Creativity: Glistening and Attainable

Three cognitive processes produce new and valuable (created) products.

Posted Jan 15, 2021

When, as a young college student, I first considered pursuing the study of the psychology of literary creativity, I consulted with the renowned Harvard professor and critic I. A. Richards. I shall not forget it. In his darkened study, seated behind an oversize desk, he gazed out of the single large window in the room and flatly said, "Don't try it."

Flabbergasted and dismayed, I managed to ask, "Why?"

"Because," he said, speaking slowly, "it is impossible to do. In order to understand either one of those areas, psychology or literature, one must have a philosophy. In order to study psychology, one must have a philosophy, and in order to study literature one must have a philosophy. I don't mean the kind of philosophy that's spoken of out there," he added, pointing toward the Harvard buildings outside his window, "but a philosophy of what literature is, and of what psychology is. It's difficult enough to develop such a philosophy for understanding each one of those, but it is impossible to develop a philosophy relating them to each other."

Although I clearly didn't listen to his literal injunction (I'm convinced he never meant me to—he mainly wanted to warn me), and over these many years have engaged in research projects involving intensive interviews with highly creative people, documented reconstructions of creative processes, and numerous controlled psychological and psychiatric experiments not merely on literary creativity but, in further defiance of Richards' caveat, on artistic and scientific creativity as well—I have always thought that the spirit of Richards' comment was very important: when relating two areas of complex human endeavor, one must try to have as broad and comprehensive a perspective on each area as possible.

This type of perspective is my understanding of what Richards meant by his term philosophy as a concept distinct from academic philosophy. I cite Richards' comment, not so much because I intend to demand two or more broad perspectives, or Richards' philosophies, on this Psychology Today blog, but in order to point to a terminological confusion The terms creation, creative process, and creativity are nowadays used freely and interchangeably. All appear rather frequently throughout technical and popular discussions as though their meanings were self-evident and as though everyone would know to use them in exactly the same way.

However, nothing like a unified lexicon or philosophy of creativity has yet materialized in which there is general agreement or understanding of the use or meaning of the terms. Many different definitions of creation and creativity are possible, ranging from the minimal lexical definition of "bringing something into being" or “making” to more extensive formulations. The idea of bringing something into being does not itself indicate as much activity and intentionality as does the simpler general term "making," and "making" alone does not stipulate any particular qualities of the product, such as whether it is common or unique or whether it is useful or valuable.

The proper definitions to employ are ones that stand up to the interests and purposes of the person using the terms. Even with the everyday use of the term create, denoting a simple action such as "to create a scene," more is intended than the somewhat passive construct of bringing something into being: a consistently active making is denoted.

On a higher level, the idea of creation as it appears in intellectual discourse, art, science, and business, the construct becomes much more complex. One important question that arises is whether the idea of creation is intended to include, as it often does, the appearance of something new because a discussion then pertains to bringing something new into being. Another important question is whether the honorific auras of the terms creation, create, and creativity are intended because these auras introduce an issue of value and so enlarge the definition to "bringing something both new and valuable into being." When moving back and forth from high-level areas such as artistic and biblical creation to everyday creation, it is important to track these matters of intention and definition.

As I have indicated in these posts previously, creativity is not simply a matter of making or producing something different or even something innovative or new. Nor is it simply the doing of something clever, interesting, or useful. The term may be, and frequently is, applied in all these ways but to do so deprives us of the meaningful and worthwhile application to something truly useful and new. Creativity is the production of something—person or product—that is both valuable and new.

I say all this because I think it is psychologically, physically, and commercially important to recognize the special character of creation, creative events and effects, creative approaches and creativity. And I say this especially because I believe I have found three psychological processes that produce truly new and valuable outcomes and results. These are the following: the Janusian process, the homospatial process, and the sep-con articulation process. All were discovered through intensive research interviews with 30 winners of the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize in Literature and 45 Nobel laureates in the sciences. Used by extremely intelligent and resourceful achievers they may also, with practice, can be universally learned and productive of art, literature, music, discovery, and outstanding business endeavors. As I have described them here previously, they consist of (Janusian) actively conceiving two or more opposite or antithetical entities simultaneously; actively conceiving (homospatial) two or more discrete entities occupying the same space or spatial location, a conception leading to the production of new identities; conceiving and using (sep-con articulation) concomitant separation and connection. These processes interact and produce effects that are new and valuable. They are also philosophically and scientifically valid: the Janusian process is simultaneous and out of time; the entities in the homospatial process are superimposed, interstitial and out of space; the aspects of the sep-con articulation process are conjoint and interrelated and out of both time and space. When each or all of these processes produce valuable entities, they are also unerringly highly creative and accessible to all human beings.