Xiao Xiao
Invisible Cities of the Creative Mind
TEDxSanDiego 2014

How does the creative mind come to be? We all start out pretty small, like me up there, with our basic sensory motor skills and immense curiosity, but without the ability to do so much.

These days, I’m now at the MIT Media Lab, completing my PhD with Professor Hiroshi Ishii, inventing new interactions with the computer that bridge the physical and the digital. I sit between a computer and my grand piano. My work is both inspired by and designed for the way we interact with music.

Like this project, where I conjure up virtual reflections of pianists that you can play with and learn from. I particularly like to think about what it might feel like to play a duet with yourself from 20 years in the past. Here is me from 20 years in the past, before I spoke a word of English.

At that time, I was not such a standout kid. I actually struggled quite a bit in school, and really struggled to practice the piano. Standing here in front of you, I’d like to think that I’ve made some progress, at least in speaking English. In all seriousness, it’s often quite helpful to reflect honestly on just how we got to where we are, in getting to where we want to be.

When reflecting on these sorts of things, there are certain experts who would like to tell you of 10,000 hours of hard work. Asian parents totally insist on that. Plus, the value of a name-brand education, although people who love you like to tell you that you’ve had it in you all along.

While these things may be true, more or less, they abstract away all the details of just how we got to become who we are. Understanding that “how” requires a deeper understanding of how our minds work, not just from objective scientific explanations, but from a subjective user’s perspective.

There are three ideas that were particularly influential to my conception of the mind from a user’s perspective. First is the ancient technique of expanding our memories by constructing vast palaces in the mind, filling them with objects and picturing ourselves walking through to recall. By the way, I drew all these pictures.

Second is a more contemporary idea from neuroscience of the plastic mind as a snow-covered slope. Genetics and environment may dictate the initial terrain and weather conditions but you are responsible for shaping the land each time you think or do something by skiing down the slope, leaving a groove that deepens with repetition.

Last but certainly not least is Marvin Minsky’s theory from artificial intelligence of the human mind as a society of interconnected agents, each responsible for doing a task. Each task can, in turn, be divided into a tree of subagents such that every skill we acquire is not just one monolithic thing, but involves mastery of many levels of subskills.

These ideas don’t literally describe how our brains work, not on a molecular level. Rather, they are metaphors, where one thing is seen in terms of another. Metaphors are absolutely essential to how we understand pretty much everything we encounter. In fact, you could even say that understanding is the process of assimilating new knowledge in terms of what we already know.

I would like to share with you my own metaphor to understand the mind, one that takes from all three models that I described. It is the mind as a world of interconnected, invisible cities, where ideas are structures, connections are roads and we can even think of agents as being the inhabitants. Just as we see infinite variation in cities of the physical world, cities of the mind also vary endlessly in form, organization and content.

As I speak to you, I’m taking you on a tour of my cities, walking you through neighborhoods, pointing out details. For you to really learn something deeply, to go beyond sight-seeing, you have to build your own cities in your own mind. That means constructing structures and roads to inhabit.

When we inhabit this physical world of ours, it’s very easy for us to fall into certain habits. French urbanists once did a study with a girl in Paris. They tracked her whereabouts for an entire year. She pretty much stayed within this triangle between her house, her school and her piano teacher’s house. That’s like me in high school.

At that point, I had figured out how to get straight As in school, win trophies and piano competitions by copying copious amounts of information to my memory, historic facts, Bach fugues, math formulas, following tried and true methods of repeating a lot to myself and doing a ton of practice problems.
You could call it hard work, in the sense that it was hard to stay focused and not be bored sometimes. How could I possibly have been doing it wrong if I made As and won trophies?

Luckily, I discovered there was a better way when I learned to program the computer. You might be wondering where the connection is between typing code on a screen and building cities in your mind. I’ve come to realize that, beneath the surface symbols of a computer program, there are these intricate structures that must exist in the mind before we build them into the computer.

I like to think of them as little factories. We start by building small ones responsible for simple tasks, such as counting, drawing circles on the screen, using instruction manuals and examples as we put them together, piece by piece. Gradually, we learn to build more, bigger factories, connecting them in a supply chain. In so, we learn how to solve bigger problems by breaking them down into smaller processes for smaller factories.

Our factories never work properly the first time. That’s okay. We just have to go in and figure out where the problem is, a process we call debugging in computer science. When we debug, it’s helpful to have clean facilities. Sweeping the floor alone doesn’t help you find the bug. You really have to go inside the program, see how the logic flows and how the parts connect.

Luckily, the more that you build and debug, the better you become at building with a wealth of experience, construction techniques and reusable blueprints. Pretty soon, I had a bustling city of code in my mind.

I had another city somewhere else in my mind. This one, for music. On the surface, its architecture appears far more elaborate than my little Silicon Valley. Upon closer inspection, my buildings lack structure and detail. Roads weren’t so well maintained, leaving large passages blocked by the debris of time.

A sound city, as I’ve learned from my musical mentor Donal Fox, is not just façade and surface brilliance. We start with a solid foundation of rhythm. We must feel what it’s like to be the buildings, as we put them together, piece by piece.

When something doesn’t quite fit, we don’t just repeatedly bash it with a blunt hammer, hoping to smooth away the mistake in the practice room. Rather, we have to go inside and inspect the structure to figure out the root cause. As performers, we make buildings and cities to give tours. We need to navigate the streets and structures in real time, channeling the atmosphere through our bodies to transport the audience.

Luckily, the more that you build and maintain, the more that you have ready to share, even at a moment’s notice. It might occur to you that my descriptions of programming the computer and playing the piano sound awfully similar. That’s no accident. I don’t mean to imply that the two are exactly the same task. Rather, the process of putting together a computer program and the process of putting together a concert program do share some striking similarities.

I didn’t always think in this way. When I first started to play the piano, I worked very hard but only stayed on the surface. Learning to program gave me a valuable set of tools that only stayed within its domain. It wasn’t until I revisited the world of music in conjunction with explorations in human-computer interaction did I begin to build bridges between the two realms.

Seeing connections between the disparate domains has really deepened my understanding of both. It’s had a profound influence in the sorts of projects I invent and implement. Like these guys, that convey a feeling of rhythm and phrase rooted in body, giving you a deeper understanding than what’s written in the score.
Enough about me and my project right now. Think about something that you know well, a set of skills in a domain that you love. These aren’t just skills in and of themselves, but an arsenal of tools and metaphors to apply to every new thing you encounter. In other words, everything you know well is a thriving city in the mind with resources to help you expand to new territories.

When our diverse cities start coming together, we start to see emerged solutions to problems previously thought unanswerable. That’s because constructing cities and connecting them across wide terrains is just how our creative minds come to be.

This metaphor of invisible cities of the mind gives us a framework with which to reconsider how we learn, as well as how to reshape institutions for deeper, more creative learning. A sort of learning rooted in our personal metaphors that’s more than just surface correctness and with the ability to see and act upon unlikely connections between and beyond the disciplines.

At this point in my tour, I’ve now taken you to an open edge of my cities, where structures and connections are still waiting to be built. Here, I will leave you with one final open question. How can we help each other construct the cities of our creative minds? Thank you.