Creativity

Being creative is one of the most multidisciplinary things a person can do. When making a photograph, you don’t just wave the camera around, randomly pressing the shutter release. Admittedly, you could do that if your intent was making abstract images. But, that’s not the usual practice. For all the parts involved in making a photograph to come together, even a mediocre photograph (a “snapshot” in the opinion of some), the photographer consciously and unconsciously dips into their internal resource of knowledge and experience, pulling inspiration from education and practice, other interests, from family, culture, and from occupations. The photographer actively and purposefully selects the subject, elements, arrangement of those elements in a pleasing and/or meaningful composition, and sets an exposure to achieve the result visualized in their mind. From the relative chaos of our surroundings photographers create the appearance of a selective world, define a visual space with boundaries in which we decide what is relevant, what is worthy of our attention, and what we want to bring to the attention of others. We select the elements of the story we want to tell and the meaning important to our intent.

Around 2500 years ago, philosophers began trying to answer the question “what is creativity?” Well, they’re still at it. And in the last 60 years or so the philosophers have been joined by neuroscientists who are attempting to tease creativity out of the cells of our brain and the wiring of our body. In all that time, there is still no agreement as to where creativity comes from or how it’s generated or a single definition of creativity. There are even different aspects of creativity: general creativity (as defined several ways), the creative person (who is a maker and/or thinker), the creative process (the process/steps in being creative), creative thinking (solving intellectual puzzles), and the creative object (which can be creative in and of itself in addition to being a created thing). What is, though, the essence of creativity? In this article I’ll be describing a definition of creativity, characteristics of the creative person, and the creative process.

In my research and through a bit of thinking on this question, a common denominator seems to form the foundation of creativity, in both humans and other animals: curiosity. The act of curious investigation involves a recognition and comprehension of things inside and outside our mind and body. The simplest definition of curiosity is exploratory behavior, the recognition that knowledge about something is missing which creates a desire to know and understand that missing information. Curiosity is seeking the answer to the question, “why, how, what?” and answering that question often relies on non-standard ways of finding out the answer; relies on the making of devices or formulas or ways of thinking or processes that previously didn’t exist. And humans are not alone in their quest for the answers to curiosity.

It’s a fact that the once held belief humans were advanced above other animals because we used tools and communicated has been debunked. We have to choose another criteria because in the last century we’ve discovered that birds, other primates, marine mammals, fish, and even invertebrates use tools, and often in a creative and innovative way once reserved strictly for us. The male bower bird of Australia builds an elaborate performance arena from grass and sticks, clearing an open “dance floor” then decorates his construction with specifically-colored items to attract females. Crows, ravens, and jays have been shown to possess advanced puzzle-solving skills equivalent to that of a 5-yr-old human child and even invent tools on the spot to solve those puzzles. Herring gulls and some hawk species drop hard-shelled prey onto hard surfaces to crack them open. Chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas use tools to get food from hard to reach places, use stones and sharp sticks as weapons, and leaves to make noises to warn of predators. Octopus have been observed using coconuts as “armor” against predators and for camouflage and their skill in figuring out how to escape enclosures is well known. Humpback whales expel air while rising from the deep in a circle to create nets of bubbles trapping fish they scoop up at the surface. So, curiosity leads to novel solutions to discovered “problems”. I put problems in quotes to refer to the general idea of solving puzzles or finding solutions, like how to get a termite out of its home, to eat, without destroying it so more termites will be available later, to eat, in the same place.

I mentioned earlier how creativity is more than a single thing, that creativity applies to people, processes, things, and thoughts. The definition of creativity is somewhat separate from the creative person, the conditions for creativity, and somewhat separate from the creative process, but let’s see if we can narrow down a definition of creativity to start with. Almost every definition agrees that creativity is the ability to bring various elements together that previously were related, unrelated, or believed to be unrelated to form something new or innovative, involving an agent (person), a process, and a product. Newness and innovation are important criteria in all the definitions I’m aware of. “Original” pops in now and then, too, but there’s a different discussion about originality, and a person, thing, or process can be creative without being original. Another aspect of creativity is the product must be of some value. The thing has to have some utility, which I think is meant to differentiate actual innovative creativity from things that are made for no other purpose than simply to be weird or shocking, or otherwise generally useless.

The creative person can refer to a person who devises or makes innovative and new things, or a person who lives a life outside of convention, conformity, and habit. These two characteristics are not exclusive to creatives, though many creative people, as I’m sure you’re aware, live lives somewhat different from the “norm”. There are four or five components to the creative person, as determined by observation and psychological study:

1) Openness to experience, the ability to recognize novelty and to seek out novelty. It’s the way the creative person views the world and the various situations that make up a given experience. It’s an awareness of how things are in an open, nonjudgmental way that allows for connections, juxtapositions, and nontraditional associations to be examined and explored. This is called observational learning by some authors working on the theory of creativity. Novelty and seeking out novelty has a significant impact on the brain and how we feel, both releasing amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine into our system, which makes us feel good. Our brain and body, once it tastes the “high” of dopamine can, in some people, enforce what we might call risky behavior like rock climbing or BASE jumping or car racing. For most of us, we don’t directly notice a sudden flood of euphoria but, when we make or do something that makes us happy, dopamine is one of the primary motivators to “encourage” us to try again.

2) An internal source of evaluation. The creative person values the creation based on internal criteria; Is this creation satisfying to me? Does it accurately express a part of me – my emotion(s), thoughts, interpretation of my experience and knowledge? The value of the creation isn’t based on external praise, validation, and criticism by others, by acceptance or rejection to one show or another, by sales numbers or mentions in the news, and not by likes and numbers of followers on social media. There’s an old saying that the harshest critic is yourself (or should be, though I’m not 100% behind that part, because as the harshest critic you could also be the worst). Self-evaluation is important to your growth as an artist, and there is an external component to that evaluation, to be sure. The primary self evaluation is “have I created something I intended, that meets the standards I set for myself, that has meaning to me and my experience with the world?” rather than “have I created something of value others have requested or others have told me I should be doing?”

3) Innovative behavior. The ability to see beyond form and function, beyond labels and categorizations, to be able to play spontaneously with ideas, colors, shapes, relationships, combining elements into impossible or previously unconsidered juxtapositions, to shape wild hypotheses and express the ridiculous (Albert Einstein once said “If at first the idea us not absurd, then there is no hope for it”), and to translate from one form to another the wild, nonjudgmental exploration of what if? Creativity is, in many ways, problem solving. Creative, innovative, behavior is risky. But without pushing boundaries we never know where that boundary lies or what potential lies beyond. History is full of individuals, partnerships, and groups who thought to themselves, “that’s interesting, what if…?” or “there’s got to be more to it than that…” I’m sure you can name several off the top of your head right now.

4) Interest. This is a characteristic I haven’t seen in the literature I’ve read so far, but one I feel is as important as the others. A person might be extremely talented, but what if they don’t have any interest to pursue or apply that talent in any way? We read about talented individuals who “just had to do it” as if compelled by some unseen force or internal mission. How many piano concertos or computer systems or architectural designs or theories of everything have never been made because the individual had the capability, but was more interested in something else? A couple relevant examples that come to mind is Ansel Adams, who was an accomplished, trained, concert pianist, but chose photography instead, and Henri Cartier-Bresson was an accomplished painter before switching to photography. What if Elon Musk wasn’t fascinated by transportation?

5) Dexterity. This is another characteristic not addressed in the literature. Is dexterity a characteristic or requirement for creativity? Must we be a Michael Jordan or Alex Honnold or Picasso or Beethoven to be considered creative? Certainly, some creative endeavors do require some physical skill and coordination; dance, rock climbing, basketball, playing the piano. But there is mental dexterity and dexterity of leadership; Stephen Hawking, Richard Feynman, Ernest Shackleton, Abraham Lincoln. Included in this group are those with savant syndrome, who can solve complex equations in their head or play impromptu original musical scores without training, but not tie their shoes or tell you how much to pay for a hamburger. These people are no less creative, in my mind.

6) Knowledge/Experience. What you know and what you’ve experienced play a big role in being creative. Sometimes, not knowing anything can produce innovative results by not being caught up in the rut of “we’ve always done it that way”. I’ve had a couple jobs that I wasn’t as experienced as someone else might have been in that position, but being able to see processes from an outside perspective allowed me to make suggestions and change procedures to make improvements. But, in general, the wider your experience and knowledge the more likely you’ll be able to make those unconventional associations between unrelated or related elements. Throughout history, many of the most creative individuals had interest, experience, knowledge, in a broad range of subjects. Called polymaths, these people were (and are) philosophers, scientists, musicians, painters, chemists, mathematicians, all rolled into one, and through this broad range of exposure to different things were able to make connections that were unseen by specialists.

Being creative also involves some type of process, not just in the making or creation of the thing, but in the period of time leading up to and after. Nearly every study of the creative process concludes the same way: there are four stages to the creative process. They might use different terms to define the stages and slightly different descriptions of what happens in each stage, but they are essentially the same.

1) Inception/preparation/exploration. This is the stage where wild ideas are born. This is usually the point in the process that inspiration strikes you in the face, when you suddenly have an insight into associations you may never have consciously considered before. And, often, you’re not consciously aware of the mixing and thinking that goes on in your brain behind the scenes, putting things together like a puzzle with no picture to follow…..does this fit here? What about there? This process involves what has recently been discovered as the default mode network, the unconscious or subconscious brain processing that sometimes comes to our awareness when we’re not occupied thinking of other things or concentrating on an activity – like when we’re in the shower or taking a walk, watching television, or in the moments right before we wake up (or makes us sit up in bed in the middle of the night – better write it down or you’ll forget it!). We may also be inspired by a news report or movie or event we’ve witnessed, and this puts us on track to see where that inspiration leads. Sometimes we can visualize the end product, other times we’re heading down a blind alley. But there is always an initial idea or concept that propels us forward and keeps us moving.

2) Incubation/illumination/development/selection. This stage potentially incorporates separate, but related, processes. Each of the stages in the creative process are interactive in many ways, it’s seldom a linear path from beginning to end. Here is where we ask “will it work?” and “can I do it?” Do I have the skills to pull it off, can I learn these skills? do I have access to equipment needed? How much will it cost and where will I get the funds? It’s in this stage we sift through the various ideas and select the one we’d like to pursue. Maybe it’s the most interesting, or most challenging, the one we’re most prepared for and able to complete, or the one we’re finally at the stage of experience and knowledge to do it justice, to bring out the essence. It’s also the stage at which we’re most likely to quit. Answering our questions may reveal we’re not prepared, and self-doubt can creep in. We begin to feel isolated, anxious perhaps, about embarking on a new project. We tell ourselves, “nobody has done this before, maybe for good reason”, or “this has been done before, and much better”, “I’m foolish to pursue this, nobody will be interested”, “I’m not good enough to do it justice”, “I don’t have time.” These are strong thoughts and anxieties to overcome, but everyone has them, whether they admit to it or not. Most often what overcomes this anxiousness is the desire to communicate your idea or concept, especially to others who share your idea (even if the creator has to also create or imagine such a group).

3) Completion/verification. Completing the project depends on your personal evaluation: is it done? Has it answered the questions you intended to answer or asked the questions you wanted others to consider? Is it of the quality you envisioned? Will this be put out for others to see or is it only a stepping stone to something else and will be kept private? This is where external validation/feedback can come into play (also during the incubation stage), where you find out if your efforts translate to others the way you intended. While your creativity should primarily engage your own enjoyment (photographer Vivian Maier, is perhaps a recent example), there might be interest by others in your work that inspires you to keep expressing your creativity, and provide the funds to do so.

Creativity is complex. It can be argued that creativity is more highly developed in humans, yet other animal species exhibit profound creativity where it was once thought not to exist. There is in creative development a beginning, middle, and end, like any good story. We have to start somewhere on that journey, and each step forward adds something new, which may change the project entirely or improve it beyond previous imagination. That step forward always holds the potential for making things worse, too. And we either go back and try again, give up, or transform it into something else. The creative process, if I now include the creative person, the process, and the thing, is a contiguous process, each stage is connected to the previous and following stage. All along the way, elements are connected, discarded, discovered, often by their appearance, familiarity, placement, and perception of the element in space and time. Elements, like words in a poem, are associated by their similarity and by their structure – rhyme, rhythm – and other elements become contiguous because of common elements, like mathematical or chemical symbols. Anytime otherwise remotely related or unrelated ideas become related, a creative solution can be formed.

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