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Willing Suspension of Disbelief: A Review of The Creative Mind by Margaret A. Boden

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“Creativity is seemingly a mystery, for there is something paradoxical about it, something which makes it difficult to see how it is even possible. How it happens is indeed puzzling, but that it happens at all is deeply mysterious” (Boden, 1). Margaret Boden is a fan of hyperbole to the end of tantalizing her readers into probing deeper into her text. She spends much of the book wondering aloud if mysteries such as creativity are beyond the reaches of scientific exploration. If she truly believed that, I doubt she would have set out to write this book in the first place. Though her prose is circular in reasoning and highly repetitive, Boden offers interesting commentary on the inner workings of the creative mind, especially when viewed within the context of Neurobiology and Behavior topics of discussion.

Not two weeks ago, our class outlined a definition of creativity as “a willing suspension of disbelief” and nothing more. We pooled and distilled our collective notions of what it means to be creative and came up with that compact gem. Boden busts out the dictionary definition, “to bring into being or form out of nothing” (1) and posits that to achieve an actual creative state is inherently impossible. We know better. We know that little boxes in our neurological pathways can generate output with no apparent inputs. This replacement of the stimulus/response approach to viewing the brain and its functions is extremely helpful to keep in mind when sifting through this book. I had to refer to the notion of the five classical inputs in regards to creative generation throughout my reading and I came to the conclusion that though Boden never comes out and states it, she is using the term “creativity” in a manner that is synonymous with the nervous system’s ability to gather information which we are unaware of having gathered.

Boden uses the example of Coleridge writing Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner in a seemingly divine fog of creation and then dispels it, giving examples of all of the science books he had read and how he borrowed language from ancient poets to describe the infamous water snakes. For me, this concept fit perfectly with what we discussed all semester: we can never be fully conscious of the multitudinous, simultaneous inputs we’re receiving from the world around us and writing is the perfect forum for all of that unconsciously absorbed information to come out again in meaningful creations/output. Furthermore, Boden calls attention to antiquated notions of creativity/genius which we touched on in class discussion, as well. We devoted an entire class period to the discussion of the dreaming brain and waking reality versus perceived reality and I raised the example of fiction writer Shirley Jackson who attests that she wrote The Lottery in its entirety after having dreamt of the plot the night before. She claims it came out whole and we have no reason to doubt her.

Writers throughout history have had similar elusive experiences and though Boden is clawing at the walls to rationalize it, I say let it be. The brain works in mysterious ways and maybe, just maybe “the four phases of creativity, preparation, incubation, illumination and verification” (19) aren’t separate steps at all but rather words we prescribe to a process that can never be fully illuminated. Boden goes on to draw distinction in her construct of creativity by differentiating coincidence from serendipity. She states, “serendipity need not involve any inherently improbable event” (219). But, why she’s making the distinction is puzzling to me. She goes on to chronicle Proust’s famous run-in with la madeleine which sparked the creation of his greatest work and goes on to define this as serendipitous, which she then postulates is “made possible by computational processes” (220). In other words, computers can be brought into the equation to signify seemingly unexplainable events.

The mechanical part of Boden’s theorizing is troubling to me in regards to her obsession with computational creativity and replicating the human experience. However, it is pretty interesting stuff. On the first day of class, we talked about behavior under the following terms: Actions as individuals or groups, reaction to stimulus, patterns in action, outward sign of internal condition and a physical manifestation of thought. Computers, I began to realize, are capable of behaving, at least in the sense that they display patterns of action and an outward sign of their internal condition (e.g. hardware). The missing link between human and machine, and this is where I agree with Boden the most, is spontaneity. Sure, computers can “spontaneously” shutdown, freeze or even combust but they cannot generate inspired pieces of fiction or verse without out inputs. Yes, I concede that we as human beings are filtering inputs all the time through our storyteller but we do not rely on someone to physically type into a template what to say next.

We are socialized to behave in groups and therein lies a key variable. Everyone’s story varies because experience varies. We can’t all be Proust munching on cookies when genius strikes. Environment, upbringing, brain makeup, etc. all contributes to a unique individual that cannot be replicated as machines can. Everyone’s I-function is different. Every computer’s I-function, to extend the metaphor, is the same within a given make/model. Furthermore, the unpredictability of human beings sets them apart from any machine generated creation. Even algorithms or equations are prescribed to some degree and it is almost too obvious to state that neural synapses can misfire in a human brain at any given moment and thus, we are incapable of being as efficient as a machine. In that vein, I do have some remaining questions Boden brings up with her postulation, “Could Mozart’s genius have been due to his exceptionally skilful use of a computational resource we all share: the human mind” (240). What really sets us apart in this world? I don’t know if we have the vocabulary for it. Why is there such range in the human experience? Why the seeming randomness of it all? Is it just our compulsion for some organizing force at work? I don’t know. Boden does raise some pretty awesome questions.

I can only begin to think about human vs. machine within the context of Neuro Bio in regards to the I-function. Because the I-function allows us control over emotion over time, I would venture a guess that creative types don’t really take to that tutorial or else they’d be inhibited from their genius like the rest of the bankers and accountants and other uncreative types. The complete abandon in self-expression means that internal regulating forces don’t operate the same way for creative people. That’s how I see it, at least, and I think if Margaret Boden were in this course, she’d agree. In closing, I’ve got to say I’ve had a slight change of heart. I no longer agree that “explanation in and of itself devalues creativity” (261). I may have started the semester in that camp but now I’m beginning to see the light.


SOURCE: Boden, Margaret A. The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms. Harper Collins, Great Britain. 1990.