POST 22 – 25-11-2014

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Creativity has three complex components.

  • Preparation of the mind and its contents.
  • The inspiration – something new arises – a change occurs – a surprise – a variant.
  • Crafting – externalising the inspiration for others to know it.

On the invitation of friends, my wife Meyrick, and I recently attended a series of excellent lectures on “Creativity” at the Art Gallery of NSW. The lecturer was Dr Christopher Hartney of the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. He provided us with an entertaining, informative, and very clearly enunciated presentation. He pursued examples of creative work through some recent experiences of his own, then back to the cave paintings and forward through the ages to modern art forms and his own summation of the conditions required for creativity to emerge with some added comments about the need to adequately package the creative idea.

In the last lecture he provided a nine part model of the things we should consider when trying to understand the creative process. (The model is copied at the end of this POST).

The model indicates the preconditions (1-5) for facilitating a creative idea or concept to occur. The last three sections (7-9) are the desirable steps in converting the insight into a material form through artifice such as words or artefacts. There seems no doubt that the first five steps, if not actually essential to the emergence of a new idea must surely encourage its arrival. However the centrepiece of creativity, the new concept or idea, remains elusive in his treatment of the topic. Somewhere before items 6 (The Eureka moment) lies the matter I will examine and expand.

I take the Eureka moment to embrace the realisation that there is a surprise here or perhaps more simply there is a recognisably changed pattern . This change is something new. This is new information, new knowledge.

This surprise occurs when something that does not “fit” the established patterns stored in our memory.

The concept of “fit” applies to the molecular interaction when an antigen meets its antibody and the two molecules fit into one another. If they do not fit there is no immune response. Similarly the molecules involved in the transmission of nerve impulses across the synapse have to “fit” one another. There is a sort of recognition of the patterns of the molecules. Something analogous seems to occur with concepts, ideas, imaginings. When an idea is dropped into the memory it meets other ideas and may or may not fit in with it. Then we have the surprise element that may lead to the new idea coming into the unconscious and perhaps into consciousness.


Our lecturer’s model of creativity, with its focus on preparation of the mind for the Eureka moment is analogous to the parable of the sower:

Hearken; Behold, there went out a sower to sow: And it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the birds of the air came and devoured it up. And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. And some fell among thorns, the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And other fell on good ground, did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, some an hundred. He said unto them, He that has ears to hear, let him hear.

Mark 4:3-9

Christopher Hartney’s model also follows the need for good preparations with the need to nurture and harvest the crop.

All the preparation in the world will not produce a crop without a viable seed being present. Selection of the seed is what I am concerned about. The seed has to be selected for the purpose, stored over the bad season and possibly used  in a trial run. This analogy may give the scholars a guide to studying the process of producing the “brainchild” and preserving it for subsequent use. Perhaps there is another analogy in the need for some midwifery in delivering the “brainchild” from the unconscious to consciousness.


I am most interested in the mechanism associated with how the “new” idea or concept starts up in the mind. I am impatient to find a way to be more active in bringing the new idea into existence. Must I just follow our lecturer’s first group of points and wait for the intuition or inspiration to pop up?

The list gives us a good idea of how to improve the chances of a new idea turning up in the jumble of our memories and the flow of whatever it is that is going on in there – the stream of consciousness or the  wandering day map in the Leunig cartoon at the top of this article. In Leunig’s terms it is the “interesting idea” bit that needs to be captured. We have a limited ability to capture the fleeting concepts but it may be similar to how we are able to improve our muscular performance by exercise, nutrition, medication and mental discipline. Similarly we are able to improve our speaking voice by various means but it may take some difficulty to achieve a desired result. So also we should be able to develop our mental skills but we need to know more about what is going on in there.

In a recent article Andrew Purcell quotes 74 year-old artist Chuck Close as saying “Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and get to work”. He completes the article with another relevant quote: “If you’re stuck my answer has always been ‘alter a variable , or alter a bunch of variables’, and then you can’t be stuck”. Despite this lack of reverence for inspiration there is an earlier reference in the article to Close having taken “inspiration” from another artist when he started to work from photographs.

There are semantic problems but I think that inspiration is the thing that the creative act seeks to access.


Andrew Ford, discussing the  sources of inspiration in a recent article in Inside Story speaks of  the blinding flash of insight, but he goes on to point out that most of the effort is in the production of an outcome.

Initial ideas for pieces of music can come from anywhere. Occasionally, it really does feel like a blinding flash. But once an idea for a piece has presented itself, hard work is the most efficient way of getting it written. Whoever it was who spoke of perspiration being 99 per cent of the creative process was correct. When that isn’t enough, a walk can do the trick. And the walk doesn’t have to take in mountain vistas – often just getting out of the house and going round the block can help you refocus. Sometimes it’s wise to call it quits for the day, because otherwise you’ll spend the following morning tearing up what you’ve done.

One of the artist’s most frequent sources of inspiration, let it never be forgotten, is the wherewithal to buy food.

There is a need to differentiate between the concept and the craft needed to translate that concept or idea into something tangible – an art work or a set of words or an invention. Of course the craft must have its own set of underpinning concepts so the Eureka moment may be needed there also. If it is valid to distinguish between the new concept (the inspiration) and the work involved in materialising it, then we must ask whether it is possible to do more than wait for inspiration to pop up.


I have been thinking about how one can introduce a significant new element into the process. My thoughts follow on from the work of Mark Turner (2014). He suggests that the thing that distinguishes us most from animals is the ability to innovate. He provides the concept of “advanced blending” as an idea-generating ability unique to humans. He discusses the relevance of his idea in relation to the formation of individual ideas, and pursues it through to the formation of cultural phenomena.

We seem to have difficulty bringing the process of new idea formation into the zone of conscious activity, but it is not only the result of an unconscious mixing or blending of concepts? We can actually engage our conscious mind in the process and we should be able to examine it and improve our ability by training ourselves and by using it more effectively.

There is more than an analogy or metaphor involved if we apply the algorithm behind the Darwinian evolutionary process to the evolution of new ideas or concepts.


Not every case of gradual change is the result of an evolutionary process but there are a few important areas that are true cases of evolution –  used in the sense in which it is applied in biological evolution. These are the process of new idea formation in the mind (creativity), the process by which ideas are expressed between people (language), and also the process by which some ideas spread in society or the culture (memes).

In 1859 in Charles Darwin’s book “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life” he described his concept by saying that,  if there is “descent [replication] with modification [variation]” and “a severe struggle for life” [competition], better-equipped descendants will prosper at the expense of their competitors.


As defined by Daniel Dennett (2010) all evolutionary processes share these three characteristics which he has modified as:


  • Replication (copying or repeating)


  1. Variation (error, mutation or change)
  2. Differential fitness (competition or contest or survival)

            (The italicised words are my additions.)


Dennett also asks whether any other evolutionary substrates have arisen on this planet. He responds to his own question: “The best candidates are the brainchildren, planned or unplanned, of one species: Homo sapiens”.


Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in his 1976 book, “The Selfish Gene”, and the term has caught on. Dennett provided the definition of a meme as a “general term for a culturally based replicator”.



A message I got from consideration of Hartney’s lecture was that the creative moment relates to the introduction of the variant into the cycle of events.


The whole process may operate in one or more of the following ways . It may be:


  • Natural – In the absence of human intervention.
  • Accidental – As a result of inadvertent human intervention.
  • Intended – As a result of active human intervention.


The process, analogous to that described above in the parable of the sower, will go on despite what humans may do either unintentionally or intentionally. Without human intervention it will work out as an interaction between the seed and the environment. With inadvertent human intervention there will be various changes to the process which may interact with the natural process to give different outcomes. With intended human intervention there may also be interactions with the environment with varying outcomes. As we learn the details of the process we can control things to some extend to produce desirable, even predictable, outcomes.

Intended human intervention could be directed towards the replication element (by increasing or decreasing the rate of replication), the variant element (by increasing or decreasing the rate of occurrence of variation) or the survival element (by increasing or decreasing the selection pressure).


Perhaps the critical step is to find the variant and hang on to it. Can we find the variant and introduce it into the creative process?


Inspiration is the elusive bit and I seek to find a way into it that is part of our conscious effort not just something that is only accessible through popping up by chance. Maybe this is a fruitless search but I am not yet convinced that it is impossible.


This mental process of manipulation of our mind to create new concepts should be more accessible to us than it currently appears. We  can consciously affect the inputs and the internal process by what I like to call “manipulating” the ideas or concepts in there. This ability may be limited but each of us can picture a lump of plasticine of a grey colour and in our mind’s eye we can reshape it into a frog of a bright yellow colour with a voice like a rock star – and then change it to a bright green tortoise sitting on a partially submerged log.

This process of manipulation of ideas enables us to actively select images and so place a new image or concept in our mind. Words, whether spoken or written, are crafted so as to convey concepts to others. If we have the skills we may be able to make the new ideas real, by some art or craft, so that others can share our new idea and make it their own. We have done this for millennia starting with cave walls, clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, paper, canvas and other media.

Hofstader and Sander (2013) maintain that memory is composed of patterns based on analogy which they say is “the core of cognition” and is “the fuel and fire of thinking”. They claim that “each concept in our mind owes its existence to a long succession of analogies made unconsciously over the years, initially giving birth to the concept and continuing to enrich it over the course of our lifetime”.

James Gleick (2011) deals with the whole information issue in relation to communication and IT. He make the point that data precedes information, which precedes meaning ,which precedes knowledge. Meaning can only be detected by a mind where knowledge may reside. He maintains that knowledge, seen as a pattern of information, must adhere in matter and the brain is a mechanism for perceiving that knowledge and storing it in the memory.

In a similar vein John Campbell (2014) says “information and knowledge are prerequisite for physical existence, not only for the physical existence of those entities described by fundamental physics but also for the emergent entities described by chemistry biology and culture”. He supports the idea that there is a common mechanism or process operating on changes in all these spheres. He goes on later to say that Bayesian probability is the basis for describing “the unique process by which information is processed and through which knowledge may emerge”.

I developed some thoughts on the origin of memes in my recent BLOG POST . Gilchrist (2014). The process follows the nervous impulse (neme) through its complexity (nemeplex or pattern) to the precursor of the meme (preme or inspiration) to the cultural element (meme) and its complexity (memeplex). In this picture the important and elusive factor is the preme or brainchild. The steps in the process are :


Our ability to access information by the random access or direct access mechanisms of the computer and the internet has improved our ability to retain access to memories provided we make the minimal effort. This reminds me of my biochemistry lecturer, who advised us that there are two important ways of  accessing knowledge – first remember it and second remember where to find it.

Genetically modified food is analogous to verbally modified concepts. We can insert a modified gene into an animal or plant but can we insert a modified idea into a concept? Blending of ideas into concepts or blending of disparate concepts into one another occurs all the time but are we deliberate enough in doing this?

There are lots of ideas about improving creativity – consider all the self-help books, cognitive behaviour therapy, meditation, or see Google for “improving creativity skills”.

But what is the mechanism, the process that goes on in there? In the classic researcher’s response I say “More research is required”.


Campbell, John. (2014). Universal Darwinism: the path of knowledge. Amazon.

Darwin, C. (1859) On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

Dawkins, R. (1976) The Selfish Gene. Oxford.

Dennett, D. (2010) The New Replicators. Encyclopedia of Evolution. Ed. Mark Pagel. © 2002, 2005 by Oxford University Press, Inc.  Encyclopedia of Evolution: (e-reference edition). Oxford University Press. Tufts University. 10 December 2010

Ford, Anthony (2014)

Gilchrist, Paul (2014) . 2014

Gleick, James (2011) The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. Amazon.

Hartney, Christopher. (2014)

Hofstader, Douglas, and Sander, Emmanuel. (2013) Surfaces and Essences – Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking. Amazon

Purcell, Andrew (2014). Portraits of the Artist. Spectrum 22-November 2014.

Turner, Mark (2014) The Origin of Ideas: Blending, Creativity, and the Human Spark. Amazon




Have a look at this advertisement by the BBC with David Attenborough quoting the  Louis Armstrong song “What a Wonderful World” with some fantastic shots from some of his nature documentaries on the screen.

For a bit of balance I suggest you also read the following:

All things bright and beautifulCecil F. Alexander (1848) Hymns for Lit­tle Child­ren.All things bright and beautiful,all creatures great and small,

all things wise and wonderful:

the Lord God made them all.


Each little flower that opens,

each little bird that sings,

God made their glowing colors,

and made their tiny wings.


The purple-headed mountains,

the river running by,

the sunset and the morning

that brightens up the sky.


The cold wind in the winter,

the pleasant summer sun,

the ripe fruits in the garden:

God made them every one.


God gave us eyes to see them,

and lips that we might tell

how great is God Almighty,

who has made all things well.


All Things Dull and Ugly Eric Idle (Monty Python Show)
All things dull and ugly,All creatures short and squat,All things rude and nasty,The Lord God made the lot.

Each little snake that poisons,

Each little wasp that stings,

He made their brutish venom.

He made their horrid wings.

All things sick and cancerous,

All evil great and small,

All things foul and dangerous,

The Lord God made them all.

Each nasty little hornet,

Each beastly little squid–

Who made the spikey urchin?

Who made the sharks? He did!

All things scabbed and ulcerous,

All pox both great and small,

Putrid, foul and gangrenous,

The Lord God made them all. Amen.





Slightly edited version of Hartney’s list.

  1. It helps if the creator comes from a creative background. This has some possible resonances:

a. That through nurture those around the developing creative agent pass on their techniques and delights in risk to their young.

b. That some form of “sub-clinical” mood swings, schizophrenia, or other individual problematic be present.

c. That some form of synaesthesia can help creativity.

d. That there is little link between intelligence and creativity.

2. A socially creative background aids the creator.

a. The creator finds his/her society in crisis.

b. Or identifies and finds excitement in playing with the “Great Tension” in any society between conservation and innovation.

c. That the creator’s education happens to be particularly playful, and at this level, influential.

d. That the creator does much to teach him or herself (autodidactism is a major trope in creative souls).

e. That the creator feels that they have a “disability” regarding their acceptance into society.

f. Or that reality fails to work for the creator so that they are compelled to hone their own connection with the world.

g.  Or they are compelled to leave society altogether.

h. Or the creator feels fractured in and of themselves and seeks the creative process to be whole again as a mending process.

3. Pre-immersion fascination with the world.

a. Can be a Peaker and rides their emotional highs (thus creativity and mood swings are powerfully linked).

b. Creatives tend to be polymaths – fascinated with a range of areas in the world .

4. Immersion into a particular field of knowledge.

a. This includes a deep awareness of the field through play in it and a spatial and temporal memory of it.

5. Incubation – standing apart from the problem – usually by immersion of the self in a completely different problem.

a. Drug use can come into this period and we should note the influence here of Ayahuasca and DMT.

b. Extreme journeys can also allow the thoughts to displace themselves from the problem at hand – while in fact masking the process of problem solving.

c. Sleep – Including going into or out of sleep or dreaming.

6. The Eureka or Aha! Moment.

a. A moment of blissful realisation.

b. It is sudden.

c. It offers a clear insight into the problem.

d. It conveys a sense of exaltation.

e. It seems as though the results of the insight are true.

f. Although it may be the case that when the creator tries to clearly enunciate the results of the Eureka moment as he/she sees it – language and reason fail them.

7. The Comprehension process

8. The Elaboration process

9. The Implementation process


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