Sunday, January 27, 2013

Creativity: how extraordinary is the ordinary person's mind

(from Escaping the Progress Trap, chapter 14) A great institution such as science is like a society, and the scientific paradigm is at risk of failing to shift from the defining, isolating laboratory mode to an inclusive, open culture of human and natural possibilities. The medieval Church as an institution might not be thought of as having much in common with Easter Island, or with Control Data Corporation, but all these share a similar fate: interrupted progress. If modern science fails the inhabitants of the globe, it too will fall from grace.

There can be no doubt that each human being is a reserve of great potential. In The creative mind: myths and mechanisms, Margaret Boden explains how the culture of the scientific revolution demoted the subjective properties of creativity: *
.. no room for notions like creativity, freedom, and subjectivity. As a result, the matters of the mind have been insidiously downgraded in scientific circles for several centuries.
In her book, Boden considers many creative minds in the context of analytical machines: Beethoven, Mozart, Kekulé, Coleridge, Kepler, Copernicus, Dickens, Crick and others from the arts and sciences. She is encouraged by the fact that:
computational psychology is helping us to understand such things in scientific terms. It does this without lessening our wonder or our self-respect…on the contrary it increases them, by showing how extraordinary is the ordinary person's mind.
There is one last case, that of Abraham Lincoln, which brings together resilience and creativity. It is well known that he suffered from melancholy, but how he came to terms with it is not part of popular legend. Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, describes how Lincoln made use of his affliction, rather than attempt to defeat it: **
In his mid-forties the dark soil of Lincoln's melancholy began to yield fruit. When he threw himself into the fight against the extension of slavery, the same qualities that had long brought him so much trouble played a defining role. The suffering he had endured lent him clarity and conviction, creative skills in the face of adversity, and a faithful humility that helped him guide the nation through its greatest peril.
We may not all be as gifted as Lincoln or Beethoven, but as Pinker*** and Boden suggest, each of us can come up with extraordinarily good ideas. As a global community, our reserve of skills, our long evolution and our modern sharing of wisdom point toward a positive future. (from Escaping the Progress Trap, chapter 14 - Resilient Adaptations)

* Margaret A. Boden, The creative mind: myths and mechanisms, Routledge, New York, 2004, p. 304. 
** Joshua Wolf Shenk, Lincoln's Great Depression, The Atlantic, Oct. 2005, p.60. 
*** Stephen Pinker, How the Mind Works, W.W. Norton, New York, 1997

Get the Kindle edition