Cognitive Friction (Part 2)

My latest musing on Cognitive Friction has led to a few different reactions, which I think could be usefully explored here.

First, my friends James Bollocks and Stuart Stevens shared their own experiences employing cognitive friction, albeit in vastly different contexts and for differing purposes. James, an avid skateboarder, writes:

For the last couple years whenever 'Travelling' on my skateboard - i make the very conscious choice to spin it 180° and ride in switch [with the dominant foot at the back of the skateboard instead of the front]. It costs me a lot of enjoyment - riding naturally i don't need to think at all and I can really enjoy the ride - but riding switch is heavy on concentration, and much more dangerous. So, why do i do it?...
Two reasons:

  1.  I want to become better at riding switch - I want it to become more natural for me - and to end up feeling as comfortable as when I ride my natural direction.
  2. Practicing 'travelling' in switch , as opposed to doing 'tricks' in switch (which I do also admittedly do) gives me a tolerable and just about safe enough level at which to experience this cognitive friction - whilst still being able to occasionally flip back round 180° (for example at dangerous road crossings) and assume soooo much more comfortable control over the board and riding experience in general.

I really can't emphasise the discipline required to do something you can do fine the one way the other. The temptation wins out more than I am proud to admit - and thus the purposeful friction (/learning) goes on. [revised terminology – 29/05/14]

Likewise, he writes that applying cognitive friction becomes pedagogically important in that, when working with beginner skateboarders, it helps to

remove the comfort and effortlessness in what you're doing and return you to a state of cognitive effort and awareness - in order to remember/re-understand exactly what your beginner skate brother or sister is going through.

From a musical perspective, my friend Stuart writes

In my exploration of melody using 31-edo temperament I have returned to my most familiar instrument - the electric guitar. After years of practice and doodling I am able to play the instrument with my eyes shut and my fingers instinctively know how to "land" on intervals (frets) in known relationships. Re-fretting the guitar with 31 frets in the octave has created a cognitive friction. While all the playing techniques around fretting, strumming, picking etc can still be applied, the new layout is forcing my mind to re-visit a process I obviously undertook many years before in my early guitar learning - that of matching interval relationships and fret positions to the pitches I am hearing and getting to "know the notes on the guitar" through improvising. As a consequence, when scoring, I find more and more that I think naturally in 31-edo as well as 12-edo. The one factor changed is the fret positions, and I now see that as cognitive friction applied to my well-established guitar-playing.

The means by which actions are learnt and habitualised share common features across a variety of contexts. Cognitive friction is a disturbance introduced into already-functioning systems.

Second, my friend Joe Scarffe raised the question of whether or not cognitive friction is another term for Daniel Kahneman's System 2? In a nutshell, what Joe is referring to is the dual ways of thinking proposed by psychologist Daniel Kahneman (the 2002 Nobel recipient in Economics):

  • System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
  • System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.

This division in thought processes is similar to that found in the work of management theorist John Heron ( Mode 2 and Mode 1 knowledge, in reverse numbering from Kahneman) and even as far back as Gilbert Ryle (procedural and propositional knowledge). What I'd like to make clear is that cognitive friction, as I envision it, is not necessarily mode of thinking itself. Rather, it is the process by which you shift from intuition to concentration. This resembles what psychologists have named task set reconfiguration, although I do not know the extent to which the practical uses of this concept have been explored.

The process of moving from intuition to concentration does slow things down, making you generally less efficient and more uncomfortable. However, the benefit is that it forces conscious re-engagement with the processes and actions at hand. This is not to say that consciously 'thinking' when we are 'doing' is always better: both systems/modes of thinking serve their purposes based on context and experience. Cognitive friction is the process by which we realise how much we have forgotten that we know. That realisation may then be used to learn about ourselves, adapt and improve our actions, and to teach others.

I am intrigued by this area, and would love to find out more about it (and how it may be usefully applied pedagogically and within my own performance). If you have suggestions on where to look, please let me know!

Creativity Through Restriction

A few weeks ago, I came across the following statement:

To which, I replied:

…encouraging the following dialogue:

Although it was certainly a challenge, I found that forcing myself to pare down my writing during my doctorate resulted in several outcomes. First, it became quickly apparent if I had clearly thought through the ideas I was writing down. Waffling about tangential subjects that only skirted the edges of what I actually needed to say was rather counterproductive, and forced me to question if I actually knew what I needed to say at all. Second, my understanding of the nuances of the English language improved dramatically. Capturing the essence of my message in clear, concise prose often took a lot more energy and creativity to do than to talk around the subject. Thus comes one of the key characteristics often attributed to creativity: the ability to approach a problem or puzzle in an unique way, to tease it out from a radically different approach than has been taken before. For me, the puzzle was to continually find more concise methods of expressing myself, resulting in me becoming occasionally rather maniacally brutal to sections that I had spent weeks or months preparing in the process. The use of constraint as a foil in writing is not new, ranging from poets fitting phrases into specific metres to Ernest Vincent Wright's novel Gadsby, famously written without a single letter 'e'.

At the beginning of last week, I spoke at Leeds College of Music's International Festival for Artistic Innovation, a week-long series of presentations, rehearsals, and performances exploring what 'innovation' may encompass within music. Within the same session as my paper was a presentation given by Mark Slater and Adam Martin about Nightports, a compositional project based upon the following manifesto:

Arrive. Move. Shift. Change. Depart.

Nightports inhabit the crossroads between song and dark electronica. A shifting, transient world of intense pulses and intimate lines. All sounds emerge from one voice, one body and pass through transformations, distortions, translations to produce a music of extremes. Delicate, powerful, fragmenting, flickering.

In their presentation, Slater and Martin described how the entire compositional and production process was governed by the rule that all of the sounds used had to have their origins in the singer, Emily Lynn. This restriction forced them to make practical and aesthetic decisions in the construction of the final recording. For example, in order for the original set of recordings fit within the genre of electronica, they had to possess appropriate musical elements that would characterise it as such. Thus, to create the palette of sounds familiar to electronica, the original vocal material had to be transformed, stretched, and distorted. The resulting sounds then impacted the process of arranging and producing the final recording. Slater and Martin's presentation illustrated a variety of these puzzles brought about by their manifesto, and allowed them to describe the ways that they had to find creative solutions to them.

These unrelated incidents made me reconsider how context affects artistic development. Which encourages creative thought more: freedom or restriction? Choosing one of an unlimited number of possible solutions to a problem may not necessarily demonstrate a high level of decision-making, as there is not anything to prevent someone from being guided simply by personal preference or ease of execution. However, as less solutions become available due to whatever restrictions are put in place, the more someone will have to critically weigh their options. This does not necessarily mean that they will have to compromise and choose a path that is not ideal. Rather, they may devise new solutions that allow them to abide by the restricting criteria yet still achieve whatever it is that they want to achieve.

Contemplating this issue in generic terms of 'problems' and 'solutions' is one thing: what about in other musical contexts? To a certain extent, any kind of musical performance – particularly acoustic performance – carries a host of restrictions brought about by the instrument itself. The application of extended techniques and electronics can certainly broaden my sonic palette, and inventing new ways of getting sound out of instruments is certainly an ongoing creative challenge. Even beyond simply creating sounds, however, improvisation may also relate to this issue. Years before having discretely considered the benefits of restriction for creative thought, I applied this concept toward working with improvising ensembles of students. I found that simply telling a group to improvise on their instruments and respond to each others' sounds resulted in rather dull and uninspired performances (not to mention unimpressed students). Given the opportunity to play anything at all, these young musicians either stayed completely within their comfort zone or didn't take the task seriously. However, this changed once the ensemble had a rule they had to abide by. These could range from instructions such as 'You cannot play any note longer than a second' and 'You cannot play above pianissimo' to 'You can only play using three pitches' or 'Every note must be lower than the previous'. Although simple, these rules provided foils which the students could wrestle with, posing a problem that needed a solution. Thus, the young musicians needed to strike a balance: to follow the technical restriction whilst still attempting to satisfy their innate urge to create an interesting and meaningful musical performance.

What do you think? Which encourages creative thought more: freedom or restriction?