Documented processes of creativity are primarily based in the ability to solve problems, but what is known about abstract creativity? How can we measure it? Perhaps the current focus is because we view problem-solving based creativity to be more useful than abstract creativity in business and industry. Another reason may be the tools used to measure creativity; questions on a test designed to measure creativity must include a finite number of solutions to assign objective ratings. This does not address creative activity where infinite equally acceptable solutions exist, without the constraints of practicality. Is it even possible to measure abstract creativity objectively?
Take the balloon method for example. Generating multiple solutions before selecting a single suitable solution to a problem requires both divergent and convergent thinking – but is convergent thinking in fact ‘creative’? Perhaps the answer is in the word itself – are we creating anything through convergence?
Working with my students through divergent and convergent thinking activities, there is consensus that the convergent ‘brain-storming’ stage is creative, whereas the divergent stage feels more logical in practice. Another example is the creativity of young children that until a certain age is highly divergent. Although encouragement is beneficial, children don’t need to be taught to generate outrageous ideas, but they do need to be taught what is practical, what is realistic, and how convergence can produce such results (Charles & Runco, 2001). I believe it is around this age that we are either nurtured to express divergent creativity that carries into later life, or we are not and consider ourselves non-creative.
Even the theoretical models (such as Wallas’ four stage model and Sawyer’s eight-stage model) seem geared toward sudden insight and Eureka moments for problem solving (Jennings, 2017), rather than steady creative output or abstract creative pursuits.
I propose that abstract creativity relies not on incubation leading to Eureka moments, but on the cultivation of certain mental states, particularly ‘flow’, first documented by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990). Figure 1 shows how flow is attained through activities that challenge us and require a high level of skill. Csikszentmihalyi suggests we are happiest when we are in a mental flow state; fully immersed, energised and focused on a single endeavor, to the point of dislocation from space and time. Csikszentmihalyi was fascinated by how artists became so immersed in their work they would neglect their need for food and sleep. For me, this is all too familiar.
I’m currently refraining from writing music, as I’m aware of the destructive effects of my complete mental preoccupation once I start creating. Sleep, food, friends and family – these are the neglects of my creative flow! Once in that state however, these necessities are considered for only a second before being rationalised and dismissed, for example, ‘I’ll catch up on sleep tomorrow night’ or ‘a handful of nuts will do for dinner’, before launching straight back to the flow state.
This is because the flow state is highly satisfying. It allows one to transcend potentially mundane, everyday concerns, for a prolonged state of depersonalisation; the meditative bliss of disassociation with reality. In a flow state, we are free from the quest for survival that we all must re-engage with eventually, or perish I suppose!
I miss flow dearly, however at the moment there is simply too much to do for such a luxurious vacation.
Charles, R. E., & Runco, M. A. (2001). Developmental Trends in the Evaluative and Divergent Thinking of Children. Creativity Research Journal, 13(3-4), 417– doi:10.1207/s15326934crj1334_19
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. New York, USA: Basic Books.
Jennings, C. (2017). On Making The World: Class Notes, Introduction To Creative Thinking.
Moderna Museet. (2013). Hilma Af Klint: A Pioneer of Abstraction. Retrieved from http://www.modernamuseet.se/stockholm/en/exhibitions/hilma-af-klint-2/
Sawyer, R.K. (2011). Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Wallas, G. (1926). The art of thought. London, UK: Jonathan Cape.
Voss, J. (2013). The first abstract artist? (And it’s not Kandisnky). Retrieved from http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/first-abstract-artist-and-itsnot-kandinsky