Human capacity to create can change the world

The human capacity for creativity can change the world for the better, according to a new book co-authored by a Rice University composer and a noted neuroscientist/Rice alum.


ANTHONY BRANDT (Photo by Tommy LaVergne)

Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman ’93 explore this notion in “The Runaway Species” (Catapult, 296 pages, $28). Brandt is a Rice professor of composition and theory, and Eagleman is head of the Center for Science and Law and an adjunct professor at Stanford University.

“Above all else, the relentless drive of human beings makes us unique among living creatures,” Brandt and Eagleman wrote. “It’s built into our brain, into our biology, and it’s why you don’t see squirrels building elevators to their treetops or alligators inventing speedboats.”

To illustrate the idea that creativity is everywhere, Brandt and Eagleman open the book by explaining the connection between the NASA employees who saved the Apollo 13 crew and the late painter Pablo Picasso.

“At first glance, they do not appear to have much in common,” the authors wrote. “Saving the Apollo 13 crew was collaborative, while Picasso worked alone to commit his ideas to a canvas. And yet, the cognitive routines underlying NASA’s and Picasso’s creative acts are the same.”



The authors noted that creativity is not just for artists and engineers, but for hairstylists, accountants, architects, farmers and any other human who creates something previously unseen. They said that human beings are constantly using three creative tools – bending, breaking and blending – in their daily lives. These tools, the authors said, are a way of capturing the brain operations that underlie innovative thinking.

“These mental operations are what allow humans to get from the IBM Simon to an iPhone, or from native artifacts to the birth of modern art,” Brandt and Eagleman wrote. “They are basic to the way we view and understand the world. Consider our memory: It’s not like a video recording, faithfully transcribing our experiences; instead, there are distortions, shorthand and blurring together.”

The authors said that human beings all process situations differently, which is why they can witness a similar event or participate in the same conversation but recall them differently.

“Human creativity emerges from this mechanism,” Brandt and Eagleman wrote. “Creativity lives in the predictability between exploring the unknown and exploiting what we know. We bend, break and blend everything we observe, and the fruit of that mental labor results in new and improved versions of the world.”

The authors also noted that while artists, such as painters, writers and the like, are well-suited to showcase through their work the creativity that exists in everyday life, many times creativity is hidden and inaccessible. But whether creativity is overt or covert, they said it is the same when it comes to the cognitive tools used.

The authors hope that the book will allow people to better understand this “cognitive software” and harness its full potential to improve the world around them.

Brandt and Eagleman will give a reading from their book in Houston at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 16 at Christ Church Cathedral, 1117 Texas Ave. Admission costs $28 and includes a copy of the book. More information is available online at For more information about the book, visit

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.