On Saturday 21st November I had participated in the Open Platform, a series of events taking place in the Wellcome Collection Reading Room. The event was called: Pull it out of a hat: experiment with your creativity through unusual associations by writing poetry and making collages.
Pull it out of a hat
My interest in the creative process started with a broken fridge handle. It gave me the opportunity to watch it, unrolling in slow motion, while I was building this bricolage solution to a problem how to glue a broken fridge door handle and to make it stick.
It was a chance to observe the idea forming step by step. Unusually, the process was slow enough to let me see the stages of development. Usually, ideas come fully formed, if not necessarily ready. Then they are developed, spinning through iterations, which can be consciously compared and assessed.
Nevertheless, the initial concept just emerges, and it is the process of inception that does not lend itself to analysis through introspection.
The other reason triggering the interest in the emergence of new ideas was my experience of creating to deadlines and watching others in the process of making new things.
Do artists want to understand their creativity? On the one hand, there is curiosity, on the other, a fear that dissecting will destroy the very ability. The fear is expressed in the words of Rainer Maria Rilke rejecting psychotherapy: “If my devils are to leave me, I am afraid my angels will take flight as well.” Quoted by psychologist Rollo May (1969:122). But even if artists hesitate to untangle personal sources, they can be curious about the process itself.
Psychoanalysis is a traditional approach to investigating creative mind. An artist Patricia Townsend researched creative experience of fellow artists, engaging with psychoanalytic theory, in particular, the concept of relations between mother and child. It is an archetypal creative situation (Townsend, 2014). Another familiar psychoanalytical concept commonly related to artistic practice is that of free associations. I will return to it later.
Neurological investigation of thought or consciousness is in its infancy. The translation between observable, objective neural phenomena and subjective mental ones so far eludes observation. There is no consensus in the scientific community if the mind will ever be completely understood and explained, being so subjective and ephemeral. I believe that this is due to technology we have on disposal. What can be done at the moment defines what we consider possible. Today we can monitor blood flow in the brain and infer activity in regions where it increases. There is a noticeable gap between regional events correlated with a mental state and understanding how electrical and chemical processes become thoughts.
The widely used metaphor for understanding is seeing. Self-reflective nature of the mind struggling to understand itself through workings of the brain resembles an attempt to see one’s face without a mirror. It cannot be done. A mirror also stands for a way to conceptualise the understanding. A reflected face is reversed, different to the one perceived from the outside, so maybe the translation from electric to mental can only be approximate?
One of the optimists, working on understanding human thought through the brain is professor Nancy C. Andreasen. Her investigation of creativity started with a passion for literature and curiosity about the literary creative process. Having a PhD in English Literature, she wished to investigate it in depth by learning about neural mechanisms underlying creative genius and completed a degree in neuroscience. She continues her career as a neuroscientist and psychiatrist.
To analyse the phenomenon, Andreasen introduced concepts of Ordinary and Extraordinary Creativity). The first one is manifested in the everyday use of language, with a new combination of words in every new sentence. The second is the quality distinguished in arts and science. To define Extraordinary Creativity and separate it from any odd, idiosyncratic mix of ideas Andreasen proposed three necessary conditions:
• It is original, showing new ways of looking at a subject or spotting new relationships.
• It is useful, although the utility is defined widely, concerned in producing emotions in others and inspiring wonder.
• It generates an outcome, a tangible manifestation (2005: 25-28).
As a starting point, Andreasen took testimonials of creative geniuses from fields of art and science such as Poincare or Tchaikovsky reporting how and in what circumstances, their breakthroughs occurred. They all shared the fact that new ideas emerged during a peaceful phase on the edge of sleep or in a state of a daydream when a mind is thinking freely, without inhibitions and internal censorship. Such a state characterised by low-frequency electrical activity in the brain. It is called a hypnagogic state.
Electrical activity in the brain is described as brainwaves (Wikipedia, 2016). A brainwave traces a pattern of neural oscillation – a rhythmic or repetitive neural activity in the central nervous system. A wave depicts a field generated by changing electric action potential of individual neurones. There are no ripples just a changing frequency, which can be simplified on a diagram forming a regular wave. Electrodes placed on the scalp can measure the electric action potential of an area of the brain.
Classification and short characteristic of Commonly mentioned brainwaves (Roberts, 2006)
• Delta (0.5-4Hz) dreamless sleep, unconsciousness or trance, states of deep relaxation.
• Theta (4-8Hz) creativity and memory consolidation, during transition between sleep and consciousness
• Alpha (8-12Hz) relaxed waking state
• Low beta/sensorimotor rhythm (12-14Hz) a state relaxed but alert, focused attention
• Beta (16-30Hz) agitation, activity, heightened mental ability and focus.
Assuming that twilight zone between sleep and alert consciousness is the time for creative thoughts Andreasen observed – using PET (positron emission tomography) – visualised and measured changes in regional blood flow in the brain, as mental activity changes from regular activity to the hypnagogic state. The areas activated when the brain entered hypnagogic state were association cortices. These are zones dedicated to linking input calculated by specialised parts such as visual or audio cortex, where single pieces of information can be connected (associated). Before a new creative thought is formed, multiple association cortices circulate thoughts in response to one another, unconstrained by the daytime logic and without a practical purpose to integrate associations with sensory or motor input (2005: 70-74). Given time, disorganised and meaningless associations self-organise, forming original thoughts. Andreasen hypothesises that ”extraordinary creativity is qualitatively different from ordinary creativity. The underlying neural processes are distinct. They proceed by tapping into the unconscious in ways that possessors of ordinary creativity alone are unable to do“ (2005: 77-78).
Free association is commonly mentioned in writing about creativity. It originates from psychoanalysis, but it is often used outside of the field, losing its technical meaning. In the general sense, it is a method of exploring thinking, in particular, primary process thinking (Andreasen, 2005: 68-70). Primary process thinking, the term coined by Freud, describes an unconscious and pre-verbal mental activity produced by id. It emphasises immediate fulfilment of wishes and follows a different logic than conscious thought, for instance, equates thought and action. Primary process thinking can be observed in dreams (Farlex, 2016).
Free association, as an investigative method, takes material from episodic memory and is not interested in conscious, temporary organisation of thoughts.
Episodic memory is autobiographical, recalling personal experiences as a sequence of events. It allows examining the past as well as projecting the future. It draws on freely wandering and undirected preverbal, associative thoughts of primary process thinking. It is less consciously accessible than semantic memory, which is an impersonal record of facts and concepts, factual information about the external world, shared with others (Andreasen, 2005: 71).
The connection between creativity and the hypnagogic state of the brain is explored by London scientist John Gruzelier, Emeritus Professor of Psychology (Goldsmiths, 2016). He explains that creativity, relying on new associations, is improved when the brain has an opportunity to connect separated memories, stressing the impact of reaching distant parts of the brain on the potential novelty of associations. His research argues that longer brain waves travel further, connecting remote areas of the brain. As a result slow, low-frequency theta waves produce more unconventional associations.
To test this hypothesis, Gruzilier designed an experiment boosting theta waves and tested in on musicians from the Royall College of Art (AAPB, 2011). It used neurofeedback treatment, monitoring brain activity, detecting its frequency. An individual could see their current type of their brain waves in the video game displayed on a screen. Randomly chosen participants learned to adjust particular aspects of their brain activity. Control groups were using different methods of enhancing performance. They were filmed performing music before, during and after six weeks cycle of neurofeedback. Experts assessing videotapes did not know which group or stage of the experiment any given tape represented.
The trial was successful. Students, who learned to slow their brainwaves, reported feeling improvement in their performance. This was confirmed by better multidimensional results of examinations. The enhancement of performance amongst the musicians working with neurofeedback was significantly higher than of any other control group. The result supports the connection between creativity and the hypnagogic state.
So far, creativity presents itself as an anarchic and random phenomenon. But between a vast number of random permutations of memories and a genuinely innovative thought lays the process of selection. John Suler (1980) states that creativity depends on control executed by the secondary process thinking over the primary one, suggesting some form of logical control over outcomes. Peter Howard (2006) provides experimental scans showing an increased activity of the part of the brain associated with conscious control over selecting outcomes. An original idea is a result of editing many possibilities to get the best one. Secondary process thinking does not equal conscious thought, and the fact that choosing takes place in the regions of the brain associated with conscious selection doesn’t mean that a person is aware of this process. In fact, the verification and selection happen much faster that conscious thoughts.
Talking about selection brings the subject of strategies used by artists. These are arbitrary constraints limiting an initial choice of ideas or materials. Working within self-imposed limits is easier. It is more manageable to produce, rearrange and choose the best from the smaller pool of options. Howard gives as an example of artist Kurt Schwitters giving himself a task to make a collage of material found in his wife’s waste paper basket (: 2006). Randomness is an established artistic strategy, with found objects taken as a starting point for artwork. This technique was employed for years by an artist Candy Jernigan (Contemporary Art Daily: 2014), taking her objects directly off New York sidewalks.
Using chance is a conscious effort to refresh associations by introducing an unexpected starting point. Another example of serendipity used as a creative tool is an automatic poetry produced by Dadaists. This last example was a direct inspiration behind “Pull it out of a hat” – a participatory event I ran in the Reading Room of the Wellcome Collection in November 2015.
It was a lighthearted experiment with creativity through unusual associations and switching from images to words.
The activity was designed to test if exercising random semantic relations has the positive impact on complexity and coherence of collages produced by participants. After a brief introduction about collage, participants made their first image. The group was creating a single image, and everybody was instructed to make their choices in relation to other cut outs, designing a coherent composition rather than scattered, separate pieces.
In the second part, as a way to introduce random semantic associations, participants took turns to pull a word of a hat and write a line of verse inspired by the word. Using a well-known technique, a person than folds a paper and passes it to next one. The words were a mixture of concrete and abstract terms.
Below is a sample of writing:
Decadence dances in Denmark
Your brain is full of positive thoughts
Cheese with style
Today is a new day
Afternoon @ Wellcome Collection
There were several customers stood in a line, there they waited
Glossy paper, glossy lips
Inspirations are everywhere
Out of abyss
You cannot pick who is your favourite
We all love socialising at those, also games, sports and parties
You have a job to offer a service
Educational systems offer varieties of…
Developing technology doesn’t mean civilisation
He was frightfully empty as he stood there
Afterwards, the sequence was read out loud. In the final part, the participants were given a second, identical set of cut outs to produce another collage.
In my opinion, there is some improvement in the cohesion of the second image; there are more grouping and relations.
This tongue in chick suggests that visual creativity can be stimulated by exposure to random associations in a different modality. Switching between modalities and using language or music as a source of inspiration for visual art is a well-established practice.
My favourite linguistic triggers are idioms, offering ready images with of their nonsensical, literary meaning.
I wonder what are the limits of imagination, limits of creativity? The early modern philosopher David Hume had an opinion, which stood out against the optimistic background of Enlightenment philosophy, which still influences popular belief. He wrote: “But though our thought seems to possess this unbounded liberty, we shall find, upon a nearer examination, that it is really confined within very narrow limits, and that all this creative power of the mind amounts to no more than the faculty of compounding, transposing, augmenting, or diminishing the materials afforded us by the senses and experience.” (1748).
Neurological investigation of creativity more than two hundred years later confirms that a new thought is a reconfiguration of material stored in memory. The received wisdom of the art world says that originality is only for people with a very short memory. We cannot go beyond the boundaries of a human body with its mechanisms of perception and imagine beyond experience. Having said so, I suspect that mathematic is a way to overcome constraints of intuition and imagination, producing truly unthinkable worlds.
· Contemporary Art Daily, 2014. Candy Jernigan at Greene Naftali [online] Available at: <http://www.contemporaryartdaily.com/2014/03/candy-jernigan-at-greene-naftali/> [Accessed 21 October 2016].
· Flex, 2016 Medical Dictionary at: Thefreedctionary by Farlex [online] Available through [Accessed 18 October 16].
· Goldsmiths, University of London 2016. Professor John Gruzelier [online] Available at [accessed on 11 October 2016]
· Howard, P., 2006. Interview on Creative Genius, Programme 3. Interviewed by Ian Peacock. [radio] BBC Radio 4 [online] Available at: , [accessed 11 October 2016]
· Hume, D., 1748. Of the Origin of Ideas in: An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Vol. XXXVII, Part 3. The Harvard Classics. Eliot, C.W. ed. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14; [online] Bartleby.com, 2001. Available at: [Accessed 21 October 2016].
· May, R., 1969. Love and Will. New York: W. W. Norton
· Roberts, G., 2006. Free your mind: a scientific approach to unleashing creativity, Independent [online] Available at: [Accessed on 11 October 2016]
· Suler, J.R., 1980. Primary process thinking and creativity. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 88(1), Jul 1980, 144-165. [online] Available at: , [Accessed on 11 October 2016]
· Townsend, P., 2014. A Life Of Its Own: The Relationship Between Artist, Idea And Artwork. Free Associations: Psychoanalysis and Culture, Media, Groups, Politics Number 65, February 2014, pp. 99-118, [Accessed 13 September 2016].
· Wikipedia, 2016. Neural Oscillation [online] Available at [accessed 13 July 2016]