Eric Weiner’s recent essay in the Wall Street Journal, “The Secret of Immigrant Genius,” suggested an unusual take on today’s immigrant debate—How many of the world’s greatest creative achievements have come via immigrants or refugees? Einstein was one, emigrating from Germany to Switzerland. The article cites others clearly recognizable as having sparked creative change: Sigmund Freud, Victor Hugo, Marie Curie, for example. According to Weiner, 13% of the U.S. population is foreign-born citizens, but they hold nearly 1/3 of all patents and nearly ¼ of the Nobel prizes. Makes me think a bit differently about my immigrant grandparents, though they were not in the patent-holding ranks. That’s my dad on the tricycle. And while his father worked in the mines, Dad had a number of patents. As I said, it makes me think.
The article was subtitled, “Having your world turned upside down sparks creative thinking.” It describes several interesting pieces of research that suggest that experiencing something outside your usual norms increases the odds of flexible thinking. For example, in one study*, individuals who experienced walking in a virtual reality in which the “rules” changed (for example when objects appeared smaller when you approached them) scored higher on creativity tests than those who walked through a typical realistic scene. Weiner suggested that emigrating so changes the framework of individuals’ experiences that they are likely to think more flexibly.
It reminds me of similar findings relating to international travel and other cultural encounters. To the degree that we genuinely experience other cultures, our frames of reference are forced to shift and we have the opportunity to think more flexibly. Perhaps not just the immigrants, but any students in our classrooms who are cultural minorities might have particular potential to think creatively–if we recognize it.
What does that mean for the rest of us, day to day? Aside from suggesting we look carefully at stereotypes around immigrant debates, what do we do if we aren’t immigrants or likely to be so? Perhaps, sometimes, it means if we want to develop flexibility in our thinking, we need to shake life up a bit. Do something scary or uncomfortable. Go to a conversation group for a language you’ve started studying, even if you are the worst one there. Visit an “ethnic” part of town you never visit. Browse in the shops and taste something you’ve never eaten. Talk to the shopkeepers. If your town is short on neighborhoods, maybe a cookbook from the library can set you on a journey. Every time we envision the world through another set of eyes, we have to flex our creative muscles as well as our empathy. Today, that seems like a very good idea.
*Ritter, S. et al (2012). Diversifying experiences enhance cognitive flexibility. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 961-964.