Saturday, 29 May 2010

697 - Creative Minds And Information Flow

[Original picture cc licensed flickr photo by Franz Patzig:]

Lots of interesting ideas in this news article from the BBC, especially if you lift the focus from the 'artists are a bit bonkers' tenor of the headline ("Creative Minds 'Mimic Schizophrenia'").

First, the established ideas that higher creativity carries a higher risk of mental illness, especially psychosis, and that a family history of mental illness correlates with an increased likelihood of greater creativity. This is nicely summarised, relating it to the Big 5 personality theory, in Geoffrey Miller's book Spent, as a probable result of high values in one's Openness trait. Daniel Nettles also links this trait to an openness to unusual experiences and consequent beliefs.

Second, the possibility that creativity is related to the brain's ability to manage information flow. Research by Associate Professor Frederic Ullen suggests the fewer dopamine receptors there are in the brain's thalamus region, the more information is allowed unfiltered into the brain. In the words of the article, "He believes it is this barrage of uncensored information that ignites the creative spark. This would explain how highly creative people manage to see unusual connections in problem-solving situations that other people miss."

I like the idea that creativity might be related directly to information management, as it makes sense of my professional interest in Librarianship, and my family's, perhaps, in editing and publishing books. As gatekeeper professions, these can suffer from appearing deeply unsexy. Instead, it might be that the very tools you need to manage information flow, are those that can allow you to create the greatest art.

Third, the disconcerting, fractured perspective associated with the rush of information. Again, from the article, here's UK Psychologist Mark Millard:
"Creativity is uncomfortable. It is their dissatisfaction with the present that drives [creative people] on to make changes. Creative people, like those with psychotic illnesses, tend to see the world differently to most. It's like looking at a shattered mirror. They see the world in a fractured way. There is no sense of conventional limitations and you can see this in their work. Take Salvador Dali, for example. He certainly saw the world differently and behaved in a way that some people perceived as very odd."
I've tended to see the discomfort I feel much of the day as a result of a higher than average neurotic personality. On bad days, when I'm off kilter, the dualistic thinking of religious fundamentalism becomes appealing. It's an easy escape from the onslaught, like diving into a bus shelter in a storm, which may keep you dry but gets you no closer to your destination. The flipside of such thinking is a tendency to muddle the discomfort of a walk in the rain with the guilt associated with the rejection of fundamentalist certainties: sinning, as such thinking would have it.

So this research offers an alternative and empowering explanation for an experience I've always thought of as debilitating. Instead it's like the experience I had recently of fighting against a jet of water in a spa pool, which I could tolerate for a while, then had to escape, but returned to again and again, because it was fun. If I can reframe church as a place of harbour, a backwater, then I can think of my moves in, and out of it, back into the maelstrom, as a series of deliberate acts, none of which have primarily a moral dimension. Instead they become the equivalent of eating to fill an empty stomach, or ceasing when replete.

Fourth and finally, the definition of creativity as the 'suspension of disbelief'. Once again, the neural make-up that makes it easier to entertain the counter-intuitive accounts of the various religions - that a man might rise from the dead, that the majority-view of modern science might be wrong, or (always more likely) merely a partial account of reality - is given a sound physiological basis, and one which, painted as a sign of mental weakness too often, is at least as likely to lead to creative benefits to oneself and one's society.

The key, in this interpretation, to avoiding overly sticky fundamenatlist thinking, is to learn to manage one's movement in and out of information flows, and to identify and learn to use tools for getting as much as one can out of information-quiet and information-heavy states.

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