How Can We Become Creative?

Bird with feather cut off

On the Need to Go Out and Find Creativity in the Wild

Are we creative?

This is a different question than the usual nature vs nurture issue: is creativity something we are born with or is it something that has to be taught? 

The nature-nurture debate assumes that creativity is something we do, or could, possess, and it is this very concept that creativity is something that someone could possess that needs to be questioned.

Creativity, the process by which something new comes into being, is a process and not a thing. But by focusing on the internal qualities and attributes of individuals when we approach the questions of “what is creativity” and “how to do we achieve creative outcomes” as our standard models of creativity do — we are fundamentally missing both what creativity is and more importantly how we can effectively participate in it.

The answer to our original question “are we creative?” Is quite simply “no, we are not.”

Is the “Creativity = Internal Capacity” the Right Way to Approach Creativity?

For us the short answer is NO. 

There is a useful analogy that compares Creativity to Flight (our use of this analogy is inspired by a talk by the theorist of Enactive Cognition, Evan Thompson):

When you look at a bird that flies, and you ask: where is “flight”? 

Is it inside the wing? 
Is it in a feather? 
Is there a genetic correlate for flight?

You won't find flight inside a feather

Of course not. 

If you cut off a bird's wing and pull out a feather and examine it down to the genetic level you will not find flight.

Obviously for certain birds to fly they need wings & feathers. But they also need hollow bones, a specific skeletal structure, muscles, a unique breathing system, a sensory system, & an aerodynamic form. 

But is that enough?

No, they need an environment with a certain air density, winds, gravity & much else. 

And how does, for example, wind come about? Wind requires thermal differences. So now we need the sun, & the different absorptive properties of water, rocks, earth, etc.

The wings, feathers and bones are needed because of the air density — the body and the environment are in a mutually reciprocating dance — they are wholly conjoined.

This list of the systemic features would need to be extended & the total assemblage would be quite vast.

Additionally, the bird as an extended and embedded being needs to learn to attune itself to the environment of flying. This process of attunement is not a one-way process — the environment has great agency in the process. The outcome is a relational and emergent domain brought forth by interactions in which causality is non-specific. 

And of course we could take away or alter some of these components and a bird could still fly, but the relation between the parts is only partially decomposable. The whole system hangs together as one thing that collectively via mutually reinforcing feedback loops makes flight happen.

This begins to give us a better way to understand flight:

Birds playing in flight

Flight is an emergent process that is the outcome of specific relations that must be maintained dynamically across many unlike things.

It is not “in” any one thing, nor is it the aggregate of many things. It is an holistic emergent process that has come from the relations and can then shape both the things and the relations.

If it is in any “thing” we would loosely say that flight is in the relation. But notice how odd that sounds — what is it for something to be “in” the relation? 

It would be better to say it is held “across” the relation, or emerging across the relation. Better yet, attributes and capacities such a flight emerge from the middle of the totality of the relation.

And in reality it is even stranger: as an emergent process arising from the relation it exhibits global to local causal influence: the “whole” can make the parts. Such that the very parts (e.g. the feather, or the brain area) that make up the network are caused by the whole of the network.

Flight is an emergent process that is held across a set of complex relations that it itself “produced”. 

We can go even further “flight” is any emergent process that satisfies an abstract criteria. Flight does require sentience, wings, feathers,  or any of the existing known ways to fly. New assemblages are possible that can engage with this space in wholly new ways.

A balloon plane

Is a wing even necessary? No. One of our favorite alternative approaches to flight is the giant spinning ball airplane. While it looks like a hot air balloon — it is not a lighter-than-air balloon. It is literally just a spinning ball that by spinning backwards produces lift (the Magnus effect). It does not even need to be a ball, a spinning tube works equally well. 

But we are getting off track…

Is This Not Also A Better Way To Conceptualize Creativity? 

Creativity, like flight, is not some thing found inside some thing — whether it be the bird or the human. 

Creativity, like flight, is an emergent process that is the outcome of relations that must be cultivated across many unlike things…

And like flight there are an open-ended number of ways to participate in this process: you do not need a certain form (say a human form, or even a brain) — for creativity it could be any process/system that produces novelty. Birds are after all dinosaurs that evolved via a highly creative process to take to the sky.

Emergent process relations like flight or creativity are abstract dynamic relations that we join or participate in; they are not things we possess or can acquire.

Creativity is a dynamic event and our role in it cannot be adequately summed up by describing human capacities and their activation. 

What would it look like to engage with creativity as a dynamic emergent system?

Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk

The creative processes that led to human flight is an ideal starting point.

What does the creative dynamic event of the invention of flight look like? First it was happening in many different places all around the globe at the same time. There was an expanding experimental community at the end of the 1800’s. One of the most consequential nodes was the one involving the Wright Brothers and their team.

If we zoom in on a critical moment in the activity of this node we would find Orville and Wilbur Wright and their team at Kitty Hawk attuning themselves to sands, prevailing winds, soaring birds, wing warping, kite systems, struts, fabrics, novel concepts, historical actions, metals, motors and much else. 

Where is creativity? It is not in any one nor in any one moment — it is Kitty Hawk, the sands, winds, materials, individuals, birds, concepts and multiple parallel histories actively attuning themselves to this event. And in all of this each agent whether it be a person or a sand dune is transformed. It is an assemblage becoming an emergent whole. 

What is critical to creativity is that a whole (the assemblage involved in the invention of flight) is becoming more and different than the sum of the parts, and that this novel whole is in turn shaping its parts (including the Wright Brothers themselves— they are an outcome of this extended event). This process of emergent global-to-local influence is critical: the system as it comes together and as it is sustained is producing the novel relational properties that the parts “possess”. These were not there before nor are they to be found in any discrete part on its own.

The Wright Brothers did not invent human forms of flight — it did not emerge from inside of them or their ideas. Nor were they the “spark” that catalyzed the process. They came to join an ongoing process that in turn made them and which they in their turn also influenced. To get stuck in a chicken vs egg debate is to miss what is critical: human flight was the creative outcome of a creative process that was itself the outcome of a specific assemblage and not the outcome of an idea emerging from the head of an individual.

We tend to ignore the system, the logic of emergence and its powerful agency and put all the agency into singular individuals, singular moments, and singular ideas that can be found deep inside singular minds. 

This western cultural habit is a mistake. Individuals are not creative because of some internal thing or one intrinsic capacity — all novel outcomes happen because of a system that as it comes together has unique powers of emergent global-to-local influence.

The creativity of the system did not just lead to a form of human flight — the Wright Brothers also became who they were — they were invented by the very same process that invented the first plane, the Wright Flyer. They too, like all of us who engage with creative processes, became made anew and differently by the very process they participated in putting into motion. 

One could reply, “yes that is true but who made the system? Surely someone — the Wright Brothers in this instance, had to have the idea to make the system, and is that not the source of the creativity?”

And of course they did. They made all sorts of decisions. But these decisions were also made from within emergent dynamic systems. We are never not Embodied, Embedded, Extended, and Enactive as part of specific intra-acting emergent environment that is co-shaping us. These were decisions made within and in response to a larger historical context and forces.

We have to put aside the false choice of the chicken-egg dichotomy — causality is not linear and nor should our conceptualization of creative processes be linear.

There is never a moment that is not systemic, or emergent or where we are not fundamentally shaped by the things we are interacting with.

Marshall McLuhan, put it this way: Tools “by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act — the way we perceive the world. When these ratios change, people change.”

The development of new ways of sensing, new senses, and new sensory experiences emerge as new networks of tools are invented. McLuhan called this interconnected network of tools and practices a “medium” (or just “media”) and we are calling this a system— here the terms are not so important as the bigger point:

“Any understanding of social and cultural change [creativity/innovation] is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments”.

The Analogy Falls Short…

When we published an earlier version of this essay as our newsletter last week, Gary van Dursen set us a thoughtful and very helpful critique:

“Your hypothesis for creativity is very interesting, but is like a stone skipping across the top of the water...lightly touching on a few valid points, until it runs out of enough speed and sinks below the surface.

Your bird flight analogy is very good, except you leave out the important part of the birds first attempt at flight. It falls to the ground as it leaves the nest! It continues to learn how to flap flap its wings...and moves a few feet repeating the effort until it "learns" dynamics of flying. 

Like the bird, everyone has some form of creative ability. With practice they can learn to be a little more creative in their attempts...but like artists, some people are far more capable of refining their ability to be creative...born with the ability and doing great things with it. While others make hobbies out of their efforts, or teach others how to do some creative endeavors, others are the great artists, musicians, designers, inventors, etc. .”

First, Gary is right — all analogies have limits. It is a beautiful image of the skipping stone finally sinking. Which is why we move away from the focus on bird flight to the invention of human flight (which will also have its own limits — being a singular example).

The major point that Gary is making is that we all start with “creative ability” and that with practice we can develop this ability and become more creative. This is a version of the “it has to start some where with some thing argument”.

There are five key problems with this argument:

  1. We are born relational: There is no doubt that we are born with many many inchoate very general capacities. And that we learn how to develop these capacities into fully formed and highly effective skills. But the seemingly purely internal capacities that we are born with are always already relational — they are not ever purely internal. 
  1. Nothing has a direct source: we need to understand the emergent nature of systems: they are non-linear, there is global to local influence, and they exhibit a relational holism.  
  1. Creativity is a multitude: The question,“is there a distinct capacity at birth (or at any other time) which we could term “creativity?” The major problem for this argument is that when we look at what actual humans do when they are engaged with creative processes we are confronted by a vast multitude of radically distinct and even contradictory practices (e.g. critical analytical skills, intuition, knowledge, lack of knowledge, precision, generality, embodied how-how, etc.). Human creative practices are irreducible to a singular skill or cluster of similar skills that we could term “creativity” — we are in what Wittgenstein terms a situation of “family resemblance” and not essence.
  1. Learning is co-constructive attunement: The example of a young bird learning how to fly that Gary mentions is an apt one — the bird is actively attuning itself to a process while being in and of an environment that is also active. “Learning” to fly is nothing like sitting in a room reading about everything one needs to know to fly — and it is not even the connecting and activating of latent capacities to an environment to accomplish a predetermined task. The bird is transformed as the environment is transformed (as affordances). “Flight” was not already in the bird. Flight was already immanent in the system (because it is stable), and learning is as system bending process to allow for the actualization of what is virtual in the system (not the individual). We say more about this below.

Our contention is that we need to focus on understanding, developing and supporting creative processes rather than falsely tilting after the windmills of authentic pure human creative capacity. That is a quixotic task that distracts us from the actual potential spaces, practices and processes of effective change making and that will really give rise to effective practitioners/engagers with creative processes.

Grounding a New Approach 

If we come back to the question “what is creativity?” — for how we  answer this question guides all approaches to practices of creativity.

Rather than defining creativity as internal capacity to generate novel ideas  that can be nurtured… 

…We would like to suggest that it is something entirely different:

  • Creativity is a process that happens at an emergent dynamic systems level.
  • Creativity has no single locus of cause or development.
  • Creative outcomes are co-created by the contexts in which they unfold.
  • The creative process to realize a creative outcome is via a networked assemblage that is required to catalyze, produce and reproduce a lasting transformation.
  • The impact of any given cause is contingent upon the state of the system as a whole.
  • The roles played by causal factors in creativity cannot be adequately understood as falling into two kinds, one exclusively played by human capacities and the other played by learning.
  • The notion of psychological or mental creativity (ideation) is of no explanatory value.
  • Creativity involves a change in the dynamic system as a whole, and not only a change in an individual idea.

Note: We have also written more about this in other essays.

‍A New Approach to Learning Creativity Begins by Shifting to an Outward Orientation

What does this mean for educational approaches to creative practices?

  • The focus of an education for the development of novel outcomes cannot be on teaching creativity as if it were a thing. 
  • The focus needs to be on actually participating in dynamic and worldly systems. 
  • Developing processes to effectively join, participate & stabilize the abstract emergent relational process of creativity while being grounded in actual assemblages.
  • We need to shift from individualistic models to collaborative approaches. And these collaborations are not simply, or even primarily human-to-human but these need to involve the environment as the primary collaborator.
  • We need to shift from looking inward for essences to exploring outward — where we disclose and engage experimentally with the full breadth and limits of dynamic systems. We need to meet creativity in the wild.
  • We need to shift from looking for pre-existing capacities internally to experimenting outwardly to develop emergent novel relational properties. 

Creativity and Education After Creative Individualism

Ultimately creativity is not all about you. What we can do is develop the skills to engage with and participate in worldly creative processes. This can be “taught” but it won’t happen in any of the traditional manners— “school” needs to be much more like a world called Kitty Hawk filled with “creatives” called sand, wind, struts, birds, motors, people— or better yet: also called simply Kitty Hawk. You don’t go to this school to learn something but to become something other — you will be invented by Kitty Hawk… 

So back to the question that began this essay: are we creative?

The answer is yes if by “we” we are referring to a larger dynamic emergent system/process.

But the answer is no if by “we” we mean the solitary human individual or its internal capacities.

Let’s get outside to discover and join the infinite multitude of creative processes thriving all around us in the wild.

Wright Brothers experimenting at Kitty Hawk

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