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Author Information

Freelance consultant, learning facilitator, and writer, founder of extreme-inventing.com, ooleee.net (with artist Gary King), knowledgecafe0151. Teach technology entrepreneurship at School of Engineering at University of Liverpool, UK. I have a longstanding and avid interest in Technology as a unique human phenomenon. I'm actively engaged in research on how enterprising individuals shape material culture through inventing and innovating, with palaeoanthropologists at the Dept. of Archaeology, Egyptology and Classics, also at University of Liverpool.

Extreme Creativity

cheeky

As usual I’ve adopted an extreme (but very useful- I think) position on creativity and the myth of left-brain right brain thinking.

Creativity I

Prologue

What prompted me to write something substantial and hopefully significant on creativity at this moment was reading an article in Scientific American (SA) that casts doubt on the legitimacy of the right brain-left brain explanation of creativity. The article has been picked up and blogged about in a number of forums where innovation is of interest. Although some credence might be placed on the idea that brain functionality is distributed between left and right (after all some of us are right-handed and others left), most of the rational and creative attributes applied to right or left brain thinkers is highly speculative and in any case based on what would now seem primitive techniques for measuring and mapping brain activity. See Norbert Jausovec p. 203. Encyclopedia of Creativity (2009).

The SA article reports on the results of using advanced MRI brain scanning techniques, but one of the reasons for writing this blog is to argue the position that it is misleading of neuroscientists to suggest an explanation of creativity will be found exclusively in the operation of a brain. This kind of approach is an example of scientific reductionism and, if not bad science, is weak science, even though it’s the kind that dominates right now. I will briefly touch on its shortcomings later. In a series of three articles enticingly called Creativity I, Creativity II and Creativity III, I aim to show that whilst your’s and my brain participate in generating the phenomenon we call creativity, an explanation of it will not be found there, but rather, in relationships between individuals (with brains), and the objects (natural and artefactual) that surround them.

For the rest of this first piece I’m going to set the scene by a brief exploration of the phenomenon we name creativity, at least, those bits of creativity theory that have caught my attention. In Creativity II I will introduce you to an alternative explanation of creativity drawing mainly on a theory of cognition devised by the biologists, neuroscientists, and accidental scientists of complexity, Humberto Maturana and the late Francisco Varela. Their ideas help to explain why the mother of invention is not need, but emotions and why, if you want to be a business success, you have to have conversations with others. In the third and final article I’ll explore the implications and the opportunities gained by adopting this new scientific and systems theoretical position. The middle bit might be an intellectual challenge, but I hope will be usefully thought provoking. The series is not meant to be a fully blown academic treatise. The extent and diversity of literature on creativity is huge and imposing and so the sources listed are ones that have caught my attention in the past, usually because they confirm what I believe to be correct, or ones I rail against (the usual way most scientific discourse proceeds). Of these the Encyclopedia of Creativity (1999) and Cambridge Handbook of Creativity (2010) have been particularly useful in setting the scene, but more up-to-date versions are probably available. So what is creativity?

What is creativity?

Creativity is creative behaviour, a kind that results in something novel, new, original. The result might also be unexpected, unanticipated, surprising. The source, the point of origination of the creative result, might also be unfathomable, giving creativity an air of mystery (creativity was once thought to be a God working through an individual to create something ‘unearthly’). Creativity is a process that is assumed to begin with the formation of an idea in mind/imagination, a concept of some thing, or some other process/action, which then drives the realization of it. Nowadays, creativity mostly results in something concrete, like a work of art, a new kind of tool, the modification to an existing tool, a novel, a film script followed by a film, but this was not always the case. But creativity is not simply about generating novelty or originality. For behaviour to be considered creative its result must be original and of value. For example, to be a success a new product has to be novel and appropriate, implying an appropriate solution, or a solution for a particular problem. What we know about problems from other postings here (extreme-inventing.com) is they always arise out of a particular context or set of socio-technical relationships. Essentially, especially when it comes to solutions, novelty, or originality without usefulness is not going to be valued. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, in relation to enterprising behaviour, a result of an action is valued when it does good, when it solves a problem, or otherwise produces a pleasing result for others. Creativity is not limited to problem solving, but there is considerable overlap and complementarity between theories of creativity, problem solving, learning, and innovation. Fundamentally, as individuals or society, we accede value to the creative act if it leads to pleasure or positive emotioning. Such as the delicious feeling triggered by a new piece of music that ‘hits the spot’, an entertainment that makes us laugh, or happy, or takes us on a roller coaster ride of emotions, a beer with an unusual but pleasurable taste, food that awakens tired taste buds. An entertainment can be highly original, outrageous and radical, but it still has to be pleasure-giving bearing in mind what is pleasurable for some may not be for others. Creativity can impact on all senses, individually and in any combination. Putting this another way, creativity can be recognised by any combination of senses, and can induce a complex multiplicity of emotions.

There are a number of theories of creativity which recognise creativity is inherent in all of us. However, there are some kinds of creativity we associate with artists, novelists, playwrights, cooks, and product designers who become famous because, it is widely assumed, they are exceptionally gifted and creative individuals. Such individuals, its important to note this is how they are perceived, become venerated members of society, who many attempt to emulate. The psychologist and psychiatrist Ruth Richards, calls the latter eminent creativity, and the former everyday creativity (see Encyclopedia of Creativity p 683 and the Handbook of Creativity p 189). In this blog I adhere to Richards‘ position, which is that we should value everyday creativity more, utilise it more, and reward it more than we do. Why I hold this view will become clearer as we go on, although at this juncture I’m reminded of the current Western interest in ideas from India such as Jugaad or so-called frugal innovation, which I believe is demonstrating the potential of everyday creativity. Similar distinctions between everyday and eminent creativity appear elsewhere in the creativity literature. For example, in the ideas of Big-C, and little-C[i]. Upon making such distinctions the inevitable next question is what factors underpin the differences followed by: How do the processes differ in each case. Are the cognitive processes different? What difference does personality make to the result? The distinctions Big-C and little-c encourage the belief that eminent creators are exceptional individuals inherently creative. From this originates the drive to identify, incubate, and support creative ‘talent’. But what if there is no difference in the way Big-C and little-c occur? What if ordinary thinking and creative thinking are the same? How then do eminent creators gain their positions? Are there other factors outside of the individual, outside of their personality, that lead them to eminence? The answer, essentially, is yes.

Robert Weisberg (2006) is one researcher who believes that so-called creative thinking is simply ordinary thinking that has produced an extraordinary outcome. If someone is described as creative, it’s the nature of the outcome that triggers this accolade. Weisberg recognises that the impact of ‘creative ideas’ can be profound, but that the (cognitive) mechanisms through which an innovation comes about are ordinary (see chapter 3 of his book). In other words they spring from everyday creativity. Richards says this kind of creativity is associated with day-to-day activities at work or leisure, and tends to be characterised by both originality (involving new and unusual aspects) and meaningfulness to others. This kind of creative behaviour has more to do with how a task is done than what it is, but the how, the technique or method, will influence the nature and quality of the result. Richards’ examples cover very ordinary activities and include; making home repairs, designing kids’ activities, reorganising an office, counselling a friend, doing gourmet cooking, charitable work, and replanting a garden. (Encyclopedia of Creativity page 683). From my professional point of view, the significance of this task-oriented perspective of creativity is that it’s the foundation of incremental innovation and continuous performance improvement.

In contrast, eminent creativity, Richards says, is that which has been publically recognised by a society or by relevant professional organisations in the form of, for example, prizes, awards, honours, publications, and other forms of recognition. The quality of originality or novelty and value is generally part of what is recognized, but is very often defined by ‘significant others’, by experts, sometimes by peers. It follows that individuals and their accomplishments thought to be exceptional and important in one cultural or social context, may not be in another, or even an older generation. For example, a Turner Prize winning artwork might only be of value to an elite within the institutionalised world of THE ARTS.

It seems to me that the difference between Big-C and little-c (also expressed as eminent vs everyday) creativity is the extent to which a base or raw concept produced by an individual impacts on a society. Society, in a sense, is beyond the individual and when an original idea spreads it is because society wants it. Although in a society where advertising and other forms of marketing attempt constantly to influence our choices and motivations, what we want is distorted. It is only by giving some consideration to ancient, even prehistoric, societies and remote tribal communities existing today, that its possible to appreciate that an ‘innovation’ will only spread if it has a value to the community as a whole. Shifting focus in this way we become more conscious of the need to understand innovating as a process of socialisation, in which others besides the creator must decide what is original, what constitutes value, which in turn depends on how a society or community chooses to measure it—against what objectives. The closer Big-C or eminent creativity is examined the more evident it becomes it could never be explained without considering the mechanisms by which ideas/things/experiences diffuse or become part of what the late strategist and knowledge management guru Max Boisot has called cultural space. It is evident, also, that creativity could not be explained without due consideration of individual creators (with brains). What we are looking for is a kind of dual mechanism that brings together social and, what are often called, cognitive factors. This is precisely what the biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela provide—the organism-medium system, and from which an alternative explanation of creativity will be developed, but first consider the following question.

Have you ever thought why everyday is different? Because everyday is different, isn’t it? Have you ever pondered why every soccer match, every rugby, tennis, or baseball match unfolds differently every time, even though the same players might be involved on the same pitch and have the same objectives? We take for granted that every day will be different, but actually this is at the heart of living and at the heart of an alternative explanation of creativity. Team sports, and more individual craft-based endeavours such as archery, painting, carving, knitting, and DIY provide examples of both everyday and eminent creativity. Richards recognises that everyday is an original experience, but does not provide a reason why. Is it simply because we are all different? After all, each one of us is a unique example of our species. Each of us looks different and behaves differently. It follows that because we are not put together in quite the same way, we don’t sense the world in exactly same way as anyone else. Recent research by, for example, Beau Lotto of University College London, has shown that we each see colour in a slightly different way, even though it is widely assumed that when I see pink or green, you see exactly the same hue. Not only do we sense the world differently, because our sensing apparatus is ever so slightly different, we respond to the sensing experience differently. So everyday, in every way, we create original responses to environmental stimuli. All other animals do the same. No animal on this earth experiences the same day twice. They solve the problem of surviving in original ways every day. Every day presents us with problems that we have not met before, which means they are novel problems. If they are to be overcome, the solutions must also be novel (Weisberg: 2006 p 126). However, there is a third reason why every day is different, and why every day we are creative. This will also explain why differences are maintained and even amplified, and will form the basis of an alternative explanation of creativity, both everyday and eminent, I will introduce in Creativity II. Before that, I want to introduce the ideas of two creativity researchers that will take us gently to the next big step.

 

Sources

James Kaufman and Robert Sternberg (2010). The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity

Mark Runco and Stephen Pritzker (Eds)(1999) Encyclopedia of Creativity.

Robert Weisberg (2006) Creativity: Understanding Innovation in Problem Solving, Science, Invention, and the Arts.

 

 

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