Notes on Creativity
It is a curious fact that creativity is both extremely common and also very rare. Everyone has it to a marked degree, but it is not given to everyone to be markedly creative. It is both easy and difficult, effortless and effortful. How can this be? The areas in which it is commonplace, indeed universal, are primarily dreaming and language: everyone is capable of highly creative dreams, though without training or labor; and everyone learns a natural language, noted for its creative potential. Human beings are endowed with great powers of creation in these two areas, which they simply take for granted. To these might be added fantasy and humor: everyone can fantasize the wildest things, and everyone has the ability to see a joke no matter how novel. We don’t learn either of these things at school or by parental instruction; they come to us naturally, automatically. We are evidently born with the capacities in question. But in other areas where we use the word “creative” things are quite the opposite: as with musical creativity, or artistic, or scientific, or literary, or architectural, or mathematical, or culinary. Here few people are particularly creative, and it takes considerable effort to acquire these kinds of creativity; they are far from effortless and automatic. Nor do they spontaneously appear in the second year of life. But why not if creativity is a natural psychological kind? If the human brain allows for easy creativity in dreaming and language, why not in other areas? If there is a single mental faculty called “creativity”, shouldn’t it be more uniform in its manifestations? To answer this, we would need to know a lot more about creativity, but we are notoriously ignorant of the nature of creativity. I will make a stab at some elementary reflections.
First, we may observe that neither of the two easy forms of creativity is derivative from the other. The dreaming capacity is not a special case of the language capacity and vice versa. They evolved independently and the principles that govern them are not identical. So, we know that creativity can take very different forms. Both involve the creation of novelty, to be sure, but this may come about by different mechanisms with different sorts of output (dream content or sentences). There is likewise no reason to suppose that the hard forms of creativity derive from the easy forms by some sort of transformation or metamorphosis. Let us refer to these forms as type 1 and type 2 creativity, respectively; then we can say that type 2 creativity is not the result of type 1 creativity—not without substantial enrichment anyway. Type 1 is certainly not sufficient for type 2, even though it may be necessary (you obviously can’t have literary creativity without a more basic linguistic creativity). Perhaps the brain mechanisms that underlie dreaming and language also operate in the case of the more “sophisticated” forms of creativity, but clearly there is no identity or reduction linking the two. It may also be observed that other animals seem to be distinct also-rans when it comes to creative power, though many dream and possess symbol systems; no Mozarts or Picassos there. The other striking fact is that the type 2 cases are also not transferable: you can be creative in music, say, but not in the other areas. This is surprising, given that each area shares a good number of surface features: time of emergence, similar personality characteristics, statistical distribution in the population. One would think that a genius in one area might be a genius in another, but this seldom happens. So, these types of creativity seem strongly modularized—as much as in the type 1 cases. You might begin to wonder whether the term “creativity” is too general, too homogenizing. Perhaps there are many distinct creativity modules operating according to different principles; all they share is the property of novelty (not that this is a well-defined property either). That is, creative mental acts involve what Chomsky called “stimulus-freedom”: they are not predictable from the properties of the stimulus but seem to reflect more endogenous (and obscure) activity. But beyond that they may be quite heterogeneous.
What mental activity is not creative? The prime example is perception: here we have predictable, even mechanical, production of the percept (hence Fodor’s “encapsulation” property). The visual system does not inject creativity into the processing of the proximal stimulus, though it certainly adds to it. When you see things, your brain is not exercising its creative powers: there is no genuine stimulus-freedom. Animals perceive as we do, but we wouldn’t say they are being creative in so doing. Nor is ordinary deductive reasoning creative: it follows strict simple rules. Computation is not creation. However, we know so little about the creative act that it is difficult to be dogmatic; we are operating at the level of hunches and intuitions. We have no science of creation, as we have a science of perception—presumably because perception is not creative. Creation is a mystery, but perception is not (in the same way at any rate). Is the body ever creative, not just the mind? Even that question is hard to answer, and not only because the division of body and mind is itself difficult to articulate. Certainly, much of the creative process is unconscious, both type 1 and type 2, so not part of the conscious mind.
I will venture a hypothesis about the difference between type 1 and type 2 creativity in respect of their distribution. Type 2 creativity is not distributed equally in the population; there are considerable individual differences. But type 1 creativity is egalitarian and universal (save in abnormal cases). Why the difference of frequency? My hypothesis is that dreaming and language are largely innate and species-specific, so everyone has them; but the type 2 cases are not innate in this way and are not species traits. They are like athletic ability not like basic anatomy: they have to be worked at: they don’t come with the genes. No genetic mutation led to musical creativity as a species characteristic, but genetic mutations led to dream and language creativity. Mozart was born to dream and speak, like the rest of us, but he had to work at his music; it wasn’t just in there waiting to unfold. He might never have been a musical genius, but he was sure to become an expert dreamer and speaker—just like everybody else. Some types of creativity are pre-programmed and some are dependent on environmental circumstances. It’s not the inner workings of the faculty itself that makes the difference; it’s the origin of the faculty. We can conceive of musical creativity being a species-wide innately determined trait, like dreaming and language, and we can conceive that these latter two traits might be acquired later by hard work and conducive circumstances, varying a good deal from individual to individual: but given their actual origins, the former are type 2 and the latter type 1. All are bona fide cases of creativity, but their path into the human mind is different. Some come from nature while others require nurture.
 Creativity is a topic usually avoided by psychologists and philosophers (an exception is Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation, 1964, which I read as a psychology student around 1969). Perhaps it is time to get creative about creativity.