Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Creative Cognition: Ordinary, Observable, and Unconscious

Recently, cognitive psychologists have begun to take a serious look at creativity in human cognition, and to study it empirically. Under traditional views of creativity, this is a daunting task, because creativity is viewed as something mysterious and extraordinary. However, researchers using what is now called the creative cognition approach1 argue that this traditional view of creativity is wrong. Rather than being instances of extraordinary, or unusual cognitive processes, human creativity, even in its most striking forms, utilizes ordinary cognitive processes. Thus, the difference between mundane, everyday acts of creativity, and acts of extreme creativity is one of degree, rather than kind. Adopting this view allows researchers to study creative phenomena in laboratory settings, using the methods of cognitive psychology, and to carry over knowledge from existing cognitive theories. In this post, I want to briefly outline the creative cognition approach, as presented in Fink, Ward, and Smith's Creative Cognition: Theory, Research, and Applications2 and Ward, Smith, and Finke (1999). In a subsequent post, I will discuss some of the empirical findings generated from this approach.

The creative cognition approach is built around the Geneplore model3, and describes two types of processes involved in creative cognition: generative processes and exploratory processes. Generative processes are those that most of us think about when we think of creativity. They are the processes by which creative concepts are first born. These processes are highly visible in extreme acts of creativity, but they are also evident in ordinary, everyday cognition. For instance, concepts are products of generative creative processes. As Ward, et al. (1999) write:
The mere fact that we readily construct a vast array of concrete and abstract concepts from an ongoing stream of otherwise discrete experiences implies a striking generative ability; concepts are creations. (p. 190)
A wide range of ordinary cognitive processes can be used in the service of generating novel ideas. Examples from Ward et al. include memory retrieval, assocation formation among information retrieved from memory, combinations of structures retrieved from memory, the synthesis of new structures, the transformation of retrieved structures into "new forms," analogical transfer between domains, and "categorical reduction," which involves reducing existing structures to "more primitive constituents"(p. 191-2). One type of structure produced by generative processes is called a preinventive structure. Preinventive structures are, in essence, the "germs" of creative ideas. Ultimately, they may not resemble the final product of the creative process, but they are the ideas that get the ball rolling, and they can be created through any of the processes mentioned above, or through other ordinary cognitive processes.

Exploratory processes are just that, processes used to explore the structures produced by generative processes. Examples of exploratory processes given by Ward, et al. include searching retrieved structures for "novel attributes," searching for "metaphorical implications," searching for possible functions, "the evaluation of structures from different perspectives or within different contexts," interpretation of structures from the perspective of the problem(s) to be solved, and "the search for various practical or conceptual limitations that are suggested by the structures" (p. 192).

As you might imagine, it will sometimes be difficult to distinguish between generative and exploratory processes, in practice. The two types of processes interact in a dynamic fashion. In some cases, generative processes may be used to produce a novel idea, after which exploratory processes will disover potentially important limits to the utility of that idea. Generative processes will then produce a new novel idea based on the findings of the exploratory processes, and so on, until a desired solution or otherwise acceptible final structure is arrived at. The complex interactions between generative processes, exploratory processes, and context is presented in the following diagram from Ward, et al.:

Posted by Hello

Figure 10.1 from Ward, et al. (p. 193). The following is their caption:The basic structure of the Geneplore model. Preinventive structures are constructed during an initial, generative phase, and are interpreted during an exploratory phase. The resulting creative insights c an then be focused on specific issues or problems, or expanded conceptually, by modifying the preinventive structures and repeating the cycle. Constraints on the final product can be imposed at any time during the generative or exploratory phase.

One other interesting aspects of the Geneplore model is that most of its processes occur unconsciously, or below the level of awareness. This is particularly true of the generative processes, but also for many of the exploratory processes listed above. For example, the processes involved in analogical mapping occur largely unconsciously, and more often than not, memory retrieval is an automatic process born of cues in the environment. Furthermore, there is evidence that conscious thought, including (and perhaps especially) language, may actually inhibit generative processes. The unconscious nature of many (if not most) of the cognitive processes involved in creativity call into question the many anecdotal accounts of sudden insight and the production of creative ideas that have often fueled the belief that creativity is something mysterious and not amenable to careful empirical study. This does not mean that we can't consciously influence the outcome of creative processes. Exploratory processes can often be used quite deliberately, and even generative processes can benefit from conscious attention to problems and potential solutions. As Pasteur once said, "Chance favors the prepared mind."

So there you have it, the basics of the creative cognition approach. Over the last decade or so, researchers using this approach have produced a great deal of empirical research, with a wide arrange of findings. In the next post on creative cognition, I'll discuss some of these findings, and describe their implications for other disciplines, including science in general and literary theory.

1 Ward, T. B., Smith, S. M., & Finke, R. A. (1999). Creative cognition. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Handbook of creativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2 See also The Creative Cognition Approach and the chapter cited in footnote 1.

3 First described in Creative Cognition: Theory, Research, and Applications.


Anonymous said...

Great post, Chris. I'm not so sure some of this is so new, though; it sounds like it has affinities to Poincaré'es four stages of discovery (preparation, incubutation, illumination, verification), and, of course, there are lots of anecdotes in which the mysteriousness of creativity is linked directly to unconscious processes (e.g., insights achieved in dreams). In other words, it sounds to me like this approach is a refinement of the traditional view, insofar as there was a traditional view. Pace Ward et al, I don't think the common view is that only some individuals are creative, but that only some individuals are creative geniuses, which is a different sort of thing.

None of this, of course, changes how cools this whole approach is. I don't think I'd even heard about this line of research before; now I'll have to start reading up on it. 

Posted by Brandon

Anonymous said...

Yes, great post.

It sounds as if the Geneplore model is incompatible with Poincare in some important respects. Chris didn't specify, but the G-model seems to be support the notion that creativity arises from conscious or potentially conscious processes.  

Posted by Lindsay Beyerstein

Anonymous said...

I just want to make it clear (in case it wasn't) that when I say "unconsciuos," I am referring to contemporary views of the "cognitive unconscious," rather than the older psychoanalytic views. Dreams, for instance, are available to awareness (even if it's a different type of awareness), whereas the mapping processes involved in analogical mapping are not. In contemporary cognitive science, the consensus is that the bulk of what our brains do is unconscious, or unavailable to awareness. The conscious mind has access mostly to the output of unconscious (fairly automatic) processes, and some executive control of the initiation or cessation of processes. Sometimes we can consciously intervene on automatic processes, but this is usually to the detriment of the effectiveness of those processes. 

Posted by Chris

Anonymous said...

I'm clear on the difference between the cognitive unconscious and the psychoanalytic unconscious, but I'm not clear on whether creative processes are thought to be accessible to introspection.  

Posted by Lindsay Beyerstein

Anonymous said...

Sorry it took me so long. I've had major computer problems. There are two distinctions, when talking about the cognitive unconscious, which are important. The first is whether the processes are automatic, deliberative, or automatic but capable of being deliberately altered, and the second is whether they are available to introspection. Often, the cognitive processes themselves are completely unavailable to intrpospection (as in the mapping process in analogy, or the bulk of the processes involved in categorization), but can be interrupted consciously. In other cases, the processes are automatic and cannot be interrupted once initiated (e.g., the processes involved in edge-detection). In these cases, often the only cognitive awareness that it is going on is the awareness of an automatic change of perspective (e.g., a head turn) to get more information.

In creative cognition, some of the processes are unavailable to introspection, but the bulk of the higher-order processes can be interrupted, or interfered with, through conscious deliberation. This may occur because conscious thought (which is primarily linguistic) uses the same resources, or because the processes are consciously stopped before completion.  

Posted by Chris

.0001 penny stocks said...

Although this post is somewhat of a mind-bender to me, I do believe that our minds are creative by nature...everything we see around us was once just a thought.

S.H.--0.0001 stocks

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