The nature of creative thought
In our society creativity is often referred to, in an offhand manner, as something which can not be understood. There is something almost godlike in it. Creativity resides in that same place as creation –sharing obscurity with the origins of life and the universe.
Creativity is perhaps the most valuable of human attributes. It is creativity which generates the ‘million-dollar idea’, solves our greatest problems and makes us more than just animals. There is no end to creativity and the most creative individuals do what nobody else can.
Yet, creativity seems not that strange. It’s not so rare that most of us don’t at least know someone creative or are even creative ourselves. Is its unknowability perhaps exaggerated? I find cause to wonder at this when it seems easy enough to follow the process mentally as it occurs within my own mind. Yet, for all my years, waiting for a genius to describe the process, it seems very few have tried.
Edgar Allen Poe did it, in his Philosophy of Composition, and he wondered even as I, why others have not done the same. For Poe, understanding creativity was a very scientific process. Essentially, from the realm of the infinite possibility, he created a problem set; he gave himself requirements that he knew would lead to a desired outcome and then sought out solutions that fulfilled them.
For example, while planning The Raven he decided that he would employ a refrain, but that he would come up with a different context or meaning for each repetition:
“I determined to produce continuously novel effects, by the variation of the application of the refrain- the refrain itself remaining for the most part, unvaried.“
He did not claim that the solutions he devised were unique or perfect. Possibly many words or ideas existed that would suffice for his needs. His final choices were simply a matter of editing: revisiting the rules and testing solutions until an optimized solution emerged. Poe suggests this is the process for most writers: “suggestions, having arisen pell-mell are pursued and forgotten”. Editing, the final step of creative writing, is a well understood part of the process. The only difference between himself and most other writers is that he’s taken the effort to understand where his ideas come from.
It seems then that perhaps creativity is a two part process: knowing which requirements or limitations to set and then systematically visiting and reducing the set of possible solutions –editing for suitability until only an optimal solution exists. In writing, there are many limitations; things like character development, plot, exposition, atmosphere, allegory, message, flow, poetry, etc. But these are known, aren’t they? These rules may be subtle and many but, with intelligence or study, one can obtain them. Yet, study does not produce creativity.
So then is the unknowable spark of creativity somehow an element of the second part of the equation, the systematic visitation and reduction of all possible solutions?
First, let’s ask what exactly is being described here. What is the set of all possible solutions? In the case of writing, it is words and once words are combined into sentences, paragraphs, chapters and novels, the solution set becomes near infinite in size.
If the solution set is nearly infinite, is the problem then even solvable by the method I’ve described? The short answer is yes, it is and this is the marvel of the human brain. The solution set is indeed nearly infinite, but the human brain is marvelously capable of ignoring what is irrelevant, and this ability to parse, I posit, is the essential germ of creativity. The creative brain is better at discarding the irrelevant in such a way as to make manageable whittling down the nearly infinite.
But how can the nearly infinite be reduced to a testable size? Well, not linearly, for starters, and this may be why creativity is so hard to comprehend for many people. The creative brain does not think linearly, as I believe many people do (god bless them and their educational systems), it thinks in terms of rules and associations. Let’s take the concept of a dichotomous key for a moment. A dichotomous key is a decision tree of rules with two options at each step. After just 6 decisions, eliminating one branch and all of its child branches with each step, 64 possible outcomes have been covered. A creative brain is capable of splitting information much more efficiently than a dichotomous key and with each step eliminates dozens, if not hundreds of branches of possibilities. The creative brain grasps the problem at hand and, in lightning speed, deduces solutions.
Where the ‘linear’ brain may group ideas along limited connections, the creative brain has a multitude of connections. Another way of thinking of it may be: the creative brain has multiple associative webs laid over each other, and from each node can freely switch webs.
For example, a prosaic brain may take the idea of: ‘vacation’ and instantly make the following associations:
tropical, summer, relaxation, no school, no work
While a more creative brain might might make the above associations along with the following additional association:
airplane flight, road trip, tourist trap, tour, camera, trinkets, luggage, hotel, motel, cruise, alcohol, museum, adventure, golf, freedom, expense, house-sitter, 1 to 2 weeks, etc.
The longer the list and the faster it is created, the more creative the individual. At its essence, creativity is simply the ability to make associations.
What is often regarded as creativity is in actuality two things: intelligence (the ability to first define the problem set) and creativity as I have just defined it (the ability to quickly find a solution to the problem set).
If an individual is asked to solve a problem such as: direct an entertaining and popular movie, the first task is to understand what constitutes a popular and successful movie and what additional limitations exist (budget, script, genre, etc). What may appear to be only a few large questions is in actuality thousands if not hundreds of thousands of interrelated smaller questions. Once the questions have been asked, the second task is then finding solutions: making all the creative decisions that add up to the final finished movie.
The ‘random’ argument
Often times, particularly with humor, the objective of creativity is to ‘be random’: to create something unexpected. How then can creativity function as defined above, if no problem set actually exists?
The answer is disappointingly simple: a problem set does exist. A purely random response is never actually desired. What makes humor work is not unexpected nonsense, but unexpected connections: the comedian creates a link between two unrelated thoughts along an unexpected route. In the same way, ‘random’ creativity will appear random for a moment, until the connection clicks and it is recognized as brilliant.
The creative mind is able to answer this ‘random’ requirement in the same way it can solve problem sets so quickly: the associative, rule-based nature of its composition. Associative rules can be broken and, if done so at or near the ‘last’ step before arriving at the expected solution, the semblance of reason or the ‘link’ can still be easily traced. Simplistic humor suggests this connection directly, while more adult humor asks the audience to make the link on their own and the most sophisticated forms of humor may even ask the audience to follow the joke back two steps or make two separate connections at once.
An explicit example of a single step back might be an intentional Freudian slip –two words that sound alike, swapped to give the sentence a new meaning, particularly effective if the resulting sentence is relevant to the original ‘intended’ meaning. Another example is the false setup: the comedian tells a story or describes a situation in which the audience is led towards a humorous conclusion, but just before the expected punchline, a different punchline is substituted, one which links to the expected in an unexpected way.
But what about when random creativity requires a specific solution, like say discovering a solution to an unsolved problem? This is the hardest kind of creativity and I’ll explain why. With this form of random creativity, the creative individual does not know where the link begins, if a link even exists at all. Where, in a joke, the missing link is one association wide, with open-ended creativity, there is no telling how wide the gap might be. A systematic search is required and the individual most likely starts with the desired outcome and works backwards, searching associative links in a hunt for a connection that will link back to a known route. This is abstract reasoning and it works best in a mind where more ideas are bound to each conceptual node: ie a creative brain.
The ‘child’ argument
Creativity seems a much more universal thing with children than adults. Yet if it is as complex as I’ve described, wouldn’t we expect the opposite to be true? Should it not be rare in youth and developed only with experience and age?
To answer this, I’ll return to the process I described above: define a requirement, follow associations to a solution, check the solution against the requirement and if necessary, repeat. So far in my exploration, I’ve not laid much emphasis on the last step: ‘repeat’ but the truth is, in the adult world, where we hold the highest standards for success, the optimal solution is often like a needle in a haystack.
With children this is not the case. Children employ their creativity while at play and this is a free-form experience, with very little judgment of what is correct or ‘optimal’ and what is not. With the need to reevaluate removed, the process becomes very simple –the first thing that occurs to a child is completely valid. Add to this a brain still learning the ‘correct’ or expected lines of thought of the adult world and you have results that may appear unexpected and even ingenious to an adult listening in.
As a child grows, they learn which associations are useful to understanding the world and which were mistakes –misunderstood by a young mind. The mistakes are forgotten and the associations eventually lost or replaced by more useful connections. Ultimately creativity must compete for neuron pathways and in many brains the luxury may not exist to maintain ‘random’ or tenuous connections.
Creative and non-creative adults have then taken two divergent routes from their childhood. The creative adult started with a base of free associations and developed on top of it a foundation of knowledge with which to build useful problem sets and to test creative suggestions. The uncreative adult started with a base of free associations and selectively winnowed them down to the most practical connections.
It may be tempting to blame poor education for the gulf that arises between these individuals, but I suspect the more likely cause is simply physiological capacity –two brains fundamentally constructed to support different mental architectures.