Thursday, May 10, 2007

Why we create

The world is a logical place. Through the application of left-brain common sense, it works. It’s on autopilot. It is, if you choose, a sedentary place. You can float through days or weeks or years reacting to the logical constructs of relationships and work and society.

But – like anything that’s easy or reactive in life – such a practice is, to quote my four-year-old son, soooo boring. Creativity is both a release from and expression to the logical land.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi touches on the importance and enjoyment of creativity in his tome Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. (If you haven't read it, get it ... it's good.) He posits that the way to happiness “lies not in mindless hedonism, but in mindful change.” Daniel Pink contemporaneously builds on this premise in his book, A Whole New Mind. (IBID: Read it!) He asserts creativity is becoming increasingly important, a "conceptual age" where we need to foster and encourage right-directed thinking (e.g., creativity and emotion) over left-directed thinking (e.g., logical, analytical thought).

Right. Left. But, why do we create? Psychologist J.Z. Young opined:

The activities that go to the creation and enjoyment of works or art are … quintessentially those by which the brain, working every day as a creative agent, synthesizes input from the world to make a satisfactory life. This is why I say that for human societies the creative, aesthetic and artistic activities are among the most important things that we do ... The creations and satisfactions of art include and symbolize both our individual acts of perception and the expression to others of what we perceive.

Two generations ago, Ernest Schachtel offered an interesting perspective:

The main motivation at the root of creative experience is man's need to relate to the world around him, a need which, as we have seen, becomes particularly strong and striking when urgent physical needs such as for food and rest have been stilled. This need is apparent in the young child's interest in all the objects around him, in his ever renewed exploration of and play with them. It is equally apparent in the artist's lifelong effort to grasp and render something which he has envisaged in his encounter with the world, in the scientist's wonder about the nature of the object with which he is concerned, and in the interest in the objects around him of every person who has not succumbed to stagnation in a closed autocentric or sociocentric world. They all have in common the fact that they do not remain in a closed, familiar, labeled world but that they want to go beyond embeddedness in the familiar and in the routine, and to relate to another object, or to the same one more fully, or from another angle, anew, afresh.

Embeddedness in the familiar and in the routine. Sounds like a land of clones (or Windows PC users) pitter-pattering through life, applying logic, questioning little and stunting curious thought. But, as Wallace and Gruber opine in Creative People at Work, if there were no constraints, nothing would be crazy, and novelty might not be so difficult to produce.

Creativity matters because it’s euphoric. It’s challenging. It’s rewarding. It’s difficult to emulate. It's valuable (specifically when it becomes an innovation and gains market acceptance). And, when practiced – when we create – it is our personal stamp on society.

Post-script (8/20/07): Csikszentmihalyi's Flow is a rich and diverse work, spanning far beyond the above encapsulation. Today's Freakonomics includes a post about talent and "deliberate practice". Great stuff, and it reminds me of our David O'Meara/Bill Walsh prose of a few weeks ago.

Post-script (24 Feb 08): Terrific post from Eric Nehrlich engaging the value of repetition and memorization. Two morsels:
A friend’s 7-year-old son recently challenged me to a game of chess. I’ve never played chess seriously, and had not played a single game since before he was born. I quickly found myself in a struggle - I made a mistake early and he took my queen. I eventually fought back to a mostly equal position, and we agreed on a draw as we had to leave for the wedding we were both attending ... Chess is hard because of the combinatorial explosion of possibilities - each move creates new possibilities and analyzing them all consciously takes more brainpower than anybody except Deep Blue has. So how do chess experts play the game successfully? Another friend at the wedding had been a chess master when he was a teenager, and I asked him about his strategies. He claimed that when he was playing, he had memorized all possible openings through fifteen moves, so while the other player was expending conscious effort to analyze the opening series of moves, he was playing without thinking because he already knew the best move in each position. That left his conscious brain available to analyze the deeper strategy in the game and plan for the midgame, giving him a competitive advantage.

This sort of unconscious pattern recognition is present in all games. Whenever we first play a game, we’re trying to remember the rules, and struggle just to make legal moves. As we learn more about the game, we take advantage of our brain’s continuous projections described in On Intelligence - we compare the projected results of our moves with what actually happened, and store the results. Now the legal moves are automatic and require no thought, and we’re thinking tactically about sequences of moves. We can now embed that sort of tactical thinking into another layer of patterns on top of the “legal moves” neuron layer, e.g. learning to automatically set up the sequence of card play necessary for an endgame squeeze in bridge.

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