Creativity, Brain, Indeterminacy

Creativity, the Mind, and the Brain:
From Van Gogh to Indeterminacy and Beyond
Geetanjali Vaidya
December 2007 
This paper was prepared as a senior thesis in biology at Bryn Mawr College, and is made available to encourage continuing explorations of the nature and significance of of creativity.   Comments and continuing discussion are welcome in the on-line forum at the end of this paper.  

The topic of creativity is both broad and complex, which may make the task of exploring its relationship with the mind seem like an impossible one on the surface.  There are many types of creativity that do not overlap, for example, and that would therefore seem to come from very different sources.  For instance, if an individual were able to paint extremely well that would not necessarily translate into her being an innovative mathematician.  Moreover, the issue of how one defines creativity is a complex one, since what is labeled creative and what is not depends very strongly on context.  The context-dependence of creativity makes it problematic to treat it as an intrinsic quality, and therefore would make one question whether it would be at all meaningful to study its internal machinations within the mind.  There would only be meaning, here, if individuals showed enough commonality in their creative processes, across subjects and contexts, for some new insight to be gained about creativity and ourselves from studying creativity at such a micro level.    

Such commonalities do exist, however, and that is what makes the problem of creativity an ultimately useful one to explore.  Additionally, the context dependence of creativity can be dealt with to some degree by separating creativity into three different layers.  The first layer and root of creativity might be defined as originality or divergent thought.  This is the layer that can be studied with the most objectivity, and it is therefore the layer that might give us the most insight into the internal workings of the creative process.  The basis for originality in the mind is explored in the section Originality, Randomness and Chaos, which also explores the parallel between originality and randomness, and therefore creativity and chaos.  As a test case, this link between creativity and chaos is used in the section Creativity and Mental Illness to explain the unusually high rates of creativity in first degree relatives of people with mental illness.

The second and third layer of creativity might come under the umbrella of creativity’s dependence on context.  In order to be labeled as creative, an original idea or product must be meaningful within the context of the internal world of the individual.  This constitutes the second layer, which is discussed in the section Creativity From the Inside.  Here will also be discussed those qualities that tend to be found in common in creative people across disciplines, such as a minimum level of intelligence and knowledgeability, alongside an ability for fluid and flexible thought.  And finally, an original idea or product that is meaningful to the creator must also be meaningful within the context of the external world that judges it.  This will be discussed in the concluding section, Creativity and Society, which demonstrates how each layer is tied inextricably to this final one.      

What is creativity?

The main difficulty in trying to define creativity is that the definition of creativity is not solid.  A work of art may be judged wonderfully creative by one generation, for example, and thought pretentious rubbish by the next.  The Dadaist poetry of Hugo Ball, for example, may be viewed in context as a highly creative and poignant comment on the destruction of World War I (which it was meant to be), or as meaningless strings of nonsense syllables (which it was as well).  Similarly, a novel inspiration in science may be considered incredibly creative during one time period, and then changing atmospheres and new discoveries may cause it to go out of fashion.  Lamarckianism, for instance, went from being a viable theory of evolution to an embarrassing joke within a span of about a hundred years.  The context-dependence of creativity may be partially dealt with by integrating creativity’s changeability into its definition.  One can simply accept that in order to be called creative a product or idea must have meaning, both to the creator and to the outside world (e.g. Rothenberg 1990, Boden 2004, Csikszentmihalyi 1998) and that that “meaning” is a nebulous quantity that will change with changing conditions. 

However, the problem remains that in order to study creativity one needs to have a moderately concrete definition for it, if only for practical reasons.  Any study of creativity will have to label certain people as “creative” and others by implication not, which by itself gives the trait a concreteness it does not actually possess.  Creativity is often, for instance, defined based on objective measures such as book sales, awards, and other signs of prominence and success which are themselves limited in nature, revealing the researchers’ own unintentional biases.  This is obviously not an ideal way to learn about creativity, but there are not really any other options.  Creativity is subjective by definition, so any attempt to study it objectively will inevitably be flawed.  With this in mind, it must be noted that many of the conclusions made here will need to be based on such studies.  All such conclusions will therefore be limited in terms of generalizability.  This does not, however, mean that conclusions made on the basis of such studies may not be useful.
In order to simplify matters, we can define creativity as having two main layers.  The outermost layer is the problematic, subjective one of meaning: a product or idea must be meaningful or useful to the creator and to the outside world in order for it to be called creative.  If we peel this layer away, at the root of creativity lies originality.  Originality is also context-dependent, but it can still be defined objectively.  One does not need to place a value judgment on an idea in order to call it original.  Therefore, a creative idea or product could be defined as one that has both originality and meaning (e.g. Rothenberg 1990, Boden 2004), both of which layers might be studied separately.  Moreover, it can be helpful to further separate context into two more layers.  In order to be labeled creative, an original idea must be first judged meaningful at the level of the individual, within the context of one’s own mind.  After it is then communicated to others, it may then also be judged meaningful by the relevant subset of the population.

Layer 1: Originality

One of the more popular ways to define originality is to call it divergent thought, which was a term first used by Guilford (1959).  Divergent thought is easy to test for, which makes it a useful tool in studying creativity.  Divergent thought could be defined, here, as any thinking that might produce responses to a specific problem which vary widely from the norm.  The norm, here, can be determined artificially in an experimental setting as the average across subjects.  For instance, one common test for divergent thought is a word association test.  Subjects are given word prompts (such as river, house, moose) and asked to write as many associated words as they can within a set amount of time.  They are scored on divergent thought based on how many of their word choices were completely original with respect to the other subjects.  For instance, responses to the word “river” such as “lake” or “water” would probably be shared by multiple people.  However, writing the word “chair” in response to the word “moose” would likely not be something that many people would do, and so it would qualify as divergent thought

Mednick (1962) expanded this idea with the concept of associative hierarchies.  People with steep hierarchies would tend to make strong associations between related words and ideas, and would therefore be most likely to give the answers that were both the most obvious and possessed the least variety.  These people would also, likewise, be the least likely to be creative.  People with flat hierarchies would tend to have less rigid associative networks, and therefore they would be most likely to give both non-obvious word associations and those word associations with the most variety.  A third category could exist, of course, of people who had steep hierarchies but whose associative networks differed strongly from other people’s, and who therefore gave non-obvious answers.  These would be original thinkers with respect to others, but not with respect to themselves.  For example, if one normally associates animals with pieces of furniture, then associating the word “chair” with “moose” would be non-original with respect to oneself, but still original with respect to others.

Layer 2: The Individual

The ability to come up with ideas that do not normally occur to most people is clearly a trait key to creativity.  However, it is fairly obvious that originality alone does not equal creativity.  For example, using the previous example of associating the word “moose” with “chair,” this association appears on the surface to have no logic to it.  However, if one is able to come up with a justification for it that has meaning to oneself, then the idea begins to have relevance within the internal world of the individual, and that begins to give it some value. For instance, one may imagine the moose sitting down in the chair and breaking it, demonstrating how unsuitable chairs are for moose. The association is still unexpected, but it is not beyond comprehension.  And the justification does not need to seem logical to others in order for it to have meaning for oneself.  The word moose may have been associated with the word chair because the individual imagined both items floating in the rings of Saturn, so long as the individual has her own personal, coherent logic that justifies that image.  

What one requires at this level, therefore, is the ability to connect or juxtapose ideas in useful ways, which has been termed convergent thought. (Guilford, 1959) Rothenberg (1990) termed such superficially contradictory ideas (which would in our case be merely disconnected ideas) janusian thought processes, which are then made sense of together by mentally juxtaposing them to form homospatial presentations.  This will be discussed in detail later, in Creativity From the Inside.  However, the ability to juxtapose and rationalize in such a manner would seem to require a certain minimal degree of mental coherence and ability for logical thought that might actually work at cross purposes with divergent thought.    Creativity calls on the one hand for the ability to come up with unexpected ideas, and on the other hand for the ability to bring those ideas together in ways that give their association meaning within the context of one’s own mind.  These are two fairly distinct abilities, the reconciliation of which will be given the most attention in the section on Creativity and Mental Illness.  

Layer 3: The Outside World

Beyond the level of the individual, an idea must be judged meaningful within the framework of the relevant discipline’s conceptual space in order for it to be called creative by the outside world.  The idea of a conceptual space is one described by Margaret Boden (2004).  The conceptual space for a particular subject is its framework of pre-existing rules and ideas: a map, if you will, of what has come before.  Original thinking is a way of exploring conceptual space: of solidifying unmapped areas and pushing the boundaries of the pre-existing framework.  At the heart of creativity lies the ability to challenge and think beyond accepted tradition.  However, as mentioned before, in order to be truly creative an idea must challenge traditional boundaries in a meaningful way.  Simply ignoring the rules is not enough.  A good example of this might be the music of Stravinsky.   His music was a dramatic departure from what had come before, but it fell just short of departing into cacophony.  In its unexpectedness it still made musical sense to other people, and therein lay its power.  Another example might be the impressionist movement in painting: it ignored the rules set up by conservative realism, but not to the extent of it being entirely impossible for others to understand what the artist was trying to convey.  The revelations of quantum physics similarly challenged the assumptions set down by Newtonian physics, that matter and energy are non-interchangeable, but there was a logic to its challenge that utilized the basic structure that had been set up by Newtonian physics.  Ideas of Darwinian evolution similarly challenged established rules about the immutability and perfection of species, using as their basis what was already known about the natural world. 

The commonality across all these paradigm shifts is that they were made by people who had a good understanding of their disciplines.  While bringing together disparate ideas and challenging the status quo, they also acknowledged external codes of logic.  They had a good knowledge of the boundaries that they were pushing at the same time that they had the willingness and originality of thought to dispute them.  A similar notion is contained in the saying, “Follow the Buddha, and then kill the Buddha.”  In order for creative insights to be possible in a discipline, one must have a good well of knowledge to draw from – but one must also avoid the rigidity of thought that can come from knowing a subject too well. (Mednick, 1962)
Therefore, in order to make an original idea have meaning to the outside world (the third layer of creativity), an individual must possess several different qualities (at the second layer of creativity).  There must be a minimum level of intelligence and coherence of thought, although intelligence itself is not equivalent to creativity.  (e.g. Trilling 1950, Eysenck 1993)  There must also be understanding, and a broad knowledge base to support the person’s originality and willingness to think beyond precedents.  A monkey at a typewriter could type an exceedingly original work, but it would be one that showed an obvious lack of understanding for the conceptual spaces of language and literature.  Jack Kerouac wrote with an extremely original style that disobeyed many rules of sentence structure and story formation, but it was a style that showed an innate understanding of the power of language and story-telling as they applied to other people: not merely to himself.  His writing was therefore able to have an impact on people, where the monkey’s writing likely would not.

The third layer of the problem is also the layer at which one must acknowledge that despite having its roots in originality, creativity is also a construct of society.  Certain people such as Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi have gone so far as to say that its dependence on social context is the only layer that can be properly studied, since creativity cannot be defined as such without a contextual value judgment being placed on it in the first place.  By this definition of creativity, then, what really distinguishes Jack Kerouac from the monkey at the typewriter is not his originality or understanding of language – though those are clearly there as well.  There may have been millions of Jack Kerouacs and Van Goghs and Stravinskys over the years who never made it out of obscurity, despite their talent.  What distinguishes Jack Kerouac is the simple fact that his books sold.
In other words, we cannot objectively measure creativity, but we can objectively measure society’s judgment of something as creative and worthwhile.  Another approach to this attitude was stated by the anthropologist Levi-Strauss, half a century ago (discussed in Gardner, 1982).  His idea was that art in its purest form is a statement of identifying with a particular culture, which means that it only exists at the level of society.  According to his view, therefore, individual creativity is a myth.  Though Levi-Strauss’ view was extreme, it underlines one of the more obvious problems with defining creativity at the level of culture, which is that that this layer of the problem seems to in some ways miss the point.   Although the definition of creativity is heavily dependent on context, what we find compelling about it – and what makes it meaningful, is that it is fundamentally an expression of the individual.  Creative expression is a means for making concrete the inspiration that occurs within the mind.  And although this is the most intangible layer of creativity, and the least easy to study, it is also ironically the layer that seems to intrigue us the most.  Therefore, this is the topic covered in the next section: what creativity looks like from the inside.    

Creativity from the Inside
Yeah, I - you know, I get beamed at.  I mean my bits are beamed, to me.  They aren’t anything to do with me.  I’m, you know - tuned into a certain frequency some days and… and receive the information I need.  It’s got nothing to do with me, I tell you.

-    singer/songwriter Thom Yorke on where he gets his musical ideas from, on the German TV show VIVA on July 10th, 2003

The easiest and most scientific way of studying creativity is by studying its most obvious outward trappings.  These can include, as just discussed, such things as societal acceptance in terms of awards and financial success, and an individual’s measured degree of originality with respect to other people.  However, since the creative process is at its core a personal, subjective experience, that personal level is not one that can be ignored.   The mind is subjective, after all – and creativity is a means of expressing that innermost, most indefinable and untranslatable self to others.  It is exactly because creativity is such a personal trait that we feel the need to study it.  And the internal experience of creativity might also give us insight into the second layer of creativity: that of how we create products that hold meaning for ourselves.

Personal Accounts of Creativity 

There have been thousands of anecdotal accounts of the internal experience of creativity over the course of human history, to the extent that there is almost a mythology built up around it.  Inspiration is often attributed to divine sources in these accounts, for example, and even otherwise creative processes are often described in ways that makes them seem half-magical.  The ancient Greeks attributed creative inspiration to the nine divine Muses, and the common view of creativity today does not actually differ substantially from this.  In fact, when looking at the way that creative people in multiple different fields describe their process of inspiration, a hazily mystical explanation for where their ideas come from is the most obvious commonality.  It is as if the wellspring of inspiration in our minds is something that we are mentally blind to, despite how much we rely on it.

A possible reason for this is that much of the creative process happens offstage, in dreams or when we’re thinking about something else entirely.  Archimedes did not discover how to test for the purity of a golden crown while hammering away at the problem in his study, for example, but instead while he was in his bath and not thinking about the problem at all.  Mozart described developing entire symphonies in his head while he was by himself, simply going for a walk. Kekulé discovered the ring structure of benzene through a dream in which he saw an ouroboros, or a snake biting its tail, and Coleridge woke up from a nap with the entire poem of Kubla Khan mapped out before him in his head, in its entirety.  (Andreasen, 2005) When anyone asked the mathematician Ramanujan where he got his near-miraculous mathematical proofs from, he said he was given the answers by the gods. (Kanigel, 1991)

As for more current creative individuals, the excerpt from an interview with Thom Yorke at the beginning of this section shows how times haven’t changed much since the ancient Greeks and their muses.  Creative people still tend to be terrible at describing their own creative processes in a way that makes sense to anyone else.  Thom Yorke, the highly innovative British musician who is the lead singer of the band Radiohead, is otherwise an extremely articulate man, both within his music and outside of it.  However, when asked where he gets his ideas from, the best he can do is to say that his ideas get “beamed” at him – from where, one can only guess. 

A documentary made in 1997 by director Michael Apted, called “Inspirations,” followed seven artists around with the goal of finding out where their ideas came from.  In a section devoted to David Bowie, Bowie was shown taking phrases out of the popular media and playing with them out of context until he found an idea that resonated with him, and used that to build a song.  This is more understandable than Thom Yorke’s description of his creative process, but still somewhat murky.  One can see how juxtaposing disparate ideas from the media might be fertile ground for inspiring original, constructive ideas, but it is still not obvious how one gets from pure randomness to meaning.  David Bowie is clearly a figure whose work has managed to be meaningful to many people, despite (or even due to) being extremely original, so it seems as though there should be much more going on here than the mere juxtaposition of words taken from a newspaper. 

The current popular writer Neil Gaiman has answered the question of where he gets his ideas from in a more articulate and sensible than Thom Yorke or David Bowie, but his answer is equally mystical, in its own way.  He says, 

“You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we're doing it.” (Gaiman, 1997)

And so again we find the theme of original ideas appearing at the edge of thought, when they aren’t being forced.  However, the notions that creative ideas come from daydreaming and that that they are beamed from some mysterious source are not very different from each other, on close examination.  In either case their actual source is hidden.  In either case, it is as if the idea surprises the creator on its appearance just as much as it might surprise someone else.  On probing deeper, the conclusion one must come to is simply that the creator is not capable of knowing where his or her ideas come from.  We are not privy to the machinations in our brain involved with inspiration, and this is a concept that can be terrifying to anyone who makes a living off of their creativity.  If one cannot pinpoint the source of one’s creative ideas, then one cannot guarantee that they will always be there.  Ernest Hemingway was very averse to talking about his own creative process for what appears to be just that reason.  If one probes too deep and realizes how little control one actually has over one’s own creative process, that makes the process feel held together by nothing at all.  Or as Hemingway said, “[…] though there is one part of writing that is solid and you do it no harm by talking about it, the other is fragile, and if you talk about it, the structure cracks and you have nothing.” (p.37, Gourevitch, 2006)  Neil Gaiman has said something quite similar about writing:

“Sometimes making stuff up feels a lot like Coyote running across the empty space between one rocky pinnacle and the next, and as long as you keep moving you're fine. When you stop and look down, it's suddenly all too apparent that there's absolutely nothing underneath and that you're keeping in the air by a peculiar effort of will.” (Gaiman, 2007)

In sum, the most obvious commonality across different accounts of creativity is that creative individuals don’t know where their ideas come from.  Inspiration tends to come from outside the conscious mind while one is thinking about something unrelated to the problem at hand.  Moreover, purposely seeking out seemingly irrelevant sources of information may even help with this process, such as in Bowie’s case.  And as a result, subjective accounts of creativity tend to be quite murky, often attributing creative inspiration to the divine or otherwise mystical.  

While these subjective accounts may not seem to tell us much that is useful, they do in fact tell us quite a bit.  They tell us that the unconscious mind can be involved with the creative process, which, like dreams, could be thought akin to the conscious mind in terms of the knowledge base it has to draw from.  However, dreams and the unconscious and the fluid in-between state of daydreaming might lack the preconceived notions and conscious restrictions that can make it difficult to consciously think oneself out of a rut.  (Boden, 2004)  These accounts also tell us that random, seemingly irrelevant stimuli, both internal (in the case of dreams and daydreams) and external (in the case of going for a walk, or focusing one’s attention on other things) can aid in creativity.  (Simonton, 1999) This will become important in the next section, Originality, Randomness and Chaos.  And finally, what these accounts tell us is that inspiration itself is unpredictable.  Creative individuals tend to function at the whims of their own creative ability.  They cannot force it, and they cannot predict when ideas will strike, or if those ideas will be useful when they arrive.  This factor of unpredictability will also come up again in the next section.            

Poincaré’s Four Steps

One coherent description of the creative process that has managed to integrate some of the factors mentioned above comes from Poincaré, a French mathematician who lived in the second half of the 19th century.  Poincaré described four steps that go into creativity, steps which were specific to mathematical problem solving but that can still be bent without much trouble to apply to other types of creative problem solving as well.  Poincaré’s first step was preparation, in which one works on and thinks about the problem.  One builds up a broad knowledge base, assembling the relevant facts and thinking about them consciously and deeply for a long time.  The second step is incubation, which takes place away from the conscious mind.  Here, one takes a break from the problem and thinks about something else for a while, letting the unconscious wander and associate freely.  The third step is illumination: Archimedes’ moment of “Eureka!”, the point at which a solution comes to the conscious mind from the unconscious one as though it fell from the sky.  A creative solution may not always be right, however, even if - or maybe even particularly if, it feels as though it fell from the sky.  Poincaré’s fourth step, therefore, was verification, which is possibly the stage of the creative process that requires the least creativity.  Here, one checks to see how well the solution actually works.  If it does not, one presumably goes back and tries again. (Boden, 2004)

Poincaré’s steps for the internal experience of the creative process make quite a bit of sense with regard to the rest that we know about creativity, which could be why they are still fairly well accepted.  J.P. Guilford, in his well-known 1950 lecture on creativity, outlined four steps to the creative process that were essentially identical to Poincaré’s: preparation, incubation, inspiration and evaluation.  Taking these steps to be accurate, for the moment, one can see where the link to the unconscious and random stimuli mentioned above might come in.  Since incubation takes place away from conscious awareness, it makes sense why the next step, that of inspiration, can appear to come out of nowhere.  There is nothing ambiguous or mystical about the other two steps he describes, however: those of preparation and verification.  For preparation and verification, one would require both adequate pools of knowledge and a moderate amount of intelligence.  One would need, in other words, a decent internal map at hand for the conceptual space that one wanted to explore.   Although Kekulé and Archimedes were both inspired by things superficially unrelated to the problems they were working on (Kekulé by his dream and Archimedes by his bath water), they had both clearly been working on those problems beforehand.  The inspiration did not, therefore, strictly just come out of nowhere.  (Boden 2004, Andreasen 2005)   

Rothenberg’s Janusian Processes

Poincaré’s four steps to the creative process make for a nice starting point in understanding the internal world of creativity, but there are questions which they do not address.       For instance, there is the assumption here that the actual formation of the creative product takes place away from the conscious mind and that all that one does consciously is lay the groundwork for it.  This may be true in some cases.  It may have been true for Poincaré in mathematical problem solving.  However, there is no reason why it would always be true, and no evidence that it is always true, either.  What if one consciously tries to think contrary to the norm, and comes up with unexpected ideas as a result?  That is, after all, what divergent thought tests test for – not for whether or not one can come up with unusual word associations through leaving the problem for a bit and letting the unconscious mind take over for a while.

One person who has explored the question of conscious inspiration is the psychologist Albert Rothenberg.  Rothenberg ran a study over a period of several years in the 1980s in which he interviewed accomplished artists and writers at different stages of their creative processes.  (Rothenberg, 1990) A common feature he found across many of these was the conscious conceiving of and juxtaposition of opposites as a starting point for a piece.  This led him to come up with a description of the internal world of the creative process that does not contradict Poincaré’s description outright, but adds to it, rather, and in interesting ways.  It also highlights certain possible differences and similarities between the creative process in scientific problem-solving, and that in the artistic conception of creative ideas.

Rothenberg called the conscious conception of opposites janusian thought processes, after Janus, a Roman god with two faces.  Here, ideas are taken that seem on the surface to contradict each other.  We could take, as an example, the opposite acts of being in motion and standing still.  These opposites can, with the aid of one’s knowledge and understanding of the outside world, be put together in a way that makes sense.  The bringing together of contradictions can be fertile ground for new ideas, the unexpectedness of which might surprise the viewer/reader into paying attention.  For instance, the opposite states of being in motion and standing still could be juxtaposed in a story where a character is physically constantly in motion, while mentally feeling motionless.  The idea might be used to show the disconnect between these external and internal realities, and its unexpected yet familiar nature might help it resonate with a reader.  

Rothenberg called the visual juxtaposition of opposites in one’s mind homospatial presentations – the next step after the conception of these opposites.  The conception of opposites is not enough, on its own: as with the moose and the chair, before, what matters is not so much coming up with disparate ideas as deciding how the opposites can be made to make sense together.  It is their juxtaposition and the ideas that come out of that that results in a creative product.  And so as with Guilford’s convergent and divergent thought, discussed before, a fundamental quality of creativity seems to be that it relies both on the originality of randomness and on the meaning that ordered thought might be able to bring out of such unexpected or random ideas.  

It is easy to see how the conscious conception of and juxtaposition of opposites might aid in the artistic creative process, where the end goal is generally to have a piece resonate at an emotional level with an outside audience.  However, it is not as clear how simply bringing together opposites would be a useful strategy in the scientific creative process, where the end result must conform with the external rules of that discipline.  There is an extent to which being able to think beyond contradictions has been useful in scientific paradigms.  To use an obvious example, conceiving of something as being a wave and a particle at the same time would have required putting together concepts that seemed in opposition to each other.  However, Rothenberg’s description of the creative process does not, here, seem to apply as much to scientific problem-solving as it does to artistic inspiration.

Requirements of Creativity

From these internal accounts of creativity a few conclusions can be made about the requirements of creativity at the level of the individual, which will then help us explore how the brain produces creativity in the next two sections.  Creativity requires the ability to think beyond preconceptions and norms, which would be aided by the lack of restrictions present in dreams, daydreams and the unconscious.  At the conscious level, it has been proposed that this can also be aided by a capacity for fluent and flexible thought. (Guilford 1959, Jamison 1993) Fluent thought is essentially rapid thought, whereas flexible thought is thought that is able to move easily away from strategies that do not appear to be working.  (Guilford, 1959) These both have clear links to divergent thought and originality.  Originality would be helped both by the ability to produce a high volume of ideas per unit time, and by the ability to shift strategies with ease.  To these requirements for originality one might add personality traits such as non-conformity and independence (e.g. Simonton, 1999), as well as motivation (e.g. Rothenberg, 1990).  The theory that creative ability is caused by a cluster of personality traits has been championed most by Hans J. Eysenck, in the past (e.g. Eysenck, 1993).  This creative personality type, which has been hypothesized to be one that puts one at the risk for mental illness, will be discussed more in the section on creativity and mental illness.

Beyond requirements for originality, one would, as previously discussed, require both broad knowledge bases and a moderate amount of intelligence to produce creative output.  As discussed before, intelligence is not equivalent with creativity, and nor does it directly correlate with it.  A study run by Terman beginning in the 1920s followed a select group of children with high IQs over the course of their lives, and found a high degree of success across the board but few creative accomplishments.  (discussed in Andreasen, 2005)  A certain minimum level of intelligence would still, however, be required to achieve the mental coherence needed for creativity.  (Eysenck, 1993)  Likewise, as previously discussed a broad knowledge base would give one a framework across which could be made far-reaching associations. 

It may be noted that the requirements just mentioned, those of intelligence and knowledgeability, are beginning to take us away from the level of the individual creativity and into the level at which creativity is defined by society.  It demonstrates how closely linked the internal and external worlds of creativity truly are that discussing one so quickly leads to the other.  The social construction of creativity will not be tackled until the final section, however.  For now we will move on to what qualities of the nervous system might make us capable of original thought.

Originality, Randomness and Chaos


“It is a rare mind indeed that can render the hitherto nonexistent blindingly obvious.”
– Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams

As described in the first section, the first and innermost layer of creativity is originality.  It seems natural, therefore, that at the heart of the question of how we produce creative products would be the similar question of how we are capable of producing originality.  This is a question that, unlike the question of creativity, does not really seem to have mystical overtones.  The problem of how we produce anything that’s actually new is a concrete one, and therefore might actually have a concrete answer.  This removes a lot of the problematic aspects of trying to study creativity as a whole. 

 With that in mind, it is interesting to note that none of the descriptions of the internal experience of the creative process in the previous section were really able to tell us where originality comes from.  Rothenberg says that we conceive of originality by consciously putting together opposites, but it is obvious that this is not always true.  Not all creative inspiration occurs consciously, for one thing, and for another simply putting together opposites would often not be particularly helpful, especially in non-artistic creativity.  Poincaré proposes that we conceive of originality in the unconscious mind, during incubation.  The unconscious is free from convention and all the usual barriers our minds contain that usually prevent us from thinking beyond what we have already been taught.  However, when looked at closely, this approach is not much more illuminating than Rothenberg’s.  The concept of “the unconscious” can be a useful one, but it is only to a point.  There is nothing physical within the brain that we can pinpoint and label as “the unconscious,” after all.  And more than that, it is not obvious how any part of our brain would manage to lack restrictions, or how it would be able to then function in the absence of restrictions.     

There is one account of the internal experience of creativity that I purposely left out of the previous discussion.  This account stands out from all others I have come across in terms of its startling clarity, and it is also the most disconcerting and thought-provoking accounts of creativity that I have seen.   In her 1996 semi-autobiography, Thinking in Pictures, Temple Grandin describes her process for designing the machines involved in livestock management.  Grandin is a woman with high-functioning autism who received her PhD in animal science and now works to design humane methods for handling and slaughtering livestock.  She has a perfect photographic memory which she utilizes extensively while coming up with new designs, as she explains in the following:

“I create new images all the time by taking many little parts of images I have in the video library in my imagination and piecing them together.  I have video memories of every item I’ve ever worked with – steel gates, fences, latches, concrete walls, and so forth.  To create new designs, I retrieve bits and pieces from my memory and combine them into a new whole.”  (p.21, Grandin, 1996)

On the surface, there does not seem to be a problem with this method.  Directly taking bits and pieces from previous designs seems like a logical way to create a new workable design, and it seems likely that this is more or less what everyone does.  Most people would be less precise than Grandin is, of course, because most people lack perfect memories, but it makes far more sense to draw off of and then suitably alter previous solutions to a problem than to solve each problem from scratch.  Moreover, Grandin cannot come up with designs from scratch, as she goes on to explain when she later describes her difficulty in coming up with generalizations.  However, she then goes on to call her process creativity, and makes the argument that autism can aid in creativity for that very reason. 

Is it creativity, however?  We can examine her process to see if its output would qualify as both original and meaningful.  The products of Grandin’s design process are certainly meaningful, both to herself and within a broader social context.  However, it does not seem immediately obvious how a product made by piecing together bits of what has come before without adding any new twist of one’s own might be termed “original”.  Her combinations are original, but the content of her designs is not.  And yet if one thinks about it, it is hard to see how anyone would come up with ideas that were not amalgams of what has come before.  Any creative product, after all, will show signs of being derivative.  So the real question, perhaps, is that if what Temple Grandin describes is not originality, are we actually capable of real originality?  And if so, how do we manage it?

Behaviorism and Computers

According to the behaviorist school of psychological thought, we are not capable of genuine originality.  Championed by such people as Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner, behaviorism claims that our behavior can be explained through simple processes of stimulus and response.  The brain is a black box, the internal machinations of which can be ignored in experimental settings because of their subjectivity.  One can assume instead that everything we do is with the ultimate goal of gaining reward and avoiding punishment.  And as a result, reward and punishment can be used in systematic ways to condition a person to produce desirable behavior, programming us with particular responses to specific stimuli.  A full knowledge of the stimuli a person has been exposed to in the past should therefore allow one to predict their behavioral responses in the present. 

According to this school of thought we could essentially be described as glorified computers, and it is easy to see how such a description might make some sense.  Our neural networks within networks do mirror computer circuits, and the electrical transmission of information within our nervous systems produces output in the form of behavior just as it does with computers.  We are programmed, like computers, although in our case we are programmed by our genes and our environments.  And just like computers we are limited by our built-in frameworks: by our wells of knowledge and the ways in which discrete bits of that knowledge interconnect in our heads, structured by our learned ways of thinking and functioning in the world. 

In the case of computers these in-built constraints dictate their actions, however, meaning that a computer cannot (in theory) think beyond these constraints to do anything contrary to what it has been programmed to do.  And so a complete understanding of how a computer has been programmed should, consequently, make it entirely predictable.  One could then theorize, using behaviorist reasoning, that we are much the same.  We are complex to a degree that our actions may appear unpredictable on the surface, because the factors influencing our actions would be far more numerous than those influencing a computer.  However, a full knowledge of our conditioned programming and the stimuli that influence us should still be able to predict our response to any new stimulus.

Such a model of the human mind is antithetical to the notion of genuine creativity, though not actually for the most obvious reason, that it implies we are incapable of real unpredictability.  Creativity does require an ability for unpredictability, it is true.  However, as will be discussed soon, a theoretically deterministic system may still be capable of behavior that is, for all practical purposes, completely unpredictable.  It may be fundamentally impossible to know with precision all factors influencing behavior, and if that behavior is chaotic (which the behavior of the nervous system might be) the results might then be unpredictable.  Rather, what makes this model antithetical to creativity is the structural rigidity of mental thought processes that it presents.  A direct stimulus-response model of the brain rules out the possibility that, at times, we might make mistakes.  We might simply abandon what we have learned for no reason except that it entertains us to do so, and imagine something entirely new that we know could easily not be correct.  We might be inspired by chance errors.  We might – as Temple Grandin could not – make fuzzy generalizations based on hazy memories of what we have been taught, the haziness of which may in fact aid us in coming up with new approaches to a problem.  

In other words, creativity requires the ability to let go, at some point, of the structure that one has invested so much time in building while mastering a subject, akin to the “Follow the Buddha, and then kill the Buddha” mentality mentioned earlier.  It requires a capacity not simply for originality with respect to one’s surroundings (which may not be strictly possible, as mentioned), but originality with respect to oneself.  Is this then possible?  Originality with respect to oneself would require some capacity for generating random internal stimuli, and there is evidence that we are in fact capable of that sort of unpredictability. (Grobstein, 1994)           

To provide just one recent example out of many that shows this, a study done in 1999 by Roger Carpenter demonstrated that the human eye responds to stimuli in unpredictable ways.  The time taken for the eye to respond voluntarily to stimuli varied widely, here, in the absence of any changes to external input.  Carpenter proposed that this variability may be inbuilt in the nervous system, and that unpredictable responses to stimuli might provide us with survival advantages under some circumstances.  An element of randomness in our behavior might allow us to ultimately come up with new, improved and unexpected ways of dealing with our environment.  (Carpenter 1999)

In addition, Glimcher (2005) discusses another such experiment, this time involving cats.  (Tolhurst et al, 1981 from Glimcher, 2005) Here, cats were given visual stimuli in the form of bars that were first presented in the vertical position, and then slowly rotated until they became horizontal.  The experimenters found that this rotation caused the firing patterns in the cats’ visual cortices to change in unpredictable ways.  Although the average rate of firing changed in consistent ways while the bar rotated, the pattern that gave rise to that average did not.  Instead, that pattern was completely unpredictable, and it grew more variable as the average rate of firing increased.  Glimcher (2005) presents this, like Carpenter, as evidence that the nervous system is capable of being indeterminate.  The problem then, of course, is how it manages to do so. 

Quantum-level Uncertainty

One source of unpredictability for the physical world is the uncertainty that exists at a quantum level.  According to the Copenhagan Interpretation of Heisenberg and Bohr, the position of a particle exists as a probability wave until it is observed.  In more concrete terms, what this means is that the behavior of matter at the level of atoms and electrons can only be predicted in terms of probable outcomes.  The most well known example of how this might make an impact at the behavioral level is the thought-experiment of Schrodinger’s cat, which ironically enough was devised by Erwin Schrodinger to demonstrate how ludicrous it would be to assume that quantum level uncertainty played out on a macro level.  In this thought experiment, a cat is placed in a closed box, with conditions set up in such a way that whether it lives or dies will be decided at the quantum level.  For instance, the survival of the cat may be decided by the position of an electron within the box, but the position of the electron would be indeterminate until it was physically observed.  Until someone opened the box, therefore, and collapsed the probability wave encompassed by the cat and the electron, the cat would be neither alive nor dead.

Schrodinger thought that this was ridiculous.  He believed this example showed how unpredictability of the quantum sort could not exist at a macro level if any of us were to function.  However, as Glimcher (2005) points out, our behavior is determined by quantum level events in the nervous system.  The conduction of action potentials is decided by events at the atomic level: the movement of Na+ and K+ ions, for example, decides the electric potential at any point along a neuron.  Likewise, the movement of Ca2+ ions through ion channels in the pre- and post-synaptic membranes decides whether or not a neural impulse will be propagated from one neuron to the next.  The intrinsic uncertainty of these events in the nervous system manifests itself at every level after that, beginning with the fact that the potential difference across the membrane of a neuron continues to fluctuate, even in the absence of input.  A leech nervous system will continue to fire, even in isolation.  (Grobstein, 1994)  These baseline fluctuations show their impact even at the level of behavior.  For example, stimulating a leech in specific ways will generally result in swimming behavior (the direct stimulus-response model of the behaviorists), but not always, and it is impossible to predict when the leech will show swimming behavior and when it will not.  This may be classified under the unofficial Harvard law of animal behavior, that “under carefully controlled experimental circumstances, an animal will behave as it damned well pleases.” (Grobstein, 1994)  What this means, however, is that there is an inherent, predictable degree of unpredictability in the behavior of all animals that might arise from quantum-level uncertainty at the atomic level of the nervous system.

An ability for unpredictability solves the quandary presented at the end of the last section.  If we can be unpredictable, we can at the very least produce ideas original to ourselves, even if they are not original to others.  Some degree of built-in neurological randomness, therefore, may be key to our ability for creativity.  This is a theory that would fall in line with the work of the psychologist Dean Keith Simonton, who has virtually made it his life’s work to demonstrate the importance of randomness to creativity.  His idea, expanded from ideas presented in Campbell (1960), is that the creative process is Darwinian.  (e.g. Simonton 1999) According to this theory, when the mind is presented with an unfamiliar problem that lacks an obvious solution, possible directions are first generated in a process of blind variation similar to random genetic mutations in evolution.  Many of these ideas will be terrible, of course, and so one has to consciously prune them and only explore those that seem viable through a process of selective retention.  This again is analogous to selective processes in nature: not all genetic variations are viable, and therefore the vast majority of mutations do not survive.  Those mutations that do survive provide original but effective ways of dealing with the environment, and might therefore be passed on to future generations.  Likewise, in the creative process those ideas that survive pruning can be further explored, and go on to propagate more ideas that follow along the same general drift of the initial one.

Simonton proposes two ways for such random ideas to be produced.  They are either triggered by random external stimuli or by internal stimuli that come during periods of incubation and free-association.  Both of these ways resonate well with the discussion so far on the internal experience of creativity.  As mentioned in the section on personal accounts of creativity, creative inspiration tends to strike more easily after one has taken a break from a problem.  Environmental stimuli during that break would have nothing to do with what one already knows about the problem, and so it might be able to trigger something original.  Archimedes was inspired by his bath water, for instance.  The physicist Richard Feynman was initially inspired to do the research that led to his Nobel Prize by the sight of a plate being thrown into the air in a cafeteria and wobbling as it hovered in mid-air.  (Feynman & Leighton, 1988) And as for where random internal stimuli would come from, we now have at least one possible answer.  There is a baseline of randomness in our nervous systems due to quantum-level uncertainty, and random internal stimuli could therefore be the norm rather than something that must be added.  

Simonton’s Darwinian model is an extremely appealing and intuitive one for the reasons listed above, but once again it has its problematic aspects.  The problem here is that although randomness leads to originality and originality may lead to creativity, creativity is not equivalent to originality.  As stressed earlier, simple originality will not lead to a creative product.  One might have the extremely original (and random) idea that weather patterns on Earth are controlled by a colony of pink unicorns living on the moon, but the fact of this idea’s randomness does not make it immediately useful to meteorologists.  You might say that in any subject whose conceptual space is so constrained by definite rules as, say, meteorology, or any other scientific discipline, only a mild amount of randomness is at all helpful.  After that, it ceases to be constructive, and the same would even be true after a point of disciplines less constrained by rules.  It is a generally accepted fact, for instance, that the more an artist deviates from the norm and delves into his or her own personal randomness, the less understandable the products of such a creative process are going to be to anybody else.  Even James Joyce reached a point of general incomprehensibility with Finnegans Wake that might take it out of the realm of creativity and back into mere originality, if one were to accept Csikszentmihalyi’s requirement that something can only be judged creative if it is accepted and understood by the relevant portion of society.

The problem here is rather concisely and brilliantly put by Douglas Adams in the quote at the beginning of this section, taken from his book Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency: “It is a rare mind indeed that can render the hitherto nonexistent blindingly obvious.”  (Adams, 1987) This, precisely, is the paradox.  How can an idea be both so original that it was nonexistent before this instant, and yet so in tune with the external world that it still seems blindingly obvious?  The exact wording here of course does not apply to all creative products.  Not all creative inspirations are produced by “rare minds,” for one thing.  Few creative products are original to the degree that all aspects of them were “hitherto nonexistent,” and they may not all be easily accepted to the point of seeming “blindingly obvious.”  However, the essence of Douglas Adams’ statement still holds very true for what we have discussed so far of creativity.  A genuinely creative product must be unexpected with respect to what has come before it, but it also must make sense alongside that which has preceded it, and it is not obvious how anyone manages to accomplish this.  One possible way to address this problem, however, would be to say that order and disorder are not mutually exclusive.  The state of chaos is able to combine both.

Creativity and Chaos

The possibility that animal behavior might generally be described as chaotic was put forward by Grobstein (1994) in his discussion of animal behavior that is neither random nor entirely predictable, but rather “deterministic but ill-mannered.”  An example he gives of this type of behavior is frog prey orienting behavior.  In the experiment he describes, live prey was kept stationary in a cup that was kept at a fixed distance and angle from a frog.  The frog would always orient correctly towards the prey, but there was a substantial amount of variation in the frog’s position and head angle, from trial to trial.  This variation seemed quite random, in that it did not seem to be a factor of how much room the prey had to move around in its cup.  However, the frog’s behavior could still be predicted to the extent that it would always orient correctly towards the prey.  In other words, the frog behaved in a determinate behavior to an extent, but the details of that behavior were indeterminate.

This has some very useful similarities to chaotic behavior. (Grobstein, 1994)  With systems that behave chaotically, their behavior may be predicted so long as initial conditions are known to an absolute degree of accuracy.  Since such perfect accuracy is impossible, for all practical purposes such systems are not predictable, but they are not then completely indeterminate.  They are not random.  The rough shape of behavior in a chaotic system may be predicted even if initial conditions are only known imprecisely, because that behavior is bounded. (Vaidya & Nagaraj, 2007) Based on this logic, in the previous example the frog’s exact angle of orientation may have been unpredictable simply because the full breadth of its environmental conditions could never be known with complete accuracy.  The frog could still be predicted to orient in the general direction of the prey, however, because its behavior was not strictly random, but rather chaotic.  This becomes extremely relevant to the discussion at hand with the fact that the nervous system could be predicted to behave in a chaotic manner in general.  Even simple non-linear systems can give rise to chaos (a non-linear system simply being one which, when mathematically modeled, has products or powers greater than one) and the nervous system is non-linear. (Grobstein, 1994)                  

Ruth Richards has taken this further to propose an “edge-of-chaos” theory of creativity. (e.g. Richards 1997) Richards compares this state between order and randomness to the phase transition between ice and water.  At the level of ice there exists structural rigidity which does not allow for original configurations of molecules to form, while at the level of water is a turbulent fluidity in which no coherent structure might exist at all.  On the edge between these two states, or the “edge of chaos,” there is just enough fluidity for new configurations to form and just enough rigidity for those configurations to maintain some sort of structural integrity.  One might describe behavior that is deterministic but ill-mannered in just such a manner, as well as thought processes that take advantage of a directed randomness.  Disorder might be helpful to creativity if there is enough mental order to contain and control it.  

A good example of this from the world of art might be improvisation.  Improvisation allows for a high amount of creativity, in music, or dance, or even speech-making, because it lacks the rigidity of ice.  And yet, it would be inaccurate to say that there is no structure to follow at all.  When one is making things up on the spot, there is some drawing from past experiences and previously built knowledge bases.  The structure is fluid enough, however, to allow for one to incorporate random input into the final product.  In his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, by the British-born neurologist Oliver Sacks, one story follows a man he calls “Witty Ticky Ray,” a musician with Tourette’s Syndrome.  This man would incorporate his random motor tics into his music, and in fact relied on those tics to make his music as original and lively as it was.  He became extremely distressed after medication caused his tics to go away because it made his music lose that quality of unpredictability that had made it so appealing and enjoyable to both himself and others.

Neurological disorders may add a degree of unpredictability to behavior across the board.  They can be a source of randomness not just for motor activity, but for mental activity as well, in the case of psychoses such as manic depressive disorder and schizophrenia.  And now that we have discussed how vital structured randomness is for the creative process as a whole, it would be beneficial to see how this relates to the link between mental illness and creativity, as a test case.

The Link Between Creativity and Mental Illness

“…if we were organisms so sensitive that a single atom, or even a few atoms, could make a perceptible impression on our senses – Heavens, what would life be like!  To stress one point: an organism of that kind would most certainly not be capable of developing the kind of orderly thought which, after passing through a long sequence of earlier stages, ultimately results in forming, among many other ideas, the idea of an atom.” – Schrodinger, What is Life?
“Wherever one went the world was blooming.  And yet despair gave birth to poetry.” – Paul Celan, from Redfield (1993)

To recap the conclusions of the previous sections, in order for a product or idea to be labeled creative it must be both original and meaningful.  Originality has its root in unpredictability and randomness, and the question of whether or not we are capable of genuine originality was resolved in the previous section.  Our thought processes are intrinsically unpredictable at the most basic level, which implies that the order that we perceive in them is imposed rather than inherent.  Creativity of course also requires that such originality acknowledge external codes of logic in a structured, understandable manner.  This combination of structure and randomness has its parallel in chaos, which leads us to the conclusion that creative thought processes might be chaotic in nature.  Just as chaos preserves within it both the flexibility of disorder and the determinacy of order, creative processes integrate both divergent and convergent thought.  The possibility that the nervous system is fundamentally chaotic in nature, therefore, gives us the beginnings of an answer as to how we might be capable of creative thought.

Creativity’s roots in chaos might help us shed light on the apparent correlation between creativity and mental illness.  (Richards, 1993) There is both anecdotal and empirical evidence to support a link between creativity and mental illness (e.g. Juda 1949, Jamison 1993, Andreasen 2005), but the nature of that link is not entirely straightforward.  It is always far easier to spot a correlation than to understand it, of course.  Here the anecdotal evidence in particular is a bit suspect for the simple fact that it is the mad, moody geniuses who make the best stories, and we are creatures that love to tell and exaggerate a good story.  People tell stories about Van Gogh, for instance, because an artist who cut off his ear is far more interesting to us than one who simply led an uneventful, sane life with both ears intact.  Or, as Joyce Carol Oates put it, using the example of Emily Dickenson:

“[Emily Dickinson] was not an alcoholic, she was not abusive, she was not neurotic, she did not commit suicide.  Neurotic people or alcoholics who go through life make better copy, and people talk about them, tell anecdotes about them.  The quiet people just do their work.” – Joyce Carol Oates (from Jamison, 1993)

Empirical evidence exists as well, but it is also somewhat questionable.  The main reason for this is that it is impossible to adequately deal with the context-dependence of creativity.  The act of choosing which creative people to study immediately provides creativity with a subjective definition, and that subjectivity always weakens the results.  The Andreasen and Jamison studies mentioned above both dealt largely with prominent writers and artists, for example.  Both found high rates of manic depressive disorder and cyclothymia in their creative subjects, but such a study tells us nothing about how well one could generalize such a result to one of the many other different kinds of creativity, or people who are creative but not successful.   The Juda (1949) study was much larger in scope and found unusually high rates of psychoses in many different types of scientists and artists, but it also only studied creative individuals who were prominent and successful, and included categories one might not think of as creative today, such as “statesmen” and “theologians.” 

Beyond such problems of understanding to what degree and in which disciplines a link between creativity and mental illness might exist, there is also the question of what such a correlation might mean.  The link could be incidental; it could mean that creativity and mental illness are simply caused by the same thing.  It could be causal, in either or both directions: it could mean creative powers leave a person vulnerable to mental illness, that mental illness allows one to be creative, or that creative acts are a way of dealing with the trauma of mental illness.  It could even mean some combination of all of the above, since none of these are by any means mutually exclusive. 

The view that mental illness somehow causes creativity has been a common one in the past.  By this view, just as the loss of one’s sight gives one a heightened sense of touch, the loss of one’s sanity gives one mystical abilities of creativity and inspiration.  Lionel Trilling, in his well known 1950 essay “Art and Neurosis,” explains that we accept the mental illness of the artist as “a condition of his power to tell the truth.”  Edmund Wilson explains in his 1952 book, “The Wound and the Bow,” that artists use suffering as a driving force for their art.  He likens this to the ancient Greek myth of Philoctetes, the Greek captain who possessed Hercules’ invincible bow.  Philoctetes was abandoned on an island by the other Greeks on their way to fight in the Trojan War after he developed a snake bite that smelled far too much for anyone else to want to be around him.  Ten years later, however, it transpired that the Greeks could not win against the Trojans without Philoctetes and his invincible bow, and he had to be persuaded to forgive his companions and return to them.  Or, as Edmund Wilson puts it: 

“The victim of a malodorous disease which renders him abhorrent to society and periodically degrades him and makes him helpless is also the master of a superhuman art which everybody has to respect and which the normal man finds he needs.” (p.263, Wilson 1952)  

The parallel with psychological defects and their link to creativity is obvious. Just as Philoctetes’ mutilation and strength go hand in hand, so do “genius and disease,” according to Wilson.  (p.259, Wilson 1952)  And the idea that mental illness might provide a person with special creative powers not available to the sane is one that appeals to us.  There is a sense of balance and fairness to the idea that suffering is rewarded with powers of insight. 

However, such an idea also clearly has problems with it, perhaps best expressed in the quote by Schrodinger at the beginning of this section.  His belief was that one could not even function, let alone formulate complex and useful ideas such as the structure of an atom, if the basis of thought and behavior were the disorder that exists at a quantum level.  (Schrodinger, 1992)  Psychoses might be taken as the extreme of a condition in which the basis of thought and behavior is quantum level uncertainty.  And although we have already explored how order might be imposed upon fundamental disorder and disorder might be channeled in constructive ways, it is true that complete disorder in the mind would be incapacitating.  Similarly, Trilling believed that what is most important to creativity is intelligence and genuine talent, rather than the disorder of mental illness.  (Trilling, 1950)  He claimed that the disorder of mental illness can be detrimental to creativity.  Additionally, based on the discussion of creativity in the previous sections, it is easy to see how this might be so.  Disorder would be beneficial to the layer of creativity that is originality, but it would not at all be helpful to making a creative product meaningful to others.  

Creativity and Sub-Diagnosable Mental Illness

We might be able to answer Trilling’s and Schrodinger’s doubts using the link between creativity and chaos discussed in the last section.  As explained before, the disorder at the basis of our behavior is not truly random but chaotic: “deterministic but ill-mannered.” (Grobstein 1994) While randomness may seem antithetical to creativity, directed randomness is not.  Moreover, such directed, orderly randomness would not be found in the thought processes of people who are severely psychotic, but rather in people with only mild levels of mental illness.

Ruth Richards, who also proposed the edge of chaos theory of creativity discussed before, conducted a study at Harvard in the 1980s (Richards et al, 1988) to test such a hypothesis.  The study attempted to deal with the context-dependence of creativity by not judging creativity based on prominence and success, but rather by Richards’ own “Lifetime Creativity Scales,” which measured creativity based on both the originality of answers and their meaningfulness to others.  The study included people diagnosed with manic depressive disorder, cyclothymes (those with borderline manic depressive disorder), “normal” first degree relatives of people with manic depressive disorder or cyclothymia, and controls.  The result was that creativity did in fact peak with mild mental illness.  The most creative were those with cyclothymia and the first degree relatives, who one might assume could also show mild mood swings.  The lowest creativity was found with the controls and the people with manic depressive disorder.

Richards explained this result by likening the link between creativity and mental illness to that between malaria resistance and sickle cell anemia.  Sickle cell anemia is fatal when present homozygously, but if the allele is present heterozygously a similar, but milder version of sickle cell anemia results.  This version is both non-fatal and provides resistance to malaria, which is the reason why sickle cell anemia has managed to persist in areas where malaria is prevalent.  Likewise, psychoses are debilitating and often fatal at their most severe.  However, when present in mild, perhaps sub-diagnosable forms such as simple cyclothymia or eccentricity, the same qualities may aid in creativity that are debilitating in full force.

Other studies have supported this result.  For example, a study run throughout the 1970s and 80s by Jon Love Karlsson collected data that linked many of the most creative people in Iceland with relatives who were mentally ill.  Here, the names of Icelandic men born between 1851-1940 who had been committed to the Kleppur Mental Hospital in Reykjavik were cross referenced with books on Icelandic genealogy.  The first and second degree relatives of people in the mental hospital’s records were found, and once again cross referenced against the names of people who had shown notable creativity, taken from several “Who’s Who” books, again on Icelandic men.  (Karlsson 1970) 

The result was that although the general male population had a 9.2% chance of being in the Who’s Who listing, first degree relatives of mental patients had a 15.6% chance of being in it, and second degree relatives had a 19.6% chance.  In addition, the numbers were higher for relatives of people with manic depressive disorder than schizophrenia.  First and second degree relatives of people with manic depressive disorder all had roughly a 23% chance of being in the Who’s Who listing.  Further research expanded the list of creative people beyond the Who’s Who listing to published book authors and college graduates of the Reykjavik Gymnasium College, and again found that there was a greater chance that people who came from families with a history of mental illness would appear on these lists than that the general population would.  (Karlsson 1984) 

Similar evidence may be found from other studies, as well.  Heston (1966) conducted a study of foster-reared children of schizophrenic women in order to see to what degree schizophrenia was passed on environmentally and to what degree it was inherited genetically.  He found not just a higher rate of schizophrenia in these children than in the control, but also a higher rate of “colorful personalities” and creativity in them.  Thomas McNeil conducted an adoption study in Denmark, in which he found that those adults studied whose creativity was above average (judged by national prominence) had both the highest rates of mental illness, and the highest rates of biological parents with mental illness, at a rate of approximately 30% for each.  (McNeil 1971)  The Iowa Writers’ Workshop Study mentioned earlier also found a high degree of creativity in the relatives of the writers, in addition to finding high rates of mood disorders among them.  (Andreasen 2005)    

The evidence extends back to the anecdotal level.  Einstein was not diagnosable mentally ill, but he had an eccentric personality and a schizophrenic son.  (Andreasen 2005)  The highly innovative, creative writer Kurt Vonnegut had a son with schizophrenia.  The 20th century mathematician and philosopher, Bertrand Russell, though he himself never showed symptoms of mental illness, had an insane uncle, a delusional aunt, a schizophrenic son and a schizophrenic granddaughter who committed suicide.  (Andreasen 2005)  Creativity and mental illness also ran in the family of Henry James, the 19th century Irish-American writer, theologian and philosopher.  His son William James became a famed psychologist and novelist, and his father had been a famed businessman and writer.  But Henry James was depressive and so were all his children, apart from a son who had full blown manic depressive disorder.  (Jamison 1993)

Schizotypal Personality Types

To recap where we now stand, the link between chaos and creativity might help explain the high incidence of creativity in the relatives of people with mental illnesses.  Chaotic thought processes may be a feature of low grade mental illness, with the capacity for disordered thought occurring alongside enough mental coherence for such thought to still be structured.  Such borderline mental illness has been called “psychoticism” in the past (e.g. Eysenck, 1993), and also “schizotypal” (e.g. Claridge, 1997).  Hans J. Eysenck defines his term, psychoticism, as a collection of the personality traits that taken to the extreme result in psychosis, with normalcy and psychosis lying on the same continuum. (Eysenck, 1993)  Likewise, Claridge describes a schizotypal personality type as one that might put one at risk for schizophrenia, but that is not itself indicative of schizophrenia. (Claridge 2006) The qualities contained by such personalities would, at their extreme, qualify as mental illness, but at lower levels they might aid in creativity. 

Qualities of mental illness that have been suggested to directly aid in creativity include such things as heightened arousal, motivation and fluidity of thought in the case of manic depressive disorder. (Jamison, 1993)  They include, in the case of psychoses in general, such personality traits as non-conformity and independence (e.g. Simonton, 1999), as well as an oversensitivity to stimuli and a loosening of associations (Andreasen, 2005).  All of these qualities could, taken to the extreme, be debilitating and not constructive at all.  However, in milder levels they might aid in creativity.  

The link between creativity and mental illness brings us quite naturally to the question of creativity’s interaction with and potential ability to subvert societal norms.  Mental illness can be stigmatized and sidelined by society, and so too can schizotypal personality types.  However, the products of such stigmatized states may still be appreciated by society as a whole, to the extent of influencing the mindsets of large groups of people and creating paradigm shifts within  disciplines.  How one reconciles these opposing qualities of social stigmatization and social appreciation will be a question tackled in the next, concluding section.

Conclusions: Creativity and Society
Interviewer:  How common is storytelling talent?
Kurt Vonnegut: In a creative writing class of twenty people anywhere in this country, six students will be startlingly talented.  Two of those might actually publish something by and by.
Interviewer:  What distinguishes those two from the rest?
Kurt Vonnegut:  They will have something other than literature itself on their minds.  They will probably be hustlers, too.  I mean that they won’t wait passively for somebody to discover them.  They will insist on being read.
-    From an interview with Kurt Vonnegut in The Paris Review (p.196, Gourevitch, 2006)

A logical question that might come out of the previous sections is what practical relevance any of their conclusions might actually have.  How could creativity be better encouraged in schools or in society at large, for instance, based upon what we know of it?  Having so far covered creativity at the level of originality and at the level of the individual, this is an issue that might allow us to connect those levels to the level of society.  However, issues of creative acceptance at the level of society turn out to be far different from issues of meaningful originality at the level of the individual.  Improving levels of individual originality may not actually aid overall levels of creativity, for one thing.  (Csikszentmihalyi, 1998)  The capacity for some degree of originality is nearly ubiquitous as it is, but creative accomplishments are still relatively speaking very rare. (Eysenck, 1993)

One reason for the rarity of creative accomplishment might be that the requirements for creating a product that has meaning are quite different from the requirements for creating one that is original.  This issue was brought up in the last section, that one might see the highest degree of originality with severe mental illness but that such extreme originality would be very unlikely to be creative.  There is also the factor, however, that certain characteristics associated with a creative personality can be marginalized by society, such as eccentricity, non-conformity, and borderline mental illness.  Creative accomplishments must therefore be recognized and accepted as such by the relevant portion of society in order to be called creative, but at the same time the personality traits associated with creative ability tend to be marginalized by society.  It might make sense, therefore, to propose that in order to increase its levels of creative accomplishment, a society would simply need to improve its acceptance of extremes of originality and not marginalize non-conformist personality types.

On close examination, however, this is a proposition that is problematic on many counts, and not least because acceptance is something that develops over time and therefore cannot easily be imposed.  However, the ways in which this proposition is problematic are interesting, and it could be illuminating to examine them.  First of all, we find here a bit of a paradox.  In order to be labeled as creativity, originality must be accepted as meaningful by the relevant portion of society.  However, originality is non-conformist by definition, and non-conformity is a quality that is marginalized, by definition.  Non-conformity stops being non-conformity once it becomes socially accepted, because it soon ceases to feel surprising and innovative once it becomes mainstream.  After that, new non-conformist movements must then spring up to hold a healthy skepticism for the status quo in its place. 

The key here, however, is that meaningful originality does not ignore the status quo, but is instead defined by its opposition to the status quo.  New, potentially ground-breaking ideas first need a ground to break, so to speak.  Not all radical new ideas will be useful ones, but new ideas can be molded against the accepted structure that the individual is questioning in order for them to be made useful.  And so the tension between a pressure to adhere to accepted structure and a desire to break free of that structure is one that is, perhaps, vital to creativity.    The question one might want to ask, then, would not just be how a society can increase its tolerance for original thought, since merely accepting all original ideas as valid would be meaningless.  Rather, one would want to ask how a society can maintain that optimal balance between a pressure to conform to established thought and a willingness to embrace original thought. 

However, another problem here is a potential confusion with semantics.  There are two types of conformity in question, here.  One is the type that would gain one acceptance by the relevant portion of society, and the other is the type that would make one’s ideas useful to society – relevant within the discipline’s conceptual space.  One’s ideas may make sense within the bounds of the discipline, but still be non-conformist with respect to popularly held notions about that discipline.  Through this, one sees that there are two additional sub-levels that need to be added here to understand creativity at the level of society.  An original product must make sense within the realm of some abstract notion of its discipline, which it may do even if it is never a successful product.  And then it must resonate with the relevant subset of the population, which it might do even if it makes little actual sense within the context of the conceptual space of the discipline.  (Depending on how one defines the relevant subset of the population, the theory of intelligent design might be a good example of this possibility.)  Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi has defined creativity with layers that correspond to the ones just described in his systems approach to creativity, which will be discussed next.  

Systems Approach to Creativity

Csikszentmihalyi’s systems approach to creativity (e.g. Csikszentmihalyi, 1998) claims, to begin with, that creativity can be studied only as a social construct because the internal world of creativity is too subjective to be studied scientifically.  Creativity might be defined, then, using social acceptance as the single criteria.  It claims further that creativity can therefore only be observed at that level at which the individual, the domain, and the field intersect and interact.  The domain, here, is the set of rules operating in that discipline, somewhat akin to Margaret Boden’s idea of a conceptual space, discussed earlier. (Boden, 2004)  The field is that portion of the population that is qualified to judge a work as creative, which may vary from the select academic group that is able to properly understand that work to the population as a whole in the case of, say, popular music or fiction.  That the field judges a work as creative can be determined objectively, through such concrete measures of success as sales, awards and positive critical responses. 

Success might have little to do with creative ability, however, as mentioned in the excerpt from the interview with Kurt Vonnegut above.  To gain the notice and approval of the field one would need such things as charisma and aggressive confidence, along with (potentially) a desire to make money off of and be recognized for one’s work.  Moreover, such approval would not be a constant thing, and nor would it be entirely predictable.  It could be a matter of complete chance whether or not a product that has meaning within the context of the discipline’s conceptual space is also accepted as meaningful by the field.  For example, the Harry Potter books are wildly successful within their relevant field, and they might even be called somewhat original in their approach to the traditional British boarding school genre of fiction.  However, it is virtually impossible to say what it is about the actual words written in those books that has made them such an unprecedented creative success.             

Do Social Constraints Help or Hurt Creativity?

Csikszentmihalyi claimed, with the above model, that creativity as a whole is not increased when one simply encourages originality at the level of the individual.  Because creativity is socially defined, the way to encourage creativity is by improving a field’s willingness to accept new ideas.  (Csikszentmihalyi, 1998)  As just discussed, the matter is somewhat more complex than that: there is no way to escape the fact that in order for a new idea to be constructive it must in some way have value within the framework of the status quo.  However, a question that might come out of the preceding sections is whether or not this necessity is stifling to creativity: if the balance between a need for structure and a need for intellectual and artistic freedom is generally skewed in the favor of structure.  The fact that creative accomplishments are exceedingly rare while originality is quite common (Eysenck, 1993) would seem to imply this.  And so too would the current practice of medicalizing mental illness, which might in excess be cast as a form of subtle social control: of pathologizing the very deviance and emotionality that in mild levels aid creativity.  
It is, of course, more the attitude inherent in the excessive medicalization of mental illness that would seem stifling to creativity, rather than the actual practice of it.  Severe psychoses are debilitating at best and fatal at worst, and medicating severe manic depressive disorder can in fact improve creative ability. (Jamison, 1993)  However, eradicating its highs and lows completely would be detrimental to creativity, and such eradication might be suggested as desirable by a view that psychoses are a sign of something having gone fundamentally wrong with the brain.  This would be in contrast to the alternative view that psychoses lie at the extreme end of a continuum with normalcy (a view espoused by for example, Eysenck 1993 and Claridge 1997).  Such a continuum view would be supported, moreover, by the possibility that the nervous system is fundamentally chaotic.  By this view we would all, then, carry characteristics of mental illness, though not generally in levels that are debilitating or even notable.  The predisposition for mental illness could then be an extreme variation of, or come from the same source as, our capacity for original thought.  And likewise, rooting out that source could remove our capacity for original thought.   

Societal pressure to conform will not always be stifling, however, if artistic and intellectual freedom is also present.  For example, Renaissance Italy and Pericles’ Athens were both societies with heavy exposure to new ideas from the outside world (through trade and war) that also had established traditions of their own.  (Csikszentmihalyi 1998, Andreasen 2005)  Each were able to achieve that balance between openness and rigidity, and were therefore able to produce many creative innovations.  And likewise, disciplines with long backgrounds to draw from but that have grown disillusioned with the established order might show high levels of creativity.  Many disciplines saw such sea-changes during and after the destruction and disillusionment of World War I, with such innovative movements as Dadaism in art and quantum theory in physics, and original music characterized by such pieces as Stravinsky’s initially highly controversial “Rites of Spring.” 

Concluding Thoughts

Creative products and ideas are able to hold power over us through their paradoxical ability to remake our understanding of the world in ways that still resonate with that which we already know.  They “render the hitherto nonexistent blindingly obvious” (Adams, 1987), in other words.  The paradox that seems intrinsic to such a concept becomes sensible on further examination, however, as it is no more of a paradox than the state of chaos is.  Chaos has been described as the dance of order with disorder, and creativity too mixes together aspects of order and disorder at all of the levels that we might study it.  Within the mind creative processes require a combination of structural rigidity and widely associating fluidity of thought, and within society the encouragement of creativity requires a similar balance between resistance to and acceptance of transformative new ideas.  At the cellular level, creativity appears to be aided by the fundamental chaotic behavior that the nervous system demonstrates, optimized by borderline mental illness.  

The implications of creativity’s multi-faceted nature are many.  Its superficially contradictory qualities end up not contradicting each other, which makes us question the stigma associated with social deviance and mental illness, for one thing.  The nature of creativity itself demonstrates that insanity and sanity, and deviance and conformity, are not mutually-exclusive but rather complementary to each other.  As different views of the same phenomena or opposite extremes of the same continuum, they may co-exist within a single person with often unexpected and constructive results.  Moreover, any encouragement of creativity must strike that same balance between rigidity and fluidity.  Nothing meaningfully original might come out of either pure rigidity or pure fluidity on their own.  Rather, creativity is an emergent property of the combination of the two.  Creativity will be encouraged in any social setting that successfully accomplishes the balancing act between adherence to accepted thought and acceptance of radical new thought.  And such a task, like creativity itself, appears superficially impossible but is actually not.  Any society will be fertile ground for creativity, if it is capable of retaining some of the rigidity of ice while being able to see that the turbulence of water complements rather than contradicts that rigidity.                   


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Anonymous's picture

brilliant work!! the fluidity

brilliant work!! the fluidity of thought, depth of exploration and analysis of arguments, and general eloquence in this is just outstanding! such a pleasure to read

lynn dunham's picture

creativity and epilepsy

I have been speaking Gobstein about an article on Serendip and in looking through the site I found your thesis. Very interesting as I have just finished reading "The Yellow House" (about the time in which Van Gogh painted in Arles with Gauguin). Articles I have read indicate he may have suffered from epilepsy. I am the agent for an artist with
left temporal lobe epilepsy so naturally discussion of this nature is of interest to me.

I would like to present Mitchell for your consideration. His photography is conceptually based influenced by neuroscience. It can allude to desire, sanctuary, chronicle of memory and disassociation as in the Linear or Diaphanous collections. The Janusian collection of 14 images is not on the web site but I would be happy to send you images if you like. I liked what you wrote concerning this thought process.

Contrary to the assumption that photography is about representation, pure abstraction in which the notion that something representational must be depicted is rejected in the vast majority of work. The images themselves along with the process of image making are the subject rather than the depiction of something identifiable. Images are shot with the purest of intuition and from a perspective largely influenced by aura occurrences associated with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. Auras can produce heightened abstract emotions, affecting the visual field. Perspective becomes distorted and there strangely can be a sensation of a third party presence as if there is something almost “alive” in the scene. Additionally, Déjà vu, where a situation seems familiar and in contrast, Jamais-vu where the familiar becomes alien are relative feelings that can be very strong and very personal, and on occasion blissful. Colors become language-like, as though there is a heightened sense of subtle separation where you can almost read them in tone and graduation. Aside from the altered visual experience, sound may become distorted as well. Local sounds can become blanketed as if in a film clip where actual audio has been overlaid or replaced with a soundtrack enhancing the aesthetic experience; distant sounds may become amplified as though nearby. The work is grouped in collections for aesthetic reasons but also, as the auras can be prolonged producing a set of thoughts and sensations that strongly relate to each other—an essay develops. Concepts and meanings in words that might invigorate the imagination, or perhaps for the intellect alone are explored which enhance the imagery; sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between the two. While the experience with auras, is not always evident in the result, it is irrefutably connected in the process of creation.

Thomas Ryan's picture

Book - Call for chapters

Would you be interested in contributing this to a book I am editing on Creativity in Education/Learning?

Let me know.


Thomas Ryan

Buckyball's picture

Another very interesting blog post on creativity and innovation

Hi Thomas, Anjali -- I'm sure you should read this blog post that summarises some recent developments in creativity and innovation research (and related studies):

Buckyball's picture

... as links are not

... as links are not published with comments, suggest anyone interested Google 'The Role of Psychological Distance in Creativity and Innovation' to have a read.

Anjali's picture

Hi! I would be interested in

Hi! I would be interested in that, yes - although I'd like to point out (since the origins of things aren't always that clear on the internet) that this was written a few years ago as my final-year thesis for my bachelor's degree. As such, I did not do any outside study for it - it's just a review of what literature I could find with my own thoughts mixed in. If all of that is fine, then yes, absolutely - I would be interested. You can get in touch with me directly at anjali [dot] p [dot] vaidya [at] gmail [dot] com.


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