Freud, Kandinsky, and Mahler meet in a coffee shop
“People” who give advice about writing blogs say that an entry should always be short – terse and concise. But, I’ve been processing information about neuroscience, creativity, history, art, and education – asking how this all fits with organization development. This reflecting process doesn’t fit neatly onto one computer screen. If you’re interested in the same, I invite you to read on and add to the conversation … .
Mixing together at coffee shops, museums, and parties, Freud, Kandinsky, and Mahler were some of the scientists, painters, writers, and musicians who lived in Vienna, Austria at the opening of the 20th century. It was an exciting place and time. Biology, anatomy, chemistry, and physics stirred together giving birth to neuroscience. Painters, musicians, and writers experimented under the influence of new ideas from scientists and philosophers.
While I think of Freud as one of the fathers of psychoanalysis, Freud began his career studying anatomy. He was part of the group of scientists at the University of Vienna medical school who studied the brain, deconstructing one cell at a time – and anticipated the neuron doctrine. Another, Santiago Ramón y Cajal was a painter and anatomy specialist who ultimately theorized that neurons are the brain’s building blocks. Biology, neurology, fine art, and human behavior intersected.
Is it important that Ramón y Cajal was a painter? Eric Kandel, In Search of Memory, writes, “He brought to his task an uncanny ability to infer the properties of living nerve cells from static images of dead nerve cells. This leap of the imagination, perhaps derived from his artistic bent, enabled him to capture and describe in vivid terms and in beautiful drawings the essential nature of any observation he made (p. 61).” The suggestion made by Kandel and others is that Ramón y Cajal used his cross-disciplinary skills to make discoveries.
The connections formed across disciplines in Vienna included interactions with musicians like Mahler who were bridging from Mozart and Beethovan to a new school of composers. It included interactions with the expressionist and early abstract painters including Klimt and Kandinsky in Vienna and Cézanne and Picasso elsewhere in Europe. Klimt in particular interacted with scientists and artists; he was influenced by Darwin and the research coming from London’s Royal Society. For example, Klimt’s paintings, Adele Bloch-Bauer’s Portrait and The Kiss include geometric, cell structures hidden within the figure.
These artists and musicians were using the ideas of deconstruction to experiment with perspective, time, and form. Eric Kandel, The Age of Insight, reconnects these: “Visual perception begins in the retina as an information-processing system that deconstructs the form of objects and faces and then turns the critical components of those images into a neural code; this code is reflected in a pattern of action potentials in the brain (p. 219).”
Kandel asks if there is a common set of neurological skills underlying all of this creativity? While not implying that scientists, artists, philosophers, and musicians can swap places, his argument is that creative insight is universal. He suggests that creativity depends “on abilities like constructing metaphor, reinterpreting data, connecting unrelated ideas, resolving contradictions, and eliminating arbitrariness (TAoI, p. 458).” While “arbitrariness” is different for a quantum physicist and a painter, Aha! moments arise from similar strategies: planning, then relaxation, and even dreaming.
Research in neuroscience demonstrates that “the brain is a creativity machine. It searches for patterns amid chaos and ambiguity and it constructs models of the complex reality around us. This search for order and pattern is at the heart of the artistic and the scientific enterprise alike (TAoI, p.498).”
As I consider organizations, I observe a necessity for knowledge of science, philosophy, art, and, even, music. Organizations need external knowledge of logic and analysis along with internal knowledge of human behavior. They need strategy, engineering, and planning along with emotion and perception that allow creativity and adaptability. They need to creatively construct and destruct. The music flowing through the headset of the engineer and project manager can shift neural pathways. All of this works together, generating Aha! moments.
Recently a student asked which business books and magazines she should be reading in order to grow in understanding of organization development. Along with the usual suspects like Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, and Wired, I asked her if she had a membership at the local art museum, plans to attend concerts with friends, and a hobby that engaged her emotions and mind.
I close this reflection with a quote from biologist Stephen Jay Gould:
I want the sciences and humanities to become the greatest of pals, to recognize a deep kinship and necessary connection in pursuit of human decency and achievement, but to keep their ineluctably different aims and logics separate as they ply their joint projects and learn from each other. Let them be two musketeers –both for one and one for both– but not the graded stages of a single and grand consilient unity (p. 197).
What generates Aha! moments in your life? Do you engage with others who have broad interests?
How can organizations intentionally embrace science and the humanities?
Gould, S. J. (2003). The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox. Harmony Books, New York.
Kandel, E. R. (2012). The Age of Insight. Random House, New York.
Kandel, E. R. (2006). In Search of Memory. Random House, New York.