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?

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