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Creative Thinking:  
To Dream of Genie?

The least strained and most natural ways of the soul are the most beautiful; the best occupations are the least forced. Lord, what a favor wisdom does for those whose desires she adjusts to their power!  There is no more useful knowledge.   (Montaigne.)  


Although his words were written when the concept of intelligence as we think of it today had barely begun to jell, Montaigneís excerpt catches the essence of creative thinking:  The ability to apply oneís thinking with aptitude and versatility to a problem.  The key to the preceding statement, however, is the words "aptitude and versatility," for they connote success, or at least productive failure.  



Below is a brief history of the way we think about thinking.  

Beginnings--We had to start somewhere, and as usual the Greeks came through

Fitting the box
--Rationalists get a bad rap, but explanation was their aim

Outstripping the box
--Can the sum exceed the total of its parts?  

Choosing sides--Where do your sympathies lie?  

Can we agree on what it is?
--Depends on the definition of "is," doesn't it?  

Reconciliation?  Depends ... 







Methodical study of uncommon ability had no place in the natural sciences until Francis Galton attempted to explain it by heredity.  That neat explanation stood for years, as most psychologists were too occupied with the mechanical model of the brain to be concerned with creative mental processes.  Helmholtz did propose his four stages to creativity, which failed to excite much interest.  

Of course, the first successful tests of intelligence (such as Binetís and Termanís) early in the 20th century were not concerned with creative thought.  Anyway, isolated studies had noted a disturbing lack of correlation between inventive thinking and measurable intelligence.  Separation was easier.  Thus early psychologists adapted the notion that intelligence was a separate component of the personality, unsullied by other characteristics.

In the 1920s, Graham Wallas adopted an anecdotal approach to understanding creative events.   Wallas studied accounts by recognized geniuses and, as had Helmholtz, proposed four steps to the creative episode.  Ready?  

bulletThe problem is formulated 
during the preparation phase
bulletGermination, often unconscious, 
occurs in the incubation phase
bulletInsight is achieved in the illumination 
bulletFinally, in the verification phase, 
the solution is tested.  

These generalizations, logical as they appear, have been difficult to demonstrate experimentally.  Already the creative process was proving hard for science to pin down.  Some began to emphasize prediction over explanation.  It was found that creative development is not uniform throughout life.   Both favorable environmental conditions and, interestingly, practice were found to increase creativity.  Changes in performance are measurable and somewhat durable.

Thoughts about thinking took another turn with Wolfgang KŰhlerís work with chimpanzees.   Presented with problems, successful chimps grasped solutions to their quandaries upon perceiving relations among the components.  These solutions could take many forms.  Max Wertheimer fleshed out the concept in his work Productive Thinking.  He described two methods of learning:   reproductive and productive.  The first is mechanical, learning by rote; the second is learning in such a way that lessons may generalize.  Through experiment with common folk and interviews with Albert Einstein, Wertheimer too noted processes common to thought that can be made explicit.  Features of thought are not piecemeal but rather related to whole characteristics, and function with reference to them.  Structural truth arises from a grasp of the entirety.  At that point, the thinking process could be cast in the Gestalt mold.  


Taking sides--

This brings us to the dichotomy in the perception of creativity.  People tend either to disassemble or to idolize it.  That is, people believe either that creativity is trainable or that it is conferred by something, if only by serendipity.  Consider a comparison.  Edgar Allen Poe describes the writing of "The Raven" as a logical, deductive process, calculated in its entirety for best effect and constantly under his control, while Samuel Taylor Coleridge describes his poem "Kubla Khan:  Or, a Vision in a Dream" as the product of inspiration so pervasive that several hours were lost to him forever.  Although neither description tells the whole story, these and other individual accounts are nothing if not diverse.  


Preparation (work)

Incubation (germination)

Insight (illumination; !Aha!)

Verification (showing your friends)


The concepts of incubation and illumination are not new.  There has been a progression of thought about those intervening stages since the Greeks, who considered them external and supernatural.  When Pythagoras proved his theorem, he sacrificed 100 oxen to the god he deemed responsible.  Later, we internalized the process.  Now, the concepts of incubation and illumination are disputed, and todayís theories tend either to incorporate or ignore them.  


How should the creative process be defined?  It has been said that there is no such thing as creative thinking, only thinking; but thinking occurs so seldom that when it does it is labeled "creative."   Nevertheless, like pornography we all know what it is.  Sternberg asked subjects both in and out of the field of psychology to list characteristics of an ideally intelligent or creative person.  He found that people seem to have systematic, although normally implicit, theories about intelligence and creativity with which they evaluate themselves and others.  And there is consensus about what constitutes those behaviors. Thus, even if we canít verbalize it, we seem to share an inherent understanding of creative behavior, at least within one's own culture.  


Creative thinking can be considered a type of problem solving.  The problem-solving tasks to which we apply ourselves run the gamut from the well-defined, such as puzzle problems, to the ill-defined, such as how to support oneself during graduate school.  Adaptivity has remained a more or less consistent component of creativity theory.  Humor has its part in successful creative thinking.  In fact, Koestler sees it as a major ingredient.  A spirit of play can lend detachment and diminish fear of failing.  There is a potpourri of other slants:  It has come to mean a person, a process, a product, or a combination of those things.  

Assuming that creative thinking indeed exists, let us borrow a bare-bones definition from Parnes and Brunelle:  

Creative behavior is the production and use of ideas that are both new and valuable to the creator.  

Of course, this definition begs the disputed contribution of insight.  


Aside:  When I was a student in the biomedical illustration program, a professor from another department, in casual conversation one day, said, "Of course anybody can be taught to draw, correct?"  Correct he is.  But the unspoken belief I believe he conveyed is that of Edward Watson's "give me any child, and given time and resources I will make him or her into whatever we decide to create."  (To some extent, this appears to be the belief promulgated by recent graduates of various university Education departments.)  This fails to take into consideration the head-start provided by inborn talent, or proclivity, or ability, or whatever you prefer to call it, that is unmistakable when observed.  I am at a loss to understand why the notion of inborn abilities receives such a bad rap these days.  Hey, if you can't do one thing, odds are that somewhere lies a field or an ability in which you did indeed receive the head-start.  I could go on about this, but will let it lie.  



Continued:  The attempt to apply order to what some condemn as bedlam.