Creativity's dance with death

The Darwinian origins of our urge to create

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What is creativity? How does the creative process work? And why do the most creative minds seem to be the most troubled? Gregory Feist digs deep into the Darwinian forces at play and argues that it is our relationship with death, particularly our desire to avoid it, which drives our creative urges.

 

The world in itself—what Kant called the “Ding an sich”—is not directly experienced or known and never will be. Our sensory systems take in sound and light waves of certain frequencies or chemicals or tactile pressures and send corresponding neural signals to our brain. It is the brain’s job to make sense of these signals. Indeed, the human brain (and all brains) evolved for two basic functions: to keep the animal alive (regulate organ function) and to sense and make sense of its experiences (“what is that?”  and “can I eat that or will it eat me?”). Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio dubbed these the “house-keeping” and “meaning making” functions of the brain. Humans, however, possess a uniquely large and complex cortex and frontal lobe and these afford the meaning making function to play a much larger role compared to most other animals.

Because of our large and complex cerebral cortex and vast network of neural connections, as well as an unusually large and integrative set of frontal lobes, we can put space between thought and action (impulse control), reason about abstract ideas, remember the past and think about the future, be conscious of our own consciousness, think creatively, and importantly know that we are going to die one day. I will return to the concept of death at the end of this article, but first I want to delve into the connection between our intuitive and automatic meaning making brains and the creative process.

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The arts and sciences may have different objects of attention and focus, but the creative process in the two is very much the same.

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In very broad strokes, the arts often originate from a desire to give meaning to and to express our internal life (our reactions and experiences), whereas the sciences, especially the physical and biological sciences, originate from a curiosity about and desire to understand our outer worlds—the physical and natural worlds. The social sciences, in turn, involve the drive to understand the human world.

The arts and sciences may have different objects of attention and focus, but the creative process in the two is very much the same. The creative process involves both rational and non-rational processes in that it has two distinct and dynamically interacting phases: the idea generation and the idea evaluation phases. I call these the “creator” and the “critic” phases, while acknowledging immediately they are not linear but rather in a constant back and forth with each other. The creator is intuitive, hunch-based, automatic, and loose. The critic is rational, conscious, evaluative, and tight. Whereas the creator goes broad and wide (divergent thinking) and is about brain-storming and generating ideas (even “bad” ones), the critic narrows and limits (convergent thinking), by evaluating, selecting, editing, deleting, and improving those ideas.

One hallmark of creative people, to be sure, is a natural confidence and willingness to have a wide range of ideas, even bad ones, because they intuit that there is a “Darwinian” process at work, whereby only the best ideas will survive the evaluative critic. They are not bothered by bad ideas, but see this as a necessary part of the process. Psychologist Dean Simonton refers to this as a “blind variation and selective-retention” process.

But what is “best” or meaningful is not only up to the creator but ultimately to society. Sometimes the creator thinks an idea is “great,” but others don’t and it gains no traction and has no impact, destined for the dustbin of history or the dreaded “silence” response. At other times, however, others find meaning and use in an idea or product about which the creator may be only luke-warm. And yet other times, some creators are truly ahead of their time and only appreciated by later generations, as was famously and tragically the case of Van Gogh.

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There is one uniquely human ability—knowing we will die one day—that I and many other thinkers argue plays an outsized role in our need and/or desire to create and to leave behind some kind of legacy.

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This brings us an answer to the question: “What is a creative idea?” It is an idea or set of ideas that is both original and novel and also meaningful and useful. On this, there is near universal agreement among researchers of creative process. If it were not for the meaningful/useful criterion, we would not be able to distinguish delusional and psychotic ideas from creative ones. Delusional ideas are often very original and unique. Originality needs to be moored to some kind of useful and meaningful solution to a problem (i.e., defined loosely as any experience we are trying to make sense of). Of course, as I just discussed, sometimes there is a gap in time or space in the evaluation of original and meaningful solutions.

In a way, the first phase of the creative process is non-rational (or at least less rational) and the second phase is (more) rational. Creative people often toggle between these two states. As the famous creativity researcher from the 1960s, Frank Barron, wrote in Creativity and Psychological Health, "Thus the creative genius may be at once naïve and knowledgeable, being at home equally to primitive symbolism and to rigorous logic. He is both more primitive and more cultured, more destructive and more constructive, occasionally crazier and yet adamantly saner, than the average person". Barron was hardly the first to recognize this. Aristotle famously said “There is no great genius without some mixture of madness.” And an extensive scientific literature has at least partially corroborated these insights by finding higher lifetimes rates of some forms of mental illness, especially the milder mood and psychotic disorders, in creative artists, writers, poets, and musicians than in the general population.

Now, to return to death and its relation to need to creative and make meaning. There is one uniquely human ability—knowing we will die one day—that I and many other thinkers argue plays an outsized role in our need and/or desire to create and to leave behind some kind of legacy. For many people, this unconsciously or consciously takes the biological desire to have children. For some people it takes the form of wanting to have power and dominance over others. And for others, it takes the form of creating works of art or solving important scientific problems. The outcomes of the need to create is what some scholars dub a desire for “symbolic immortality.”

One of the more powerful and succinct statements of death and living a meaningful, creative and productive life was Steve Jobs’ commencement address at Stanford a few years after he was diagnosed with cancer but six years before his premature death at age 56: “(r)emembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life…Death is the destination we all share. Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away…Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”

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Knowingly or unknowingly, we want some kind of legacy, some kind of evidence that we existed.

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The creative person knows this intuitively and deeply. Here is just a brief set of quotes from artists and writers making clear that death is the ultimate motivator of the creative process:

  • “No art is possible without a dance with death.” (Kurt Vonnegut, writer)
  • “Writing (here implying the activity, not result) keeps death at bay. Every book I write is a triumph over death. We work against death all the time. If we didn’t know we’d die, we’d wander around and sleep like cats” (Ray Bradbury, writer)
  • “Because I was afraid to die.” (Gyrorgy Fauldy, poet and writer, when he was asked why he writes
  • “I thought that if only I could put up a structure--something that had never been built before--I would have to solution for preventing death….by making something special of one’s life, death could be changed from a catastrophic to a desirable end” (Lisl Goodman, psychologist, remembering an experience she had as a child playing with blocks)
  • “Art is a protest against death.” (Audrey Flack, artist)

 

I argue that awareness of this existential reality, either implicitly or explicitly, is one of the main drives to create, to make sense of our inner and outer worlds, and potentially to leave a symbolic legacy that outlives our biological mortality. In short, awareness of our limited time is a driving force behind our need for both biological and symbolic immortality. Knowingly or unknowingly, we want some kind of legacy, some kind of evidence that we existed. 

Brains are a wonderful creation of evolution. The human brain not only makes us aware of the problems of existence and our death, it also affords us the possibility of creating solutions to our limited time on this planet by making sense of our experiences and creating meaningful ideas, products, and discoveries. If we are lucky, other people might find meaning in our solutions and our legacy may live on. If not, there is always our children!

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Roxana Belaunde 16 August 2022

About the last two sentences...what if our solutions and legacy don´t live on and neither do we have children?

David Simpson 15 August 2022

When I realised, aged about 6 or 7, that my parents were going to die, I was devastated. My whole life (I’m now 70) has been a struggle to find a point in living, knowing death is inevitable.

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