Creativity, The Mind, And the Brain- Geetanjali Vaidya

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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. Introduction

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 creativitys 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 contextdependence of creativity may be partially dealt with by integrating creativitys 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 ones 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 peoples, 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, inCreativity 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 ones 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 disciplines 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 persons 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 monkeys 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...


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