Walking the Cat . . .

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Creativity . . .curiouser and curiouser

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          What is creativity?  Nobody knows.  It’s a mystery; one men have been trying to unravel for thousands of years.  The ancient Greeks thought creativity was the result of intervention by the gods; sending a “daemon” or “genius” to a poet for inspiration.  Later, they assigned these tasks to The Muses.  With the ascension of religion (most notably Christianity), creativity was seen as a “gift from God” in the form of inspiration from The Holy Spirit (pretty much the same thing as the Greeks, only with a dash of “theological creativity” thrown in).  Wikipedia, the oft-suspect online encyclopedia, defines creativity as, “a phenomenon whereby something new and valuable is created”.  Sir Ken Robinson described creativity in much the same way.  He said, “creativity is having an original idea that has value”.  I have a small problem with these two definitions (actually, I have three small problems) and it stems from the words, “new“, “original” and “value“.  I know,  new and original can be viewed as synonymous (they aren’t, but that’s a discussion for etymologists), so that leaves two problems.  The first is there is nothing new/original; everything having been built on something preceding it.  The second is the question of “value”.  Value to whom?   When a problem or puzzle or difficulty is resolved, the solution, naturally, has “value” to the person who resolved the issue.  If the solution is perceived as applicable to a larger, more varied number of problems/puzzles, etc. . . the person possessing the solution may present it to the general public (after patenting, of course, because, let’s face it, with 8 billion + people on the planet, it’s a sure bet someone, somewhere, sometime had the same, or very similar, idea) in hopes of eliciting the same (or even greater) value.  Today, we’d assign the task to a “marketing team” and move one to the next problem/puzzle, etc. . . None of this addresses the question of what creativity is, of course, other than to demonstrate the inadequacy of definitions; also the fact these definitions have been bugging me for some time and I felt the need to deal with them.

          Creativity has, over the centuries, undergone a metamorphosis, from the province of the gods, to the province of the one God, to the domain of humankind (most notably during the Renaissance).  Since the end of the 19th century, creativity has undergone a further transformation, from singular trait or aspect to a “creative process”, consisting of a number of steps or stages which are seen as requisite for the production of a “new” and “valuable”, hence creative, idea.  This latest iteration of creativity, from thing to process, has become the de rigueur position among all the sciences (esp. social sciences) studying the phenomenon of creativity.

          The most widely held model of the creative process was developed by Graham Wallas (Art of Thought, 1926).  It proposes five stages of the creative process:  Preparation, when the problem is identified and explored, Incubation, when thinking on the problem and its possible solutions takes place.  My brother, Mike (an exceptionally creative individual), likes to refer to this as the “percolation” stage (an especially apt designation to me as I am an avid coffee drinker).  This is also the stage where “nothing much” appears to be happening.  The third stage, Intimation, is when the first stirrings of a possible solution begin to take shape, but it’s not quite there yet.  The fourth stage is Illumination, when everything comes together and you have the “Eureka” moment.  The fifth, and final, stage, is Verification, when the idea is tested against the problem in the hope of it being a workable solution.  If it works, if the problem is solved, so much the better.  If not, the entire process is repeated.  If this sounds familiar, it should.  It is a slightly expanded, more artistically (shall I say, “creatively”?) expressed iteration of the scientific method.

          But what sparked the process?  What would drive these men to devote so much time and effort, so much intellectual energy to solving the “problem” of creativity?  I found, or rather I think I found, one possible answer in a somewhat unlikely place.

          I’ve never taken a journalism course but I have read a number of books and articles on the subject.  In nearly all of them the author, usually a practicing journalist or an editor, at some point will invoke the rule of “the 5 Ws”: Who? What? Where? When? Why?.  These were the five questions the journalism students were admonished to answer in their reportage; the better to pique and hold their readers’ curiosity.  There it was, staring up at me from the page.  I had, quite unknowingly, stumbled into stage four of Wallas’ model of the creative process.  I had my “Eureka” moment.

          They were curious!  They wanted to know about creativity.  They wanted to know, Why are we creative?  Why are some men and women more creative than others?  How were they creative?  Under what circumstances?  When were they creative? How often?  They wanted to know . . .the answer.  And so they studied, amassed knowledge, developed theories, designed experiments to test those theories and in the process added to the vast and expanding compendium of knowledge available to those who came (and those who will come) after them.  I thought I had found the “First Cause” of creativity.  Then I thought . . .

          Why are we curious?


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