Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Anatomy of Creativity

If you look up books with the word “Creativity” in the title on Amazon you’re likely to discover as many as 9000 results. These books advise us to wear different ‘thinking caps’ or shift our furniture around or brush our teeth with the other hand. They suggest that we cultivate the state called ‘flow’, find our ‘element’ or engage in all manner of novel or ridiculous activities and states of mind. You name it, there is probably some argument to persuade you that it could make all the difference to your creative life.

Six months ago I wrote a post about an insight I’d had into the nature of creativity. My claim was that innovations are a by-product of variations in human engagement with the world. Broadly speaking, all creativity can thus be understood as a process of variation, in the Darwinian sense, where the fittest innovations survive whilst the weakest are discarded, lost, forgotten or superseded. I still think this idea has a lot of explanatory potential but I have nonetheless become somewhat dissatisfied with its inability to explain why people can be so creative in some areas but not in others.

We tend to think of creativity, like intelligence, as a broad but singular entity that applies to a vast range of fields. But perhaps rather than seeing it as this grand all-encompassing embrace it might make far more sense to think of it as a multitude of different (and not necessarily related) processes of mind that are required in different proportions and combinations depending on the particular creative fields in which people work and even at different points throughout any given creative process.

Why bother thinking this way about creativity?

Well, first of all, because if creativity is indeed all-encompassing then no matter what aspect of creativity you focus your attention on you will find that the improvement is applicable to each and every creative task you encounter. This is patently not the case. What creative processes I employ in order to best solve a coding problem have questionable applicability for solving a problem in teaching or in creating a media installation or writing a blog post even.

I think it’s safe to say that when we engage in any creative activity we utilise a range of different thought processes which, no doubt, correspond to entirely different parts of the brain in just the same way that we use a variety of muscles to perform what we often perceive to be the simplest of actions like, for instance, picking up a pencil. But, just as we use different groups of muscles (but not every muscle) to perform different physical tasks, it seems just as likely that we employ different combinations of brain processes to perform different creative tasks.

If creativity were applicable equally to all tasks across all fields (art, science, engineering, maths etc.) then it would make no difference what activity we perform in order to improve our overall level of creativity. But if different tasks require specific combinations of brain processes, then being able to focus our attention upon these combinations would allow us to maximize the processes necessary for any given creative skill or sub-skill. Furthermore, if we wish to consolidate or deepen specific specialist skills it makes little sense to train a generality of brain processes all loosely associated with creativity across a broad range of unrelated fields.

If we abandon the idea that creativity is a generalised skill applicable equally across all fields and instead think of it as a multitude of different skills which are demanded and applied in different ways to different tasks (some of which are completely unnecessary to certain fields), then we can begin to see why there is such a disparity in the ways that creativity is understood and evaluated in different fields and even within the same field. More importantly, this might also suggest new ways to focus on those very specific skills or skill combinations that are most effective at particular stages in particular tasks and within particular creative fields. And lastly it might help explain why those 9000 books offering to make us more creative are so incredibly muddled, inconsistent and ultimately unhelpful.


Anonymous said...

You need at least a basic grounding before you
can 'think out of the box'

Its by focussing on specific skills and with training & experience that we gain a real understanding of the subject. Then we may become 'particularly' expert &'creative' specific to that area of expertise.

But expertise alone isn't enough & not all experts are necessarily 'creative'.

J. Hamlyn said...

I agree with all of what you wrote bar the last sentence. Perhaps our idea of 'creativity" limits how we view other disciplines and tends to make us think that some things are intrinsically creative whereas others are not. I'm not sure that's right. For instance I can't really think of a field of expertise that doesn't involve an element of creativity - ok maybe economics or banking but then again...

I think that's my point. Once we start to reconfigure our understanding of creativity then it becomes clear that there are many different creativities with very different skills involved that we are subsuming under the same umbrella as if they were equally applicable to all areas.

If someone has a high IQ then it's almost guaranteed that their intelligence applies to a wide variety of fields but even the most creative banker is likely to be a lousy artist and vice versa.

Anonymous said...

...so do you think that expertise alone is enough? or that all experts are necessarily creative?

Surely imagination is the key?

And imagination is probably linked to intelligence.

J. Hamlyn said...

I think all experts are necessarily creative (though to differing degrees) but more importantly I’m suggesting that the nature of that creativity is largely local to the field they work within and is possibly even difficult to appreciate (as creativity) from outside the field. The creativity employed by a mathematician is different from the creativity employed by a musician. Richard Feynman was, by all accounts, a great bongo player and from what I saw in a documentary about him he wasn't bad with a pencil either but though he'd partially mastered these skills, on a technical level, I have my doubts about how inventive he was, at least with art – like you said – you need to establish the basic skills first before it makes sense to attempt to be more adventurous. However, I suspect that Feynman’s creativity across physics, bongo playing, safe cracking and several other areas would have had limited applicability to visual art - though his skillset was so diverse that it seems highly likely that he’d fair a hell of a lot better than another successful physicist with a more restricted repertoire of skills.

All kids have incredible imaginations (so I'm told!) but they aren't great artists and their intelligence is presumably widely varied so I’m doubtful about any correlation between imagination and intelligence. In fact, perhaps it would be worth exploring imagination in the same way that I am advocating thinking of creativity ie: perhaps there are different types of imagination that partially overlap but that are nonetheless nourished or given dimension by specific tasks. These might include numerical imagination, combinatory imagination, narrative imagination, musical imagination, visual imagination, kinesthetic imagination, deception (since not all creative traits need be positive) and destructive imagination even.

J. Hamlyn said...

Excellent review of Jonah Lehrer's newly published book on creativity here

Zoe said...

I just discovered your blog I feel so lucky... are there any books that you read that you would recommend?

J. Hamlyn said...

Hi Zoe,

Rather than attempt to give a list of books perhaps I could go one better and recommend an excellent website ("Brian Pickings") that has lots of book recommendations, related reviews, quotes and commentary - well worth a look:

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