The Mystique of the Unconscious in Creativity

The Unconscious as described by Freud and Jung is not responsible for creativity

Posted Sep 14, 2019

There is a long-standing belief in the unconscious wellspring of creativity. Invoked more frequently in connection with creativity than with almost any other human action or experience, the unconscious is considered responsible for mysterious bolts from the blue, flashes of insight, waking from sleep with ideas already formed, and energy-releasing altered states of consciousness. Also, creative writings and works of art seem perfused with unconscious content. So ingrained is the idea that creativity arises from unconscious sources that investigators who present evidence for conscious factors do so at their peril; they run the risk of being rejected out of hand by both professionals and laypersons. 

The belief in the unconscious roots of creativity is tenacious and misleading. Because creativity is unconscious, the adherents often also say, it cannot be explained or adequately understood. This idea has a long and almost hallowed history. It goes back to the philosopher Plato, who laid the groundwork in the following remarks to the poet Ion: 

For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses and the mind is no longer in him; when he has not attained to this state, he is powerless and is unable to utter his oracles. Many are the noble words in which poets speak concerning the actions of men; but like yourself [Ion] when speaking about Homer, they do not speak of them by any rules of art: they are simply inspired to utter that to which the Muse impels them, and that only; and when inspired, one of them will make dithyrambs, another hymns of praise, another choral strains, another epic or iambic verses-and he who is good at one is not good at any other kind of verse: for not by art does the poet sing, but by power divine. Had he learned by rules of art, he would have known how to speak not of one theme only, but of all; and therefore God takes away the minds of poets, and uses them as his ministers, as he also uses diviners and holy prophets, in order that we who hear them may know them to be speaking not of themselves who utter these priceless words in a state of unconsciousness, but that God himself is the speaker, and that through them is conversing with us. (Plato, 1924a) 

I do not mean to say that in this passage Plato formulated a concept of an unconscious or that he considered the roots of creativity to lie in some particular aspect of the human mind. On the contrary, he clearly considered creativity to be supernatural or divine in origin and, in another place, stated explicitly that the creative artist's performance was the result of "divine madness." (Plato,1924b) When performing creatively, the artist's own senses were not directly responsible for the product, and consequently the creative process was a matter of being out of one's mind and bereft of one's senses. Such emphasis on the seemingly possessed aspect of creative activity has been a basis for a long tradition citing both madness and supra-human or external sources for creativity. It has, on the one hand, continued and fostered the classical idea of inspiration by the muse, and on the other, it has today culminated in a psychological emphasis on the unconscious aspect of the mind: rather than ideas being inspired by a source outside the creator himself, they have been located within the creator as another aspect of his mind . Although the idea of creativity arising from the unconscious is not the same as Plato's madness notion, it raises many problems. The modern concept of the unconscious is primarily associated with psychoanalysis and Sigmund Freud (also C.G. Jung, “Collective Unconscious”). 

   Psychoanalysts have fostered the idea that the unconscious and its operant primary process thinking (non-logical nor reality-oriented) plays a significant role in creativity. Turning to great works of art in order to corroborate findings about psychological processes derived from work with patients, psychoanalysts have long been interested in apparent manifestations of the unconscious and the primary process in works of literature and visual art. In his initial presentation of his cornerstone concept of the Oedipus complex, Freud turned for illustration and support to Shakespeare's great play Hamlet. Citing Hamlet's inability to act against his uncle-stepfather, together with the intense relationship between Hamlet and his mother, Gertrude, Freud proposed that unconscious incestuous feelings toward Gertrude and murderous feelings toward his real father could explain Hamlet's doubt and torment. After this and other artistic analyses by Freud, numerous other psychoanalysts have attempted to describe myriad instances of unconscious phenomena in works of art. Because of the seeming universality of these instances, creative artists were alleged to be particularly sensitive to their own unconscious processes, and these processes were considered to play a critical role in artistic creation. Artists' own testimonies have also strengthened these considerations. Repeatedly, artists of all types report that they cannot trace the steps in their achievement of outstanding ideas and that such ideas seem to intrude into their awareness without warning or preparation. In many cases, important ideas are said to arise when the artist is not directly working on a creative task but rather while he is relaxing or occupied with something else. In effect, therefore, the Platonic idea of possession by an external factor has been changed to a factor that is external to awareness. 

 Here, I will insert a caution and a clarification regarding a distinction between the unconscious and the not-conscious. If something is simply described as outside of awareness or not conscious, it is only a negative factor. Saying "no," negating, or canceling out produces broad categories, and describing someone or something as “not tall” or “not hot” merely eliminates a characteristic rather than sharpening or clarifying the description. Although we often use negations as though they were opposites ,”not tall” is not synonymous with short, and “not hot” is not equivalent to cold. The negatives of tall and hot include a very large range of height and temperature. Failure to recognize these differences has caused problems with respect to the idea and term “unconscious”. It is used both to mean an opposite of consciousness and (together with the other old and misused term, “subconscious”) as a negative form roughly equivalent to not-conscious or nonconscious.  

The Freudian definition of the unconscious, however, is not only the negative of consciousness, it is quite specific. Intrinsic to Freud's psychodynamic point of view is a definitely formulated and therefore positively defined unconscious, an unconscious that is opposite to the conscious. Freud's unconscious consists of elements derived from the individual's past which are kept out of awareness for a reason. These elements, designated as drives, wishes, memories, and affects, remain unconscious to the individual him- or herself because they are unacceptable, either personally or socially, and therefore cannot be tolerated in consciousness. They are kept unconscious by the defense mechanism called “repression”, an active psychological process or barrier. 

Also, elements in the unconscious have a diffuse and controlling effect by virtue of being kept out of awareness. These elements exert a consistent and potentially broad effect on conscious thought and behavior precisely because they actively remain unconscious. Once an element becomes conscious--once its form and substance are known--then it can be changed and modified by intentional control. When unacceptable personal memories, wishes, and affects are kept out of awareness or repressed, they still have force and influence, but they exert an involuntary effect. And the more strongly they are prevented from coming to awareness, the more broad and diffuse is their effect. Strongly repressed unconscious drives, for instance, tend to influence all conscious thought and behavior.

If this type of unconscious were fully responsible for creativity, as many theorists contend, what would that really mean? What would that signify about the nature of creative processes? For one thing, with this type of unconscious and the controlling force of past events as entirely responsible for creative activity, we would have to restrict the definition of creativity severely. True newness, consisting of a complete break with the past, would not be a characteristic, or even a feature, of the creative process or of creations. Creations could not be truly new because they would be the direct product of past and preexisting unconscious factors. A meaningful definition of creativity should include the possibility of human beings producing truly new ideas, theories, artistic styles and forms, or inventions. Consequently, the contention does not work. 

A second more telling result of this theory would be that the unacceptable and, in fact, the ordinary and banal contents of the unconscious would be the basis for great works of art and other important human achievements.  Works of art, however, are often decidedly not offensive or unacceptable or banal, and therefore some type of transformation or change would have to occur on the way from the unconscious to the final product. Rather than the unconscious, the particular transforming factor--whatever it is--would become the real cause of creativity. The biggest problem with accepting this idea of unconscious causes of creativity is the tied-in feature of a broad controlling effect on conscious thought and behavior. For although this control could plausibly account for representation of unconscious factors in the content of an artwork, it could not account for artistic form. A primary function of the Freudian controlling mechanisms is to conceal unconscious content: they alter and distort unconscious material so that it cannot be recognized in consciousness. But artistic form--the shapes, patterns, styles, and compositional features of artworks--has an opposite function: it uncovers and reveals deep meanings and psychological processes. It shows the organization of the feelings and actions of human beings as well as of the sounds and sights of nature. Independence from unconscious control of the processes responsible for form is necessary in order to produce revelation rather than concealment and the lucidity of art rather than obscurity. Also, a broadly controlling unconscious force could not produce intrinsically important unities in art, but, because the unconscious is essentially disunified, it would result in disunity or monotony. 

Discovery of the cognitive homospatial, janusian and sep-con articulation processes in creativity as described previously in these blogs, however, does help to show the reason for the sense of unawareness as well as the presence of some degree of unconscious manifestations.  None of these processes appear directly in awareness, and none arise directly from unconscious sources. None, however, follow the patterns of ordinary stepwise or productive thinking. With all three of these processes, creators are only consciously aware of the products of their thinking. Only the resulting metaphor, characterization, plot idea, visual image, musical phrase, or theoretical formulation appears in consciousness, not the structural features of these processes such as searching for opposites (janusian process), superimposing mental images (homospatial process) or separating with connecting ((sep-con articulation process). Because the creators are not aware (and do not need to be aware) of the structure of their thinking and seldom if ever retrace particular thought sequences leading to creative ideas, the ideas seem to them to result from factors out of their control. All retain the qualities of nonconscious types of thought.  

In the case of the janusian process, for instance, there is a leap of thought in which the multiple opposites or antitheses are brought together at once. Ideas, images, or propositions traditionally considered valid or real are juxtaposed with their polar opposite or opposites; the coming together of such widely disparate elements produces a feeling and experience of something coming out of nowhere.  Because the polar opposite has not been seriously entertained previously to be true or meaningful--sometimes not even to exist at all­-it is held at the periphery of consciousness. Bringing it together with an idea that is in the focus of attention produces a sense of sudden insight or a leap of thought. Some qualities of the Freudian unconscious which operates with equivalence of opposites and the bringing together mechanism of “condensation” may appear. Similar experiences may occur with partial representations of unconscious factors by both homospatial and sep-con articulation processes.

 To come full circle, Plato's description of the matter was not really so far off the mark. Only his conclusions regarding madness and the tradition he fostered, which emphasize a source of creativity completely external to consciousness, are found wanting. The reason the creator is unaware of the specific factors accounting for his skill or art is that he appropriately does not think of the particular structural qualities of the thought processes he uses in producing his creations. They are part of that diffusely negative nonconscious aspect of his mental functioning, and to some degree, they may retain aspects of the specific and positive unconscious. The creator is, however, neither out of his mind nor bereft of his senses. He is a more sensitive and flexible thinker than the rest of us and is capable of using thought processes and blending modes of thought in unusual and exciting ways.


Plato (1924)  "Ion,"    The  Dialogues, ed. and trans. Benjamin Jowett. Oxford University Press, p.502