Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Jerome Bruner’

01 OCTOBER, 2014

Pioneering Psychologist Jerome Bruner on Art as a Mode of Knowing and Its Four Psychological Aspects


“Whoever reflects recognizes that there are empty and lonely spaces between one’s experiences.”

The question of what art is has been asked and answered at least since we dwelled in caves. Every era has produced a crop of memorable answers from its greatest minds. Oscar Wilde pointed to the “temperament of receptivity” as the secret of art, Leo Tolstoy championed its “emotional infectiousness,” Susan Sontag saw it as “a form of consciousness,” and Alain de Botton considers it therapy of the soul. But one of the most insightful and dimensional explorations of the function of art in human culture comes from legendary Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner (b. October 1, 1915), whose influential and enduring contributions to cognitive psychology and learning theory remain unparalleled.

In an essay titled “Art as a Mode of Knowing,” found in his altogether fantastic 1962 essay collection On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand (public library) — which also gave us Bruner on “effective surprise” and the six essential conditions for creativity and myth, identity, and “creative wholeness” — Bruner considers the unique language of art and how it complements that of science. He outlines the four psychological aspects of the art experience — connectedness, which deals with the reward of grasping the essential ideas a work of art communicates; effort, which we exert to draw meaning from the ambiguity of art; conversion of impulse, which makes an object of beauty move us; and generality, which deals with the universal aspects of what we find beautiful and moving.

Bruner begins with connectedness, which thrives on our sense of “unfilled possibilities for experience”:

Whoever reflects recognizes that there are empty and lonely spaces between one’s experiences. Perhaps these gaps are the products of reflection or at least its fruits… Science, by reducing the need for empiricism with its statement of general laws, fills these gaps only partly… The general scientific law, for all its beauty, leaves the interstices as yearningly empty as before.

Our effort to bridge these gaps, Bruner argues, is driven by two psychological processes — the creation of effective, economical symbols and the construction of categories of possibility, which we fill with our specific experiences as they unfold. The latter, he points out, is common to both art and science. He illustrates these categories of possibility with an example from the history of particle physics:

The neutrino is created as a fruitful fiction. And in time the neutrino is found.

But the parallel in art, Bruner notes, is often driven by metaphor rather than strict logic, which circles back to the first psychological mechanism of connectedness, the use of symbolism:

Metaphor joins dissimilar experiences by finding the image or the symbol that unites them at some deeper emotional level of meaning. Its effect depends upon its capacity for getting past the literal mode of connecting, and the unsuccessful metaphor is one that either fails in finding the image or gets caught in the meshes of literalness.

Metaphorical thinking, as psychologists have found in the half-century since Bruner’s writing, is central to the development of human imagination. And yet, Bruner cautions, not all metaphorical thinking is created equal in terms of serving this function of connectedness in the experience of art:

There is more to the metaphor of art than mere emotional connectedness. There is also the canon of economy that must operate, a canon that distinguishes the artfully metaphoric from that which is only floridly arty or simply “offbeat.”

The economy of metaphor, Bruner argues, helps mitigate the often paralyzing mismatch between what there is to be known and what we can possibly know — something our minds automatically address by narrowing our attention into an “intentional, unapologetic discriminator” and flattening dimensional identity groups into imprisoning stereotypes. Bruner writes:

There is, perhaps, one universal truth about all forms of human cognition: the ability to deal with knowledge is hugely exceeded by the potential knowledge contained in man’s environment. To cope with this diversity, man’s perceptions, his memory, and his thought processes early become governed by strategies for protecting his limited capacities from the confusion of overloading. We tend to perceive things schematically, for example, rather than in detail, or we represent a class of diverse things by some sort of averaged “typical instance.” The corresponding principle of economy in art produces the compact image or symbol that, by its genesis, travels great distances to connect ostensible disparities.

Art by Sydney Pink from 'Overcoming Creative Block.' Click image for more.

This world of metaphor, Bruner argues, reveals the “primitive similarity” between the modes of connecting in art and science:

The prescientific effort to construct a fruitful hypothesis may indeed be the place where the art of science, like all other art forms, operates by the law of economical metaphor. May it not be that without the myth of Sisyphus, forever pushing his rock up the hill, the concept of the asymptote in mathematics would be less readily grasped? What is Heraclitus’ account but a giant metaphor on instability? He gropes for a picture of the universe. And so it is at the beginnings of insight.

He speaks to the power of intuition in science, something a number of notable scientists have championed as essential to creativity in scientific discovery. Bruner writes:

As Bertrand Russell comments, “Physics is mathematical not because we know so much about the physical world, but because we know so little: it is only its mathematical properties that we can discover.” And until they are “discovered” in this more rigorous sense, one proceeds by intuition and metaphor, hoping to be led beyond to a new rigor. Until then, the economical combings of the scientist and the artist share far more than we are often prepared to admit.

Bruner moves on to the second pillar of the art experience, effort, which “consists in departing from the habitual and literal ways of looking, hearing, and understanding in order to resolve the ambiguity that is a feature of works of art.” He explains:

In a deeper sense, it is the effort to make a new connection between different perspectives.

Interestingly, the “the ability to spot the potential in the product of connecting things,” or what Einstein called “combinatory play” and Arthur Koestler termed “bisociation,” is a defining characteristic of creativity — but Bruner finds in it a symmetry between what it takes to create art and what it takes to enjoy it:

What one feels is the effort to connect. It is not only for the creation of a work of art that one should use the expression unitas multiplex [unity of diversity], but for the experience of knowing it as well.

We’re willing to undertake that effort in the first place, he argues, because it generates a certain momentum of self-refinement:

Perhaps the effort of beholding art is its own reward, or the reward is the achievement of unity of experience, which is to say that it develops on itself. Taste begets better taste. Listen to enough Dvorak and a taste for Beethoven or Wagner will develop.

The amount and nature of the effort, Bruner suggests, is where the distinction between art and entertainment — something David Foster Wallace memorably considered — lies. Playing off Graham Greene’s distinction between his “novels” and his “entertainments,” Bruner looks at the contrast between the beautiful and the merely decorative through the lens of this effort to connect:

Creating new unities is not all the work. There is also control and conversion of the impulses that are aroused in the experience of art, the exercises of restraint that permit the reader to maintain a distance from the hero of a novel and the play-goer to remain on his side of the proscenium arch. Here … the distinction between the decorative and the beautiful is useful. For the decorative achieves its restfulness by permitting us to remain uninvolved, untempted. Indeed, an essay remains to be written on the defense against beauty, about those who, in the face of the awesomeness of a Gothic cathedral, can remain unshaken and find what they behold merely pleasing.

Bruner turns to the third aspect of the art experience, conversion of impulse. Noting that any impulse can be turned into art, Bruner echoes both Tolstoy’s notion of “emotional infectiousness” and Wilde’s of psychological “receptivity” as he considers how the conversion of that impulse bridges artist and beholder:

It is a necessary but not a sufficient condition in each case that the impulse be held in check and converted from its original form. It is equally true that the successful beholding of a work of art involves a comparable act of containing impulses that have been aroused. It is not necessary that there be a concordance in the impulse of the creator and the beholder, and, for our purposes, the matter of communicating an impulse from creator to receiver is not at issue.

Two types of cognitive activity propel the actual conversion of the impulse:

One is at the center of awareness as desire: it is directed toward achieving an end and is specialized to the task of finding means. The other is at the fringes of awareness, a flow of rich and surprising fantasy, a tangled reticle of associations that gives fleeting glimpses of past occasions, of disappointments and triumphs, of pleasures and unpleasures.

Portrait of James Joyce by Djuna Barnes from his most revealing interview. Click image for more.

The latter, Bruner points out, is the stuff of James Joyce’s famous stream-of-consciousness writing and it was precisely Joyce’s ability to communicate this “scarcely expressible fringe” that makes us celebrate him as a true master of literary art. Such elegant merging of streams fueled by diverse impulses, Bruner argues, is the key to the power of art as a mode of knowing the world and ourselves:

At this level, thinking is more symphonic than logical, one theme suggesting the next by a rule of letting parts stand for wholes. Where art achieves its genius is in providing an image or a symbol whereby the fusion can be comprehended and bound.

In short, the conversion of impulse into the experience of art comes from the creation of a stream of metaphoric activity and the restraining of any direct striving for ends. In essence, the connecting of experience is given its first impetus by the simultaneous presence of several such streams of fringe-association. It is the formal artifice of the work of art itself, the genius of its economical imagery, that makes possible the final fusing of these inner experiences. The process … requires work from the beholder. Beholding an art object in a manner that may be called knowing is not a passive act. But when the beholder stops beholding, when there is too much involvement with the figures in a canvas, there is an end to the conversion of impulse, distance is lost, and in place of the experience of art there is either a daydream or merely action.

With this, Bruner arrives at the final psychological aspect of beholding art, generality, returning to those lonely gaps in our experience and revisiting the parallels and contrasts between art and science as sensemaking mechanisms:

Any idea, any construct or metaphor, has its range of convenience or its “fit” to experience, and this is one feature that art and science as modes of knowing share deeply… Our techniques for finding out about the range of convenience of ideas in science are rather straightforward, though it requires much ingenuity at times to devise operational techniques for verification. There is no direct analogue of verification in the experience of art. In its place, there is a “shock of recognition,” a recognition of the fittingness of an object or a poem to fill the gaps in our own experience. In this sense, and it is a limited sense, we may say that art is not a universal mode of communication, for each man who beholds a picture or reads a poem will bring to the experience a matrix of life that is uniquely his own.

Chauvet cave drawings from '100 Diagrams That Changed the World.' Click image for more.

And yet there is a deeper, more immutable universality to the experience of art — a work of art, Bruner argues, is scarcely “a function entirely of time, place, and condition,” for if this were the case, such ancient masterworks as the cave paintings of Chauvet or Lascaux or Altamira would leave us cold, failing to produce the “shock of recognition” that they still do. Bruner speaks to this universality:

There are features of the human condition that change only within narrow limits whether one be a cave dweller, a don in medieval Oxford, or a Left Bank expatriate of the 1920s: love, birth, hate, death, passion, and decorum persist as problems without unique solution.

Can it ever be said, then, that life imitates art? If so, then art is the furthest reach of communication. There are perhaps two ways that are somewhat more than trivial. One is the effect of art in freeing us from the forms of instrumental knowing that comprise the center of our awareness; from the tendency to say that this figure here represents Christ, that over there is an apple; apples are good for eating, Christ for worshipping or admiring. When we see the possibility of connecting in internal experience, we strive to recreate it and to live it.

But life imitates art in another, arguably even more important sense:

The experience of art nourishes itself, so that having sensed connectedness one is impelled to seek more of it.

Bruner concludes by returning to the yin-yang of art and science:

The intent of the scientist is to create rational structures and general laws that, in the mathematical sense, predict the observations one would be forced to make if one were without the general laws… Governed by principles of strict logical implication… prediction becomes more and more complete, leading eventually to the derivation of possible observations that one might not have made but for the existence of the general theory. Surely, then, science increases the unity of our experience of nature. That is the hallmark of the way of knowing called science.

Art as a form of knowing does not and cannot strive for such a form of unification. In its most refined form, the myth of Sisyphus is not the concept of the mathematical asymptote. The elegant rationality of science and the metaphoric nonrationality of art operate with deeply different grammars: perhaps they even represent a profound complementarity. For, in the experience of art, we connect by a grammar of metaphor, one that defies the rational methods of the linguist and the psychologist. There has been progress in interpreting the metaphoric transformation of dreams, rendering the latent meaning from the manifest content, progress to which Freud contributed so greatly. Yet to interpret a dream as “a wish to be loved by one’s rejecting mother” or to interpret Marlow’s pursuit of Kurtz at the end of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a man pursuing a bride, neither of these exercises, however revealing, catches fully the nature of metaphor. What is lost in such translations is the very fullness of the connection produced by the experience of art itself.

On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand is remarkably insightful and wide-ranging in its entirety, exploring such aspects of the human quest for knowledge as the act of discovery, the notion of fate, the role of identity in creativity, and more. Complement this particular excerpt with a contemporary look at the seven psychological functions of art.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

13 JUNE, 2014

Hipsters and Squares: Psychologist Jerome Bruner on Myth, Identity, “Creative Wholeness” and How We Limit Our Happiness


How our cult of creativity, which replaced religion, is becoming a source of anguish rather than happiness.

Today, we hang so much of our identity on our capacity to create, often confusing what we do for who we are. And while creativity, by and large, is a positive force in the external world, its blind pursuit can be damaging to the inner. So admonishes the influential Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner (b. October 1, 1915), celebrated for his contributions to cognitive psychology and learning theory in education, in his altogether fantastic 1962 anthology On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand (public library) — the same wonderful collection of essays that gave us Bruner’s theory of “effective surprise” and the 6 essential conditions for creativity. One of the essays, titled “Myth and Identity,” explores precisely that relationship between our modern myths, which shape our beliefs about creativity and happiness, and our often conflicted sense of identity.

Bruner begins with some essential definitions:

Myth … is at once an external reality and the resonance of the internal vicissitudes of man.

But while he acknowledges that the central function of myth is “to effect some manner of harmony between the literalities of experience and the night impulses of life,” Bruner cautions against assuming an opposition of the two — of “the grammar of experience and the grammar of myth” — as they are complementary rather than clashing, something best manifested in the relationship between myth and personality. Bruner writes:

Consider first myth as projection, to use the conventional psychoanalytic term. I would prefer the term “externalization” better to make clear that we are dealing here with … the human preference to cope with events that are outside rather than inside. Myth, insofar as it is fitting, provides a ready-made means of externalizing human plight by embodying and representing them in storied plot and characters.

Externalizing our inner life in such a way, Bruner argues, provides a “basis for communion” among us:

By the subjectifying of our worlds through externalization, we are able, paradoxically enough, to share communally in the nature of internal experience.

Jerome Bruner (Photograph: B.F. Herzog)

It also enables us to work through our inner turmoils in a unique way, something Adam Phillips echoed more than half a century later in reflecting on the parallels between psychoanalysis and storytelling. Bruner puts it elegantly as he considers the defining psychic malady of our time:

If one is to contain the panicking spread of anxiety, one must be able to identify and put a comprehensible label upon one’s feelings better to treat them again, better to learn from experience… Myth, perhaps, serves in place of or as a filter for experiences.


What is the art form of myth? Principally it is drama; yet for all its concern with preternatural forces and characters, it is realistic drama that … tells of “origins and destinies”… Knowing through art has the function of connecting through metaphor what before had no apparent kinship [and] the art form of the myth connects the daemonic world of impulse with the world of reason by a verisimilitude that conforms to each.

Considering the early myths — those of Ancient Greece and the Christian tradition — Bruner points to two key mythic plots that emerge in the struggle to give shape to our experiences: “the plot of innocence and the plot of cleverness.” But modernity, he argues, has thrown into tumult both ideals, resulting in an “internal clamor of identities” that ends up threatening our happiness and our capacity for creative fulfillment.

Illustration from 'The Iliad and the Odyssey: A Giant Golden Book' by Alice and Martin Provensen. Click image for details.

In one particularly prescient passage, Bruner writes:

In our own time, in the American culture, there is a deep problem generated by the confusion that has befallen the myth of the happy [person]… We are no longer a “mythologically instructed community.” And so one finds a new generation struggling to find or to create a satisfactory and challenging mythic image.

Two such images seem to be emerging in the new generation. One is that of the hipsters and the squares; the other is the idealization of creative wholeness. The first is the myth of the uncommitted wandering hero, capable of the hour’s subjectivity — its “kicks” — participating in a new inwardness. It is the theme of reduction to the essential persona, the hero able to filter out the clamors of an outside world, an almost masturbatory ideal.

Bruner points to the original “hipsters” and notes the similarity between the mythmaking of real-life identity and that of character in fiction:

It is not easy to create a myth and to emulate it at the same time. James Dean and Jack Kerouac, Kingsley Amis and John Osborne, the Teddy Boys and the hipsters: they do not make a mythological community. They represent mythmaking in process as surely as Hemingway’s characters or Scott Fitzgerald’s.

Bruner considers one especially toxic and limiting myth — that of “the full creative [person],” a notion all the more zealously pursued in our present age of endless creativity conferences, spiritual retreats for corporate executives, and workplaces that seek to disguise a cubicle farm as a hybrid of playground and university. Bruner describes the ancestry of our modern condition:

It is … the middle-aged executive sent back to the university by the company for a year, wanting humanities and not sales engineering; it is this man telling you that he would rather take life classes Saturday morning at the museum school than be president of the company; it is the adjectival extravaganza of the word “creative,” as in “creative advertising.” It is as if, given the demise of the myths of creation and their replacement by a scientific cosmogony that for all its formal beauty lacks metaphoric force, the theme of creating becomes internalized, creating anguish rather than, as in the externalized myths, providing a basis for psychic relief and sharing. Yet this self-contained image of creativity becomes, I think, the basis for a myth of happiness. But perhaps between the death of one myth and the birth of its replacement there must be a reinternalization, even to the point of [a cult of the ego]. That we cannot yet know. All that is certain is that we live in a period of mythic confusion that may provide the occasion for a new growth of myth, myth more suitable for our times.

One is left wondering whether our present time is one of reconciliation or of even greater “mythic confusion.”

On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand is a magnificent read in its entirety, further exploring questions of creativity, identity, metaphor, and the role of art in the human experience. Complement with Maya Angelou on the internalization of identity.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

21 APRIL, 2014

How to Master the Art of “Effective Surprise” and the 6 Essential Conditions for Creativity


“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.

Jerome Bruner

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 being 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.

Art by Hollie Chastain from 'Overcoming Creative Block.' Click image for more.

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.

Art by Sydney Pink from 'Overcoming Creative Block.' Click image for more.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

Art by Julia Rothman from 'Overcoming Creative Block.' Click image for more.

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.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.