RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There is great comfort in the familiar. But it turns out the familiar may not be the best place to cultivate creativity. A growing body of scientific research suggests one way to improve creative output is to form deep connections with people from other countries and different cultures. Here's NPR's Shankar Vedantam.
ADAM GALINSKY: Hello. Hello.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Adam. I'm Shankar. It's nice to meet you.
GALINSKY: Nice to meet you.
VEDANTAM: Not long ago, when I was in New York, I stopped by the apartment of social psychologist Adam Galinsky. Upon entering, he made a simple request.
GALINSKY: Do you mind taking off your shoes?
VEDANTAM: No, not at all.
His wife Jenna Olayon pointed to some house shoes.
JENNA OLAYON: Here's some slippers if you like.
VEDANTAM: Galinsky admits that having a shoe-free house wasn't something he'd done growing up.
GALINSKY: I'd never taken my shoes off in my own house before meeting - you know, dating Jen.
VEDANTAM: He grew up in a secular Jewish family in North Carolina. She grew up in Connecticut with parents who'd emigrated from the Philippines.
GALINSKY: I think, you know, that's really what made me think about space in a totally different way and sort of how people construct their worlds and their interior environments.
VEDANTAM: This small act of adopting a practice from another culture speaks to Galinsky's own research. He's found that allowing yourself to be influenced by another culture can spark increases in your creativity.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
VEDANTAM: In one experiment, Galinsky asked students to reflect on relationships they'd had with someone from a different country. Other volunteers, chosen at random, were asked to think about a relationship with someone from their own country. Galinsky and his colleagues then measured the creativity of the different volunteers using tests along the lines of the Duncker candle problem.
GALINSKY: In the Duncker candle problem, you give them a candle, a box of tacks and a book of matches. And you tell them to fix the candle to a wall in such a way that the candle when lit doesn't drip wax onto the wall, table or floor.
VEDANTAM: The test requires you to think about familiar objects in a new way.
GALINSKY: A box of tacks can be a repository for tacks but can also be a stand. And the solution is you dump out all the tacks out of the box. You tack the box to the wall, and then you put the candle inside.
VEDANTAM: In every creativity test, students asked to reflect on their relationship with someone from another country outperform those asked to reflect on a relationship with someone from their own country.
GALINSKY: There was a boost in temporary creativity just by reflecting on the intercultural relationship. And that was really driven by the fact that people felt that they had learned more about another culture. And that reflection of that cultural learning led to increased creativity.
VEDANTAM: Galinsky has also found real world evidence of the phenomenon. Fashion designers and entrepreneurs seemed to become more creative the more time they spent immersed in new cultures or the more time they spend in relationships with people from other cultures.
GALINSKY: I think the big scientific conclusion that is very robust is that it's about really, truly, deeply understanding another culture as the key to enhancing your own creativity.
(SOUNDBITE OF BAGPIPES PLAYING)
VEDANTAM: Cristina Pato has found her own way to the same idea. She's a bagpipe player from Galicia.
CRISTINA PATO: In the northwest corner of Spain.
VEDANTAM: Pato learned to play the bagpipes as a child. By the time she was just 20, she released two albums and earned the nickname the Jimi Hendrix of the bagpipes.
(SOUNDBITE OF CRISTINA PATO'S "A DESCERRAJAR")
VEDANTAM: Pato was also trained in another musical form.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PLAYING)
VEDANTAM: The classical music Pato played on the piano felt like a world away from the bagpipes. She kept the two musical worlds very separate. The audiences were different. The traditions were different. In her mid-20s, when she left home to pursue classical piano in the United States, she kept her history with the bagpipes a secret.
PATO: And I move here. I didn't tell anybody around me when I went to Rutger's University to get my doctorate that I had another life.
VEDANTAM: But during her studies, she happened to meet a famous composer from Argentina, Oswaldo Golijov. They were discussing the cultural traditions of Galicia when Pato let slip the fact that she played the bagpipes.
PATO: And then his eyes opened even wider.
VEDANTAM: A few months later, Golijov invited Pato to an informal gathering of musicians. He told her to bring her bagpipes.
PATO: So there I was, like, playing my instrument with a bunch of strangers.
(SOUNDBITE CRISTINA PATO'S "NOITE DE LUA")
PATO: The only song I could recognize physically, it was Yo-Yo.
PATO: Yo-Yo Ma, the cellist.
VEDANTAM: The most renowned and famous cellist in the world.
(SOUNDBITE OF YO-YO MA "UNACCOMPANIED CELLO SUITE NO. 3 IN C MAJOR")
VEDANTAM: What Pato hadn't realized is that she had stumbled into a room filled with master musicians from around the world. They were part of a group created by Yo-Yo Ma. It's a collective known as the Silk Road Ensemble. And it brings together musicians from different cultures and different traditions. The vision for the collective, Pato says, is something Yo-Yo Ma calls the edge effect.
PATO: Which is the point in which two ecosystems meet - like the forest and the savannah. And apparently in ecology, this edge effect is where the most new life forms are created. And somehow Silk Road is some sort of his recreation of this edge effect.
VEDANTAM: It was a turning point for her. Cristina joined the Silk Road Ensemble. Every performance, she says, is informed by a simple question.
PATO: What could happen when strangers meet?
VEDANTAM: Just as Adam Galinsky found in his scientific research, Pato says working with strangers from different musical traditions provides a great boost to creativity.
PATO: In Silk Road, you also have to keep going and meeting communities of people that you have never imagined of working with - maybe putting together instruments that you would never think they will work together, like a Galician bagpipe and Japanese shakuhachi.
(SOUNDBITE OF CRISTINA PATO AND KOJIRO UMESAKI'S "VOJO")
PATO: Somehow, to me, Silk Road is the metaphor of the 21st century society - or at least the wish I have for the 21st century.
VEDANTAM: Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF CRISTINA PATO AND KOJIRO UMESAKI'S "VOJO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.