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Experts discover a pattern that drives artistic breakthroughs

A recent study published in the journal Nature Communications has proposed a new theory to explain innovation in arts and sciences. By using artificial intelligence to mine big data, researchers from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University discovered a pattern of creative exploration followed by exploitation that generally led to artists’ and scientists’ most successful breakthroughs.

Jackson Pollock, for instance, spent years drawing, printmaking, and painting surrealist pictures of humans, nature, and animals, before developing his unique “drip technique,” which brought him world fame. Similarly, Vincent Van Gogh painted a series of somber, realistic pictures before experiencing his artistic breakthrough from 1888-1890, during which he painted his most innovative works.  

“If you look at his production before 1888, it was all over the place,” said lead author Dashun Wang, director of the Center of Science & Innovation at Northwestern University. “It was full of still-life paintings, pencil drawings and portraits that are much different in character from the work he created during his hot streak.”

As Professor Wang and colleagues explained in a previous study, hot streaks highlight specific periods during which an individual’s performance is substantially better than his or her typical performance. In their new study, by analyzing data from 2,128 visual artists, 4,337 film directors, and 20,040 scientists, Wang and his team discovered that hot streaks emerge from years of exploration (painstaking study of diverse topics and styles), followed by a period of exploitation (focus on a narrow area to develop deep expertise).

“Neither exploration nor exploitation alone in isolation is associated with a hot streak. It’s the sequence of them together,” explained Wang. 

“Although exploration is considered a risk because it might not lead anywhere, it increases the likelihood of stumbling upon a great idea. By contrast, exploitation is typically viewed as a conservative strategy.” 

“If you exploit the same type of work over and over for a long period of time, it might stifle creativity. But, interestingly, exploration followed by exploitation appears to show consistent associations with the onset of hot streaks.” 

According to co-author Jillian Chown, an assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management, identifying this universal pattern across creative domains “can help individuals and organizations understand the different types of activities to engage in – such as exploring new domains or exploiting existing knowledge and competencies – and the optimal sequence to use in order to achieve the most significant impact.”

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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