Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Reading: Poincaré's 'delicate sieve': on creativity and constraints in the arts (Paisley Livingston)

Fascinating article on the nature of inspiration, insight and how this ties in with creativity. A lot of it confirms what I have been thinking anyway, and wrote about in my post this morning. Although it focuses upon the processes of mathematician Henri Poincaré, rather than those of a fashion designer, there are many universal processes that apply to a variety of fields... many parallels that maybe drawn.

Without further ado, here be some very interesting points:

  • "Poincaré famously reported that some of his best mathematical ideas simply popped into his head while he was on holiday and not consciously doing mathematics...
'...Disgusted by my lack of success, I went away to spend a few days at the seaside, and thought about entirely different things. One day, as I was walking along the edge of the cliff, the idea came to me, again with the same characteristics of brevity, suddenness, and immediate certainty...' "
  • Article is not espousing the idea 'that genuine creativity is largely if not not entirely a matter of sudden, involuntary illumination or insight', but rather that 'creative achievements are often the product of different sorts of interacting psychological processes, including the stages of preparation, incubation, insight, and revision that have become commonplace in the literature on creativity.'
  • conditions preceding flashes of insight should be that of a 'period of conscious work' in order to set in motion what Poincaré referred to as la machine inconsciente (the unconscious machine).
  • 'inspiration must be accompanied by conscious effort: unless the researcher or artist makes a prior selection of the elements upon which the mind is to operate, the search will be too open ended and will most likely be fruitless as a result.' (This is exactly what I've been saying about how we operate as fashion designers - inspiration as constraint in order to narrow the field and generate a lexicon of design elements from which we can create a collection).
  • Idleness might not actually be idleness - the times when an artist (or designer) sets aside their work in order to pursue other interests, when their minds are not consciously occupied with their work are still beneficial in finding solutions or insights. The 'unconscious machine' has been set in motion...
  • "the key to innovation, be it conscious or unconscious, cannot simply be the application of 'a tremendous power of attention'... Having said this, however, the solution to how to be more creative is not to 'assume that the unconscious mental process' can identify new information or combinations. It seems that a mixture of hard work, research and then reflection is key. (This, I suppose, is something that we've always been told as students, but it is great to hear the why behind this!)
  • "Invention consists precisely in not constructing useless combinations, but in constructing those that are useful, which are a tiny minority. To invent is to discern, to choose." (LOVE this - a beautiful way of expressing the process of refinement).
  • All up, "... artistic creativity often arises from a multi-faceted process involving hard work, periods of idleness, unconscious cognitive activity, and episodes of inspiration, appreciation, and revision."

So... yeah... maybe this is the answer to the question I posited at the beginning of the semester, which was why do I get sudden thoughts/inspirations when I'm in the shower? It really does seem as though relaxing and doing something different helps sort out problems.

What I am left wondering though, is whether or not the knowledge that 'periods of idleness' can assist in maintaining the creative processes will help or hinder it. Perhaps it would come down to a matter of personality. Would telling yourself that you need to stop in order to interpret and process ideas stress you out? Or could you be comfortable in the knowledge that it will probably be beneficial?

I guess if you were concerned that you were wasting your time in 'relaxing' and not doing anything, then there probably would not be relaxing at all... and this would not be conducive to the desired 'breakthrough'. Perhaps the solution would be to do something like physical exercise, where there would be enough 'doing something different' (and in my case, pain because I am so unfit) to distract from the original task.

The only way to know would be to try these techniques out, and I imagine the results would vary greatly from person to person. If they were found to be useful, perhaps they could be scheduled in, or one could get into the routine of going for a run every time stress was taking its toll. Routine, after all, has been shown to be conducive to creativity.

1 comment:

  1. "insperation in the shower".... it was once suggested to me that the shower is particular good for this because the brain is subject to additional heat enabling it to think better. I don't know how true this, but it sounds plausible.