The Science of Art: Lifelong Experimentation

Life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Life is the greatest experiment of all. And you are its subject.

If you’re anything like former Mythbusters host Kari Byron, you might now be saying “I’m not a scientist! I’m an artist, a curious person who likes to make stuff”.

But experimentation is something artists and scientists have in common.

Frequently, we see a rigid divide between ‘art’ and ‘science’. But are they really distinct? Is there a clear definition between them?

These are questions Prof. Stephen Mumford, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and professor of metaphysics at the University of Nottingham asks, noting that there is no universal agreement.

Art vs. Science

All too often, we assume that art = creativity and science = the rigorous application of a method. But in reality, scientists apply creative thinking to define and solve problems, and artists use scientific methods to test and develop new ideas.

The line between ‘art’ and ‘science’ has always been blurred. Like the boundaries of all subject areas, it is an artificial construct, an intellectual shorthand. Before Aristotle divided up the subjects pretty much along the lines we recognize today, art and science were simply considered forms of knowledge.

Today, Byron advocates recombining them, adding ‘A’ for ‘Arts’ to ‘STEM’ (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) to form ‘STEAM’.

So many of humanity’s greatest innovations have come from some combination of the fields we consider art and science. Novelist Mary Shelly is the grandmother of science fiction. Ada Lovelace had the idea of using numbers to make pictures – essentially inventing digital computing.

‘Use both sides of your brain’ commands Byron. ‘Foster art, combine it with science, and you’ll get something that is truly groundbreaking.’

In her book Crash Test Girl, Kari Byron dispels the myth that you are either born creative, or you are not. ‘Every single person is born to be a maker, a generator of ideas.’

Byron also busts the myth that you have to be a scientist to use the scientific method. Not only is she herself not a scientist (at least in the sense of someone with a qualification in one of the physical sciences) but her co-hosts Tory and Grant are also ‘creatives’ – not scientists.

We aren’t ‘creative’ types or ‘logical’ types. We are all both.

We are all creatives

It is true, Byron says, that some people may appear to be gifted with what seems to be a ‘natural’ talent in the arts. But while talent is useful, ‘it’s not essential to creativity. All you need is a curious mind and the drive to follow wherever it leads you.’

Aptitude is defined as ‘inborn potential to do certain kinds of work‘. Those with outstanding aptitude are often described as ‘talented’.

Talent vs. Hard Work

Aptitude is difficult to pin down. It’s easy to test abilities, but much harder to test underlying potential. And according to Malcolm Gladwell, it is difficult or even impossible to distinguish between someone ‘talented’ and someone who got there through hard work.

Could that be because there is no difference? That hard work really is more important than some innate, difficult to define ability?

That’s the position of Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, authors of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. While in the past, learning was considered to be “just a way of fulfilling one’s genetic potential”, they argue that our brains are plastic, not hardwired. Importantly, the authors suggest that whether we want to succeed in arts, music, or sports, deliberate practice is key.

Lifelong Learning

Life is but an endless series of experiments

Mahatma Gandhi

The most important gifts we can bestow upon children is “confidence in their ability to remake themselves again and again and the tools with which to do that job” write Ericsson and Pool. As the concept of lifelong learning recognizes, learning should not confined to childhood or the classroom, but takes place throughout life, and in a range of contexts.

Novelist Charlotte Wood, author of The Weekend composed an essay for the Griffith Review entitled ‘Experiments in the Art of Living’. She describes how life actually gets better as we age. And it’s not just her experience and anecdotes that suggest this. Global studies show a ‘paradox of age’. Following childhood, happiness tends to decline. Most people are miserable in their forties. But those in their eighties and nineties are as happy as – or even happier than – those who are eighteen or nineteen.

The purpose of aging, says psychologist James Hillman, is to fulfill our true character. To become our essential selves. Ageing itself can be its own art form. Therefore, Wood suggests, artists can teach us to practice aging:

‘Push beyond your first ideas… Develop a tolerance for solitude, and for failure. Make your mark, defend it, then challenge it, overturn it.’

Or, as Jasper Johns puts it, ‘Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.’

Rather than capitulating to reduction, Wood says ‘we can keep adding to our concept of how to age – turn our thinking about oldness into an art, and keep exploring it. Doing something to it, and doing something else.

In other words: keep experimenting.

As a writer, a failure is just information. It’s something that I’ve done wrong in writing, or is inaccurate or unclear. I recognize failure—which is important; some people don’t—and fix it, because it is data, it is information, knowledge of what does not work. That’s rewriting and editing… It’s as though you’re in a laboratory and you’re working on an experiment with chemicals or with rats, and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t mix. You don’t throw up your hands and run out of the lab. What you do is you identify the procedure and what went wrong and then correct it. If you think of [writing] simply as information, you can get closer to success.

Toni Morrison, Write, Erase, Do Over in The Art of Failure: The importance of risk and experimentation

We are all scientists

The scientific method, Kari Byron says, is more than just an elegant method for figuring out all sorts of things. It’s the ‘perfect narrative vehicle for proving and disproving myths’. Including our own life lies.

Here are the five steps:

  1. Question. Learning begins with ‘I wonder what would happen if…?’ Authors and actors will notice that this is suspiciously similar to how many writing and improv prompts.
  2. Hypothesize. Formulate a theory about what will happen based on what you already know.
  3. Experiment. Find out what really happens.
  4. Analyze. Study what occurred.
  5. Conclude. Answer your question, and think of how you might do things differently in the future.

The science of inspiration

So how do we apply the scientific method to creative problem solving?

Consider something as elusive as ‘inspiration’. How could science possibly help us figure out where our ideas come from – and how to get more of them?

Byron asked herself this question, and developed the hypothesis that for great ideas, ‘you have to be able to concentrate, alone, in a quiet room, with no distractions.’

And then, she tested it: comparing how inspired she felt and how productive she was in a variety of settings. In her own apartment, set up exactly as she wanted. In a busy cafe. With a roommate who was in a band. And in the hustle and bustle of India, versus in a quiet ashram.

What did she find?

Byron concluded that ‘When you have no choice, you rise to the creative occasion.’

All too often, we have a picture in our head of what creativity is supposed to look like. We tell ourselves we ‘can’t’ be creative or inspired unless we have the ‘perfect’ conditions. We might, for instance, tell ourselves the life lie that without Byron’s ability to seek ‘enlightenment’ in India, we are unable to create.

But while she was in India, taking in the exotic sights, sounds, and smells, Byron learned that she could be creative anywhere. Nor did she need to follow any specific rituals.

Like many of us, Byron believed that in order to be ‘enlightened’, she needed to learn how to meditate. She believed that she needed the sweet Indian coffee served in the tiny cups she drank on the way to yoga each day.

Yet, after observing her, Byron’s yoga teacher Rama Krishna, told her she did not need to learn meditation: ‘you are always painting. You are an artist. That is your meditation,’ he said. ‘You will never be able to be quiet. You must paint.’

And what about the mystical coffee Byron loved so much?

One day, she arrived at the cafe early and saw it being made.

Her ‘morning enlightenment in a cup’ was Nescafe and condensed milk.

In hindsight, Byron says her quest for enlightenment feels ridiculous. ‘Now I know that you get “answers” (practical or mystical) by asking questions and experimenting.’ The creative journey, she concludes, is always inward.

Of course, you don’t need to travel to experiment with creativity and inspiration. You can perform an experiment just as successfully by keeping a journal in which you write down how you felt when you wrote, played, painted, or sketched in various conditions. Make a note of the time of day, place, your general mood, and any other relevant factors, and look for patterns.

Novelists who take part in the annual National Novel Writing Month may have already taken part in such an experiment, tracking their mood, writing method, location, and word count on the website.

If you put your mind to it, you’ll find lots of ways you can improve your life using a little creative science.

Everybody’s a mad scientist, and life is their lab. We’re all trying to find a way to live, to solve problems, to fend off madness and chaos.

David Cronenberg


Brainstorm some questions that relate to your life. This could be a question about your creative life, like where your ideas come from, or whether it is possible to be creative on demand, as Byron explores in her book. It could be about your finances – in her chapter on money, Byron asks ‘What role should money play in life and love?’

Next, develop a hypothesis. For example, Byron puts forward the hypothesis that money = security and stability. (Or maybe, for you, money = freedom) {LINK}

Design an experiment to test that hypothesis. Byron put together a ‘Starving Artist Financial Plan’, seeking advice and becoming the ‘CFO’ of her family.

Analyze your results, and come to a conclusion. Kari Byron found that while money is necessary to keep you fed (important to avoid being a starving artist!) money can’t buy happiness.

There really is no such thing as a ‘failed experiment’. Any test that yields valid data is a valid test.

Adam Savage

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