The Path to Creativity

At last, at last, the concept of “creativity” makes sense. Although still somewhat mysterious, it is an understandable, usable, even “drivable” process.

Originally published 2000

I have to thank Consciousness Explained, by Daniel C. Dennett, for the insights. He relates a marvelous party experiment that goes like this:

  • You tell someone at a party to step out of the room while the rest of the group hears someone describe a dream. Then, when they come back, they ask questions about the dream and decide who’s dream it is.
  • While they’re out, you tell the rest of the group to answer every question based on the last letter of the question. If <=N, answer “yes”, otherwise answer “no”, with the proviso that all succeeding answers should override this rule in order to remain consistent with previous answers.
  • The person comes back in, and proceeds to unknowingly “invent” the dream by the process of asking questions. The “dream” therefore reflects their preoccupations and concerns.

Dennett makes the point that real dreams probably emerge the same way, with images popping up out of the “noise” in our heads, in response to the questions we are asking ourselves — i.e. the things we are thinking about.

For me, the essence of creativity has always been a matter of persistence — of doggedly asking a question until one day an answer appears — although it may take years before it happens.

I suspect that the process of seeing an answer is mostly, if not entirely, a process of recognizing an analogy. So it was that the double-helix vision of DNA arose in a dream that featured the intertwining snakes of a medical caduceus.

That mechanism would account for the frequency of “simultaneous independent discovery”, based on environmental factors which cause people to be asking the same questions — questions that may go unanswered for decades until other developments in the environment provide useful analogies. The similarity of the questions, and the analogies, together account for the occurrence of virtually identical solutions in locations that are widely distant from each other.

There were some studies of creativity I read a decade or so ago. They pointed out that creative bursts followed a fairly standard pattern, consisting of immersion in a particular domain, almost to the point of obsession, followed by a quiet period where the person is off doing something else, whereupon a sudden flash of insight illuminates the issue.

A friend had an experience like that, when he was solving the problem of the “7 golden balls” in high school. The problem is this: You have 7 golden balls, all of which look the same, but one is different. You have a set of balance scales. How can you tell, in 3 weighs, which ball is different, and whether it is heavier or lighter?

My friend worked on that problem for weeks. It consumed him. But he never did figure it out. Then he graduated. Two years later, as a helicopter pilot Vietnam, he woke up the solution in his head.

Stories like that are fascinating. Equally fascinating is a branch of Yoga I heard about in India, that focus on sleep creativity. You go to sleep with an issue, and wake up with a solution is, I believe, the kind of ability it aims at developing. (Got this from The Yoga Tradition, an authoritative survey of Yoga techniques recently written by Georg Feuerstein.)

A very similar phenomenon came to by way of a spectacular PBS special, also available in book form, called Uncommon Friends of the Twentieth Century. It was about some of the movers and shakers in the early 20th century, and how they were friends.

I recall one fellow in particular who did something spectacular. As an experiment, he tried spending a few quiet moments each morning “opening himself to God” to receive any guidance he could obtain, and act on that guidance.

Note that this fellow had *no* particular belief in God. He just tried it out as an experiment. The results were spectacular, and he passed on that notion to some of his friends — one of whom was Charles Lindbergh, if I recall the sequence of events correctly.

Now, this process of “opening for guidance” is a highly effective method for creating a *life*. Basically, after having the night to sleep on things, you spend a few minutes in quiet reflection, creating the calm surface waters in which to see the “answers from above” reflected into your awareness.

Of course, the process he described is in other cultures known as meditation. It does not require any particular religious belief, although it is typically accompanied by an opening of the heart and an experience of inner joy that typically can’t be accounted for any other way.

Of course, even with the process of creativity understood, there is still plenty of room for mystery. How does that analogy process work? How is that simply asking a question repeatedly leads to inspiration? Is it truly random, or is there some divine “source” for the inspirations that result? How is that the internal knowledge structures get reorganized over time to make insights more likely in a given area?

There is nothing in the explanation of the process that *precludes* the operation of a divine agency. But regardless, it is fascinating to know that creativity is somewhat mechanical process that can be “worked” very effectively.

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