Dr. Yoed Kenett – The brain is wired to adapt, survive, and evolve in complex environments

For Dr. Yoed Kenett, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, asking questions is what makes the world go round. He explores the role of knowledge in complex thinking, such as creativity, and how the brain realizes such complex thinking processes. In a nutshell, he believes that what matters is the questions themselves rather than the answers.

During his undergraduate studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Yoed fell down a rabbit hole on a topic of research known as problem finding, which studies how people characterize and define problems, a process that is considered the first stage in the creative process.

“Problem finding,” Yoed explained, “is considered the initial stage in the creative process, where people can identify, formalize, or characterize problems, especially ill-defined problems. These are problems where we don’t know exactly what our goal is or how to achieve the goal. Life is an ill-defined problem and people that are better in this problem-finding stage are better at moving towards the problem-solution stage, and then they’re more creative.”

As a species, humans tend to jump to the same conclusion when we discuss creative problem solving: that we already know what the problem is. Yoed suggests that we should focus on creative problem finding, and to study creativity as a complex process that unfolds over time.

“The creative process is complex and multistage, and science has largely focused on the problem solving and verbal types of creativity tasks. There’s a lot of history of why that is and where we are at, but overall, we really should move into studying the dynamics of the creative process and how it unfolds over time.”

The plethora of new research being conducted on creativity via computational tools, both cognitive and neural, Yoed believes, is advancing direct examination of classic theories on the nature of creativity. One such classic theory, the associative theory of creativity, highlights the role of knowledge in creative thinking. Advances in computational methods such as in graph theory and natural language processing, Yoed argues, are allowing to empirically and directly study such classic theories, in ways that were not possible before.

“Studying creativity requires a multidisciplinary approach. You need to study it in an environment that has diverse scientific approaches…  ranging from mathematics, statistics, computer science, data science, computational linguistics, and behavioral sciences… The benefit of being where I am [at the Faculty of Industrial Engineering and Management at the Technion] is the convergence of very strong computational research with empirical research.”

The multidisciplinary nature of the field of creativity is what Yoed holds as truly unique as a scientific field. Moreover, Yoed points out how the scientific community that studies creativity is rapidly expanding from more traditional psychological research and art domains to broader and more general aspects related to cognitive and neural processes that realize such a complex phenomenon, and broader domains, such as engineers or children. These domains enrich the construct and lead to broader scientific research and dialogue.

“The advancement of neuroscientific research on creativity is pushing us as a field to improve the measures, methods, and designs that we’re using to study this construct,” he said. “Now, we’re trying to reach out to broader audiences in the general neuroscience communities to bring creativity more to the front stage, where it should be, and help scientists from other domains realize how exciting this construct is and how it fits into every other topic that’s being studied.”

As the principal investigator at the Cognitive Complexity Lab within the Technion, Yoed’s primary research focus is on higher-level cognition, which is broadly described with relation to creativity, intelligence, and aesthetics, in typical and clinical populations. In short, it deals with complex behavior, specifically in creativity, which is at the center of Yoed’s research.

Yoed’s research lab stands upon three pillars. First, they study how knowledge is organized and its role in complex and creative thinking when it comes to memory structures, as well as dynamics that operate over knowledge (such as searching in memory) or how knowledge changes with age, interaction, and problem-solving. Second, they focus on clinical populations and what happens when memory starts to break down, such as in cases of Alzheimer’s patients or people with autism or aphasia. The last pillar studies how neural mechanisms realize such complex behaviors.

“Creativity is a phenomenon involving multiple cognitive processes at the neural and cognitive levels… The brain is wired to be adaptive, to be flexible, to survive, to evolve in complex environments, and I think that is what generates what we think of when we think about creativity.”

Yoed is also on the executive committee for the Society for the Neuroscience of Creativity (SfNC), which as he explained, “aims to promote neuroscience research on creativity.” He became acquainted with the Sonophilia Foundation through Dr. Roger Beaty, another Sonophilian and who’s also on the executive committee of the SfNC, who helped spark this valuable connection.

“I’m mostly interested and excited about the possibility to reach out to unique populations that are interested in creativity, to wider audiences, and to find opportunities,” he said. “My focus on knowledge and expertise has a lot of interesting potential for questions [and] implementations, and I think there’s a lot of great potential [for such collaboration].