Saturday, October 15, 2011

Inspiration and the Creative Spark: at the 2011 Conference of the Institute for Cultural Research, London, Part 2

Sunday’s program began with an experiential exercise in creative perception by the teacher, facilitator, engineer, businessman, artist and musician David Kayrouz (

Perception, Kayrouz said, is both cognitive and affective. Essentially, it is about How do you know. He quoted St. John of the Cross: “To know everything: Does anyone know the end of that? Know nothing.” Kayrouz continued, “Knowing is a way of not knowing because when we ‘know,’ we stop learning.” Similarly, he prefers the verb “knowing” to “knowledge.”

From the stage, Kayrouz held out two pictures, one to his left and one to his right. One was called “old rat,” the other, “old man,” both were quite similar. Then he projected a powerpoint image on the screen and asked the audience what it was. Those on his left said it was an “old rat,” while those on his right said it was an “old man.” Our perceptions of the picture had been shaped by our prior experience.

“We perceive color affectively but read cognitively,” he continued. He showed a slide of a list of color names, in which the letters of each color name were in a different color than the word name of the color, and asked an attendee to say the colors in which the names were written rather than reading the names. The reader had a hard time with that.

Kayrouz then showed a slide of an indeterminate abstract sort, which reminded me of a Rorschach ink blot, and and asked us to write what we saw. Then he rotated it 1/4 and asked us to look and write again, then he rotated it again. Next he asked us to form small groups and discuss what we’d seen. The members of my group found ourselves seeing more in the slide when we looked together and had the benefit of each other’s perceptions, and this turned out to be the experience of other groups as well. This emphasized, Kayrouz said, that creativity is often a group phenomenon, and that the image of the lone creator coming up with great ideas is more myth than reality.

Returning to his theme of contrasting cognitive and affective perceptual processes, Kayrouz said, “Cognitive perception has rules and judgment, affective perception has no rules and suspended judgment. Cognitive perception works with proven results, affective perception involves experiment and play.” Kayrouz showed a slide of a Venn diagram with cognitive and affective circles, and an area of overlap. “Imagination is where the cognitive and affective overlap.”

Kayrouz had one of the shortest session times, just 15 minutes in the program and somewhat longer actually, but he packed a lot of experience and meaning into a short time!

Our next presenter was Simon Elmes, Creative Director of BBC Radio’s Documentaries Unit, associated with such superb projects as “A History of the World in 100 Objects,” in collaboration with the British Museum. His presentation considered creativity at the BBC within two contexts:

• That of a public broadcast organization which identifies creativity as its professional lifeblood, and

•That of a public broadcast organization which is constantly challenged to maintain and improve programming quality in spite of reductions in resources, including personnel

“In some ways, inspiration to order” is his job.

Elmes contrasted ongoing creativity with mission statements and vision statements, which “tend to ring a bit hollow.” Creativity is the lived experience.

“The creative spark doesn’t come from a focus group,” he said. The inspiration for “A History of the World in 100 Objects,” for example, emerged from “a confluence of ideas at the British Museum” during a meeting of British Museum and BBC staff. “Afterward, several people said it was their idea.” In fact it was a creative collaboration between a number of highly professional people.

After giving the audience an exercise in coming up with ideas (“wind tunneling”), Elmes said, about his job and group at BBC: “New ways of seeing things is what we’re trying to do all the time. This applies not only to programming but also to the H.R. (Human Resources) department. B.B.C. as an organization has to be imaginative when we’re making photocopies as well as making programs.”

Elmes repeatedly returned to the theme of the need to live creatively on a day to day basis. “Words like creativity and community can take on a shibboleth value.”

Exercises can be part of the process of creativity. “There are hundreds of names for creative techniques, which unhook the creative part of the brain from the routine perceptive part of the brain.”

Contrasting creativity with genius, Elmes reflected on the great novelist Flaubert, who wrote slowly and complained of being “dazed, bogged, in a swamp of despair” as he struggled with his novel. “Today’s BBC can’t move at that pace,” Elmes commented. “We are working against an incredibly fast-moving and creative environment. All sorts of organizations have to be creative from top to bottom.” When substantial cuts were announced at B.B.C., it was with the slogan: “Deliver Quality First.”

The history of the B.B.C.’s commitment to creativity included a 2-3 year period of deeply studying creativity, which included sending a number of leaders within the organization to creativity training organizations such as the Stanford Research Institute, Creative Problem Solving Institute, IDEO, and WhatIf. This led to a group of trained and eager creative leaders within the B.B.C., but “A few evangelists who have seen the (creative) light are no substitute for senior management buy-in.” Fortunately, support for creativity throughout the organization came from B.B.C. Director General Mark Thompson.

This led to the emergence of “a creative network” of people who work “on a voluntary basis, under the radar and across silos--such as the News, Radio, TV, and Online parts of the B.B.C. “This involves people working creatively with parts of the B.B.C. they don’t know about.”

Elmes discussed some of the pitfalls of what can be mistaken to be creative processes. “When you work with a focus group what you often end up with is what you are already familiar with.” “Brainstorming s often not very well applied,” especially when participants are allowed to interject negative judgments on others‘ ideas (or their own). “Discipline in creative idea generation is absolutely basic. In brainstorming you mustn’t stop ideas, even if they are rubbish,” because a rubbish idea might lead to a better one. “If someone is being negative, you say, with a smile, ‘No negativity.’” Thus, improperly trained coaches could undermine the methods they are using. Creativity involves “the freeing up of the mind in a disciplined way.”

Asked about basing new B.B.C. programs on successful programs on other channels, Elmes said, “We innovate, we don’t clone.”

Writer Kamila Shamsie spoke next about “Finding the Novel Inside the Image.” “What does it mean for a writer to work within a discipline without formulae? How do you piece together a structure as intricate as a novel if your guiding notion is, ‘don’t do it the way you did it before?’

Like Susan Aldrich yesterday, Shamsie emphasized the importance of unplanned happenings in the creative process. In addition to the need for “some sort of structure and thought,” there have to be “some moments of serendipity...I haven’t met a writer who hasn’t been fantastically surprised because something (unexpected) happens” to the novel as it is emerging. “There’s a kind of wildness that happens when you are writing that’s essential, that’s unconscious, you don’t know what you’re interested in.”

Discussing the process of starting to write her most recent novel, “Burnt Shadows”, about the Nagasaki bomb, she said, “It was just one of those things that takes residence in your mind. There are some images, you know, they’re not going to go away. I tried very hard not to write this book.” Committing to a novel is no small matter since “The novel has to be something I’m willing to be obsessed with for two or three years.”

Although she intended to create a short opening to her book which featured the bombing of Nagasaki (most of the book takes place later on), Shamsie had to accomplish it through a nonlinear route. “I couldn’t have done a short opening on day 1.” Instead, she had to do the 80-90 page version, then reduce it to about 25 pages.

Shamsie read extracts, from others work and her own, to demonstrate the relationship between experience, linguistic imagery, creativity, and inspiration. I didn’t make notes from those readings, but came across this in her 2005 novel, “Broken Verses,” the last one of her novels left on the book table when I bought it. The voice belongs to Aasmaani, the 31 y.o. Pakistani woman who is at the center of this story. We find her musing about the many roles of her mother, an activist on behalf of politically charged women’s issues whose disappearance when Aasmaani was 17 has defined her life:

“I entered my flat and locked the door behind me. Here, in my mind, were so many different images of my mother. My mother at twenty-three in a white kurta, lapis lazuli at her wrist. My mother at twenty-six, unable to resist an ex-lover in a grey shawl. My mother at twenty-seven, carrying me into prison. My mother at thirty-four, rallying women together. My mother at thirty-five, running after the Poet to Columbia, leaving the women and me behind. My mother at thirty-eight, her body covered in bruises from a policeman’s lathi, preparing to go out and lead another demonstration. My mother at forty, still dancing to old Donna Summers records. My mother at forty-one, allowing her grief over the Poet to consume her. My mother at forty-two, worse than she had been the year before. My mother at forty-three, gone.
“What connected all the women in these images–the activist, the lover, the mother, the mourner, the dancer, the deserter? What allowed a single ‘version’ to arise from such variedness? There was a word for it: character. That imaginary tyrant. We pretend we all have one, and that it is something to be relied upon, something knowable and true, even when it oppresses and constrains us. When someone behaves ‘out of character’ we frown a little, a voice inside us whispering something that makes us uneasy, but then our brows clear. We’ve found a way to reinterpret the action as being in character. Or we say we were wrong about the person’s character to begin with, and now, magically, our memory is able to furnish us with clues which would have revealed as much had we but picked up on them earlier...we don’t dare consider that the internal voice which makes us uneasy is a voice that whispers: there is no such thing as fixed character, there is only our need to join the dots into a single picture...
“...The joke of it, of course, is that we ourselves become slaves to the stories of our own character. Our invented narratives of self determine our actions and the self-fulfilling prophesy that guides our lives...And all around us, people are reinforcing our notions by telling us, directly and in their treatment of us, who we are, what we believe in. At what point does character-playing become habit, something for which we are grateful because it allows us to go through the world with the ease that comes from being predictable to ourselves, even if that predictability takes the form of neurosis, hysteria, depression? And at what point does that habit turn darkly into addiction...”

Shamsie’s writing suggests that our beliefs about what we’re like both liberate and limit our creativity, and that allowing inspiration to occur and creativity to work its way along implies that we discover ourselves and others in new ways.

Creativity trainer and improvisational actor Greg Fraley gave the final presentation, of the “Mash-Up” method. “Most great ideas tend to be made of mash-ups,” by which he means, roughly, throwing ideas and experiences together and shaking them up to see what comes out. He praised Sunni Brown’s TED talk on doodling ( and then led us in experiential “Mash-Up,” in which we doodled, danced to music, and free-associated about some situation that we were thinking about.

Some participants found it easier going than others. One participant, thinking about how to lose weight, came up with the idea of carrying the food he’d need with him for the day. Fraley pointed out that about half the people find forced associations, which is what his mash-up exercise was, easy, and half find it difficult.

The final event on Sunday was the Panel, on which several presenters took questions in writing from the audience, read by Saira Shah.

One presenter--I didn’t note whom--in response to a question about metaphor, said that “metaphor is a way of communicating experience without being so descriptive as to require the listener or reader to re-live it.”

In response to a question about how to make a better environment, Kamila said, “Stop asking a question like that, and just sit down and do it...You find that space, you make that space.” She quoted someone (again I didn’t not whom) on the importance of will compared to talent and originality, in achieving results.

Simon said, “It’s not so much having an idea as spotting an idea as it goes by. You need to take your will and say, I will spot that idea.”

David said, “Experiments with two groups of equal talent, one of which believes they are know the outcome.”

Simon added, “Ideas cost nothing. People say we can’t afford creativity, but ideas cost nothing.”

Responding to a question about whether there was something in society that stifles creativity, Kamila commented, “There’s something about the incredible response to the death of Steve Jobs, (who was) both very creative and a billionaire.”

Greg added, “Educational systems reward having the one right answer and not the ten possible answers.”

David said, “Even trees are creative.” Saira replied, “Perhaps not consciously creative.”

In a response to a question (which I had submitted) about the effects of creativity in the financial system as they contributed to the global economic crisis, Greg observed that, “One definition of creativity is novelty that’s useful. Some of the new financial instruments that made a lot of money for a few people are creative but not innovative.”

Kamila commented, “There was a lot of imagination on the part of governments.”
David said, “What we want is creativity that’s good for everyone. We need a moral and ethical process integrated with it.”

Kamila observed: “The human imagination is not moral. The atom bomb is an act of creativity in a certain sense.” She referred to the play‘“Copenhagen,” by Michael Frayn, in which physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg are in conversation, Bohr asks Heisenberg why he did not do the maths to create the bomb, and Heisenberg says, “Because I didn’t really want to create the bomb.” “An idea can have a life of its own,” she observed, and want to be realized, regardless of its morality.

Greg said that “Creativity comes from very near the soul. When it is negative it comes from a corrupted soul.” Kamila replied, “Beyond a certain point I don’t know that you can stop yourself. You walk down that path far enough, it’s going to happen. Your brain fools itself.”

David recalled a dream of Kamila’s that she had described in her talk, in which she wept at the epicenter of the Nagasaki bomb, where her character died, emphasizing the role of empathy in creativity.

In reply to a follow-up question about whether creativity was always a good thing, Simon said, “Yes, if you’re not creative you’re on a stalled elevator.”

The diversity of backgrounds, interests, personalities and professions of the presenters, as well as the diversity among the audience, made for a great conference; it was good “brain food,” and I expect I’ll be digesting it for some time to come.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Inspiration and the Creative Spark: At the 2011 Conference of the Institute for Cultural Research, London, Part 1

On October 8 and 9 I attended the 2011 conference of the Institute for Cultural Research, London, entitled “Inspiration and the Creative Spark.” This year’s conference brought together presenters from the worlds of neuroscience, psychology, visual art, fiction writing, corporate leadership, myth and legend, and creativity training, to approach the subject from many different perspectives. So the conference itself was both a source of inspiration and sparks for creativity!

Neuroscientist Adam Zeman, author of Consciousness: a user’s guide, and A Portrait of the Brain, Professor of Neurology at the Penninsula Medical School in Exeter, and former Chairman of the British Neuropsychiatry Association, started the conference on Saturday morning with a look at creativity and brain function.

He addressed three typical misunderstandings about creativity and brain:

•The assumption that culture and biology are separate. They are not: culture influences the brain and the brain influences culture.

•The assumption that the brain is passive. It is not: the brain is continuously active. Even at rest it consumes the largest share of oxygen taken in by the body of any organ, about 20-25%, and that percentage goes up some, but not a great deal, when it is actively focused on a task.

•The assumption that imagination and creativity are rare. In fact, Zeman sees the brain as spontaneously, and more or less continuously, imaginative and creative, even while just doing the ordinary chores of life.

Zeman presented what he called the “Ski-D-y” model of creativity, consisting of three parts:

•Skill: what the brain has learned how to do through its interaction with culture, and it’s ability to continue to extend and modify that learning
•Detachment: the ability to step aside from what one is doing to take another look at both what one is trying to do and how one is trying to do it, in order to adapt, modify and improve both understanding of task and approach to it
•Spontaneity: the ability of the brain to suddenly find new connections within itself and responses to its environment, following the development of skill and a period of detachment (which could be of any duration)

Within the brain, “learning depends on modifying the numbers and strength of synapses.” Each of the one billion neurons in the brain have between 1,000 and 10,000 synapses, so there’s a huge potential for learning.

Digging deeper into his Ski-D-y model, Zeman considered “Skill” in four aspects:

•Language: the unique (as far as we know) ability of the human brain to construct complex and detailed systems of language to communicate knowledge of various kinds

•Learning: all those neurons in the brain creating new synaptic interconnections

•Theory of Mind: the interpersonal skill of creating implicit models of how other people are thinking and experiencing, including how they are experiencing us as we experience them

•Mirror Neurons: there’s a lot of scientific buzz about these recently discovered neurons that become active both when we do activities and when we watch other people doing activities. By including them within his “skill” category, Zeman seemed to be saying that mirror neurons both provide us with a biological model of how we can understand other people, and that we can learn to improve our understanding of other people as a fundamental skill that is associated with creativity and inspiration

Zeman next dug deeper into “Detachment:”

Crucially, detachment “allows us to choose how we want our minds to be engaged,” and is largely associated with the executive functions of the frontal lobes.

The capacity of imagination means that “We have acquired the ability to run our brains offline.”

Turning to a deeper consideration of “Spontaneity,” Zeman emphasized the brain’s continuous spontaneous activity:

The brain at rest uses about 20-25% of the body’s oxygen. When engaged it only increases that utilization by a percent or two. “So the resting brain is very active.”

There are networks of brain regions that are active even at rest, associated with seeing, hearing, moving, and also theory of mind and moral decision-making. Thus, even when we are not actively perceiving, brain regions associated with perception are active. Even when we are not actively interacting with others, brain regions associated with theory of mind (or social-emotional perception) are active. Even when we are not actively making moral decisions, regions of the brain involved in moral decision-making are active.

“When we dream, areas of the brain involved in memory and emotion are very active but parts of the brain associated with logic and laying down memories are not.”

Perception itself “involves ceaseless spontaneous background (activity) in the brain.”

Zeman emphasized the growing role of the brain in pre-human to human evolution. “Over the last three million years, body weight has remained fairly equal but brain volume increased substantially.” He showed a slide indicating increase in brain volume over Australopithecus, Homo Habilis, Homo Erectus, and Homo Sapiens. This evolution has produced a brain which is “intrinsically spontaneous, creative and imaginative.”

Drawing an analogy between the broad sweep of biological evolution and the particularities of human culture, Zeman commented that, “Biology, like human life, shows a tension between rule making and rule breaking. DNA passes on but occasionally mutates.”

Drawing another connection between culture and brain, Zeman noted that “The pressure of culture creates an evolutionary pressure to improve culture. Enriched environments make the brain grow.”

In reply to a question, Zeman commented on the “creative explosion” that has been dated to around 30,000 years ago; more or less at the time that cave paintings and artistic artifacts have been dated to. “The record may be misleading us, because there may have been creativity whose objects have been lost” prior to that time.

I asked Zeman a version of the question that has been at the core of my own interest and career in psychology: If the brain is so continuously spontaneous, creative and active, how is it that so many people live their way into cul-de-sacs, dead ends, which so much of my work as a clinical psychologist is about helping people find their way out of? In reply, Zeman returned to his theme of “rule making and rule breaking: “Rule making itself has to be learned,” and we can learn our way into a cul-de sac, so to speak, rather than refining the learning process and attitude toward learning. “Brain chemistry affects that as depression, which is associated with (excessive) self-criticism, (and) mitigates against creativity.”

Reflecting on Zeman’s answer, it occurred to me that a great deal of the work of Idries Shah, founder of the Institute for Cultural Research (in 1965), was about helping us to “learn how to learn,” to develop an attitude about learning that prevented cul-de-sacs, or at least supported early recognition of them in order to remain psychologically free, and what I might call metacognitively supple. Furthermore, the teaching stories that Shah collected, revised and wrote provide us with a way to recognize the presence of patterns in our lives and cultures, and prepare our minds for new learning.

Artist Susan Aldworth was our next presenter. Misdiagnosed with a possible brain lesion around Christmas of 1999, and hospitalized for diagnostic tests, the experience of watching her brain imaged on a screen while she was experiencing herself in real time was a life-changing and career-changing event for her, as exemplified in this etching from her website (, “Apoptosis 1 (2007).” (I was unable to paste the etching into the blog, but it's worth seeing, along with her other work, on her website).

“I’m a very cerebral artist,” she said, “I think about my work,” but that doesn’t mean that it can be described in words. Aldrich is “interested in celebrating the mystery of brain and consciousness and bringing it out of the labs.”

Aldworth, who also has a degree in philosophy, showed a short film, “Going Native,” and then discussed the brain, science, philosophy, and the human condition, as muse to the artist.

• “The Brain as Muse:” After being discharged from hospital, Aldrich contacted the physician who had worked with her and asked if she could work with him, which led to her spending a day a week watching brain angiograms from behind a screen in the consulting room (with the patients’ permission, of course). Susan read from her diary about waking up in the operating room with her own monitor, watching an image of her brain in action created from a camera in a catheter which had been inserted in an artery in her groin and threaded into her brain.

• “Science as Muse:” Aldworth uses “quasi-scientific images” in her art, for example, “Birth of a Thought.” “We use brain-scans culturally as a kind of sign-post to the person.” She has created art based on the brain images of an epileptic patient, with eyes looking out, back at the viewer. These images had a very discernible and powerful effect on the audience. It was as if the person depicted in the image was both having a seizure and looking out from that experience at the view, simultaneously. Replying to an attendee’s comment about the power of that image, Aldrich commented that the eyes are associated with selfhood.

• “Philosophy as Muse:” Aldworth described the work of two physicians--I didn’t get their names--who weighed terminally ill patients just before and just after death, each of whom found a difference of about 21 grams. “A materialistic shorthand for the soul?”

• “Human Condition as Muse:” Aldworth works with people with Alzheimers, and has a work entitled: “Dissolution.”

Discussing creativity from her perspective as an artist, Aldworth said, “For an artist, creativity comes from being curious and interested. I do my research and then comes the hard work. For an artist, the accidents that happen on the etching plate” can make a profound contribution to the work.

“There’s a huge history to anatomists and artists working together. Before the 20th century, there were very few representations of the brain. Now there are many brilliant artists” working with brain images.

Aldworth received enthusiastic response from the audience when she talked about the deadening of inspiration in school. “In art school, assessment of students and ticking off boxes is killing creativity and inspiration. We have to look to what we’re doing as our culture.” Another attendee commented: “I trained as a teacher and decided not to go into it because it seems to me that we’re preparing sausages rather than human beings.” Aldrich replied, “It’s not done out of maliciousness, it’s done to raise standards, but the overadministration (ends up stifling inspiration and creativity in the name of higher standards).”

I had purchased the book, “Scribing the Soul,” containing essays by a neuropsychologist, an artist/writer, and a curator, around Aldworth’s images. Chatting in a small group afterward, I had mentioned the importance of constructive nagging, and Aldrich inscribed the book, “To my dear Naggers.”

Lunch was enlivened by conversation with attendees with diverse backgrounds, at a little cafe not far from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, where the conference was held.

After lunch Ilona Roth, Senior Lecturer in Psychology in the Department of Life Sciences at the Open University, and an expert on Autistic Spectrum Disorders, spoke about “Strange Imagination: Insights from Autism.” (I also purchased her book, “The Autism Spectrum in the 21st Century.”)

“Consideration of creativity in people on the autistic spectrum challenges ideas of what creativity is,” Roth said. The autistic spectrum diagnosis is based on:

• Communication difficulties, verbal and nonverbal

• Social interaction difficulties

• The appearance of such difficulties before the age of 36 months

However, “shadow autistic traits,” autistic-like traits which do not rise to the level that would support a diagnosis, can show up early in life and then recede.

Roth showed several slides of drawings of outstanding artistic talent by autistic children. “Artistic talent in autistic children seems to show fully formed right away, rather than going through a developmental process,” she observed. She compared examples of Andy Warhol’s “realistic” art to those of autistic children, and noted that Warhol “seemed to have some autistic traits,” such as liking to talk to people on the phone rather than in person, even if they were close nearby.

“Some preliminary impressions suggest that the brains of people on the autistic spectrum may be more richly wired within local areas but less well wired between areas,” Roth said, which may make for “better attention to detail rther than cognitive flexibility.”

Elizabeth Archibald, Professor of Medieval Literature in the Department of English at the University of Bristol, gave the final presentation on Saturday, on “The Birth of Romance: Creativity and Inspiration in the Twelfth Century.” Archibald noted that there was a sudden flourishing of creativity in twelfth century Europe, in which Lone Ranger knights travelled out in search of adventure and love, featuring women who were suddenly depicted in a new role, as able to choose their knight, sometimes even before or outside of the bonds of marriage, as in some versions of the tale of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot. During the question portion of her presentation, Archibald commented that the sudden burst of romance narratives in about the twelfth century might be partially attributable to the sudden increase in need for literacy, following the Norman conquest and the establishment of new administrative processes and controls, in a new language.

This concludes my notes from Saturday’s program. My notes from Sunday’s program will follow.