The Superstition of Creativity

In yet another episode of what is appearing to be a rash of fluffy, credulous Radiolab podcasts (the latest of which was brilliantly pulled apart by Carrie over at Skepchick, among others glorifying a guy who sold his own hookworms on the internet for medical purposes and a long wishy-washy analysis of a bible verse), the usually fantastic truth-seeking duo of Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich set their sights this week on the topic of motivation, specifically in the areas…
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  1. I much prefer to think of any raw inspiration that comes to me as the result of complex reactions within my brain.

    I’d rather random chemistry to the idea that there are forces shoving ideas into my head.

  2. Hi there!

    Once, when I was 18, a lyrical love poem came to me in my head fully-formed, as if I was remembering a song from somewhere. That was the only time. Everything else, I’ve had to chase down and force it to fit on paper. When I do, one of two things happens: 1) I read it over, and think: “Wow, that’s crap! That sounded SO much better in my head”. or 2) I read it over, and think: “Oh right, that’s a Doors lyric (or something) no wonder it sounded so familiar”.

    Sometimes, when I stick with the “Wow that’s crap” lines, I can either tweak them a little and make them appear presentable, OR, I re-read them again and decide: “Okay, it wasn’t so bad after all. It actually sounds pretty good…”.

    So lately, I’ve been just forcing myself to write. Just giving the Muse enough time to come to me. Yesterday, I looked over a chapter that I had been slaving over for hours, and thought: “Okay, what is this, TWO pages? All that work for just two … oh wait, no, no that would be FOUR … four pages! MUCH better!” <3

    I certainly don't think there's anything wrong with "talking" to songs, or poetry, or chapters if it will get them to come through. Think of it this way: You're already deluding yourself by thinking of your brain as "YOU". It's really just a collection of neurons and synapses and crap. Even the idea of consciousness is kind of an illusion. The definition of "self" is a bit of make-believe that we use to make it easier to identify with "the collection of processes going on in the brain that's attached to this mouth". There's really no such thing as an "identity", but we use it to distinguish "Me" from "Not-Me".

    So if it helps to think of songs/poems/chapters as: "Something that's out there that you can speak to", that's awesome. Just as long as you don't go crazy and start treating this ephemeral "entities" as some kind of diety or spirit that you need to completely changeover your lifestyle to appease. "No shrimp for me, thanks. I need to pray to "Heartattack and Vine" tonight, so I'm abstaining from shellfish". (Although why "Heartattack and Vine would make you give up shellfish, I have no idea) :(

  3. By rationality I assume you’re just referring to the absence of superstition in the initial creative process; I assume most people proceed logically from there.
    For me, writing, piano-playing, or whatever is a very conscious act (so maybe I’m not actually very good, I’m biased). I habitually look for connections between things and when one strikes my fancy, I run with it.
    On the other hand, creation can be very emotionally charged, I can easily see how it could be seen as supernatural in nature.

  4. While I agree that this episode wasn’t very “sciency” I do not agree that it was focused on inspiration and creativity, it was about sabotaging yourself, which is something irrational per se and interferes not only with creativity but with life in general, I would’ve like to hear more about the science behind that kind of fear as I personally struggle -constantly- with it and I must admit, trying to be rational doesn’t usually work so I found it interesting that people have to trick themselves into believing their stories are being given by angels or that they will give 5K to the KKK if they smoke again, these aren’t rational solutions….but sabotaging yourself isn’t rational either….or is it? Maybe you see yourself too clearly and know that you, out of all people shouldn’t succeed at anything…It was an episode that left me wanting for more, specially I’d like to hear about research being done on this area or what a neurologist has to say about how science helps people overcome this kind of fear without having to trick oneself into thinking about angels…

  5. I do think there are ways to determine what increase creativity scientifically its what psychology is for.

  6. Okay, I just finished the episode so I’ll add my $.02 while it’s fresh in my muse’s ephemeral brain and being transmitted to me.
    I understand the sentiment that Gilbert is getting at, but I don’t like her wishy-washy back and forth.
    In fact, Jad points this out after the interview; that she says she ‘believes’ in her muse story and then immediately plays the clip of her saying ‘It’s a great story’. After this Jad and Robert talk about how ‘a serious neuro-scientist will tell you it’s all in your unconscious. It’s all you, all the time.’ What I’d like to know is, where is the neuro-scientist?! They’ve interviewed plenty of them over the years and yet they didn’t get someone in to talk about what our brains do when we think creatively? That was the real bummer for me. And judging by the comments on their website, we are not alone in this complaint. I don’t mind listening to people describing their perception and process of ‘being creative’. But I listen to Radiolab so that after the interesting anecdote, I get to learn what is going on inside of us. That’s always been the appeal to me, and I suspect, most of us who have been listeners for any length of time.

  7. The funny thing is that they HAD a neuroscientist on there, but they were too busy asking him about his threat to kill himself if he didn’t finish a book rather than asking about what’s actually going on in our brains.

  8. I know! I was thinking the same thing as I typed: “You’ve got Oliver Sacks’ phone number, you’ve already interviewed him for this show. Call him back! ”
    And then Jad GOB was like “What? The guy in the $3,600 suit is going to call a neuroscientist? COME ON!

  9. Check out these two bits of The Naked Scientists podcast. Some University of Sydney neuroscientists are using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to temporarily turn off a part of the brain (left anterior frontal lobe) that seems to keep us thinking “in the box.” The experiments were based on previous research on people with traumatic brain injury to this region, who then manifested previously unrevealed creative talents. In the University of Sydney experiment, subjects were asked to solve matchstick problems which require an “outside the box” solution. More people were able to find creative solutions when the tDCS was activated and their left anterior frontal lobes were “off.”
    Maybe a lot of the weird superstitious stuff we do as artists is an attempt to turn off our left anterior temporal lobes without the help of tDCS? Or maybe we all need to invest in these tDCS Thinking Caps.

  10. Do neuroscientists actually know what is going on in our brains when we think like this, or is that one of the zillions of things we don’t understand yet? If we do understand that, would that understanding help us thing creatively by doing it on purpose?

    I find most of my creative thoughts occur when I’m working on some problem and then get distracted, kind of like throwing myself at the ground and missing.

  11. My methods really change from piece to piece. Currently, most of my writing is for visual media (film, tv, webseries, etc) so first off, I’ll try to get inspired by what’s happening on screen and figure out what scenes need. Then I decide on what’s going to be the kernel of the piece: melody, chord progression, rhythmic element, etc. I essentially make lists of all the things I need and sometimes that’s enough to inspire me.

    But if I find that I’m still hitting a brick wall, I go for a walk. Alan Silvestri calls it the “Sock Drawer Method of Composing” (or something like that): find the most mindless, repetitive task you can think of, something to keep your hands busy and your mind free to wander. For him, it’s rearranging his sock drawer, for me, it’s going for a walk. That way, I can think about the piece away from the keyboard and away from any distractions and pressures to force the music out.

    But no, no superstitious things. Back before my skeptical “enlightenment” I used to meditate when I had writer’s block, but that’s pretty much the same thing as going for a walk, really.

  12. Since my youth, my personal opinion has been that creativity is the one essential quality that has made humans successful. But I’m an artist with a degree in art education, so I may be somewhat biased.
    I used to be an agnostic with spiritual leanings (not ghosts, gods, or magic spiritual, more like inner-voice and universal one-ness spiritual.), but finally landed as a skeptical atheist. And my creativity? Almost gone. I feel empty, lonely, and lame without that spark, so I have been trying to recapture the feeling without resorting to woo.
    So the quote in the post, “This is the reason why so many artistic minds hold on to woo and superstition,” really hit me. Creativity is so poorly understood, and it seems the more you try to control it or direct it, the more it slips away. So I’m left with the dilemma of how to let go of my mental control to get the creativity back without letting in all the spiritual, superstitious clutter.
    It is quite an interesting subject to contemplate.

  13. When writing is going well, you’re not thinking rationally or irrationally. And the feeling that you’ve been ‘given’ something is inescapable — that’s really how it feels. So approaching it skeptically is like any other feeling, like when you feel a ‘presence’ in an old house, or a coincidence is so remarkable it hardly seems possible, or you could swear you saw your dead grandmother on your bed right before you fell asleep etc etc. The feeling is still there, and is really cool, but you recognize it for what it is: a feeling.

    Art is the playground where we get to let those feelings loose and enjoy them! But oh dear how I wish they hadn’t said ‘angels’ and ‘muse’ so many times….

  14. Yeah, there was a lot of hearsay and not much science in that episode. I find RadioLab (and other science communication) to be at its best when it tells the personal stories, but then relates them back to what researchers have found that might explain the personal experience. This episode would have been a great opportunity to explore, scientifically, why we feel that we are of two minds sometimes. That would have been interesting.

    About the creativity muse stuff, I’ve heard people talk about feeling like their art was coming through them not from them. I haven’t had that experience and have assumed that they are feeling the state of flow. Is their sense of self put on a back-burner during these times? Does it have to do with parts of their brains shutting down, like meditators and praying nuns? Someone must be doing that research. Including that would have been more RadioLab-like.

    I hope RadioLab starts tackling *science* again soon!

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