Human creativity and culture

Sussex conversations

Creativity and 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 creative person.

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 see.

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.

Further reading

Frank MJ, 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 46(4): 1180-6.