Hot Thought

Psychology meets philosophy: knowledge, reality, morality, meaning

Procedural Creativity Invents New Methods

Catching the butterfly of creativity with nets of wonder.

Bob Lind wrote a song that goes: “Across my dreams with nets of wonder, 
I chase the bright elusive butterfly of love.” Creativity is also an elusive butterfly, and the nets needed to pursue it include new methods, whose generation I call “procedural creativity”.

The psychology of creativity has mostly been concerned with the production of new ideas and hypotheses, for example with how Darwin came up with the theory of evolution by natural selection. But just as important are methods are ways of doing things that specify procedures capable producing ideas that that are both new (novel, original, surprising) and valuable (important, useful, appropriate). Procedural creativity operates in many domains, including scientific discovery, technological invention, artistic imagination, and social innovation. Does the generation of new methods involve the same mental processes as the generation of new ideas?

The development of science since the sixteenth century has depended on the generation of many new methods, such as systematic experimentation, use of instruments like telescopes and microscopes, and statistical inference. There are still some philosophers who think that Galileo largely relied on abstract reasoning, but he spent a lot of time working to improve instruments such as clocks, thermometers, and telescopes. Many more specific methods have become important in particular sciences, such as the use of spectroscopy in physics, polymerase chain reaction in biology, and brain scanning in neuroscience. Computer modeling is a method that began around 1950 in physics and has proved important in may other fields such as economics and cognitive science.

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Technological invention has also required a great deal of procedural creativity. Genetic engineering, for example, is a method now widely used in agriculture. Dramatic improvements in computer hardware have depended on new methods for producing transistors. Computer software has advanced because of new techniques such as object-oriented programming. Developments in energy production have employed new methods such as hydraulic fracturing used to increase natural gas production. It shouldn’t be hard to show that advances in medicine, communications, and other areas of technology have also depended on the development of new methods.

Artistic creativity has also required the introduction of new methods that generate new kinds of products. Examples include stream-of-consciousness novels, free verse, modern dance, impressionist painting, cubism, and video installations. Many specific artistic products have been produced by these techniques, but there was also much creativity involved in the generation of the methods themselves.

The other important domain of creativity is social innovation, which involves the generation of new forms of human interaction. Democracy, for example, is not just an idea but also a set of methods such as elections, representation, and parliamentary procedures. Institutions such as public health care depend on various methods that enable the state to help meet people’s needs. Social innovation has largely been ignored in research on the psychology of creativity, but it is just as important as science, technology, and art.

Now we get to the really difficult questions in the psychology of procedural creativity. First, what kinds of mental representations are required for minds and brains to have new ways of doing things? The most obvious candidates are rules such as IF you want to observe the stars more effectively, THEN use a telescope. Such verbal rules are undoubtedly a big part of the representation of methods, but non-verbal information involving vision, touch, and kinesthesia (muscular movements) may also be important in some domains. For example, impressionist painting requires visual and tactile knowledge about brush strokes as well as verbal characterization, and laboratory techniques used in science and technology may also require embodied representations such as how to manipulate an instrument as well as abstract verbal ones.

Second, how are new and valuable representations for procedures produced? In The Cognitive Science of Science, I argue for the combinatorial conjecture that creativity always requires novel combinations of previously unconnected mental representations. That such combinations are the source of creativity and even genius is an old idea that goes back at least to 1792 in Dugald Stewart’s Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind. It remains an open question whether and how new methods are generated by combinations of previous methods and ideas. Most likely other cognitive mechanisms such as analogy and means-ends reasoning are also important.

Hence procedural creativity looks like a fertile area of investigation.

Paul Thagard is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo and author of The Brain and the Meaning of Life.

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