Remystifying Creativity

Deep creativity hits rock bottom.

Posted Mar 10, 2018

J. Krueger
Source: J. Krueger

Trigger warning: This essay contains a 4-letter word as part of a colloquial phrase. The intended usage is strictly academic.


The demystification of nature is – or should be – the goal of scientific research. Eventually, we hope to have a naturalistic understanding of the world and hence of ourselves. Mystification uses unobservable, arbitrary, or all-encompassing constructs to explain phenomena, but usually we get a mere impression of explanation and no understanding. Shit happens, as they say, and when we attribute that to god (or the devil), nothing is gained because we cannot anticipate – and avoid – tomorrow’s shit.

Creativity has long been mystified as a gift of the gods, the muses, the unconscious, inspiration, or genius. Bringing creativity back to earth (and to mind), making it comprehensible and thus more awesome has been the life’s work of many able psychologists. Many of the Greats had something the say about creativity (Wertheimer, Maslow, Guilford, and Campbell, to name a few), and today we see interesting research being published in leading disciplinary journals as well as in journals specifically created to showcase research on creativity. The scientific community is, in other words, chipping away at the mystery of creativity (see Sawyer, 2012, for an excellent review). Gradually, we are understanding creativity as the operation of ordinary mental processes yielding extraordinary results. And thank god for that! The human animal has the capacity for creativity; it is baked into our nervous system. Its workings may be complex, but they are not mysterious. The psychological science of creativity is subject to the same demands and constraints as any psychological science. We demand rigorous theorizing, sound measurement, and replicable results. The psychological science of creativity is ordinary psychological science – but it has the potential of being more interesting than some of the other stuff – no offense!

Along comes Victor Shamas, a heterodox psychologist deeply dissatisfied with the scientific project on creativity. Its key fault is in his view that it – like all science – is beholden to the third-person perspective, to wit, objectivity. In his book Deep Creativity: Inside the Creative Mystery, Shamas (2018) asserts that the first-person perspective is essential for a full (or ‘deep’) understanding of creativity. I am sympathetic to this claim. Subjectivity, as manifested in our own experience, is a – perhaps ‘the’ – key element of psychology. We dismiss it at our own risk. It is implausible that one day – in some eschatological future – we will understand everything that is now subjective in objective terms. The subjective point of view is important to those who have it, which is all of us. A comprehensive psychological science must make room for phenomenal experience (Husserl, 1991). In a way, psychological science does just that when respecting and using self-report data. Self-reports are the person’s – the subject’s – way of quantifying and scaling what he or she is experiencing.

Once self-reports turn into data, they can be analyzed with objective statistical methods so that the subjective plane meets the objective plane. Shamas wants to go deeper, however. Eschewing controlled experimentation and measurement, he seeks to go beyond the ordinary experience of creative production. He introduces “visions and voices, dreams and trance, passion and ecstasy” (p. xviii) into the conversation. That’s bold, and it comes with a price: extraordinary and mystical experience is not only subjective but also idiosyncratic. Self-reports are limited as a means of communication here. As the book goes on, Shamas indeed relates little material garnered from his own travels into mystical space. Yet, he attempts to build a general view of what creativity might be from a mystical perspective.

Besides bemoaning the lack of respect for subjective experience in conventional research, Shamas notes that “for the most part, creativity researchers assume that new thoughts emerge simply from recombining existing ones,” and asks “if all thoughts arise from other thoughts, then where did the first thought come from?” (p. 2). He asserts that the conventional recombinatorial view suffers the logical flaw of infinite regress. But perhaps the logical flaw lies with Shamas’s reasoning. Take language: this text, for example, is composed of words, yet the text has novel, emergent properties, such as a syntax and a narrative arc. The words, in turn, are composed of letters, each of which lacks semantic content. Recombination creates new wholes that are more than the sum of their parts. There is no logical problem. 

Then Shamas breaks with convention by suggesting that it is not novelty and usefulness that characterize a creative product or experience, but freshness and transcendence. Freshness appeals to subjectivity, and it doesn’t add much to the conversation. Transcendence is more interesting. It pretty much removes all innovative and creative design from consideration. When was the last time you encountered a transcendent toilet? By conventional definitions of creativity, novel and useful toilets keep appearing, however. Japan is an industry leader here. By putting transcendence center stage, Shamas hones in on the subjective experience of creativity. The products of creativity end up being mere by-products.

Going transcendent, the concept of subjectivity, which thus far has been of critical importance, now dissolves. Quoting Richard Wagner and Erwin Schrödinger, Shamas sees transcendence in the merging of subject and object. Personal identity is lost, a point Abraham Maslow reportedly cared about in his waning years. With all this merging and dissolving, the need for a new conceptual framework asserts itself. Shamas, not being a Christian but open to theistic imagination, proposes a trinity: the Creator (always capitalized), the act of creating, and the resulting creation are one.

The mysterious part of the trinity is the Creator. “There has only ever been one Creator – a single consciousness inhabiting myriad forms” (p. 17) Shamas assures us. This is pure mysticism. It is the idea of a great oneness and that this oneness is consciousness, or a force, or an energy, and it is the idea that “the source is entangled in the universe. In other words, the creation is a embodiment of the creator” (p. 18, italics his). This is high-minded stuff, and the self-conscious person on planet Terra wonders how he or she can get in on it. Shamas explains that “ if we want to be creative, we have to align ourselves with the Creator. This means merging into pure consciousness, which is the source of all thoughts and all things. From that vantage point, we can become, and thereby create, virtually anything we want.” – “We create the Creator within ourselves during the emerging phase” (p. 58). It takes one’s breath away (Krueger, 2015).

Shamas seems to realize that he needs to offer a bit of concrete advice for his earthly readers. Beholding the Mandelbrot set might help, or better yet, going into the “Repose” pose, which Shamas claims to have invented. Then again, there is nothing new under the sun. The Repose pose looks pretty much like the snow angel pose 5-year olds enjoy at Christmas time in Northern latitudes. As a more involved approach, Shamas considers Joseph Campbell’s ideas about the hero’s journey (Campbell, 1949). But perhaps it is not for everyone. “Many are called, but few are chosen,” as the Lord sayeth (p. 74). Plus, the hero’s journey takes a lifetime.

In the end, Shamas returns – rather unheroically – to concepts of conventional creativity science. He lists 6 and labels them Deep Six. This is one way to convey the anticlimactic nature of this chapter. Here, we find 'openness to new experience,' a trait well studied in conventional science, and the idea of 'unconventionality' with an apt quote from Bertrand Russell.

So, all right, I wrote this review with a bit of a mocking tone because Deep Creativity is a goofy book. The author’s intentions appear to be entirely sincere, and I agree with him that we need to preserve a place for the first-person view in the psychological conversation. If nothing else, pointing this out is Shamas’s creative contribution.

After Shamas. A very different book on creativity is Elkhonon Goldberg's (2018) Creativity: The human brain in the age of innovation. Goldberg's approach is firmly planted in the tradition of demystification. He is mainly concerned with the question of how the brain processes novelty (and familiarity). He doubts that creativity is a unitary capacity, but rather a derivate of multiple interacting brain systems. The book is a treasure trove of findings and possibilities. Directed mind wandering (DMW) is one  the concepts Goldberg creatively introduces. DMW occurs when the person/brain alternates between states of focused attention and a comparatively loose resting state. I say 'comparatively' loose because it is this alternation that allows the resting brain to continue, elaborate, and expand the work of the focused states with fewer constraints but with enough direction for knowing where to look for associations and solutions. Creativity cannot be found in either type of state alone or in their summation; it lies in the dialectical interplay between the two.

Campbell, J. (1949). The hero with the thousand faces. New York: Pantheon.

Goldberg, E. (2018). Creativity: The human brain in the age of innovation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Husserl, E. (1991). On the phenomenology of the consciousness of internal time (1893–1917). Translated by J. B. Brough. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Krueger, J. I. (2015). Not even bullshit. Psychology Today Online.

Sawyer, R. K. (2012). Explaining creativity: The science of human innovation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Shamas, V. (2018). Deep creativity: Inside the creative mystery. New York: Morgan James.