again (Airframe, ER and Twister). I haven’t even mentioned Jurassic Park.
If those examples seem a little middlebrow, Exhibit C is Charles Darwin. He rotated between projects over the course of decades. His article “Biographical Sketch of an Infant”, inspired by his baby son, was published in time for William’s 38th birthday. On the Origin of Species was legendarily long in the making, in part because Darwin simultaneously spent nearly 20 years working on creepers and insectivorous plants. His book on earthworms took 44 years to come to fruition. All these projects were completed in parallel.
One can list examples interminably, but are they representative? Several psychologists have studied the working habits of highly creative artists and scientists, using a variety of methods and selection criteria. Perhaps the most respected is Bernice Eiduson’s life-long study of 40 promising scientists, beginning in 1958. After Eiduson’s death, analysis of her subjects (including the chemist Linus Pauling and theoretical physicist Richard Feynman) concluded that those who enjoyed the longest and most productive careers tended to work on several problems at once. They frequently shifted focus in their research. It helps to look at something fresh.
Another study of high-performing artists and scientists, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, found the same tendency to slow-motion multitasking. Slowly switching from one project to another and back again seems to be standard practice for people with an enviable record of originality and creativity.
There are several reasons why this might be so. Different fields cross-fertilise each other. We process ideas unconsciously, once we’ve stopped thinking about them. And sometimes we simply need a rest. In the modern world, this may manifest in twitchy task-switching to another browser window. That is unhelpful. But taking a walk, visiting a gallery, picking up a book or planning a different project — this is often the kind of change we need. Darwin soothed himself by walking circuits of his garden, and by studying those earthworms.
All this suggests that the little study at the Philadelphia Museum of Art may be on to something real. When we take a break from our normal jobs and do something different, we may be being more productive than we realise. Of course, a holiday is worth taking for its own sake and one should not visit an art gallery purely as a means to some other end. But new experiences are useful as well as fun. Why not try something fresh in September?
If this topic grabs your interest, there’s much more in my book “Messy: How To Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World” which is now available in paperback both in the US and the UK – or through your local bookshop.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 24 August 2018.