[unrev-II] The Essence of Creativity

From: Eric Armstrong (eric.armstrong@eng.sun.com)
Date: Wed Nov 01 2000 - 17:04:28 PST

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    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
        previous answers.

      * 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
    thinking about.

    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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