Creativity and the chaos rainbow

William Todd Schultz on themes from his new book 'The Mind of the Artist: Personality and the Drive to Create'.

You find it hard to control your thoughts. At work you get distracted by daydreams. You see patterns and connections where there are none. You often feel happy and sad at the same time. You confuse fantasies with real memories. You have urges to do something shocking, or to break and smash things. Accidents, you believe, can be caused by mysterious forces. There are times you get a feeling you may possess magical powers. You like doing the opposite of what people suggest even though you know they are right. As a child, you lived in a make-believe world much of the time, and you spent at least half your waking day imagining. If you want to, you can finish or change a dream after it’s over. You blend visual images together instead of seeing them separately and sequentially. You don’t filter information coming at you from outside, even stuff that’s irrelevant to whatever you happen to be focusing on.

These sound like items from a diagnostic manual. They sound, in fact, like prodromal symptoms, the beginning stages of schizophrenia. They aren’t. They are the artist mind. 

Each of these statements is taken from questionnaires measuring aspects of creativity and creative accomplishment. But they don’t just correlate with creativity. They also correlate with openness, a mysterious and heterogeneous trait of personality, which predicts everything from IQ to sensation-seeking. The question is: What makes this style of mind emerge? And why is it so conducive to new and different ways of shaping experience, of making connections no one has thought of or seen before?

Traits and states

In the psychology of old, traits and states were seen as separate processes, two different phenomena. Traits were static (always there), states dynamic (ever-changing). Traits were durable, impervious to context; states episodic, they came and went. Anyone could go into any state at any time, whereas traits were more person-specific, with borders and limits.

The reality is more interesting. Traits incline you toward states. They make states more or less probable. States, then, aren’t disconnected entities. They come for a reason, and a reason is personality. Who you are is why you think and feel and perceive as you do.

Let’s take one particular mental state: chaos. What does it mean to have a chaotic mind, a chaotic internal life? It means a lot of the things referred to in the opening paragraph. A capacity for irrationality. A willingness to forsake logic. A reluctance to follow rules. A commitment to fantasy, a belief that fantasy is part of reality. A comfort with messes, with jumbled thoughts and feelings, with uncertainty, with disorder and disorganisation. A desire to suspend belief sometimes, and to let the mind wander. A talent for accessing child-like experience, for stepping outside of ‘adult’ concerns.

We tend to think of chaos as just that – chaotic. It’s bad, destabilising, something to be feared. On occasion, these reactions – an instinct to recoil – might seem valid. Useless chaos is unhelpful. With artists, however, it’s a different story. Chaos is key. It delivers the raw material. It’s the portal. It is useful.

The philosopher Nietzsche, for instance, believed in creative frenzy. To him, chaos birthed dancing stars. Francis Bacon arrived at the same conclusion. ‘Deeply ordered chaos’ was how he described his art. Saul Bellow called art ‘the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos’. To Paul Cezanne, being creative meant living in ‘a rainbow of chaos’. Henry Miller called chaos ‘the score on which reality is written’. Then there’s collagist Romare Bearden, who phrased the question most directly: ‘The artist confronts chaos. The whole thing of art is, “How do you organize chaos?”’

Notice how, in most of these quotes, what’s being described are two seemingly opposed qualities. Chaos then stillness. Chaos then reality. Chaos then organisation. A chaos rainbow. The question really is as Bearden laid it down: How is chaos shaped, how is disorder ordered?

A penetrating magic

You might think artists alone knew the answer. You might think you could ask them and they’d tell you. It’s not that easy. They usually have no idea. They know what they are doing, but they don’t know how they do it. It’s as much a mystery to them as it is to us. Bob Dylan believed his early songs came out of a ‘penetrating magic’. He couldn’t say what this magic was or how it came to possess him. Looking back, he doubted he could write such songs again. The secret was lost to him. Other times meanings come long after the fact. Capote reread his first novel Other Voices, Other Rooms, and he was embarrassed by how transparently autobiographical it was. He’d missed that fact before, and he found his ignorance ‘unpardonable’. Grammy-winning songwriter Aimee Mann told me something similar. Her songs got clearer to her years down the line. She’d have a Eureka moment: ‘Wow! So that’s what this song was about.’

Let’s start with a simple example. We know that one of the six facets of openness is ‘fantasy’. You have a vivid imagination. You love to daydream. You get lost in thought. You indulge in ‘wild flights’ of reverie. There’s a measure of fantasy proneness called the Creative Experiences Questionnaire (CEQ). It includes items such as, ‘When I think of something cold, I actually get cold’; ‘I am never bored because I start fantasizing when things get boring’; and ‘Sometimes I act as if I am somebody else, and I completely identify myself with that role’. Fantasy-prone people don’t stay on task, their mind veers off, they make more errors. The need to fantasise, in other words, gets in the way. It’s a sort of interruption. It’s chaos in the system.

As expected, the trait of openness also correlates with fantasy proneness. The two go together. There’s more. Fantasy proneness correlates with creativity. One study, for instance, found those high in the fantasy proneness state to be better storytellers.

What emerges, then, is a triangular relationship. Openness produces chaotically creative states of mind. What these states toss up into consciousness is art’s raw materials. There’s an activation, followed by a synthesis. Mental contents get arranged. Apple founder Steve Jobs had a simple take on it: he said creativity was just ‘connecting things’: soaking up what the mind offers you, and forming unexpected linkages. The process seemed so dull, so ordinary, it made him feel guilty when anyone asked about it. 

Latent inhibition

There’s a theory about minds wandering and how this invites creativity, and it revolves around something called cognitive disinhibition, which itself revolves around – no surprise – openness. Here’s how it works.

Humans automatically filter information, and we do so unconsciously. It’s an evolved adaptive mechanism, a screening tool. We don’t know we do it. We just do. It happens beneath the threshold of awareness. The process goes by the fancy-sounding name of ‘latent inhibition’ (LI). We inhibit what we take in. We focus in order to get things done. We avoid distraction.

Except, some people are less inclined to this than others. Some don’t focus. Some don’t avoid distraction. Stuff that may be irrelevant to the task at hand – perceptions, mental images, memories, thoughts, or partially processed material – injects itself into awareness. They go off on tangents. They get sidetracked. They feel, in some cases, overstimulated.

Reduced LI seems to have one of two main outcomes. For some, it’s destabilising, overwhelming. There’s too much going on in the mind, and the mind unravels. You lose your bearings. You can’t think straight. But for people like Jobs, reduced LI is a gift, a positive. The less you filter the more you notice. Noticing more widens the field of perception.

At root, it’s all about relevance judgments. If your relevance threshold is strict, info gets excluded. You see and think what you need to. You find out nothing new. If your relevance threshold is loose, info gets included. New patterns suggest themselves, as do new metaphors, new connections. LI is limiting, reduced LI is stimulating. LI is closed, reduced LI is open. Art emerges when we let irrelevance in or make it relevant: the tools of Pollock, the nonsense lyrics in some Lennon songs, photographer Francesca Woodman scooping up irrelevant powder in the street to make photographs with. 

The research backs this. First, compared to a noncreative high IQ control group, high IQ creative achievers have significantly lower LI scores. They filter less, screen out less. Second, eminent creative achievers – those who’d sold a novel or published poetry, had a gallery showing, recorded their own music – are seven times more likely to have low rather than high LI scores.

So, LI doesn’t just predict creativity. It predicts creative success. For many, it’s the very definition of creativity: making connections others have missed. And since you can’t connect what never gets in, art is enhanced potential for connectivity. 

Reality distortion and lucid dreaming

One last detail. Openness, the trait itself, could be called ‘fullness’. It fills you up. There is more contained in the mind. And since reduced LI is also about being full, its correlation with openness makes sense. The basis for the correlation revolves around fantasy and creativity, but also ‘ideas’, another O facet. The meaning of ‘ideas’ isn’t instantly clear. What it captures, based on items in Big Five surveys, is (1) liking complex problems, (2) enjoying thinking about things, (3) easily handling lots of information, (4) reading challenging material. Tendencies such as these move you outside the envelope, away from simplicity and conventional wisdom.

This takes us back to Jobs. For him, facts were pliable. He’d bend them to fit the purpose at hand. He had what his coworkers took to calling a ‘reality distortion field’. At first, it seemed like lying. He’d assert something – say, a fact about world history – with no regard for the truth of the assertion. To others and to himself, he willfully defied reality. He’d reverse himself, too. If particular lines of argument failed to persuade, he’d advocate others. He’d throw people off by adopting their position as his own. He’d say an idea was crazy, then a week later call it great. Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson sums it up this way: ‘It was as if Jobs’ brain circuits were missing a device that would modulate the extreme spikes of impulsive opinions that popped into his mind.’ Exactly. The device Jobs was missing, or that he purposefully overrode, was the filter. He set things up so that more opinions and more ‘facts’ popped into his mind. He allowed for irrelevancies and connected them.

There’s a naturally occurring process everyone experiences every day, no matter what. It confirms both the universality and the uniqueness of creativity. It also matches the process we’ve been working through. I’m talking about dreams.

Dreaming begins with an activation in older brain centers. You are flooded with perceptions, thoughts, memories, experiences, and feelings. It’s disorganised, uninhibited, irrational. There’s no deliberate selection, no logic. It’s free and loose. Nothing gets excluded. Nothing is irrelevant. Raw unprocessed material floods the mind.

Everyone dreams, but no one dreams the same. Dreams are your voice, your raw material. The physiology is the same, but the results of the physiology differ.

What happens next is the kneading. Random activations trigger higher brain centers, and higher brain centers synthesise; they form the chaos. You end up with a story, a creative product that selects and connects. It’s an activation/synthesis process.

Dreams are automatic; art-making is guided. So, what creativity resembles most is something called ‘lucid’ dreaming. This strange phenomenon was first observed by Stephen Laberge at Stanford. What some people do, a minority of us, is achieve consciousness while continuing to dream. Most of the time they wake up, say to themselves, ‘I am dreaming’,then witness the content that pours forth, as if they’d wandered into a mind-movie. When this happens, it’s called dream witnessing. But other people wake up and control dream contents. It’s rarer but it does occur. Usually, the control isn’t total. It’s more a matter of moving materials around, directing plot, introducing characters, imposing outcomes. Dreams always include synthesis, even the nonlucid variety. In lucid dreams, the synthesis is deliberate. It’s accompanied by the same level of awareness occurring in waking life. 

Awake dreaming is a useful model for creative process, a natural equivalent. First, material erupts chaotically. It’s not controllable initially. It’s not chosen. Then, the self-aware, narrative mind works with it, tries doing something with it, sifts and focuses and rearranges. We can add to this analogy one more detail: fully 80% of the time, dreams work with negative emotion, most often fear or apprehension. This fact seems to take us away from creativity. Art isn’t fear-based. If anything, fear has to be overcome. But art can be, and frequently is, rooted in trauma. It repeats and symbolises trauma. It replies to trauma creatively. Not all artists have trauma histories, but many do, and when they do, they take the trauma on as a problem, it occupies the mind, and it feeds the art. The trauma is another activation, and like other activations, it’s synthesised. It becomes the art’s focus.

- The Mind and the Artist: Personality and the Drive to Create is coming soon, published by Oxford University Press.

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