Creativity as a Kind of Frontier Experience: Ideas for Rainforest Architects


Albert Bierstadt, The Oregon Trail, 1869.

In The Rainforest, Victor Hwang and Greg Horowitt write about the “frontier experience” and how essential it was for the growth of Silicon Valley. At its core, the quintessentially American frontier experience was a disruption of rigid, established hierarchies—one that created a space from which new forms of cooperation and mutualism emerged. Drawing on the work of the historian Frederick Jackson Turner, Hwang and Horowitt write: “The moving ‘frontier line’ meant that American culture had evolved away from traditional European style institutions on the East Coast—such as established churches, aristocracies, strong governments, and landed gentry.” (Ch. 5: “Rules of the Rainforest”)

Once the old “conventional walls and hierarchies have been broken down,” new modes of trust and connection come into play. Much of The Rainforest is about forming the kind of social networks that permit a “promiscuity of ideas,” the free play of ideas required to generate startling and valuable innovations.

Modern psychology and neuroscience have been telling us something similar about human creativity in general. The ability to look at an issue sideways or to see new combinations of old ideas requires that we break out of habitual patterns and automatic mental associations. Easier said than done. For all our talk (and TED talks!) about creativity, we often forget that it is far easier to fall back into mental routines and habits. To demonstrate how tricky and subtle our own mental processes are, let’s conduct this simple experiment:

Consider the moon. No really, think about it in great detail. Imagine it however you wish: maybe it’s the last time you saw a full moon, or the last time you could clearly see the craters and valleys. Stop reading and take a few moments to think about it. What were you experiencing when you saw it? If you’re having trouble recalling, take a look at one of these:

  moon09     moon03

We’ll get back to that in a second (and don’t skip ahead!).

In a famous line from Remembrance of Things Past, the great French novelist Marcel Proust wrote: “Perhaps the immobility of the things that surround us is forced upon them… by the immobility of our conception of them.” Psychologists love to quote from Proust, primarily because he intuited some interesting things—for example, about memory and smell—that scientists would begin to explain only decades later.

Now, please think of a brand of laundry detergent and write down the very first name that comes to mind. (Try not to filter your response, and don’t read ahead!)


The most famous scene in Proust’s novel is that of the petite madeleine, a little scallop-shaped cookie, dipped in tea. When the narrator is offered the madeleine, its taste and smell, combined with that of the tea, spark the vivid recollection of a life that had, until that point, been buried in the distant past.

“[…I]n that moment all the flowers in our garden, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, towns and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.”

In fact, the remembrance of this life is so vivid and detailed that the ensuing story encompasses six large volumes, and Proust himself never finished writing the story!

OK. Back to our experiment. What’s the brand of laundry detergent that you wrote down? Chances are you picked “Tide”—and not All, Wisk, Arm & Hammer, Purex, Gain, Seventh Generation, or your local grocer’s knock-off brand. Why? Because the association between the moon and the tide are strong enough that they’re “called up” in memory, even if you don’t consciously access it. It’s possible that you may be one of the few who didn’t pick Tide, but when this experiment is run with large audiences, the trend holds up.

Now, you may argue that Tide simply has a larger market share and is the most common brand, and that’s why you picked it. (Be honest: when was the last time you actually bought Tide?) I’ll even concede that I cheated by showing you some pictures of the moon. However, the experiment has been repeated with other cues, using more obscure categories or subtler stimuli. Psychologists call it “priming,” and some researchers have claimed that our unconscious associations may also reside at the core of stereotyping.

One prevalent theory on this phenomenon is that we seem to think in “frames,” or conceptual networks of associated concepts, images and meanings. The linguist George Lakoff famously started his lectures with the command: “Don’t think of an elephant!” You can’t do it, of course, despite the command “Don’t!” What’s more, many of your associations with an elephant—the trunk, the floppy ears, the tail, maybe a story from Rudyard Kipling—have been pre-loaded, even if you haven’t consciously accessed them yet. To use a baseball metaphor, they’re in the “on-deck” circle, even if they’re not up to bat yet.

Interestingly, the inability of computers to “think” in frames is a complicated problem in artificial intelligence research; it’s very difficult to get a computer to understand context or implied meaning. This is also why learning how to program can be so challenging—you have to instruct a computer, step by step, to do things that you can do automatically!

*          *          *

Researchers who study creativity come up with many scenarios, all designed to find out how people avoid the obvious, automatic choices to discover new or unexpected associations. For example, think of a tattered piece of tablecloth, and all the various things you could compare it to. Can you come up with some startling metaphors or similes? They can be humorous and light, or deep and insightful—whatever you’d like. Here’s what the poet Pablo Neruda penned:

A day like a tatter of tablecloth drying
flaps in a circle of lives and extension.

Wow. I had many associations, but nothing like that! Maybe you fared better. And yes, we often run the risk of blurting out absurd, silly creations and neologisms. But it’s worth it, because sometimes a jarring juxtaposition can shake us out of our slumber and offer some brief respite from the routinely automatic—and maybe we can derive some pleasure, if not wisdom from the experience.

This is why we spend so much time and money consuming art, and it’s the reason why we prize great art. It’s also why big companies that value creativity, like Google, expend resources to ensure that their employees can play ping-pong, mingle and wander on campus. It’s to get them to a mental frontier—that place where one can let go of, or at least suspend, one’s habitual conceptualizing and problem solving.

Or, to return to the frontier experience from American history: it’s the place where one might just succeed in escaping the “East Coast of the mind,” with its rigid hierarchies, efficient means-to-ends, and established ways of doing. It’s the place that permits disruption, recombination, and reassembly into new forms of cooperation among ideas and people alike. Yes, it’s risky and can produce monstrosities of the imagination, but sometimes it can also yield inventions that change our lives.

2 Comments on “Creativity as a Kind of Frontier Experience: Ideas for Rainforest Architects”

  1. […] Creativity as a Kind of Frontier Experience: Ideas for Rainforest Architects ( […]

  2. […] the free play of ideas required to generate startling and valuable innovations. Read more here.Lessons In Leadership: It’s Not About You. (It’s About Them)National Public RadioThe […]

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