Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

08 AUGUST, 2012

The Role of “Ripeness” in Creativity and Discovery: Arthur Koestler’s Seminal Insights, 1964

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“The Latin verb cogito for ‘to think’ etymologically means ‘to shake together.’”

What a wonderful Rube Goldberg machine of discovery literature is, the countless allusions and references in a book guiding you to yet more great works. This was the case with the recent Dancing About Architecture: A Little Book of Creativity, which first flagged the 1939 gem A Technique for Producing Ideas and now brings us to The Act Of Creation (public library) — a seminal treatise on creativity, penned by Hungarian-British journalist and author Arthur Koestler in 1964. In this magnificent 700-page tome, Koestler itemizes the principles of creativity — “the conscious and unconscious processes underlying scientific discovery, artistic originality, and comic inspiration” — and sets out to outline a common pattern that can be trained and perfected.

Koestler’s insights and conclusions resonate deeply with my own beliefs about the combinatorial nature of creativity — this notion that all ideas are, as Mark Twain put it, “second-hand,” born as we constantly copy, transform, and combine old ideas, synthesize existing information, combine eclectic influences, remix material, build on what came before, and connect the seemingly disconnected.

But, Koestler argues, there is one necessary condition for this combinatorial creative fusion — which he terms “bisociation” — to take place. In this passage from the end of Chapter V, he describes that condition beautifully, articulating the backbone of creativity:

But for that fusion to take place a condition must be fulfilled which I called ‘ripeness.’

Concerning the psychology of the creative act itself, I have mentioned the following interrelated aspects of it: the displacement of attention to something not previously noted, which was irrelevant in the old and is relevant in the new context; the discovery of hidden analogies as a result of the former; the bringing into consciousness of tacit axioms and habits of thought which were implied in the code and taken for granted; the uncovering of what has always been there.

This leads to the paradox that the more original a discovery the more obvious it seems afterward. The creative act is an act of creation in the sense of the Old Testament. It creates something in heaven and projects in onto the world becoming a new mind. The more familiar the parts, the more striking the new whole. Man’s knowledge of the changes of the tides and the phases of the moon is as old as his observation that apples fall to earth in the ripeness of time. Yet the combination of these and other equally familiar data in Newton’s theory of gravity changed mankind’s outlook on the world.

‘It is obvious,’ says Hadamard, ‘that invention or discovery, be it in mathematics or anywhere else, takes place by combining ideas. . . . The Latin verb cogito for ‘to think’ etymologically means ‘to shake together.’ St. Augustine had already noticed that and also observed that intelligo means ‘to select among.’

The ‘ripeness’ of a culture for a new synthesis is reflected in the recurrent phenomenon of multiple discovery, and in the emergence of similar forms of art, handicrafts, and social institutions in diverse cultures. But when the situation is ripe for a given type of discovery, it still needs the intuitive power of an exceptional mind, and sometimes a favorable chance event, to bring it from potential into actual existence. On the other hand, some discoveries represent striking tours de force by individuals who seem to be so far ahead of their time that their contemporaries are unable to understand them.

Thus at one end of the scale we have discoveries which seem to be due to more or less conscious, logical reasoning, and at the other end those due to sudden insights which emerge from the creative mind or the unconscious. The same polarity of logic and intuition will be found to prevail in the methods and techniques of artistic creation. It is summed up by two opposite pronouncements: Bernard Shaw’s ‘Ninety per cent perspiration, ten per cent inspiration’, on the one hand, Picasso’s ‘I do not seek — I find’ (je ne cherche pas, je trouve), on the other.

The Act Of Creation is superb in its entirety, essential reading for a holistic creative mind.

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07 AUGUST, 2012

Creative Evolution: French Philosopher Henri Bergson on Intuition vs. the Intellect, 1907

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“That which is instinctive in instinct cannot be expressed in terms of intelligence, nor, consequently, can it be analyzed.”

“The intellect by itself is the seat of trouble,” wrote Anaïs Nin in her diary in 1942.

A recent passing mention in a chapter on the origin of “nothing” in Jim Holt’s excellent new book on why the universe exists reminded me of Creative Evolution (public library; public domain) by French philosopher and Nobel Prize in Literature winner Henri Bergson (1859-1941) — an alternative account of the mechanisms underpinning Darwin’s evolution, originally published in 1907, which went on to become an enormously influential work in the philosophy of science.

In this particular excerpt, Bergson takes something we’ve previously explored in the context of the individual’s creative process — the role of intuition and its supremacy over rationality — and uses it as the lens on science and nature as a whole:

We see that the intellect, so skillful in dealing with the inert, is awkward the moment it touches the living. Whether it wants to treat the life of the body or the life of the mind, it proceeds with the rigor, the stiffness and the brutality of an instrument not designed for such use.

[…]

The intellect is characterized by a natural inability to comprehend life.

Instinct, on the contrary, is molded on the very form of life. While intelligence treats everything mechanically, instinct proceeds, so to speak, organically. If the consciousness that slumbers in it should awake, if it were wound up into knowledge instead of being wound off into action, if we could ask and it could reply, it would give up to us the most intimate secrets of life. For it only carries out further the work by which life organizes matter–so that we cannot say, as has often been shown, where organization ends and where instinct begins. When the little chick is breaking its shell with a peck of its beak, it is acting by instinct, and yet it does but carry on the movement which has borne it through embryonic life. Inversely, in the course of embryonic life itself (especially when the embryo lives freely in the form of a larva), many of the acts accomplished must be referred to instinct. The most essential of the primary instincts are really, therefore, vital processes. The potential consciousness that accompanies them is generally actualized only at the outset of the act, and leaves the rest of the process to go on by itself. It would only have to expand more widely, and then dive into its own depth completely, to be one with the generative force of life.

[…]

[I]t is impossible for intelligence to reabsorb instinct. That which is instinctive in instinct cannot be expressed in terms of intelligence, nor, consequently, can it be analyzed.

A man born blind, who had lived among others born blind, could not be made to believe in the possibility of perceiving a distant object without first perceiving all the objects in between. Yet vision performs this miracle. In a certain sense the blind man is right, since vision, having its origin in the stimulation of the retina, by the vibrations of the light, is nothing else, in fact, but a retinal touch. Such is indeed the scientific explanation, for the function of science is just to
express all perceptions in terms of touch. But we have shown elsewhere that the philosophical explanation of perception (if it may still be called an explanation) must be of another kind. Now instinct also is a knowledge at a distance. It has the same relation to intelligence that vision has to touch. Science cannot do otherwise than express it in terms of intelligence; but in so doing it constructs an imitation of instinct rather than penetrates within it.

“Real science,” as Stuart Firestein keenly observed, “is a revision in progress, always” — as is real life itself. How frequently we forget — rationalize away — the role of instinct in that ceaseless revision.

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06 AUGUST, 2012

Significant Objects: How Stories Confer Value Upon the Vacant

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“It turns out that once you start increasing the emotional energy of inanimate objects, an unpredictable chain reaction is set off.”

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” poet Muriel Rukeyser famously remarked. Hardly anyone can back this bombastic proclamation with more empirical conviction than Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn. In 2009, the duo embarked upon a curious experiment: They would purchase cheap trinkets, ask some of today’s most exciting creative writers to invent stories about them, then post the stories and the objects on eBay to see whether the invented story enhanced the value of the object. Which it did: The tchotchkes, originally purchased for a total of $128.74, sold for a whopping total of $3,612.51 — a 2,700% markup. (The most highly valued pairing in the entire project, bought for $1.49 and sold for $197.50, was a globe paperweight with a moving handwritten story by the magnificent Debbie Millman, with proceeds benefiting 826 National.)

Significant Objects: 100 Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things (public library) tells the tale of this irreverent testament to the power of storytelling through a hundred of the best stories since the beginning of the project. The anthology features such celebrated authors as William Gibson (HAWK Ashtray, bought for $2.99, sold for $101), Jonathan Lethem (Missouri Shotglass, bought for $1, sold for $76), and Colson Whitehead (Mallet, bought for 33 cents, sold for $71).

And what better way to open than with some timeless wisdom from the inimitable Edward Gorey?

A reflection from the introduction:

Writers love a challenge like the one we posed them — i.e., making up a story inspired by an object they’ve never seen before. Our contributors met the challenge with wildly imaginative, deeply moving, and darkly ironic stories. They wrote letters, email solicitations, memoirs, operating instructions, public notices, diary entries, wine-tasting notes, and public ordinances. Some crafted rich character studies, others told tales through whipsaw dialogue or internal monologue. Some took bold experimental risks, while others opted for evocative minimalism or genre fiction.

It turns out that once you start increasing the emotional energy of inanimate objects, an unpredictable chain reaction is set off.

Part Sentimental Value, part MacGuffinism, Significant Objects reminds us of the storiness of our lived materiality — of the artifacts we imbue with meaning, with loves and losses, with hopes and desperations. At its heart is something essential and essentially human, which Brian Eno once articulated beautifully:

Nearly all of art history is about trying to identify the source of value in cultural objects. Color theories and dimension theories, golden means, all those sort of ideas, assume that some objects are intrinsically more beautiful and meaningful than others. New cultural thinking isn’t like that. It says that we confer value on things. We create the value in things. It’s the act of conferring that makes things valuable.”

Anaïs Nin put it even more dramatically when she wrote in her diary in 1943:

Stories are the only enchantment possible, for when we begin to see our suffering as a story, we are saved.

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