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Creativity relies on many mental abilities

June 22, 2009

The more I think about creativity, the more it looks like my ideas about creativity have been stereotyped and limited.

For one thing, creativity doesn’t work all by itself. No mental ability works in a bubble, though we may think of them that way to more easily make sense of them.

For example, how could someone create anything without a vast reserve of memories to draw on? That’s not to mention visualization or imagination abilities. You have to be able to choose what to create, and those choices require memories of similar things to the thing being created.

And visualization itself requires memory. How could you make a mental picture of something unless you had a reservoir of many things and how they appear?

Painters who create a new work make choices about how it looks. They pull up memories of colors and how they look when mixed, the effects of various sizes and types of brushes and the way something looks on various media. Other skills include planning, organizing and the ability to focus on one subject for a long period of time.

Translating visual, verbal, aural or tactile ideas into physical media, as all artists do, requires a whole set of mental abilities to control body movement.

The abilities to control our bodies can be finely honed with practice, but we learn them automatically when we are children–without any memory of how it happened.

Have you ever tried to feel or analyze how your hand and arm move to pick up a glass? I can’t do it. It’s an invisible process that I have no access to. Bodily control is so essential to our lives that we don’t have ways to mentally interrupt or analyze it. We “will” the movement, and presto! We move!

It’s really quite magical and invisible–yet we all make myriad intricate movements every day. It’s so integrated into our ability to function that we take it for granted.

Another example: how could someone create a product without analytical skills, like those used to determine the usefulness of the product? When Gideo Sundback designed the zipper in 1913, the inventor/engineer must have first systematically compared and evaluated other clothing fasteners, then decided that something else could work better. In fact, he improved upon a zipper-like design called a “clasp locker.”

This creative act also required memory, critical reasoning, design skills, evaluative abilities and other skills. Emotions, including frustration over the limitations of buttons and hooks, could have driven the inventor’s desire to create the zipper.

When someone does something “creative,” it’s not only creative. It could be analytical as well. A creative act may require intuition, evaluation, comparison, critical reasoning, memory, visualization, or any other mental function alone or in combination with others.

The other thing I’ve noticed about mental activity is that it’s often hard to separate one activity from another, because they work so well together. Clearly they are separate skills, but the mind or brain’s abilities work together seamlessly–so effortlessly and rapidly, in fact–that we can’t possibly analyze every process that’s going on at the time it’s happening. (Well, I have to speak for myself on this. Maybe Stephen Hawking could do it.) Retrospection is neccessary to figure out what we’ve been doing during retrospection!

These observations bring up a question that has dogged humanity since recorded history: What could have created something as complex as the human mind?

It also brings up a question that confounds researchers and has created entire branches of philosophy: How could such amazing abilities be housed in something as small as the brain?

I don’t have answers, but Emerson Pugh, an influential IBM executive, captured the essence of the problem with a humorous twist:

If the human mind was simple enough to understand, we’d be too simple to understand it.

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