I was listening to a Guardian Science Weekly podcast the other day and on it was a neuroscientist named Jonah Lehrer talking about creativity. (The episode is actually from way back but I am currently backlogged on Guardian Science Weeklys) Anyway to be honest a lot of the time when I hear or read about The Scientific Explanation for Creativity I usually start to get deeply sceptical or to start to wonder what the point of it is – functionally it doesn’t matter if you can say that creativity is the result of a chemical process or gene combination thinger rather than something ineffable, not really. Some people are still creative to greater and lesser degrees and the label on it doesn’t change what it does, to me anyway.
However Lehrer’s study was really interesting because he wasn’t talking about why creativity exists but rather looking at how creative processes work. The part that really stuck out at me was something he calls a ‘Feeling of Knowing’, which is when you have the sense that you will be able to solve whatever problem you’re currently working on. It’s not that you *know* the answer yet, just that you feel that you *can* get there. He compared it to driving to a destination, and you don’t know how to get there yet, but you do know that if you turn left you’ll be headed in the right direction. That sense of being headed in the right direction is the Feeling of Knowing.
Anyway Lehrer’s work suggest that when you’re at work on a creative process (writing, painting, whatever) and you have that Feeling of Knowing, this is the time to keep working as long as you possibly can, because your brain is working well. Drink some coffee and keep at it. On the other hand, if you *don’t* have that feeling, the more useful thing to do is take a break, engage in some other activity that has nothing to do with the task you’ve been struggling with, and essentially ‘waste’ some time until you’re ready to try again.
Some of this, I suspect, a lot of successful artists and creative people would have known intuitively anyway, but it is interesting to see that scientific study apparently confirms that this intuition is correct. Unfortunately Lehrer’s work doesn’t have anything to say about how to get the Feeling of Knowing, aside from ‘work very hard’, which again I think a lot of people would have guessed. So no shortcuts, just work hard, keep at it when you know you are making progress and take breaks when you know you’re not.
The one thing I disagreed with Lehrer about was that he said, essentially, that the idea of inspiration being granted by Muses with unknowable motives was something we’ve moved past in our understanding of creative processes. I actually think it’s still quite a useful metaphor, really – even based on what he had to say, whether you get that Feeling of Knowing or not may not be entirely under your conscious control, and having it show up (or not) at potentially inconvenient intervals certainly gives the whole process a kind of capricious feeling. Maybe it’s just nicer to imagine that the capriciousness comes from an external entity rather than our own brain.
Sometimes I really think we do people in the past a disservice by taking everything they wrote quite so literally. It’s entirely possible, maybe even likely, that they didn’t *really* think there were literal magic ladies who would either give an artist inspiration, or not. It’s just an evocative, and relatively accurate (I think) way of describing how it feels to suddenly have your Feeling of Knowing, and how frustrating it is when you don’t.
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