creativity: the murky mind

artist brent cole, thinking.  photograph by will foster is the first in a series of blog conversations about creativity with jeremy of PsyBlog, one of the leading psychology blogs.

in a post in january, jeremy wrote

how do great artists create? how do brilliant scientists solve the hardest problems in their field? listen to them try to explain and you’ll probably be disappointed. artists say mysterious things like: “the picture just formed in my mind.” writers tell us that: “i don’t know where the words come from.” scientists say they: “just had a hunch.”

of course, not all scientists, artists and writers give such mysterious answers. some talk about the processes they went through or what inspired their conceptual jump. but their explanations are almost invariable unsatisfying. they usually can’t really explain how they made that vital leap of the imagination.

cognitive psychologists find that this is true for all walks of life; we often have little understanding of what goes on in our own minds. jeremy cites a classic literature review by nisbett and wilson of psychological studies on this topic. some of the conclusions are that

a) when people’s thought processes are manipulated, they are mostly unaware of it and even if they are, it is difficult for them to identify what occurred
b) when explaining what they do, people don’t seem to access the correct thought process(es). if they do, it only happens when the explanation is plausible.

so this is one way of looking at this topic. let’s go for another perspective, that of dr. mihaly csikszentmihalyi (“me high, chicks sent me high”, as the good doctor likes to joke about the pronunciation of his name). csikszentmihalyi is one of the leading researchers on the topic of creativity.

the chapter “the work of creativity” in his book creativity: flow and the psychology of discovery and invention has a heading, the mysterious time, where we read:

… conscious [thought] sequences can be analyzed, to a certain extent, by the rules of logic. but what happens in the “dark” spaces defies ordinary analysis and evokes the original mystery shrouding the work of genius: one feels almost the need to turn to mysticism, to invoke the voice of the muse as an explanation.

csikszentmihalyi’s research subjects unanimously state that it is important to let problems simmer below the threshold of consciousness for a time without paying too much attention to them, maybe even consciously moving attention somewhere else.

so here’s my thought: perhaps these accounts of thought processes that are “disappointing”, “unsatisfying” or “implausible” are so murky because creativity needs that muddiness, needs to work away from the light of our attention?

what do you think, jeremy? and gentle readers – especially if you are artists, what do you think?

15 thoughts on “creativity: the murky mind

  1. April

    Like “scrying,” or reading a crystal ball. I like this idea, that great ideas come when you aren’t expecting them. It’s happened to me before.

  2. Evan

    I’m not an artist, but then most artists aren’t creative. They tend to find their schtick and stick to it, especially the commercially successful ones. (I’m not saying that this is what they would prefer.)

    Drawing on the artist within describes a process for creativity. It seems sensible to me.

    There is the problem of what “adequate” means. Is it the researcher who needs to be satisfied? Or the creative person(s)?

    Edward de Bono has authored a small library on creativity. I know he is unfashionable but his stuff seems to work – which is the scientific measure after all. For the theoretical base see his Mechanism of Mind (note: mind not brain) – dry and somewhat tedious but brilliant.

    The reduction of the mind to the brain I don’t regard as viable. I would like to demonstrate an error: if someone loses a big toe their balance is disrupted; therefore their balance centre is their big toe (and we have the results to prove it – those without big toes can’t balance). This is the level of ‘thinking’ at which so much research on the brain operates. I don’t expect much insight into creativity from looking at neurons (looking at the ingenuity used on the basis of false assumptions would be productive I think).

    Creativity is only murky because analysis is taken as the standard for clarity. To do the reverse, looking at analysis from the perspective of superb beauty and breath-taking creativity shows analysis to be dull grey (English spelling), and crass.

    Evan’s last blog post..A Great Reference Source on Healing Foods

  3. isabella mori

    @april, thanks for stopping by. your photography is a wonderful example of creativity.

    @evan some psychological research is very clumsy, just as you describe it so well with the example of the toe. however, there are also some psychological researchers who are true artists (yes!) in their field and come up with theories and explanations that are just as beautiful as a painting by dali or a string quartet by bartok.

  4. Wayne

    I would say play. If someone looks at my art and says they are not creative, I advise them that they just may be so they should by some art supplies and play with them. Evolve would be another word that applies as one piece morphs into a new design ot tallents change.

    Wayne’s last blog post..Monday bird memory for Gannet Girl

  5. Kat C.

    You know what? You are absolutely right! I heard a phrase once:”creativity is what happens in your brain when you need to solve a problem”.

    Life without problems would be so boring!

  6. Vitor - The Fractal Forest

    Why do so called non-creative types (as if there was such a thing) don’t understand? Because the need to understand is exactly what prevents them from experiencing it.

    It’s not logic, it can’t be analyzed, it’s different for every person, and yes, it IS definitely something mystical, no matter what explanation you try attaching to it. We humans are mystical beings, so why shy away from that definition?

    I could bombard you with my advice as a so called creative type, but that would hardly be helpful. Just stop your expectations of what creativity is supposed to be like, and the rest kind of takes care of itself.

    And yes, I am aware of the delicious irony of that last sentence. You just can’t argue with those crazy artists 😉

    Vitor – The Fractal Forest’s last blog post..And then the Moon Turned Red

  7. Chris Marshall | Martial Development

    Etymologically speaking, yes:

    c.1303, “immediate influence of God or a god,” especially that under which the holy books were written, from O.Fr. inspiration, from L.L. inspirationem (nom. inspiratio), from L. inspiratus, pp. of inspirare “inspire, inflame, blow into,” from in-“in” + spirare “to breathe” (see spirit). Inspire in this sense is c.1340, from O.Fr. enspirer, from L. inspirare, a loan-transl. of Gk. pnein in the Bible. General sense of “influence or animate with an idea or purpose” is from 1390.

    Practically speaking, also yes. No man is an island, right?

    Chris Marshall | Martial Development’s last blog post..Vladimir Vasilev, Russia’s Mind Warrior

  8. Evan

    Inside and outside can get messy when speaking of things like inspiration.

    Those external sounds come right up against my eardrums and stimulate internal nerves. Those internal thoughts lead to / are changing muscle tension.

    Bridging the gap between productivity and creativity probably requires stepping back, consideration, analysis, destructuring, playing and building. All involving a combination of the internal and external as I see it.

    Evan’s last blog post..A Fabulous Blog About Psychotherapy: Psychology, Philosophy and Real Life

  9. JohnD

    The explanations for creativity may sound murky, but the experience is all clarity and light. I write because it is my means for processing what’s going in my life and because it unfailingly leads to discovery. In a creative writing state, I feel more at one with myself. Usually scattered thoughts and body energy are focused unselfconsciously on the flow of associations. Invariably, I am surprised at the connections I make. The poet Auden once said something that refers to this way of learning – How can I know what I mean until I see what I say? I think he is acknowledging there the surprise and freshness of what emerges through the act of imaginative writing. I’m no creative genius, but creativity is experienced by many when they achieve, often without premeditation, those breakthrough moments when things come together suddenly – in whatever medium they work.


    JohnD’s last blog post..Depression and Imagination

  10. Xavier

    The ability to imagine is very important to find new ways and solutions. But everyone has the ability, it even can be trained.

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