Variation in Creativity and Imagination

Exploratory Learning in Human Adaptation

Research team

Helen Taylor, Principal Investigator
Richard Watson, Co-Investigator
Cameron Petrie, Collaborator
Eleanor Shaw, Collaborator
Sir Geoff Mulgan, Collaborator
Anthony Hobley, Collaborator

Key information

Full title: Seeking ways to improve human adaptation in order to confront global sustainability challenges: How can new insights into exploratory learning and cognitive specialisation contribute to understanding of human adaptation and cultural evolution?
Host institution: University of Strathclyde (UK)
Research location: United Kingdom

Project overview 

Consider Jim, who is a multi award-winning designer creating highly original industrial products. But at school – where Jim had to turn his ideas into words rather than objects – he struggled, and was ultimately diagnosed with dyslexia. A so-called learning disorder, dyslexia affects 10-20% of the world’s population. Because it comes with characteristic difficulties in education, many people with dyslexia are culturally side-lined.

Our research will investigate whether different ways of thinking, including those labelled as dyslexia, actually play important complementary roles in enabling our species to adapt culturally — for example, through behavioural and technological adaptations. We develop the existing theoretical framework of Complementary Cognition – the first theory to consider that human brains have evolved to be specialised in different but complementary ways of thinking.

A barefoot solar engineer in the solar powered village of Tinginapu, in the Eastern Ghats of Orissa – Photo by Abbie Trayler-Smith / Panos Pictures

This theory proposes that complementary specialisations co-evolved, resulting in increased group capacity to co-create and solve complex problems and survive, much like a collective brain. At the most fundamental level, these cognitive specialisations consist of a continuum of different strategies ranging from exploration (seeking the unknown and discovering new knowledge) to exploitation (refining and utilising existing knowledge). Striking the balance between time and energy spent exploring for new opportunities or exploiting the benefits of a given choice is key to adaptation and survival.

Evidence indicates that people with dyslexia have a bias towards exploration relative to other people, and that this way of thinking comes with various benefits, such as a greater ability to imagine future possibilities and, like Jim, to discover and invent original, creative ideas. In turn, this suggests that humans contribute to the process of knowledge-creation, and cultural adaptation, in complementary ways. 

Such insights may inform how we can better design systems, from education to organisations, to enable us to adapt more effectively and, in particular, confront climate change and other urgent sustainability challenges.

Project contacts

If you would like to contact the project team, please email the grant management team in the first instance, at

Helen Taylor: Website, Twitter
Richard Watson: Website, Twitter