creativity manifests in degrees from trivial to transformative…as do dispositions from typical to eccentric to pathological

(See A&O notes on “outsider art”)

(what is a “transformative experience”? see here)




      “A definition,” Samuel Butler (1912) once said, “is the enclosing a wilderness of ideas within a wall of words”, but as Joseph Campbell (1968) cautioned, “The best things can’t be told . . .” 


To bring order to the chaotic wilderness of ideas about creativity is in itself a major creative undertaking.  The formidable Council of Scholars of The Library of Congress assembled when Daniel Boorstin was librarian sought to “rescue” the term “creativity,” “for use in the world of ideas and culture” (Hutson, 1981).  While they agreed that “innovation” was at its core, they also argued that for innovation to be creative, it must be “important.”  The twenty-eight Scholars sought to reclaim “creativity”  from trivial applications, such as “preschoolers’ finger painting.”  I am also seeking a central essence for creativity and seeking to reclaim this behavioral pattern as a suitable subject for ethology, that unique multidisciplinary field in which biology and comparative psychology collaborate in seeking to understand the causes and consequences of behavior.    Creativity is a trait of living organisms and must be made amenable to the development of predictive, testable hypotheses about its underlying biological causation and control if it is to be understood. (from Greenberg 2004)




“Cognitive and creative discoveries are made in the same way as much of biological life is: by acts of generative recombination. Disparate elements are brought together to see if they might make a viable new whole. To explore how this happens, we must begin with cognition’s own beginnings, in the construction and discernment of patterns. From the infant’s “buzzing and blooming confusion,” in William James’s phrase, we assemble a comprehensible world by perceiving first what stays, what recurs. Only after such patterns are in place can we begin to recognize departures from the template, and to see which combinations are new and might newly inform. Creative epiphany is much the same: a knowledge won against the patterns of predictable thought, feeling, or phrase. Surprise, then, is epiphany’s first flavor. It is the emotion by which we register shifted knowledge, in a poem, in a life.” (Hirshfield, Jane. Ten Windows (p. 185). 


“Genius doesn’t owe explanations of itself. But perhaps the nearest [Bob] Dylan came to explaining both his gift and its durability was in 2015, accepting an award from the charity MusiCares. Reading from a sheaf of papers in his hands, Dylan exploded the myth of sui-generis brilliance. 

“These songs didn’t come out of thin air,” he said. “I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth. . .. It all came out of traditional music: traditional folk music, traditional rock and roll, and traditional big-band swing orchestra music. . .. If you sang ‘John Henry’ as many times as me— ‘John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain’t nothin’ but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I’ll die with that hammer in my hand.’ If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written ‘How many roads must a man walk down?’ too.

“All these songs are connected,” he went on. “I just opened up a different door in a different kind of way. . .. I thought I was just extending the line.” 

(from “Restless Farewell” by David Remnick in NYr


In this spirit, watch filmmaker Kirby Ferguson’s TED talk.  (THEN, Watch Part 4 of an earlier series that ends discussing “creativity and artificial intelligence to enlarge the conversation:  https://youtu.be/rswxcDyotXA



“Creativity involves both the process and product of unprecedented or novel perception, thoughts, or actions by which an organism or group of organisms copes with present or potential changes in the composition and structure of its environment. In particular, it manifests an enhanced intensity of perception, cognition, and expression that occurs either spontaneously or is elicited by specific stimuli to relate and integrate variables not ordinarily associated with each other. (adapted from Greenberg 1998)





























This definition effectively incorporates and enlarges Poincare’s (1913) famous definition: “To create consists of making new combinations of associative elements which are useful.” (p. 286) Creative perceptions, thoughts, or actions within individuals will associate familiar or novel stimuli in varying combinations to help that individual meet its needs, which may be of varying urgency (Maslow, 1954). Intrinsic reward systems operate to maintain this valuable activity. When these perceptions, thoughts, or actions are communicated by setting an example (modeling) or by pedagogy (teaching) to serve social needs, the creative individual is identified and acknowledged.  (from Greenberg 2004)



we are all artists—the invention and discovery of new ways to connect our  experiences within and between us is an integral part of being human—amongst our implicit mandates is to KNOW and to be KNOWN—we want to be more fully our unique selves, but paradoxically, that happens best in the company of others—the processes of INDIVIDUATION  and SOCIALIZATION. In our pursuit of knowledge we emphasize different paths depending on our disposition and experiences… and often we emphasize the senses and their privileged access to our subconscious as a pathway.  Often the impulses that surge through us are so powerful that what began as recreations that exercise the senses comes to dominate us—we call people at such moments, “artists” … and their skills can be applied to anything from how best to solve an everyday problem to telling us what is in their hearts.”      




CREATIVITY is an adaptive trait and may be related to SOCIALITY (see A&O notes on Sociality)  INNOVATION in other species:


The sociality of Barbary sheep:Christa Lesté-Lasserre reported on animals-that-are-social-outliers-seem-to-be-better-at-solving-problems

Sheep, camels, goats, gazelles and other hoofed animals are better at figuring out solutions to puzzles when they are less integrated into social groups. … Such marginalisation might force individuals to find food, shelter and other needs on their own without group help, thereby fuelling innovation, says Federica Amici at the University of Leipzig in Germany” (Caicoya et al 2023): She and her colleagues found that “Innovation across 13 ungulate species: problem solvers are less integrated in the social group and less neophobic.”  Her group wrote:  

“Innovation is the ability to solve new problems or find novel solutions to familiar problems, and it is known to provide animals with crucial fitness benefits. Although this ability has been extensively studied in some taxa, the factors that predict innovation within and across species are still largely unclear. In this study, we used a novel foraging task to test 111 individuals belonging to 13 ungulate species—a still understudied taxon. To solve the task, individuals had to open transparent and opaque cups with food rewards, by removing their cover. We assessed whether individual factors (neophobia, social integration, sex, age, rank) and socio-ecological factors (dietary breadth, fission–fusion dynamics, domestication, group size) predicted participation and performance in the task. Using a phylogenetic approach, we showed that success was higher for less neophobic and socially less integrated individuals. Moreover, less neophobic individuals, individuals of domesticated species and having higher fission–fusion dynamics were more likely to participate in the task. These results are in line with recent literature suggesting a central role of sociality and personality traits to successfully deal with novel challenges, and confirm ungulates as a promising taxon to test evolutionary theories with a comparative approach.” (Caicoya et al 2023)







When the PERCEPT meets the PERSON: bottom up and top down phenomena  (the incoming information meets the previously stored)


Scientists and artists describe, then they think about it [get the PERCEPT clear, then develop the CONCEPT]— and here is where creativity emerges, what often seems like a dream. [where self-generated percepts are woven into a narrative] “For Baudelaire, “A good picture, faithful and worthy of the dreams that gave it birth, must be created like a world.”  Redon, in his own review of a later Salon, explains how this is to be done: “The Old Masters have proved that the artist, once he has established his own idiom, once he has taken from nature the necessary means of expression, is free, legitimately free, to borrow his subjects from history, from the poets, from his own imagination, from the thousand sources of his fantasy. That makes the superior artist: face to face with nature he is a painter, but in his studio he is a poet and thinker.”  (From The Powers of Invention”  By Charles Simic, NYTBR 53(4) · March 9, 2006.  Essay review of Beyond the Visible: The Art of Odilon Redon by Jodi Hauptman, with essays by Marina van Zuylen and Starr Figura. Museum of Modern Art, 284 pp.)




WE ARE ALL CREATIVE.  “The action of the child inventing a new game with his playmates; Einstein formulating a theory of relativity; the housewife devising a new sauce for the meat; a young author writing his first novel; all of these are, in terms of our definition, creative, and there is no attempt to set them in some order of more or less…” (Carl Rogers, On Becoming A Person, 1961)

in other words,

 “‘creative spark’ is not the exclusive property of just a few rare individuals down the centuries, but quite to the contrary, it is an intrinsic ingredient of the everyday mental activity of everyone, even the most run-of-the-mill people. . . . creativity is part of the very fabric of all human thought, rather than some esoteric, rare, exceptional, and fluky by-product of the ability to think. Which every so often surfaces in places spread far and wide.”  (Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas p. 527)




CREATIVITY is arguably the human trait that has enabled our success as individuals and our successful proliferation as a species.  The more we describe and understand the DEEP ethology of creativity, the better we can remove impediments to its expression.  There are several descriptions, some of which have  been turned into cognitive technologies [more repair link]


(What is the difference between cleverness and creativity?  Darwin once observed that cleverness and creativity are not necessarily allied, that “many men who are clever–much cleverer than the discoverers–never originate anything. . . .”  (quoted in Jared Diamond’s review of Frank Sulloway’s Born to Rebel (in NYRB Nov 14 1996:5))

The perception of converging strands of information bearing on a new more richly connected perception seems intrinsically pleasurable (is this joy of  INFOVORY satisfied?)

Why should this experience be especially emotional when it occurs suddenly?

any clues to be found in AHA! – Eureka, Insight, and Epiphany