Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

08 OCTOBER, 2014

A Minimalist, Maximally Imaginative Geometric Allegory for the Essence of Friendship and Creativity

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What a circle and a square can teach us about empathy, collaboration, and the origin of great ideas.

For more than a decade, Brooklyn’s family-owned indie powerhouse Enchanted Lion has been publishing immeasurably thoughtful and lyrical picture-books that invite young minds of all ages to explore such subtleties of the human experience as loneliness, loyalty, loss, the unknown, and the rhythms of life.

Now comes Wednesday (public library), the American debut of French children’s book author and illustrator Anne Bertier. It is translated by Enchanted Lion founder and editor Claudia Zoe Bedrick herself, a longtime Peace Corps volunteer, who continues to do for contemporary children’s books what Ursula Nordstrom did for the most beloved classics of the twentieth century.

Partway between Norton Juster’s 1963 gem The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics and the endearing Sendak-illustrated Let’s Be Enemies, this unusual, minimalist, maximally imaginative book tells the story of two friends, Little Round and Big Square, who get together to play their favorite game every Wednesday — a game of association and transformation, where “as soon as one of them says a word, they transform themselves into it.” Together, they transmogrify into fanciful shapes — a butterfly, a flower, a mushroom, a kite.

But the fun is abated when Little Round begins to feel littler, unimportant and insufficient, as Big Square begins to parade a repertoire of words beyond Little Round’s transformation capacities.

They retreat to opposite corners, each gripped with indignation — until Little Round, undoubtedly aware that mutual understanding is at the heart of friendship, comes up with a reconciliatory idea and proposes that they come up with the words together rather than taking turns. Their first collaborative formation exudes subtle symbolism in speaking to how the I-ego keeps us separate from the universe:

“I’m going to hold myself very tall and straight.”

“And I’ll be the dot,” says Little Round.

“Our i really works!”

On they go with this collaborative creation, joyfully transforming together into a candy, a clown, a hat, a boat, a bowl, and increasingly abstract combinations that eventually take shape into recognizable forms.

The story is at once simple in its playfulness and a beautiful allegory for the combinatorial nature of creativity and thought itself, for the way we transform the building blocks we assemble by way of being alive and awake to the world — impressions, experiences, memories, influences — into new combinations that we call our own ideas. There is a reason Einstein called his thought process “combinatory play.”

Complement Wednesday with other Enchanted Lion treasures, including The Lion and the Bird, Fox’s Garden, The River, Little Boy Brown, and Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

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03 OCTOBER, 2014

The Creative Experience: Legendary Choreographer Merce Cunningham on Motion as Metaphor

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“A good teacher keeps out of the way.”

Despite what today’s plethora of books on creativity might indicate, it wasn’t until the second half the twentieth century — with the notable exception of Graham Wallace’s famous 1926 model for the four stages of ideation — that psychology turned to creativity as a formal area of study, bringing to millennia of mystical ideas about genius the rational probing mechanisms of science. In 1970, psychologists Lawrence E. Abt and Stanley Rosner set out to bridge these two approaches and to debunk the false divide between intuition and intellect. With the help of former Life magazine science editor Albert Rosenfeld and noted art critic Clement Greenberg, they identified 23 cultural icons working in the arts and sciences and conducted extensive interviews with them to discern the conditions, motives, and personality traits most conducive to the creative experience. The result was The Creative Experience: Why and How Do We Create? (public library).

Among the luminaries interviewed was choreographer and modern dance pioneer Merce Cunningham (April 16, 1919–July 26, 2009), recipient of the National Medal of Arts and a MacArthur “genius” — a legend in his own right, as well as half of one of history’s greatest creative power couples, alongside the love of his life, the visionary composer John Cage.

Merce Cunningham by Annie Leibovitz (Merce Cunningham Trust)

While Cunningham’s creative medium is dance, it quickly becomes clear that he sees movement as a metaphor — for life, for the creative process, for the human condition:

In my choreographic work, the basis for the dances is movement, that is the human body moving in time-space… It is essentially a process of watching and working with people who use movement as a force of life, not as something to be explained by reference, or used as illustration, but as something, if not necessarily grave, certainly constant in life. What is fascinating and interesting in movement, is, though we are all two-legged creatures, we all move differently, in accordance with our physical proportions as well as our temperaments. It is this that interests me. Not the sameness of one person to another but the difference…

Furthering this notion of movement as a separate, singular language, Cunningham makes a counterintuitive assertion yet one that bespeaks the very sensibility that rendered him one of the greatest creative innovators of the twentieth century:

The dance is not performed to the music. For the dances that we present, the music is composed and performed as a separate identity in itself. It happens to take place at the same time as the dance. The two co-exist, as sight and sound do, in our daily lives. And with that, the dance is not dependent on the music.

[...]

To push this a little further, the dancers on several occasions have not actually heard the music until the first performance; that is, until the audience hears it.

He illustrates this idea with a rather comical yet surprisingly profound exercise:

One of the better things to do on plane trips across the country is to watch [legendary American football quarterback] Joe Namath on the professional football reruns, and plug the sound into the music channel. It makes an absorbing dance.

Noting that he thinks of choreography as Cage thinks of music — as “structure in time” — Cunningham extracts from movement a beautiful metaphor for the secret of human excellence:

I think in movement terms. Human beings move on two legs across the floor, across the earth. We don’t do very much on the ground. We don’t have that kind of power in us. And we can’t go as fast as most four-footed animals do. Our action is here on our two legs. That’s what our life is about. When one thinks about falling, dying, or a loss of consciousness, this is a condition that is out of the normal range of human momentum. With jumping, although we all try to do it, we are again caught, because we can’t stay up there very long. So it becomes virtuoso. You know, when someone jumps high and stays long enough for it to register, it becomes a virtuoso feat.

Merce Cunningham performs in his 'Antic Meet,' 1958. (Photograph: Richard Rutledge / Merce Cunningham Trust)

In a rather Buddhist-like aside — and his other half, as we know, was a wholehearted practitioner of Zen — Cunningham adds:

Falling is one of the ways of moving.

[...]

The human body moves in limited ways, very few actually. There are certain physical things it can’t do that another animal might be able to do. But within the body’s limitations, I wanted to be able to accept all the possibilities.

In reflecting on his work as a teacher, Cunningham champions the idea that we find ourselves by getting productively lost:

My hope is that in working the way I do, I can place the dancer (and this is involved in my student work too), in a situation where he is dependent upon himself. He has to be what he is. He has as few guides or rules as need be given. He finds his way. It’s concerned with his discovery. I think a good teacher keeps out of the way. That’s why, in the classwork, although there are certain exercises which are repeated every day, they are not exact repetitions. They are varied slightly and radically. Each time the dancer has to look again. The resourcefulness and resiliency of a person are brought into play. Not just of a body, but of a whole person.

Later in the interview, Cunningham recounts his own upbringing and one can’t help but trace the origin of this philosophy to his own formative years — to the idea that, like a good teacher, a good parent “gets out of the way” and that sometimes, even when active encouragement isn’t present, the mere absence of discouragement is enough to let genius take its course:

My family was never against my wanting to be in the theater. My father was a lawyer, and my mother enjoyed traveling. But they had no particular awareness of the arts. They didn’t stop me from tap-dancing when I was an adolescent. My father said, “If you want to do it, fine. All you have to do is work at it.” There was no personal objection. It is curious perhaps, since my two brothers followed him, one being a lawyer, the other, a judge.

But perhaps his most poignant point goes to the heart of creativity — the notion that we are the combinatorial product of everything we ever read, saw, heard, and otherwise experienced, which William Faulkner elegantly articulated and which accounts for the perilous psychology of “cryptomnesia.” Beyond the influence of Cage and “his ideas about the possibilities of sound and time,” which Cunningham readily acknowledges, he speaks to the impossibility of tracing, or even registering, the myriad external ideas that leave an impression on us and shape our own:

Influences are difficult to pinpoint since there are probably many of them. There are many things in one’s life that serve to influence one’s ideas and one’s actions to them.

The Creative Experience is an excellent read its entirety. Sample it further with composer Aaron Copland on emotion vs. intelligence and the trap of public opinion, then revisit this soul-stretching take on John Cage and the inner life of artists.

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26 SEPTEMBER, 2014

The Psychology of Cryptomnesia: How We Unconsciously Plagiarize Existing Ideas

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The cognitive machinery of inadvertent copying and why it matters more than ever.

“Any experience the writer has ever suffered,” William Faulkner told a university audience in 1958, “is going to influence what he does, and that is not only what he’s read, but the music he’s heard, the pictures he’s seen.” This notion — that “our” ideas are the combinatorial product of all kinds of existing ideas we’ve absorbed in the course of being alive and awake to the world — is something many creators have articulated, perhaps none more succinctly than Paula Scher. This fusion of existing bits into new combinations is a largely unconscious process, and for all its miraculous machinery, one serious downside is that it often obliterates the traces of the original sources we unconsciously fold into our “new” ideas. Helen Keller experienced the repercussions of this phenomenon when she was accused of plagiarism, Henry Miller questioned it when he wrote “And your way, is it really your way?” and Coleridge often tripped over the fine line between unconscious borrowing and deliberate theft.

In 1989, decades before legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks explored why the mind is susceptible to this, psychologists Alan Brown and Dana Murphy coined a term for this phenomenon: cryptomnesia.

In the altogether illuminating 1994 volume The Psychology of Writing (public library) — which also gave us the conditions of the perfect daily routine and ideal creative environment — cognitive psychologist Ronald T. Kellogg defines cryptomnesia as “the belief that a thought is novel when in fact it is a memory” and examines how it arises.

Illustration by John Vernon Lord from 'Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.' Click image for more.

Noting that writers frequently draw upon existing sources in a conscious way — “including verbatim quotations, expansions or summarizations, presentations of alternative points of view that differ from those of the writer, and mimicking the stylistic voice of another” — Kellogg turns to the unconscious mechanisms that drive cryptomnesia:

Much of what a writer knows, particularly discourse and sociocultural knowledge, exists only in tacit form. For example, sentence patterns as well as cultural beliefs are shared by members of the same discourse community and are drawn upon freely by all, without conscious awareness. The same sort of unconscious copying may also occur with specific sentences, facts, and arguments — forms of domain-specific knowledge. When it does, however, the author is subject to the charge of plagiarism… [Cryptomnesia] can lead to inadvertent plagiarism if a writer fails to acknowledge unwittingly an earlier source due to the failure to recognize his or her own thoughts and words as unoriginal.

In other cases, Kellogg notes, “the writer borrows unknowingly from his or her own published work” — the kind of inadvertent autoplagiarism to which today’s overly prolific writers are especially susceptible as they scramble to churn out large volumes of work with great regularity under the tyrannical industrialism of modern publishing, online and off. Indeed, the notion of cryptomnesia, in all of its permutations, seems even more uncomfortable two decades later: The expansion of the web, particularly of the social web, has resulted in far greater connectivity and faster flow of ideas between originator and recipient, followed by ever-speedier absorption of those ideas into the common pool — or what Vannevar Bush so poetically called “the common record” in 1945 — in which all of us are increasingly immersed. Under these conditions, cryptomnesia invariably becomes our collective creative pathology.

Illustration from 'Neurocomic,' a graphic novel about how the brain works. Click image for more.

Kellogg illustrates the cognitive mechanisms of this deeply human phenomenon with empirical evidence:

In a seminal laboratory analogue of cryptomnesia, Brown and Murphy (1989) had groups of four students take turns generating examples of categories (generate). Then each student in the group tried to recall the examples that he or she generated (recall old), under instructions to not name items generated by others. Finally, they generated additional examples (recall new), again with instructions to duplicate neither their own nor others’ earlier responses. On the recall old test, 75% of the participants produced at least one plagiarized item and, on the recall-new test, 70% did so. Self-plagiarized items … were rare in the laboratory task; nearly all items were lifted from other students.

The pattern of results in the three experiments reported by Brown and Murphy indicated that plagiarism occurred more frequently in written tasks than in oral tasks. Having heard material, one is more likely to plagiarize it when writing than when speaking. Whether the reverse pattern occurs after having read material remains to be seen. But based on their results alone, writers may be especially susceptible to borrowing unknowingly ideas they have gained through lectures, discussions, and other forms of aural input… Ideas that are expressed frequently — that are “in the air” — are especially open to borrowing.

As the web increasingly becomes “the air,” one can’t help but wonder — and worry — about how the growing threat of a cryptomnesia epidemic will impact the health of creative culture.

But then again, perhaps this is the fate of creativity and has always been a part of its essential nature — as Pete Seeger put it long before the social web existed and a year before Brown and Murphy’s study, “All of us, we’re links in a chain. And if we do our job right, there will be many, many links to come.”

The Psychology of Writing is, sadly, long out of print but well worth the hunt and is also available on Kindle. Complement it with the relationship between memory and creativity.

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