Saturday, June 28, 2014

June 28 2014: Part 2. “Secrets of the Creative Brain” by Nancy Andreasen is one of the finest articles on creativity that I have read to date. If she hasn’t determined all the secrets of creativity, she is certainly on the right track. And she writes with clarity and style.

“Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties.”

Erich Fromm

The missing word in the above quote is “could.” It should be there instead of “will.”

No, I’m not being negative. I’m merely making the point that if the quote were true, our lives would already be very different. Creativity isn’t something that has just been invented. It has been around since man emerged.

Still, although intellectually I understand full well why we—meaning society as a whole—so under-utilize that amazing force we call “creativity,” emotionally it frustrates the hell out of me.

Every fiber of my being screams:”Creativity can solve just about every problem we humans face—and arguably do something about death and taxes”—and then my logical side cuts in ands says: “The movers and shakers are doing fine the way we are. The last thing they want is a bunch of fresh ideas which will change everything.”

The following are some further extracts from that great Atlantic piece SECRETS OF THE CREATIVE BRAIN by Nancy Andreasen. Best you click on the link and read the whole thing.  

And what are we even looking for when we search for evidence of “creativity” in the brain? Although we have a definition of creativity that many people accept—the ability to produce something that is novel or original and useful or adaptive—achieving that “something” is part of a complex process, one often depicted as an “aha” or “eureka” experience. This narrative is appealing—for example, “Newton developed the concept of gravity around 1666, when an apple fell on his head while he was meditating under an apple tree.” The truth is that by 1666, Newton had already spent many years teaching himself the mathematics of his time (Euclidean geometry, algebra, Cartesian coordinates) and inventing calculus so that he could measure planetary orbits and the area under a curve. He continued to work on his theory of gravity over the subsequent years, completing the effort only in 1687, when he published Philosophiœ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. In other words, Newton’s formulation of the concept of gravity took more than 20 years and included multiple components: preparation, incubation, inspiration—a version of the eureka experience—and production. Many forms of creativity, from writing a novel to discovering the structure of DNA, require this kind of ongoing, iterative process.

One possible contributory factor is a personality style shared by many of my creative subjects. These subjects are adventuresome and exploratory. They take risks. Particularly in science, the best work tends to occur in new frontiers. (As a popular saying among scientists goes: “When you work at the cutting edge, you are likely to bleed.”) They have to confront doubt and rejection. And yet they have to persist in spite of that, because they believe strongly in the value of what they do. This can lead to psychic pain, which may manifest itself as depression or anxiety, or lead people to attempt to reduce their discomfort by turning to pain relievers such as alcohol.

I’ve been struck by how many of these people refer to their most creative ideas as “obvious.” Since these ideas are almost always the opposite of obvious to other people, creative luminaries can face doubt and resistance when advocating for them. As one artist told me, “The funny thing about [one’s own] talent is that you are blind to it. You just can’t see what it is when you have it … When you have talent and see things in a particular way, you are amazed that other people can’t see it.” Persisting in the face of doubt or rejection, for artists or for scientists, can be a lonely path—one that may also partially explain why some of these people experience mental illness.

One interesting paradox that has emerged during conversations with subjects about their creative processes is that, though many of them suffer from mood and anxiety disorders, they associate their gifts with strong feelings of joy and excitement. “Doing good science is simply the most pleasurable thing anyone can do,” one scientist told me. “It is like having good sex. It excites you all over and makes you feel as if you are all-powerful and complete.”

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