Classic Crommunist: Being creative without a Creator

Still in blah-mode. Will have something new up at noon PST once more. Until then, please enjoy this post that originally went up in August of last year, about a non-supernatural source for artistic creativity.

A friend sent me a link to a 20-minute talk on creativity by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the novel Eat, Pray, Love. I’m not a big fan of the book (I got through about 25 eye-rolling pages before giving up and reaching for the remote), but I am a big fan of (my friend) Claire, so I gave it a chance. I was right with her up until 8:30 when she started in on “creative mystery” and an external, supernatural source for creativity, and then the rest was invocations of magic and self-indulgent privileged pap, the likes to which Jim Carrey would be a fervent subscriber.

I do not know if Claire’s intent was to murder my neurons; I doubt that she was trying to lobotomize me through the intarwebz. She did ask me to write about some of my thoughts on the creative process from the perspective of an atheist. I suppose I have some claims to qualifications in this regard, given that I do spend the non-science half of my life playing and creating music. I’d like to share some of my thoughts on this subject, but first I want to address some of the themes that came up in Ms. Gilbert’s talk, which is available below:

Is suffering necessary for creativity?

A commenter on my strangely-popular “I am not my ideas” post from a few months ago brought this up. Some of the greatest artists of all time (think Van Gogh, Beethoven, Vonnegut, the list goes on) have suffered, and from their suffering came their genius. The image of the tormented artist is so common as to have become almost completely cliché. Douglas Adams satirized this phenomenon in his Hitchhiker’s Guide series, in which time travel inadvertently robs the galaxy of one of its greatest works of art by making the artist happy. Of course, we have to remember that Douglas Adams was a creative genius, and was not particularly unhappy. Nor, by all accounts, were Bach, Shakespeare, da Vinci, John Lennon, this list goes on as well. While suffering can yield insight that can bring creativity forth (and in my experience it is much easier to write albums when you’re sad than when everything’s awesome – just ask Matthew Sweet), it is not necessary to suffer in order to bring forth great works.

Is the supernatural the source of creativity?

Ms. Gilbert spends some time talking about daemons or geniuses, supernatural embodiments of inspiration that are the conduits between the artist and the divine. As with all supernatural agents of causality, there’s no evidence for the existence of faeries (which, to her credit, Gilbert admits). Being a musician, I can testify that inspiration does seem to come from nowhere. I’m sure that other artists and musicians have a much more palpable experience of inspiration than I do (things kind of just pop into my head, rather than being overcome by a ghost that demands me to have a pencil in my hand). However, given the diversity of ways in which inspiration strikes people, and the fact that it hits some people more often than others, and that to all appearances it strikes at random, it’s safe to say that inspiration is not likely caused by a supernatural force for which there is no evidence.

Subjective experience vs. objective reality

Our brains make a fundamental error when it comes to subjective and psychosomatic experiences. Because we interpret the outside world through our senses, we confuse sensory experiences with reality. So when, after meditating for an hour, we feel connected to an external loving presence, that does not constitute evidence that that presence exists in reality. Don’t get me wrong – there is a lot of value in subjective experience. Feeling connected to the world, or to nature, or to your fellow human beings can bring you a sense of happiness and motivate you to be a better person. However, to make the leap from feeling something and then assuming that it exists requires non-subjective proof. To wit, just because artists feel an external force driving them to create doesn’t mean that there are muses or daemons or disembodied geniuses that explain it.

Gilbert would like us to return to the days of magical thinking, in which we attribute inspiration to outside ethereal forces. Reality is all well and good, she seems to say, but we’d feel a lot better if we pretended there were invisible spirits whispering in our ears. If we screw up, well it’s the fault of the spirits. When we succeed, attribution to the spirits will prevent us from getting swollen egos. Who cares if it’s all a lie if it makes us feel good? You can probably tell I’m not a big fan of self-deception, even when it’s practical. It might comfort us to lie to ourselves, but the truth is important. It enables us to deal with each other in a way that reflects the world around us, and prevents us from endangering each other through misinterpretations of reality.

So where do I think inspiration comes from?

There’s a common criticism of skeptics and scientific skepticism that we want to strip the majesty and beauty out of life. Apparently, to some people, understanding how something works makes it less beautiful. Of course, having no idea how something works makes you sound like a complete moron, but that may not be the worst thing in the world. That being said, I still reject the idea that familiarity breeds contempt. I’ve known that stars were inconceivably large nuclear reactions happening in space billions of kilometers away since I was a little kid – none of that makes a starlit night any less beautiful. I’ve known that music is caused by vibrations in air resonating tiny bones within the inner ear causing neuron activity since I was in elementary school – none of that makes me enjoy Beethoven’s 6th symphony any less. I’ve known that there are evolutionary roots for familial love since I was in university – none of that makes me love my parents any less. Understanding the processes behind the world around us can lead to deeper and more beautiful understanding of reality.

We know that the brain is incredibly complex. It adapts to novel stimuli, regulates an incredible number of processes simultaneously, all below the level of what it’s most famous for – conscious thought. It is entirely possible that the way some brains are wired permits a type of lateral thinking that pulls together disperse thought processes that come together to form music. The phenomenon known as synesthesia – wherein sensory input of one type is interpreted as another type (seeing sounds, hearing smells) – certainly supports this conjecture. Some brains might just be better-suited to creativity than others, and ‘inspiration’ may ‘strike’ these brains more often. The arrival of such a strike would be experienced in a variety of different ways. This would also explain why creativity is often (but not necessarily) associated with poor mental health – an atypical brain chemistry and structure will have broad-reaching effects.

Without intending to, Elizabeth Gilbert has paralleled my idea of separating one’s ideas from his/her sense of self worth. I have written songs I’m proud of; I’ve written some stinkers that even I don’t like myself (sadly, far more of the latter than the former). I don’t beat myself up for writing crappy songs, or having crappy performances, in the same way I don’t get a swollen head when something I’ve written makes people cheer. It feels good, but I know that it’s not about me, it’s about the song. I don’t think the song was floating around in the ether, waiting for me to pull it in – that view, if anything, is more arrogant than being glad that my brain popped it into my head. I’m not my ideas in the same way that I’m not my songs – I’m just happy to be able to use my brain to say things in a way that people will listen.

So while I think Ms. Gilbert has the right conclusions in thinking that musicians shouldn’t live and die by their success, and that a rejection of the song or book or painting is not the passage of judgment on who the artist is as a person, she spuriously tries to invoke magic and daemons to make this happen. There are better, non-magical, non-woo-woo ways of accomplishing that goal.

TL;DR – Artistic inspiration can be explained through natural processes, and does not require appeals to woo-woo to exist. The non-magical nature of inspiration doesn’t make it any less wonderful or special.

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  1. Enkidum says

    Woohoo! My day job is synaesthesia research (for realz). Although frankly I’m suspicious of the Ramachandran line that it’s the source of creativity – I think it’s a lot more mundane than all that.

    More on topic: you would likely be interested in The Creative Mind by Margaret Boden. I just looked and there’s a second edition, which I wasn’t aware of. The first one is certainly out of date in terms of the neuroscience and mathematical models, but does a good job of explaining many aspects of creativity.

    One of the really cool chapters is looking at Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. He apparently kept a log of every book he read, and someone went through them all and was able to piece together the exact inspirations for many of the most telling lines in the poem – you can actually determine how particular phrases were composites of phrases he’d read months before in three or four different books. Of course he would have been completely unaware of this, and it doesn’t diminish his achievement at all. But it’s cool to see how the raw materials of profound creativity can actually be traced.

    There’s another book, far more heavy going, in the philosophy of science, called Creating Scientific Concepts, by Nancy Nersessian. It’s quite a slog (at least for me), but she has some really cool stuff on Maxwell’s derivation of the laws of electromagnetism. She shows, using his personal correspondence and other sources, how he was conceiving of electricity in mechanistic ways that, while they were novel, were based on mechanical principles that he knew well (from actual mechanical devices in factories). Again, creativity isn’t something that springs from nowhere.

    However I think one thing that the woo-meisters actually get right about creativity is that “peeking behind the curtain” can ruin it. That is, it can ruin it for the creative person, not for the person trying to understand the creativity. Understanding how Coleridge’s creativity was inspired doesn’t make us appreciate it less – far from it. But if Coleridge had been aware of what he was doing, it could very well have hamstrung him. In essence, consciousness is dumb in ways that the unconscious is not. And I suspect that the kind of fertile recombination of existing representations that occurs in creative processes is one thing that could be annihilated by conscious awareness.

    The truth, then, is important, but there are times when we have to be unaware of it, at least temporarily.

  2. HP says

    I’m always baffled/amused/irritated when people trot out great works of art, particularly music, as evidence for some kind of divinity.

    I suppose there was a time when I was young that I felt the same way. But then I actually started to study music, and guess what? It turns out that there are actual techniques behind music. And you can learn — even master — these techniques! And they really do work. If you apply your knowledge of musical techniques to making music, your music automatically gets better. And you can always expand your knowledge and improve your technique, and thus make even better music.

    I recall someone once asking me to explain a certain chord progression, and when I tried, he interrupted me to say that he wasn’t interested in a bunch of “meaningless jargon.” As though a “minor plagal cadence with a false resolution to the mediant used as a pivot to the V/ii” (i.e., IV6-iv6-iii7-VI7) were not a Real Thing, a tool you can use.

    My time in the conservatory was a big step in becoming an atheist, because it made me realize that there is no magic, just more and better knowledge and techniques.

  3. Beauzeaux says

    A telling fact, I think, is that people only have “intuitive leaps” in subjects they already know.
    I am a writer in a technical field and I have had creative ideas about how to deal with a particular question I’m writing about. Yes, it seems to come from nowhere but that doesn’t mean it does.

    On the other hand, I have never had creative insights into music or particle physics because I don’t know anything about either subject. So I have always viewed with suspicion the idea that creativity comes from the outside. If it did, Elizabeth Gilbert could have great insights about molecular biology or nanotechnology. Let me know when she does.

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