Legendary Harvard Psychologist Jerome Bruner on the Art of “Effective Surprise” and the 6 Essential Conditions of CreativityBy: Maria Popova
“Passion, like discriminating taste, grows on its use. You more likely act yourself into feeling than feel yourself into action.”
One of the greatest preoccupations not only of our culture but of our civilization is the question of what creativity is, dating back to the dawn of recorded thought. But it wasn’t until the advent of modern psychology in the early twentieth century that our answers to the question began to take the shape of something more structured and systematic than metaphysical hunches — there’s Graham Wallace’s model of the four stages of the creative process from 1926, a five-step “technique for producing ideas” from 1939, Arthur Koestler’s famous “bisociation” theory of how creativity works from 1964, and a number of derivative modern ideas.
But one of the most compelling in the past century comes from the influential Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner (b. October 1, 1915), celebrated for his contributions to cognitive psychology and learning theory in education. In 1962, Bruner published On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand (public library) — a wonderfully dimensional exploration of “the act of knowing in itself and how it is shaped and in turn gives form to language, science, literature, and art,” exploring not the biological mystery of left-handedness but the metaphorical mesmerism of the left hand, which has traditionally represented the power of intuition, imagination, and spontaneity: The title of the collection comes from Bruner’s childhood fascination with the symbolism of the right hand as the doer and the left as the dreamer, and it is this toxic divide between the two that he sets out to counter with equal parts insight and irreverence. Articulating the same essential concern that Susan Sontag echoed two decades later in lamenting how the artificial divide between intuition and intelligence limits us, Bruner pits himself “in the role of a would-be mediator between the humanist and the scientist” and gently guides the metaphoric left hand to tickle the right, which has become “too stiff with technique,” into creative awakening.
In one of the most timelessly illuminating essays from the collection, “The Conditions of Creativity,” Bruner writes:
There is something antic about creating, although the enterprise be serious. And there is a matching antic spirit that goes with writing about it, for if ever there was a silent process, it is the creative one. Antic and serious and silent. Yet there is good reason to inquire about creativity, a reason beyond practicality, for practicality is not a reason but a justification after the fact. The reason is the ancient search of the humanist for the excellence of man: the next creative act may bring man to a new dignity.
Noting that there is a “shrillness to our contemporary concern with creativity” — something perhaps even more observably true today than half a century ago, when he pondered the question — Bruner offers an essential caveat: Our search for those sources of dignity through creation is dictated by the cultural patterns of the time. In previous eras, it came from creating works of art in the image of “God,” but the technological boom of the twentieth century — an era “whose massive achievement is an intricate technological order” — brought forth a new preoccupation with pragmatism as a measure of creative merit, at the same time making it insufficient to be “merely useful.” Bruner writes:
The servant can pattern himself on the master — and so he did when God was master and Man His servant creating works in His glory — but the machine is the servant of man, and to pattern one’s function on the machine provides no measure of dignity. The machine is useful, the system in terms of which the machines gain their use is efficient, but what is man?
The artist, the writer, and to a new degree the scientist seek an answer in the nature of their acts. They create or they seek to create, and this in itself endows the process with dignity. there is “creative” writing and “pure” science, each justifying the work of its producer in its own right.
Of psychologists’ task in explicating the process, Bruner admonishes:
Make no mistake about it: it is not simply as technicians that we are bring called, but as adjutants to the moralist. My antic sense rises in self-defense. My advice, in the midst of the seriousness, is to keep an eye for the tinker shuffle, the flying of kites, and kindred sources of surprised amusement.
Indeed, this notion of “surprised amusement” becomes central to Bruner’s conception of creativity, which he defines with succinct elegance:
An act that produces effective surprise [is] the hallmark of the creative enterprise.
It is essential, here to distinguish between creativity and originality. In a sentiment that brings to mind Twain’s famous assertion that plagiarism is the seed of creative work, Alexander Graham Bell’s conviction that “our most original compositions are composed exclusively of expressions derived from others,” and Henry Miller’s poetic debunking of the originality illusion, Bruner cautions:
The road to banality is paved with creative intentions. Surprise is not easily defined. It is the unexpected that strikes one with wonder or astonishment. What is curious about effective surprise is that it need not be rare or infrequent or bizarre and is often none of these things. Effective surprises … seem rather to have the quality of obviousness about them when they occur, producing a shock of recognition following which there is no longer astonishment.
He goes on to outline three kinds of effectiveness in surprise.
Predictive effectiveness is “the kind of surprise that yields high predictive value in its wake” — for instance, as in the most elegant formulae of mathematics and physics, which hold that whenever certain conditions are present, a specific outcome is guaranteed to be produced. (All of these 17 equations that changed the world are excellent examples.) Predictive effectiveness doesn’t always come through surprise — it’s often “the slow accretion of knowledge and urge.” And yet, Bruner argues, “the surprise may only come when we look back and see whence we have come” — the very thing Steve Jobs described in his autobiographical account of his own creative journey, in noting that “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”
Bruner’s second form is formal effectiveness, the kind most frequently encountered in mathematics and logic, and occasionally music. He cites French polymath Henri Poincaré’s famous account of how creativity works, which holds that “sudden illumination” — the mythic Eureka! moment — is the unconscious combinatorial process that reveals “the unsuspected kinship between … facts, long known, but wrongly believed to be strangers to one another.”
The third, Bruner notes, is the hardest to describe. Metaphorical effectiveness is also manifested by “connecting domains of experience that were before apart,” but what distinguishes it from the formal kind is that the mechanisms of connectedness come for the realm of art rather than science and logic — the kind of connectedness that Carl Jung described as “visionary,” in contrast to the merely psychological. (Metaphorical thinking, after all, is at the developmental root of human imagination.) While we are wired to make sense of the world via categorization, “metaphoric combination leaps beyond systematic placement, explores connections that before were unsuspected.”
The unifying mechanism for all three, however, remains what Einstein termed “combinatory play.” Bruner writes:
All of the forms of effective surprise grow out of a combinatorial activity — a placing of things in new perspectives.
Echoing Tolstoy’s notion of “emotional infectiousness,” Bruner adds:
There are certain deep sharings of plight among human beings that make it possible the communication of the artist to the beholder… The artist — whatever his medium — must be close enough to these conditions in himself so that they may guide his choice among combinations, provide him with the genuine and protect him from the paste.
And so we get to the true gift of effective surprise:
The triumph of effective surprise is that it takes one beyond the common ways of experiencing the world… Creative products have this power of reordering experience and thought in their image. In science, the reordering is much the same from one beholder of a formula to another. In art, the imitation is in part self-imitation. It is the case too that the effective surprise of the creative [person] provides a new instrument for manipulating the world — physically as with the creation of the wheel or symbolically as with the creation of E = mc2.
The main paradox of such combinatorial creation, however, is that effective surprise is almost always followed by “the exercise of technique” — in other words, creativity requires the fusion of inspiration and technique, which appear at first to be opposite in spirit: one spontaneous, the other derived from repeated deliberate practice. To resolve the “paradox and antimony,” Bruner proposes six essential conditions of creativity:
- Detachment and commitment. A willingness to divorce oneself from the obvious is surely a prerequisite for the fresh combinatorial act that produces effective surprise. there must be as a necessary, if not a sufficient, condition a detachment from the forms as they exist… But it is a detachment of commitment. For there is about it a caring, a deep need to understand something, to master a technique, to render a meaning. So while the poet, the mathematician, the scientist must each achieve detachment, they do it in the interest of commitment. And at one stroke they, the creative ones, are disengaged from that which exists conventionally and are engaged deeply in what they construct to replace it.
- Passion and decorum. By passion I understand a willingness and ability to let one’s impulses express themselves in one’s life through one’s work… Passion, like discriminating taste, grows on its use. You more likely act yourself into feeling than feel yourself into action… But again a paradox: it is not all urgent vitality. There is decorum in creative activity: a love of form, an etiquette toward the object of our efforts, a respect for materials… So both are necessary and there must surely be a subtle matter of timing involved — when the impulse, when the taming.
- Freedom to be dominated by the object. You begin to write a poem. Before long it, the poem, begins to develop metrical, stanzaic,symbolical requirements. You, as the writer of the poem, are serving it — it seems. or you may be pursuing the task of building a formal model to represent the known properties of single nerve fibers and their synapses: soon the model takes over… There is something odd about the phenomenon. We externalize an object, a product of our thoughts, treat it as “out there.” Freud remarked, commenting on projection, that human beings seem better able to deal with stimuli from the outside than from within. So it is with the externalizing of a creative work, permitting it to develop its own being, its own autonomy coming to serve it. It is as if it were easier to cope with there, as if this arrangement permitted the emergence of more unconscious impulse, more material not readily accessible…
To be dominated by an object of one’s own creation — perhaps its extreme is Pygmalion dominated by Galatea — is to be free of the defenses that keep us hidden from ourselves.
As the object takes over and demands to be completed “in its own terms,” there is a new opportunity to express a style and an individuality. Likely as not, it is so partly because we are rid of the internal juggling of possibilities, because we have represented them “out there” where we can look at them, consider them.
- Deferral and immediacy. There is an immediacy to creating anything, a sense of direction, an objective, a general idea, a feeling. Yet the immediacy is anything but a quick orgasm of completion. Completion is deferred…
Having read a good many journals and diaries by writers I have come to the tentative conclusion that the principal guard against precocious completion, in writing at least, is boredom. I have little doubt that the same protection avails the scientist. It is the boredom of conflict, knowing deep down what one wishes to say and knowing that one has not said it. one acts on the impulse to exploit an idea, to begin. One also acts on the impulse of boredom, to defer. Thus Virginia Woolf, trying to finish Orlando in February 1928: “Always, always, the last chapter slips out of my hands. One gets bored. One whips oneself up. I still hope for a fresh wind and don’t very much bother, except that I miss the fun that was so tremendously lively all October, November, and December.
- The internal drama. There is within each person his own cast of characters* — an ascetic, and perhaps a glutton, a prig, a frightened child, a little man, even an onlooker, sometimes a Renaissance man. The great works of the theater are decompositions of such a cast, the rendering into external drama of the internal one, the conversion of the internal cast into dramatis personae…
As in the drama, so too a life can be described as a script, constantly rewritten, guiding the unfolding internal drama. It surely does not do to limit the drama to the stiff characters of the Freudian morality play — the undaunted ego, the brutish id, the censorious and punitive superego. Is the internal cast a reflection of the identifications to which we have been committed? I do not think it is as simple as that. It is a way of grouping our internal demands and there are idealized models over and beyond those with whom we have special identification — figures in myth, in life, in the comics, in history, creations of fantasy…
It is the working out of conflict and coalition within the set of identities that compose the person that one finds the source of many of the richest and most surprising combinations. It is not merely the artist and the writer, but the inventor too who is the beneficiary.
- The dilemma of abilities. What shall we say of energy, of combinatorial zest, of intelligence, of alertness, of perseverance? I shall say nothing about them. They are obviously important but, from a deeper point of view, they are also trivial. For at any level of energy or intelligence there can be more or less of creating in our sense. Stupid people create for each other as well as benefiting from what comes from afar. So too do slothful and torpid people. I have been speaking of creativity, not of genius.
He ends with an essential disclaimer that sprinkles our cultural compulsion for explaining way the creative process with some much-needed grains of salt.
I end with the same perplexity in attempting to find some way of thinking reasonably about the creative process. A the outset I proposed that we define the creative act as effective surprise — the production of novelty. It is reasonable to suppose that we will someday devise a proper scientific theory capable of understanding and predicting such acts. Perhaps we will understand the energies that produce the creative act much as we have come to understand how the dynamo produces its energy. It may be, however, that there is another mode of approach to knowing how the process generates itself, and this will be the way in which we understand how symbols and ideas … capture [our] thoughts. Often it is the poet who grasps these matters most firmly and communicates them most concisely. Perhaps it is our conceit that there is only one way of understanding a phenomenon. I have argued that just as there is predictive effectiveness, so is there metaphoric effectiveness. For the while, at least, we can do worse than to live with a metaphoric understanding of creativity.
On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand is enormously insightful and enriching in its entirety, exploring such facets of the creative experience as the act of discovery, art as a form of consciousness, our search for identity, and the question of fate in the age of science. Complement it with the excellent A Technique for Producing Ideas, Madeleine L’Engle on creativity and Sarah Lewis on creativity and the difference between mastery and success.
* See 28-year-old Susan Sontag’s ideas about the four people a great writer must be, which she outlined in her diary in December of 1961, shortly after Bruner’s essay was first published. “Jerry Bruner” appeared among her voracious reading diet recorded elsewhere in the diary, so it is highly likely that her concept of the four inner personae was influenced by Bruner.