Human creativity and culture
consciousness: Does creativity depend on conscious processes, unconscious
processes or their interaction?
Rather than worrying about how to
define and measure creativity, I have been wondering about what it is that
makes some people more creative than others. I believe that it is unconscious
processes that make all the difference between the more creative and the less
But there is no value in being creative all by your self.
Your creativity has to have an influence on other people. We can call this effective creativity. Conscious
processes are critical for making our creativity effective. The kind of creativity sometimes associated with madness
is typically not effective.
Our actions, what we do and why we choose to do one thing
rather than another are mostly under unconscious control. This is one of the
key messages to emerge from studies of the neural basis of action. These
unconscious processes are critical for creativity.
1: The creative
person doesn’t do what other people do.
When we select an action we are very likely to choose
something we have done recently or something that has been successful in the
past. The creative person does not do this. When choosing between various
possible actions, the creative person will automatically explore new actions. Social
animals, from bees to humans, thrive when the group contains a proportion of
explorers. The group needs these
explorers to find new sources of food and new ideas. But exploring is risky.
Rewards for exploring will inevitably be delayed and may not arrive at all.
This is why all groups need a balance between more or less creative people. Of
course, there can be extreme forms of the drive to explore. Here the person
abandons actions too quickly in order to try something new. As a result nothing
is ever properly completed. This may be what we see happening in Attention
Deficit Disorder and Mania.
A Bayesian Perception
Our perceptions, what we experience, are also under the
control of unconscious processes. We do not see the world directly. Our
perception arises from an interaction between what we expect to see and the
evidence of our senses, but we are not aware of this. A striking example of
this effect is the hollow mask illusion. We have all spent a life-time looking
at faces. Our expectation of what a face should look like is so strong that we
cannot help but see the inside of a mask as a normal face with the nose
sticking out. We are slaves to our expectations, which arise from past
experiences and also from the experiences of others. We want to see what others
2: The creative
person doesn’t see what other people see.
The creative person can see through these expectations. The
perceptions of creative people are less effected by expectations of what to see
and are less influenced by what everyone else sees. It is from these explorers
of the senses who do not conform with the expectations of the majority that we
can acquire new experiences. People with autism can also see through perceptual
expectations. They are better than the rest of us at seeing figures hidden in a
background. People with schizophrenia resist the hollow mask effect. They
perceive the nose of the mask as behind, rather than in front.
But it is not enough to do new things and have new experiences.
You have to communicate these new actions and new experiences to others. The explorer
bee, who has found a new source of nectar, comes back to the hive and dances to
communicate where the nectar is to be found.
3: The creative
person has a desperate desire to communicate.
More than any other animal, humans have a great desire to
communicate and, unlike the bees, we can consciously reflect upon our actions
and our experiences and share them with others. But, because they go against conventional
expectations, new actions and new experiences are especially difficult to
share. To be effective, the creative person must use old expectations in order
to communicate something new and may also need to develop new forms of
communication. Creative people must reflect upon their own experiences and report
them effectively to others. They can capitalise on the wish of the audience to
conform and to see what others see. The audience will want to conform by experience
the new visions of the artist. Creative people must also be exquisitely
sensitive to the way in which the minds of others are affected by their
communications. The act of communicating changes the communication. In part, it
is the audience that determines the best way to communicate. It is for this
reason that the art of the ‘outsider’, which is never shown to anyone, must be
impoverished. This art of communication critically depends upon consciousness.
We have to be able to reflect upon our actions and our experiences before we
can tell others about them. We also need to reflect upon the understanding of
our audience. The truly creative person changes the consciousness of us all.
Scheres A, Sherman SJ (2007) Understanding decision-making deficits in neurological conditions:
insights from models of natural action selection. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 362(1485): 1641-54.
Dima D, Roiser JP, Dietrich DE,
Bonnemann C, Lanfermann H, Emrich HM, Dillo W. (2009) Understanding why
patients with schizophrenia do
not perceive the hollow-mask
illusion using dynamic causal modelling. Neuroimage