Hofstra Horizons Research

Remembering the Life Work of Vince Brown

Brian D. Cox
Associate Professor of Psychology

Dr. Brown and his colleagues, including Simona Doboli of the Hofstra Computer Science Department, Paul Paulus and Dan Levine of the University of Texas at Arlington, Ali Minai of the University of Cincinnati, Alex Doboli of Stony Brook University, and Joe Betz of SUNY-Farmingdale, were engaged in a scientific examination using computational models and behavioral experiments of the cognitive and social aspects of brainstorming and creativity, funded in part by the National Science Foundation. Creativity seems to belong to the realm of the arts, not science. All of us develop tricks to help us be creative in our own fields, but the process has always been a bit mysterious, and some of us would like to keep it that way. But Vince and his collaborators showed in many rigorous empirical articles, book chapters, and conference presentations that it is possible to understand the variables that may help individuals and groups to create more and better ideas.

Any good scientific project begins with compelling and clear questions, and then proceeds through careful, replicable experiments to answer those questions by deeper and deeper iterations of a feedback loop of results and studies. The research team began by studying the widely used process of brainstorming, in which a group of people attack a problem – for example, ways to improve a college campus – by producing, at first uncritically, as many ideas as possible – a process called divergent thinking in psychology – which are then winnowed by eliminating impossible or impractical ideas through logical analysis or convergent thinking. Use of convergent thinking alone tends to focus in on ideas, inhibiting creative solutions. It was thought that use of divergent thinking in social groups would be better than generating ideas alone, because each person in the group would have different starting points, and the group as a whole would generate more ideas. It was also suggested that the suggestions of others would cognitively activate associations or prime the members’ fund of knowledge about the problem.

Vince Brown

The starting point for Vince’s research team, however, was a stubborn contradiction: when groups of people generating divergent ideas on their own were compared with groups generating ideas divergently as a group, the total number of unique ideas produced by those thinking divergently alone exceeded those of the collaborative group. There may be both social and cognitive reasons for this finding. Each member of a group might show decreased motivation because others could take up the slack, in what is called social loafing, or they might be apprehensive about the evaluation of others. Cognitively, the need to wait one’s turn means that individuals might either forget their idea while waiting, or rehearse the single idea until their turn rather than producing new ones. One must also attend to others’ ideas, or remember others’ ideas to avoid repeating them in one’s own contributions, lowering the rate of production. Studies have shown that “brainwriting,” writing down one’s ideas and passing them around, or collaborating by computer lessens memory load and increases idea production. Memory load also might explain why providing hints over time works better than providing them all at the beginning.

Using the variables discovered in these behavioral experiments, the research team then constructed a computer model of idea generation. Computer models have several advantages. First, the researcher is forced to define variables in a quantitative way: flexibility, for example, can be defined as number of times a participant generating ideas for campus improvements moves between categories (e.g., social gathering places or types of restaurants) vs. within categories (e.g., menu items). Fluency can be defined as rate of idea production over time.

Second, computer models can handle the variation among many variables simultaneously to test their interaction in more ways than the researchers can think of, and thereby provide unexpected outcomes, or a more exhaustive examination of the universe of possible problems. Thus, modeling helps generate hypotheses for future research. One could model a convergent thinker who tends to stay within a category — for example, offering up all the menu ideas, probably starting at a fast fluency rate and slowing as the category is exhausted. The divergent thinker might hop from restaurant type to restaurant type without exploring them deeply. Computer modeling might help understand what happens if you put these two types of thinkers together. Then one could do an empirical experiment to corroborate or disconfirm an aspect of the model.

Finally, aspects of the models can be evaluated analogously in terms of how the brain actually operates at the neural level to produce global effects. For example, the concept of lateral inhibition is present at several levels in the brain: when a particular visual stimulus activates a neuron that fires at lines of 45 degree angles, it inhibits neurons from firing at 44 or 46 degrees, accentuating edges and boundaries. Modeling this process might explain why people get stuck in a category in convergent idea generation. A presentation that Vince and Dr. Doboli did the week before his death explored the reiterative feedback loops by which associated ideas first prime each other, then accelerate idea development, and finally result in slowing of new idea production and increased repeating of old ideas. Using the jargon of dynamical systems modeling, associated ideas first synchronize and coalesce into temporary emergent attractors; as ideas are exhausted, local inhibition predominates, desynchronization develops, the attractors collapse, and generalized inhibition results. In layman’s terms, the studies have suggested that at that point one way to overcome generalized inhibition is to simply take a break! The power of modeling suggests that a few mathematical rules operating together can produce complex effects. At the time of Vince Brown’s death, the team was beginning to investigate the thorny problem of how to model the process of separating good ideas from bad ones. In addition, Vince collaborated with Dr. Minai on the issue of the dynamic effects of social networks on idea generation. In this new work, they were exploring how systematically varying the connectivity of members in a social network would affect idea generation. At its most global level, they were beginning to investigate scientists’ social networks by publication citations.

He was generous with his time, his enormous expertise, his ideas, and his concern, whether you were a student, a collaborator, a colleague, or a visiting scholar.

Vince’s preliminary studies of novel conceptual combinations in groups, together with Dr. Alex Doboli’s interest in developing automated computer circuit design tools that could mimic human creativity led to a major NSF collaborative interdisciplinary research grant with Dr. Paulus, Dr. Minai, Dr. Doboli and Dr. Betz. The goal of this work is to study and compare creative processes in architecture, circuit design and general domain through human experiments and computational models. The work tries to uncover some of the mechanisms and conditions by which humans combine existing knowledge to create new insights.

Vince Brown’s wide-ranging curiosity led him to fruitful collaborations in other areas of research as well. For example, he worked closely for 14 years with Dr. David Gorfein on the study of how people process word meanings and on the development of a model (the Activation-Selection Model) to explain the effects of context and experience on the choice of meaning when we encounter, as we do constantly, words that have multiple meanings. It was characteristic of Vince to always try to help his colleagues by calling them to the attention of one another. At this point, Drs. Brianna Eiter (formerly of Hofstra), Dr. Kristin Weingartner of Hofstra, and Dr. Gorfein continue to collaborate on the development of a national database for homographs (words of multiple meanings, with the same spelling). Some of this work, recently presented at scientific conferences, is still in preparation for publication. Also, in 1995 he became interested in an idea on animal behavior by Dr. Scott Coleman, then an animal behavior graduate student who was taking Vince’s class on neural network modeling and is now an adjunct faculty member at the University of Texas at Arlington. The idea was to apply an existing neural model of human decision making to animal foraging. This foraging work was the basis for one journal article that included Drs. Dan Levine and Roger Mellgren from that department, and several presentations at animal behavior and mathematical psychology conferences. Vince was also one of the main organizers of a conference at the University of Texas at Arlington on oscillations in neural systems, along with Dr. Levine and Dr. Timothy Shirey (Texas Instruments and University of Texas at Dallas), which led to a co-edited book published in 2000.

Through these fruitful collaborations, Vince showed that he truly understood the value of the social community of scientists. He was always organizing colloquia, sharing a meal at a conference, or just having a conversation about his wide range of interests. Vince contributed much to many projects without receiving authorship credit. In fact, in the last few weeks, from his friends from the University of Texas, Arlington, and University of Richmond, where he taught before arriving at Hofstra, or from the National Science Foundation, where he recently served a two-year stint as a program officer, or from his many friends from everywhere else, the word most often heard about Vince is “generous.” He was generous with his time, his enormous expertise, his ideas, and his concern, whether you were a student, a collaborator, a colleague, or a visiting scholar. One also hears: “He made my work so much better” by cutting through fuzzy ideas to the conceptual and mathematical heart of the problem. Right now, it seems like the absence of his unassuming brilliance has left a hole in that community that will be difficult to fill. He will be sorely missed.

A selection of work by Dr. Vince Brown and his colleagues for further reading:

Brown, V. R., & Gorfein, D. S. (2004). A new look at recognition in the Brown-Peterson distractor paradigm: Towards the application of new methodology to unsolved problems of recognition memory. Memory & Cognition, 32, 674-685.

Brown, V. R., & Paulus, P. B. (2002). Making group brainstorming more effective: Recommendations from an associative memory perspective. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11, 208-212.

Brown, V., Tumeo, M., Larey, T., and Paulus, P.B. (1998). Modeling cognitive interactions during group brainstorming. Small Group Research, 29, 495-526.

Coleman, S., Brown, V. R., Levine, D. S., & Mellgren, R.L. (2005). A neural network model of foraging decisions made under predation risk. Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience, 5, 434-451.

DeRosa, D.M., Smith, C.L., and Hantula, D.A. (2007). The medium matters: Mining the long-promised merit of group interaction in creative idea generation tasks in a meta-analysis of the electronic group brainstorming literature. Computers in Human Behavior, 23, 1549-158.

Diehl, M., & Stroebe, W. (1987). Productivity loss in brainstorming groups: Toward the solution of a riddle. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 497-509.

Doboli, S., Minai, A. A., & Brown, V. (2007). Adaptive dynamic modularity in a connectionist model of context-dependent idea generation. In the Proceedings of the International Conference on Neural Networks, Orlando, Florida, 2183-2188.

Doboli, S., & Brown, V.R. (2010). An emergent attractors model for idea generation process. In the Proceedings of the International Conference on Neural Networks, Barcelona, Spain, 2010.

Gorfein, D. S., & Brown V. R. (2007). Saying no to inhibition: The encoding and use of words. In D.S. Gorfein & C. M. MacLeod (Eds.), The Place of Inhibition in Cognition. Washington: APA Books.

Gorfein, D. S., Brown, V. R., & DeBiasi, C. (2007). The activation-selection model of meaning: The son comes out after the sun. Memory & Cognition, 35, 1986-2000.

Gorfein, D.S., & Weingartner, K. M. (2008). On the norming of homophones. Psychological Research Methods, 40, 522-530.

Iyer, L., Doboli, S., Minai, A. A., Brown, V. R., Levine, D. S., & Paulus, P. B. (2009). Neural dynamics of idea generation and the effects of priming. Neural Networks, 22, 674-686.

Iyer, L., Minai, A. A., Doboli, S., & Brown, V. (2007). Modularity and self-organized functional architectures in the brain. In the Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Complex Systems, Boston, MA.

Larey, T. S., & Paulus, P. B. (1999). Group preference and convergent tendencies in small groups: A content analysis of group brainstorming performance. Creativity Research Journal, 12, 175-184.

Levine, D. S., & Brown, V. R. (2007). Uses (and abuses?) of inhibition in network models. In D.S. Gorfein & C. M. MacLeod (Eds.), The Place of Inhibition in Cognition. Washington: APA Books.

Levine, D. S., Brown, V. R., & Shirey, V. T. (Eds.). (2000). Oscillations in Neural Systems. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Osborn, A. (1957). Applied Imagination. New York: Scribner’s.

Paulus, P. B., Levine, D. S., Brown, V. R., Minai, A. A., & Doboli, S. (2010). Modeling ideational creativity in groups: Connecting cognitive, neural, and computational approaches. Small Group Research, 41, 688-724.

Paulus, P. B., & Brown, V. R. (2007). Toward more creative and innovative group idea generation: A cognitive-social motivational perspective of brainstorming. Social and Personality Compass, 1, 248-265.

Paulus, P. B., & Dzindolet, M. (1993). Social influence processes in group brainstorming. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 575-586.

Paulus, P. B., Nakui, T., Putman, V. L., & Brown, V. (2006). Effects of task instructions and brief breaks on brainstorming. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 10, 206-219.

Friends of Vince Brown can share their memories of him at: http://hofstraremembers.blogspot.com/2011/08/dr-vincent-brown-associate-professor-of.html. Vince Brown’s family has set up the Vincent R. Brown Memorial Scholarship Fund at Hofstra. Friends may contribute to the fund, which will be awarded to future undergraduate psychology students on the basis of academic accomplishment. Contributions to the Vincent R. Brown Memorial Scholarship Fund may be made online at hofstra.edu/giving. Under Gift Designation, click the box for “in memory of” and type in Dr. Vincent R. Brown Memorial Scholarship Fund, and the contribution will be directed to the fund.

The author thanks David Gorfein, Dan Levine, Paul Paulus, and Simona Doboli for expert comments on drafts of this article.

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