At last, at last, the concept of "creativity"
makes sense. Although still somewhat mysterious,
it is an understandable, usable, even "drivable"
I have to thank Consciousness Explained, by
Daniel C. Dennett, for the insights. He relates
a marvelous party experiment that goes like
* 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
* 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
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, 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 a very recent book
that is an authoritative survey of India traditions. I
can get the title, if anyone is interested. It's big.)
A very similar phenomenon came to by way of a spectacular
PBS special, also available in book form, called "Special
Friends", I believe. (I can look that up, too.) 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
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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