One’s expression of creativity, intuition, spontaneity, or improvisation are routine functions of consciousness that we are unaware of  unless we express them in unusual abundance or find them unusually difficult to express.  The relation of creativity to consciousness begs us to consider levels of consciousness. While consciousness may begin with primal reflexes and climax in the creative transcendent experience of creativity, its components are less like Russian nested dolls than like connected processes and resources.

CONSCIOUSNESS implies control, but of course there are many levels of consciousness, some of which do not necessarily engage AWARENESS:

 Read about Consciousness


spon·ta·ne·ous  adjective; Etymology: Late Latin spontaneus, from Latin sponte of one’s free will, voluntarily; 1656

1 : proceeding from natural feeling or native tendency without external constraint  2 : arising from a momentary impulse 3 : controlled and directed internally : SELF-ACTING <spontaneous movement characteristic of living things> 4 : produced without being planted or without human labor : INDIGENOUS 5 : developing without apparent external influence, force, cause, or treatment 6 : not apparently contrived or manipulated : NATURAL

— spon·ta·ne·ous·ly adverb  _ spon·ta·ne·ous·ness noun

synonyms SPONTANEOUS, IMPULSIVE, INSTINCTIVE, AUTOMATIC, MECHANICAL mean acting or activated without deliberation. SPONTANEOUS implies lack of prompting and connotes naturalness <a spontaneous burst of applause>. IMPULSIVE implies acting under stress of emotion or spirit of the moment <impulsive acts of violence>. INSTINCTIVE stresses spontaneous action involving neither judgment nor will <blinking is an instinctive reaction>. AUTOMATIC implies action engaging neither the mind nor the emotions and connotes a predictable response <his denial was automatic>. MECHANICAL stresses the lifeless, often perfunctory character of the response <a mechanical teaching method>.




SPONTANEITY in ART . . . is often regarded as a hallmark of authenticity, of transparency . . . the “true” reflection of the artist’s interior world (whatever the artist’s intent, since it may well be self-deception).  In general, spontaneous behavior occurs without the time-consuming intrusions of the frontal cortex’s calculations, whether to corroborate or deceive.[READ about the sense of time in FLOW and improvisation]


Works of art are most effective as an act of communication to the extent that they truthfully represent of an artist’s motivation, affect, or cognition.   Even as an act of self-exploration or definition, communicating between levels of consciousness within the artist, its validity is essential if the artist wishes to avoid self-deception [more on art to communicate with one’s self]; although there are contexts in which deception and self-deception are adaptive [more on adaptive lies].   In any event, much of our behavior is structured by the possession and pursuit of confidence in the validity of our beliefs. Art involves much exploration at the boundaries of experience and understanding and therefore our confidence in its truthfulness, in its validity, is arguably a necessary quality:  “Good art bears true witness” wrote Ezra Pound (1913);   “The writer’s first job is not to have opinions but to tell the truth. . . .” wrote Susan Sontag. [quotes] –from “truth in art”   DREAMS, in the wake of Freud, were seen as authentic, although they “deteriorated” quickly into more coherent and socially acceptable narratives.  The SURREALISTS sought to harness this power in their art, penetrating to the deepest core of consciousness and drawing inspiration from that imagery–imagery that is sometimes seen as betrayed by the impulse to verbalize it.


 “Others have told me you can feel it in your brush, and I do now. A family of mergansers swims close by – the young are almost ready to fly south. Perhaps you have felt it too – it has something to do with purity.”

(Robert Genn)



Spontaneity is one of the clearest expressions creativity –from conversation to the action painting of abstract expressionism– it is also a hallmark of authenticity in expression, presumably because there is no time for to engage the planning processes of the frontal cortex (“the organ of civilization” it was called by the great neurologist, Luria, because it censored or moderated primal impulses from more ancient parts of the brain).  This creates a mischievous dichotomy that separates our reservoirs of instinctual and non-conscious information from “civilizing” impulses of the more recently evolved “human” parts of the brain.   (see “The Beast in the Brain”)


Words from other cultural traditions are often invoked for their embodiment of alternative ways of thinking about a phenomenon that places emphasis on dimensions that English cannot easily accommodate.   Look at comments on the Spanish word, espontaneo. (and how spontaneous exclamations such as Olé celebrate transcendent behavior) –and how creative individuals often experience their gift (BELOW: including THE EXTRAORDINARY EXPERIENCES OF CREATIVE ARTISTS)



CREATIVITY, particularly when deeply informed by SPONTANEOUS ideas was once  (and still often) attributed to a something outside one’s self, being channeled. (look at notes on SPONTANEITY and comments by Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Love, Pray in 2007) in a 2009 TED talk on creativity (included in notes on the Spanish word, espontaneo, noted above) that “Before the modern humanist era, creative genius was not attributed to individual people, but to inspiration from the spirit world: daemons in ancient Greece, muses, genies…”).


 Easy to imagine if one suddenly spotted, amidst the welter of possible stimuli and signs, a redintegrative focus: an idea that pulls together other ideas, forgotten or unaware.   Vin the right cultural milieu this might be a deity—A TRANSCENDENT CREATOR … which  alone can make something from nothing:   Creativity was attributed to INSPIRATION (taking the Spirit in one’s self), and creative people felt they were the channels chosen to express a tiny fragment of the creative force in the universe.  This is exiting: these creators were ENTHUSED (from Ancient Greek ἔνθεος ‎(éntheos, possessed by a god). Even today enthused creators seem “possessed” by some outside force they do not understand. (external locus of control – environmental circumstances or an intervening transcendent force, a god)


“The conductor took several curtain calls that snowy afternoon, February 12, 1924, along with the slender young pianist: Paul Whiteman and George Gershwin, elegant in spats and starched shirts, were bringing jazz to New York’s respectable Aeolian Hall. The concert was repeated twice in the next few months (once in the even more rarefied precincts of Carnegie Hall), and the showstopper, Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” was recorded in June—as it has been dozens of times, of course, since then. Still, that performance was unique. Whiteman had put the concert together quickly, to beat out competition—“symphonic jazz” was a movement whose time had come—and Gershwin composed his contribution in about three weeks. There hadn’t been time to finish: an arranger in the band had orchestrated the score, but on the scheduled day a page for piano solo was still entirely blank, and the composer, at the keyboard, simply improvised. The written direction for the orchestra’s entrance in the big bluesy theme read “Wait for nod.”  

— from “Jazzbo: Why we still listen to Gershwin.” by Claudia Roth Pierpont, New Yorker 1/10/2005:74-80.



Picasso and Einstein may have lamented the loss of our ability to see the world as children do (devoid of prejudice and stultifying categories) but that only works AFTER the skills in perception, integration, or expression of information have been mastered.  (“learn the lines THEN you can forget them” said Francis Ford Coppola to Dennis Hopper on the set of “Apocalypse Now”)  [what you need to know about RULES]


Monday, August 24, 1999 Evening: I was watching “Hearts of Darkness,”  with lots of footage by Eleanor Coppola.  It’s about Francis Ford Coppola’s direction of Apocalypse Now.    As an artist, Coppola’s willingness to take great personal risks turned those around him into artists.   At one point, Dennis Hopper, seemingly looped, cannot seem to remember his lines and yet somehow improvises brilliantly. –But FFC had a part in this, he really gave Hopper a hard time . . .

Hopper: The director you know says you don’t know your lines . . . and then . . .

Coppola: Well if you know your lines then you can forget ‘em

Hopper: Oh, I see –well that’s what I’m trying to do . . .forget those lines. . .

Coppola: But it’s no fair to forget ‘em if you never knew ‘em

Reminded me of a great piano teacher’s observation to impatient students:

“To study music we must learn the rules. To create music, we must forget them.”  –Nadia Boulanger (teacher of many distinguished performers and composers –Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson . . .)


Recalls Pasteur:

There are no accidents.

“Fortune,” he said,

“favors the prepared mind.”


“In one of the odes of ‘Boleros,’ Art Tatum, the great blind jazz pianist, speaks of his improvisation:


            So I lay two notes in the bar ahead,

         diminish a major,

         tunnel through the dark

         of the brightest minor,

         and come out on the right side of the song.

         I pick the composer’s pocket,

         and lay the hidden jewels out there.” 


[“Transfigurations: Collected Poems” by Jay Wright La State UP, NYTBR 1/28/01]



Actors, dancers, and musicians generally are referred to as artists, but many do not originate the work they perform; rather, they interpret the work of originating artists. Past models of the creative process were based on originating artists. The purpose of this study was to explore the creative process of interpretive artists, specifically actors. To further characterize the creative process of actors, this study additionally investigated (a) the social influences that undermined or enhanced an actor’s creativity, (b) the tension that occurs between an actor’s personal and character identities, and (c) the need for spontaneity in the creative process of actors. Semistructured interviews were conducted with 3 actors. Content analysis revealed three stages of the creative process for actors: a general preparation period, rehearsal, and performance. This model was compared with a previous model of the creative process based on originating artists. Social influences seen as enhancing creativity were clear direction, trust, freedom, respect, challenge, collaboration, and unity with the audience. Undermining social influences included reward, poor direction, evaluation, distrust, peers who stopped listening, and feeling interchangeable. The tension between an actor’s personal and character identities was characterized by catharsis and difficulty in delineating boundaries. The need for spontaneity was seen as crucial in the actor’s creative process.  It is suggested that the actor’s creative process is more improvisational, characterized by process and product co-occurring, real-time social influences, tension between personal and performing identities, and the need for spontaneity.”

[Abstract of J. Nemiro’s 1997 article, “Interpretive artists: A qualitative exploration of the

creative process of actors” in the Creativity Research Journal 10: (2-3) 229-239]




A state of mind.  “Aesthetic experience is similar to the phenomenon referred to by Czikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow or optimal mental processing (Csíkszentmihályi 19751990). Flow is defined as an effortless mental energy flow caused by the awareness of congruence between incoming information and our goals. During this state of mind people are intensively immersed in what they are doing, with strong involvement in the process of the activity. Similarly to aesthetic experience, in this mental state attention is highly concentrated on a particular object or activity, which induces a distortion of the sense of time and a loss of self-consciousness (Csíkszentmihályi 1975; Csíkszentmihályi and Rathunde 1993).  (from Marković, Slobodan (2012) Components of aesthetic experience: aesthetic fascination, aesthetic appraisal, and aesthetic emotion i-Perception. 2012; 3(1): 1–17.  Published online 2012 Jan 12. doi:  10.1068/i0450aap  PMCID: PMC3485814   complete article at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3485814/  )

CHI.  (Qi)  “… a graceful, unifying flow in harmony with the contours of nature …  Qi defined Chinese culture traditionally views calligraphy and painting as points on a continuum; that is, there is an effort to dissolve the boundary between linear narratives and the holistic expressions of works of art.”  (complete essay at https://neilgreenberg.com/qi/)

(When mPFC activation is turned up, it encourages the internal generation of ideas. And when lateral PFC brain areas are simultaneously turned down, it allows novel thoughts and behaviors to emerge uninhibited, leading to divergent thinking and unfiltered creativity)


Could you be a Renaissance Courtier?

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his essay on rap and poetry (“Sudden Def,” New Yorker 19 June 1995) explained “not only does spontaneity require practice but it can take time to arrive at immediacy; and when you do, it’s not something to dismiss.”  Craig Saper, in a letter to the editor of New Yorker on Malcolm Gladwell’s Aug 2 essay, “The Physical Genius” and one of its implications, that physical genius spontaneously expressed nevertheless takes vast preparation, pointed out that “This was precisely the formula for being a Renaissance courtier; on had to mix ‘spezzatura,’ the ability to speak as if on the spur of the moment and with a sense of timing and humor, with ‘mediocrità,’ practice and knowledge” (Letter, Aug 23 & 30, 1999:8).



Primitive spontaneity 

There is an idea that “…Primitive Art emerges  directly and spontaneously from psychological drives.  Just as children cry  when they are hungry and coo when they are content, Primitive artists are  imagined to express their feelings free from the intrusive overlay of learned  behavior and conscious constraints that mold the work of the Civilized  artists. . . . Western enthusiasts of Primitive Art have always argued that  its authors are in particularly close touch with the ‘fundamental  basic, and  essential drives of life’ –drives that Civilized Man shares but ‘buries’  under a layer of learned behavior.  The view that Primitive Art as a kind of  creative expression that flows unchecked from the artist’s unconscious is  responsible for comparisons between Primitive Art and drawings of children,  and its racist foundation is rather transparent.”  (from Sally PricePrimitive Art in Civilized Places (Chi pbk) cited in “NWP”  NYTBR   6/30/91:35))







































“Let the force be with you?”  Trusting your intuition:


  • Recalling a name once you stop trying (but we are reluctant to do this because we feel we have less control, less understanding of the process:  An outcome attained by well understood and easily articulated steps is often more trusted than one in which the steps are less obvious (and less amenable to social corroboration)


  • The Baron-Cohen test: 36 eyes, each with a distinctive expression accompanied by four alternative descriptive adjectives.  In his book, Mind Wide Open (2004), Steven Johnson observed that his spontaneous “hunches” were generally correct and that the more he reflects on the meaning of the expression the less confident he is.  (According to Cambridge University psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, the individual talent for mindreading is partially hardwired into our skulls. Baron-Cohen has devised a simple test — called “The Reading The Mind In The Eyes Test” — that measures an individual’s mindreading ability. The test requires subjects to discern subtle emotional states from a series of photographs of eyes . . . . Some people fly through the test with ease, correctly identifying emotions without a second thought. Others flounder, constantly second-guessing themselves. And one group consistently fails the test: people suffering from autism.” (from “The Autism Quotient,” by Steven Johnson, 2/22/2004 in The Boston Globe)








































A CLINICAL INSIGHT? Supplementary motor area aphasia: a case report  by M.C. Pai 1999 [in Clinical Neurology and Neurosurgery, 101(1): 29-32]

Abstract:  A 72-year-old right-handed woman developed aphasia after a left supplementary motor area (SMA) infarct. She had a right hemiparesis, more paretic on the leg, a tendency to look to her left, and loss of spontaneity. Neuropsychological deficits were mainly in the initiation of language production. She did not speak spontaneously, but responded and articulated well to questions. She named objects correctly when presented, and could repeat words, phrases, and sentences well. She had a difficulty in reading aloud, writing spontaneously and writing to dictation, but preserved the ability to copy written material. This is another rare case of SMA aphasia


  “When it works it’s like . . . freedom!  Suddenly these things are coming out of you.  You’re in control, but you’re not.  The characters are coming through you.  Even when I’m going “Whoa!”  It’s that Zen lock.  It’s channeling with Call Waiting.”  — Robin Williams

READ accounts of


(excerpts below):


Edward Albee:  Writing has got to be an act of discovery. . . . I write to find out what I’m thinking about.

Frank Conroy: Most often I come to an understanding of what I am writing about as I write it (like the lady who doesn’t know what she thinks until she says it).

Joan Dideon:  I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.

E. M. Forster: How do I know what I think until I see what I say?

Robert Frost: For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew. . . . I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering.

Ernst Fuchs: My hand created, led in trance, obscure things … Not seldom, I get into trance while painting, my state of consciousness fades, giving way to a feeling of being afloat … doing things I do not know much about consciously.

Robert Hayden: As you continue writing and rewriting, you begin to see possibilities you hadn’t seen before. Writing a poem is always a process of discovery.

Keats: had often “not been aware of the beauty of some thought or expression until after I had composed and written it down”

Denise Levertov: Writing poetry is a process of discovery. . . you can smell the poem before you see it. . . . Like some animal.

C. Day Lewis: First, I do not sit down at my desk to put into verse something that is already clear in my mind. If it were clear in my mind, I should have no incentive or need to write about it. . . . we do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand.

Henry Miller: Writing, like life itself, is a voyage of discovery.

Wright Morris: The language leads, and we continue to follow where it leads. [see “follow the brush”  archived]

Charles Simic: You never know when you begin a poem what it has in store for you.

Mark Strand: What I want to do in a poem is discover what it is that I have to say.

William Thackeray:  “There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up a pen to write.”  


Adapted from Donald M. Murray (1978) “Internal Revision: A Process of Discovery,” in Research on Composing. (Charles R. Cooper and Lee Odell, editors). National Council of Teachers of English, Urbana, Illinois.  pp 85-103. (additions in cyan)  Murray defines writing as “the process of using language to discover meaning in experience and to communicate it” (p86).   more 



But we are also wary of intuition:

“We are conscious of an animal in us which awakens in proportion as our higher nature slumbers”  (Henry David Thoreau in Walden (JL Shanley, ed, Princeton 1971; “Higher Laws,” p 219, cited by Sagan and Druyan, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors).  This recalls: “When the gentler part of the soul slumbers and the control of Reason is withdrawn . . . the Wild Beast in us . . . becomes rampant.”   (Plato, The Republic, IX 571)  and see: “The Beast at Play: The Neuroethology of Creativity” (Greenberg 2004)*


Watch Musician and neuroscientist Charles Limb discuss how the brain works during musical improvisation

  • Greenberg, N.  2004.  The Beast at Play: The Neuroethology of Creativity. in: The Child’s Right to Play: A Global Approach. Rhonda L. Clements & Leah Fiorentino, editors. Westport CT, Praeger.   pp. 309-327.