I recently read an article called How Creativity Frees the Mind by Hugh Delehanty. I knew Hugh from my days at AARP. Hugh was the editor of AARP The Magazine when I was running Staying Sharp brain health program.
Hugh shares insights he gained while attending a retreat on creativity and mindfulness at the Spirit Rock meditation center in Northern California. The article is peppered with savvy perceptions about how to nurture authentic artistic creativity and, in so doing, enrich our lives. I suggest reading the entire article.
Hugh describes his big takeaway about creativity like this. “When I started this journey, I thought I was searching for a magical bag of tricks to help me turn dross into creative gold. But what I discovered was that creativity isn’t a fancy parlor game; it’s a more intimate way of relating to the world.”
Hugh discovered that we enhance artistic creativity not by collecting tricks and techniques, but by learning to use our mind differently. Artists have trained themselves to see and hear things differently. They use their sensory and perceptual functions in ways that depart from normal, every-day cognition. As Hugh suggests, artistic creativity involves a heightened intimacy with the world.
Hugh cites the wisdom of Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist who is often referred to as “the mother of mindfulness.” Langer taught herself to paint and in the process learned that “to be a true artist is to be mindful.”
What does mindfulness have to do with artistic creativity? I think it has to do with how our brain’s process information.
Sensory perception is a two-step process. First, our sensory organs pay collect specific and detailed sensory data. Second, our brain organizes the data into recognizable mental representations. So a collection of colors, shadows, edges and textures is pulled together to recognize “an apple.” Once the generic representation (“apple”) has been formulated, the brain forgets the details. It becomes mindless – at least about the details.
Authentic artists have learned to suppress the generic idea (an apple) and return their attention to the details (colors, shapes, edges, shadows). They are “mindful” of what they are really seeing. Rather than simply paint a red circle and call it an apple, they use their skill to reflect their intimate, sensual experience of this unique apple, mottled with greens and purples, distorted with lumps and bumps and strange shadows suggestive of rot.
The making, and taking, of authentic art gives us pleasure because it fulfills our developmental imperative, our innate drive to enhance our physical and mental capacities. Through art we stretch and refine our sensory acuity, we train our minds to be more mindful and intimate with the world. We broaden our understanding and appreciation of the myriad wonders of life that are available to us.
CREATIVITY AND AGING
Creativity and aging are two of my favorite topics and they combine to create a rather persistent myth – that creativity diminishes with age. I was pleased, therefore, to come across a wonderful article that nicely articulates the counter argument. The article, written by Pagan Kennedy, appeared in the NY Times and was titled “To Be a Genius, Think Like a 94-Year Old.”
The article revolves around physicist John Goodenough. When Goodenough was a 23-year-old Army veteran he entered the University of Chicago with the goal of becoming a physicist. A professor told him that he was already too old to succeed in the field. Physics, apparently, is a young man’s game (very young!).
Well, you will say, that’s an outdated attitude. No one thinks that way any more.
Think again! Silicon Valley still worships at the temple of youth. A 12-year-old inventor named Shubham Banerjee received venture capital funds to start his own company. When Mark Zuckerberg was the 22 year-old chief executive of Facebook he told an audience at Stanford University that, “Young people are just smarter” and more creative. The myth persists. Zuckerberg later apologized, when he was an older and wiser man.
Back to Goodenough, who ignored the professor’s warning and became a world-class physicist. The energy crisis in the 1970’s got him interested in the challenge of storing energy in small, efficient packages. In 1980, at the ripe old age of 57, Goodenough coinvented the lithium-ion battery that now runs our phones, laptops and electric cars.
But, Goodenough was still upset about our continued dependence upon fossil fuels and by the pollution caused by internal-combustion engines. So now, at age 94, Goodenough is still creating. He is confident that he is on the brink of developing a new kind of solid-state battery that would be low-cost, lightweight and could revolutionize the way we power automobiles. He has partnered with a Portuguese physicist, Maria Helena Braga who has created a kind of glass that can replace liquid electrolytes inside batteries.
Goodenough’s creative idea for revolutionizing energy may not work. But he will keep trying. “I’m old enough to know,” he says, “you can’t close your mind to new ideas. You have to test out every possibility if you want something new.” He likened himself to a slow, but steady turtle who may not have succeed early in life but just kept on meandering through different fields, picking up insights along the way. “You have to draw on a fair amount of experience,” he observed, “in order to be able to put ideas together.”
For the sake of the planet let’s hope that this old, old man manages to invent a battery that will free us from our dependence on fossil fuels.
THE MINDRAMP CreativeCycle©
Since we are talking about creativity I might as well mention the MINDRAMP analysis of the creative process.
The study of creativity generally proceeds along one of three routes. We can study creative people – what makes one person more creative than another? We can study creative products – aesthetic judgments about what makes one product more creative than another? And, we can study the creative process – what creative people do in order to come up with creative ideas and products? What makes on process more creative than another?
Learning about the creative process is often the easiest way to significantly improve our own creative productivity.
A key insight about creativity is that it is a complex process. It involves an array of different skills and progresses through a sequence of highly differentiated stages. Each stage requires different types of thinking. To be creative, therefore, you need to be fluent in a variety of thinking skills, and you need to know when and how to shift from one cognitive mode to another. This is why it is useful to have a schematic model of the full creative process.
Building on the work of others, MINDRAMP has developed a model of the creative process that has four major phases: Imagination, Idea Generation, Actualization and Evaluation. These four phases are further divided into eight discrete stages of creative development.
Imagination (Future Memory)
- Initiation – Mental simulations of a better future
- Saturation – Accumulation of pertinent information
- Manipulation – Conscious playing with objects and ideas
- Incubation – Unconscious thought, primed with a specific goal
- Illumination – Insight and selection of an idea to pursue
- Manifestation – Making the insight manifest (display, demonstrate, exhibit)
- Implementation – Doing it (build it, say it – make the insight testable).
- Verification – Did your idea (hypothesis) work? What happened?
- Adaptation – How can you run with the idea, or fix it?
Creative cycles can play out across a matter of moments, over weeks and months, or can extend across a lifetime. As the stages above indicate, some aspects of creativity involve imagination and the generation of new ideas (novelty). Other stages involve the accumulation of knowledge and learning.
When you consider that the generation of ideas is often a process of combining bits of information in new ways, it becomes clear that the more bits of information you have in your brain, the more creative combinations you can make. As the 94 year-old Goodenough intimates (see above), years of experience, coupled with an open mind, provide the mind with a wealth of options.
The creative cycle also illustrates the importance of turning cool insights into actual products or systems that have practical application. Ideas need to be turned into routines that can be tested. It’s great when ideas backfire because failure leads to another, revised creative cycle that attempts to correct the mistake. If ideas succeed, great! Another creative cycle is needed to put the idea into production, to market it or to start working on it’s replacement.
All of this creating takes time, patience and perseverance.
I’ll make one last point about the engine of creativity. It is at its best when fueled by passion and guided by positive values. Goodenough, at age 57, could have rested on his laurels after inventing the lithium-ion battery. He could have decided to sit on his porch and coast through the rest of his life. But his concern for the welfare of his fellow human beings and his passion to preserve the health of planet earth inspired him to continue pursuing his creative quest.