Friday 13 September 2013

The main problem of creativity is the disposition to recognize problems


I get the impression that most of the psychology of creativity has been too much focused on the problem of 'where do (good) ideas come from?'

The main idea, and indeed the only idea compatible with the non-teleological assumptions of modern biology, is some version of the mechanism of Natural Selection, for example that the creative process involves:

1. a random generation of ideas followed by
2. selection among them.

(HJ Eysenck surveys and expounds this model in his book Genius of 1995).


Broadly, the theory is that a creative person is one with high trait psychoticism/ schizotypy (or possibly Openness to Experience) has a way of thinking which is prone to more-inclusive and wide ranging associations - so instead of generating just one idea, they generate a range of ideas which are novel, but of course nearly all wrong or incoherent or in some way worse.

(The analogy is with genetic mutations, nearly all of which are deleterious.)

A creative genius is assumed to be a person who does this, but who is also able to select among these many random ideas using their extremely high intelligence to test their plausibility in terms of coherence with existing knowledge.

(The analogy is with the natural selection mechanism of reproductive success - most mutations lead to death, sterility, or reduced reproduction; but a few beneficial mutations are selected because they increase reproductive success - and 'good ideas' are selected because they first of all make sense and then do well when scientifically 'tested'.)


So, the answer to 'where do good ideas come from?' is that they are chosen from a pool of what are mostly (nearly-but-not-quite ALL) bad ideas, having been randomly generated - and the essence of genius is is to sift these bad ideas in hope that a good idea might be lurking among them.


Whether or not this is a plausible or possible way n which genius works is not really a matter for empirical study - rather it is just about the only way that genius could work, given the constraints of post-Darwinian biology and the ruling-out of their existing any external source of correct ideas, which the genius might be supposed to be accessing. 

In particular, given that the standard ancient explanation of 'divine inspiration' is ruled out as an explanation of Genius, then some version of natural selection is the only alternative that humankind has come up with.


But the focus of explanation of creativity could, and perhaps should, be shifted. 

Rather than focusing on 'where do good ideas come from?' it may be more useful to focus on what it is that enables - or predisposes - a person to recognize that there is a problem.

By this account a creative person is one who perceives problems that would benefit from being solved; so the special gift of a creative genius would have a lot to do with their ability to discern soluble problems. Soluble problems of such a type that - if they can be solved - would make a big difference to things.

Such a genius would not have to be better than other people at coming up with answers, just much better at knowing when and where there was a problem.


Indeed, this might be his main contribution - and having defined the problem, it might be that a lot of people are able to contribute possible solutions just as well as the genius who made it all possible.


An example would be the act of creativity involved in recognizing a new disease - recognizing that there was a pattern - drawing a line around some part of the world and revealing it as a coherent entity.

So - by this account - Michael S Gottlieb was the primary creative mind involved in the discovery of AIDS because he looked at the sea of disorders and drew a line around a particular combination of signs and symptoms - a new syndrome.

Once this had been done, the famous, over-praised (and over-rewarded) leaders of uncreative but hyper-resourced Big Lab teams could throw manpower and machines at the problem until the causal agent was discovered (which was almost inevitable, sooner or later).


So - I am suggesting that a creative person is one who has the personality, or disposition, to recognize and define problems - and not necessarily the person who is especially good at solving problems

(Because the 'creative' may not have the power and resources to solve the problem he has discovered - and anyway solving the problem may not require much creativity - nonetheless, without the creative person, there would be no problem to be solved. Creativity is primary.) 


Wednesday 11 September 2013

A Pygmalion theory of creativity: 'Love of the subject' is the perspective which enables creativity


I have previously argued that creativity is rare, and that it is typically inhibited (or more accurately that its per-requisites are lacking) due to the domination of the social perspective.

It is a pre-requisite of creativity that there be 'a problem' - that a line is drawn around some bit of reality as the problem for which a solution is sought.

But why should this happen - what motivates someone to look at the world in such a way that it is seen to consist of problems which that person is motivated to solve?


At a high level, the motivation is seen as 'love of the subject' - by which I mean that a creative genius loves their subject matter, that upon which they exercise their creativity - some abstract activity such as music, a branch of science, poetry...

That subject is what has the line drawn around it as the object of creative concern, and the love of that subject is what makes the concern creative - because if there is no love of subject, then problem is used as a means to the end of other satisfactions - usually personal and/or social satisfactions.


This distinguishes creativity from things like the pathological obsessions of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or the repetitive perseverations of autism - that creativity is derived from a love of that abstracted entity we term 'the subject' - and that 'the subject' includes matters of impersonal functionality and not only the gratification of personal satisfactions or service to socially approved goods.


So, a creative solution is, on the one hand, not done to please the boss nor for fun; and on the other hand is not done from a compulsion or to avoid psychological distress - but rather, the creative mid-set is orientated to some abstract subject-and-function such as making a real and good poem or piece of music; or understanding the underlying reality and causal mechanisms of some chunk of the natural world (a gene, a cell, a mouse - or the species of mice, or an ecosystem) - or simply solving the problem of picking and washing carrots.


To solve the carrot picking triangle problem therefore entails recognizing that there is a problem - drawing a line around the abstract functional entity which is picking, washing, carrying carrots - and then having an effective motivation to improve that abstract function - 'caring' about the problem enough to want to improve understanding, prediction, functionality for its own sake.

This can be made to sound trivial, but if creativity is as rare as I suspect, then it is an unusual situation for somebody to attain this frame of mind.

Creativity is rare precisely because it combines abstraction with motivation.

For creativity to become possible, it seems that abstraction and motivation must be fused.


A person who merely created an abstraction would tend, by that act, to make himself (and others) indifferent to the abstraction.

A good example are the organizational abstractions which are generated by modern management or the artifacts generated by modern art - created arbitrarily, and regarded with indifference.

A person who was merely driven by motivation, would be motivated by the usual things that motivate people (personal pleasure, pain avoidance, the desire for status, hunger, lust etc). This would not lead to the generation of functional abstractions nor to a concern with 'the subject'; but would lead to 'making the best of the world as they find it' - accepting whatever are the existing abstract ways of chunking reality.


So, it seems that the pre-creative state is a fusion of the motivating love of subject with the generation of an abstraction - in a sense, the creative person falls in love with his own creation - rather like the legendary Pygmalion fell in love with a beautiful statue he had sculpted.

And not only that - he falls in love with his own creation but it was precisely that potential love which enabled the creation in the first place - so it is equally true to say that the creative person is creating something to fall in love with.

(This also suggests a profound dissatisfaction with 'the world' as it already exists, which lies behind the creative attitude - since that attitude is an implicit rejection of what actually-is, in favour of what I (the creator) hope to make.)


The Pygmalion legend is therefore the master myth of creativity - and it captures not just the skill and nobility of creation, but also the pathetic (pathos-filled) and absurd aspect of creativity; by which the creator is necessarily an isolated figure infatuated by something which other people regard as un-real; in love with what appears to them as an inert and arbitrary chunk of abstracted reality.

The attitude of a creator to that which he creates, his seriousness about his subject, must strike other people as bizarre; since they seek merely to use his creations for pursuing pre-existing purposes of personal and societal satisfaction.


The social perspective is what (usually) trumps and inhibits creativity


In the previous post

I created a 'Triangular' thought experiment about picking, washing and collecting carrots to represent a very simple 'problem' that is amenable to a creative solution - but only if the participant was able to recognize the situation as a problem.


Why I am so sure that most people would 'walk round the triangle' rather than creatively devising a more efficient solution?

The reason is to do with implicit social features of this situation which now require to be emphasized.

(Recall that the personality traits of Empathizing/Agreeableness (E/A), and Conscientiousness (C) are inversely correlated with creativity: that is high E/A and C implies low creativity )


Implicitly, the Triangle situation entails (in most instances) a social context; and for most people the situation would remain primarily social - which is why its abstract problematic nature would not be recognized.

For example, someone may have been detailed to pick the carrots in a social and hierarchical context - they are told and taught 'how' to pick the carrots by walking the triangle - and the problem is not one of functionality but a matter of obedience.

Implicitly,the task is picking carrots in the way I show you to pick them; and to pick carrots in any other fashion would be to disobey the instructions.

Even more fundamentally, for most people most of the time, almost everything they do has this primarily 'social' aspect. The social world, the world of 'other people and relationships with them, provides the frame for life.

So, for most people most of the time - the Triangle situation is not perceived as a 'problem', not a functional unit; not perceived as the kind of thing which might have better solutions than the one given - but is perceived in some kind of social context.


The social context will, typically but not always, tend to lock people into continuing to do the task in the same way they learned it; and feeling the need to understand what is happening in an abstract sense, even worse to isolate the task preparatory to changing it - these are felt as being disloyal to the social context - as being a rejection of the person, group (family, friends, colleagues, mentors) or institution which allocated the task in the first place - which taught it.

The perceived social context is therefore, commonly, a frame which must be overcome before creativity can even get started.


Tuesday 10 September 2013

Being creative is not seeking novelty; but drawing a line around part of the world, and abstractly defining a problem


The tests designed to measure creativity by measuring the ability to generate novelty ('list as many uses as possible for a brick' and the like) are misleading - creativity is not about generating novelty, but about revealing underlying reality.

Creativity may therefore entail re-discovering things already known (e.g. discovered already, by other people - but discovering them for yourself); or discovering the meaning (i.e. underlying reality) of things already known by yourself (e.g. discovering why something that you already 'know' is true, is indeed true, the deep meaning of why it is true - instead of just accepting it is true).


What is going on in creativity is something like drawing a line around a bit of the world - this is 'the problem' - and trying to understand it.

Te mechanism by which understanding happens is unknown, but it involves living with the problem - focusing on it and also having it in the background of thoughts - and presumably sleeping on it, maybe dreaming about it (although this would usually not be remembered) - as I say, in general 'living with it'.

Creativity entails achieving a new model for describing the problem - new to you, that is -not necessarily new in the history of the world.


This can be illustrated by an example of the most basic kind of creativity - yet one which is still not universal.

The setting is a garden

At A there are some carrots in the ground
At B there is a tap for washing the carrots
At C there is a basket for the washed carrots

I would bet that if the above situation was set up, the average person would pick a carrot from the ground at A, walk to the tap to wash it at B, then walk to deposit the clean carrot in the basket at C, then walk back to A to pick the next carrot - and so on, and on until the carrots are all picked, washed, basketed.

It would (in my experience) only be a relatively rare, creative person who would move the basket to stand next to the tap; because to do this primarily requires understanding 'the problem', and having understood it to use the resulting model to improve functionality.

To walk around the triangle is natural to someone who regards it as our job (in life) to fit ourselves to the world as we find it - the constraints of the world are implicitly accepted; while to move the basket requires a functional, indeed abstract, approach to the world - such that we try to organize the world in order best to achieve these functions.