Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The psychology of creativity

video
This is a video about some thoughts prompted by the reading of "Churchill's Black Dog, Kafka's Mice, and Other Phenomena of the Human Mind" by Dr. Andrew Storr, a British psychiatrist who took an interest in the psychology of creative imagination.

Storr's essays amount to a kind of long-distance psychoanalysis of famous figures like Isaac Newston, Franz Kafka and Winston Churchill.

He says Churchill’s depression was actually part of what made him so productive.

"To avoid this state of misery is of prime importance; and so the depressive, before his disorder becomes too severe, may recurrently force himself into activity, deny himself rest or relaxation, and accomplish more than most men are capable of, just because he cannot afford to stop."

Churchill's personality fits the description of the personality type known as "extraverted intuitive," in C.G. Jung's "Psychological Types." This is a person who has strong powers of intuition, but is less inclined to think things through carefully.”

This theme of the role of depression and mental illness seems to show up with some regularity in books about creativity.

Storr's main question is this: Why do people devote so much time and energy to creative invention. There may be rewards of fame and money eventually, but "many artists and scientists struggle for years without attaining either, and some win recognition only posthumously," he writes.

Creative work, which he also calls "imaginative activity," is inspired by something beyond material reward. Freud thought that imaginative activity came from dissatisfaction: "A happy person never phantasies, only an unsatisfied one...."

Dr. Johnson called this "the hunger of imagination." From Storr: "It is surely this hunger which accounts for man's supremacy as a species.

"If man, like some insects, was preprogrammed to be more or less perfectly adapted to his environment, he would live ... with neither the need to look for anything better nor the capacity to imagine it.... Because he has only a few inbuilt responses, he is capable of learning, of invention, of assimilating novelty and of creating symbols... We are never content with what is; we must always strive after something better."

It's hard to know what to conclude from Storr's essays - especially for a person who is generally upbeat, hopeful, positive.

I’m afraid I may be just too happy to be very creative by this standard, but maybe these gray, rainy days of winter will spur me into a useful - if gloomy - productivity.

- By John Strauss, jcstrauss@bsu.edu

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