Friday, April 27, 2018

On the Psychology of the Creative Act

Arthur Koestler in The Act of Creation notes that on one end of the scale we have discoveries which involve some kind of conscious, logical reasoning, and on the other end there are the sudden insights which seem to emerge from the depth of the unconscious.

He compares the predicament of a thinker faced with a creative problem which cannot be solved by traditional methods to that of a motorist who is heading for a frontier to which all the approaches are blocked. In such a situation the motorist’s skills as a driver will not help him; to reach the frontier, he must play a completely different kind of game—maybe he can change his car into a helicopter.

Here’s an excerpt from The Act of Creation, Chapter 5, “Moments of Truth: The Chimpanzee and the Stick”:
When all hopeful attempts at solving the problem by traditional methods have been exhausted, thought runs around in circles in the blocked matrix like rats in a cage. Next, the matrix of organized, purposeful behavior itself seems to go to pieces, and random trials make their appearance, accompanied by tantrums and attacks of despair—or by the distracted absent-mindedness of the creative obsession. That absent-mindedness is, of course, in fact single-mindedness; for at this stage—the 'period of incubation —the whole personality, down to the unverbalized and unconscious layers, has become saturated with the problem, so that on some level of the mind it remains active, even while attention is occupied in a quite different field…
Koestler’s comments regarding the nature of creative act are quite perceptive:
This leads to the paradox that the more original a discovery the more obvious it seems afterwards. The creative act is not an act of creation in the sense of the Old Testament. It does not create something out of nothing; it uncovers, selects, re-shuffles, combines, synthesizes already existing facts, ideas, faculties, skills. The more familiar the parts, the more striking the new whole. Man's knowledge of the changes of the tides and the phases of the moon is as old as his observation that apples fall to earth in the ripeness of time. Yet the combination of these and other equally familiar data in Newton's theory of gravity changed mankind's outlook on the world.
'It is obvious', says Hadamard, 'that invention or discovery, be it in mathematics or anywhere else, takes place by combining ideas… The Latin verb cogito for "to think" etymologically means "to shake together". St. Augustine had already noticed that and also observed that intelligo means "to select among”.’ 
But for a new discovery to take place a condition must be fulfilled that Koestler calls “ripeness.”
The 'ripeness' of a culture for a new synthesis is reflected in the recurrent phenomenon of multiple discovery, and in the emergence of similar forms of art, handicrafts, and social institutions in diverse cultures. But when the situation is ripe for a given type of discovery it still needs the intuitive power of an exceptional mind, and sometimes a favorable chance event, to bring it from potential into actual existence. On the other hand, some discoveries represent striking tours de force by individuals who seem to be so far ahead of their time that their contemporaries are unable to understand them.

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