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    Creativity and its Instrumentalities

    By gwharton
    Feb 12, '13 8:55 PM EST

    In my previous post, I noted that the mark of a mature, professional designer is the ability to be productively and efficiently creative without being dependent on inspiration.

    That raises a whole host of questions though, doesn't it? Setting aside for a moment the issue of "how?", we need to address a more fundamental question first: What is Creativity in the first place?

    That's not an easy question to answer, at least not the way most people mean it. Look up "creativity" in the dictionary, and you'll find a self-referential tautology that looks a bit like this: Creativity > Quality of being Creative > Displaying Creativity > Creative > etc. Authoritative as it may be, that's not terribly useful. However, like Justice Stewart contemplating obscenities, we generally know it when we see it.

    Delving into specialist research on the subject in psychology and elsewhere, we start to find definitions that are a little more helpful, but not much. For instance:

    • Creativity is a mental and social process involving the generation of new ideas or concepts, or new association of the creative mind between existing ideas of concepts. An alternative conception of creativeness is that it is simply the act of making something new.

    That's better, but still frustratingly ambiguous. Not only are there two competing categorical definitions here, they leave out quite a bit that we know informally about human creative activity when we do see it (e.g. it is teleological). We know from example that creativity manifests in personality, process, products, and places. We also know that it possesses some essential attributes: it's goal-directed, value-oriented, generative, and heuristic.

    So we can refine this definition into something that is technically accurate and general enough to describe what we know ostensively like this:

    • Creativity is the generation of value via origination and relation of mental and physical entities by human action in response to needs and desires.

    As clinical and abstruse as that sounds, it tells us more clearly what creativity is (and isn't), but it doesn't really tell us what we want to know, which is: How does it work?

    What we're really looking for are the instrumentalities by which human beings display creative behavior. After all, "inspiration" is simply a word we use to describe our experience of the transition of a subconscious mental state in the act of creative ideation. Knowing with a bit more precision what creativity is gives us some clues as to how it operates, presumably so we can use its tools more intentionally and effectively.

    In particular, I'm going to focus on "origination and relation" in a mental context. The really mysterious part of creativity is what we can't ordinarily see, and that's what is happening inside the skull of the creator. There are two general approaches to this problem, which in this case illustrate and reinforce one another: philosophy and cognitive psychology.

    Philosophically (or, more precisely, epistemologically), when we talk about "mental entities," what we are really discussing are two general categories of knowledge: perceptual and conceptual. Percepts are what we experience directly through our extended sensorium: both externally and internally. I will discuss perceptual cognition in much more detail in a future series on Practical Neuro-Aesthetics for Designers, but for now the most important aspect we need to consider is that perceptual experience and knowledge is gained directly and subconsciously in all cases. Perceptual cognition occurs entirely below the level of conscious awareness.

    Conceptual cognition occurs as a mental process by which perceptual experiences (and other concepts) are aggregated, inter-related, and abstracted in the mind. Concepts are more conventionally what we refer to when we talk about "ideas." Conceptual knowledge and understanding can be generated both by a process of conscious thought (rationally rigourous or otherwise) and by a subconscious processes. We'll come back to this in much more detail in a couple of posts when we dig deeply into creative instrumentalities.

    Cognitive science seeks to develop theories of mind according to empirical observations of behavior and brain activity, in which we consider mental processes such as learning and knowledge formation in terms of attention and affect, and the results according to neural correlates. This is a relatively new approach to the study of human cognition, but has yielded very interesting results within the last 20 years.

    Following this approach, we understand that the human mind has multiplicitous faculties for collecting and filtering information. Most of these occur at a level below our conscious awareness, either unconscious or preconscious. The unconscious is fully automatic, and is not available for introspection. The preconscious is more a form of background processing, much in the same way that multi-threaded computers process multiple programs and streams of information simultaneously, while the user may only be focusing on the foreground program (a poor analogy, but good enough for our purposes here). As this information is cognitively processed, it may rise to the level of conscious attention due to intentional or subliminal raising of importance. This tells us something about our experience of inspiration as a mental phenomenon: the moment of "inspiration" occurs when we've been thinking preconsciously about something and come to some important conclusion via processing or inclusion of new information, which is then bumped to the top of the atttention ranking. This has an affect on our state of mind: EUREKA!

    What we get out of this is that there are two instrumentalities of cognitive creativity that we should be paying particular attention to:

    Intuition - which is the sum of the unconscious and preconscious perceptual and conceptual processing our brains are doing all the time, even though we may not be aware of it directly.

    Imagination - which is a specific way in which our brains are collecting, categorizing, re-ordering, and generating new ideas in the pursuit of solving some problem or obtaining some goal.

    I think it's safe to say that these are two critical characteristics that we ascribe to any highly-creative individual or behavior: intuitive and imaginative.

    In my next installment, I'll be discussing intuition as an instrument of creative thinking, how it can be developed as finely-honed tool. Following that, I'll describe exactly what the faculty of imagination is and how it works cognitively. From this, we can then draw some interesting conclusions about how to intentionally develop creative habits of mind and be productively and efficiently creative on purpose, whenever we want to.


    • "The unconscious is fully automatic, and is not available for introspection."

      i would put forward that there are some philosophies or practices that would have another perspective on that idea of the limits of the unconscious.

      Feb 18, 13 8:27 pm

      Nam, what you're describing is the preconscious, not unconscious. The unconscious really is not open to introspection, while the preconscious can be under certain circumstances. This difference is why cognitive psychology makes the distinction between the two instead of using the blanket term "subconscious" (which covers both of them).

      Feb 18, 13 9:36 pm

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Practical theory and theory of practice in design.

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