The process of creative thought; what it is, how it comes about, and how it can be used to best advantage.

          Welcome to stren #96, The Creative Process, the means we may determine our destiny.

What is creativity?  We can begin with some dictionary definitions :
     create: .To cause to exist; bring into being; originate.  .To give rise to; bring about; produce.
     creation: an original act of human invention or imagination.
     Creation (capital C): God’s primal act of bringing the world into existence
     procreate: To beget (offspring); reproduce.
     procreative: capable of reproducing; procreative instinct: directed to procreation.                

          The creative force that has caused you and me to exist, which people label with such names as nature, fate, and God, has determined that procreation, i.e. reproducing and nourishing our progeny to reproductive maturity, is the most important behavior in life.  Pleasure and aggression centers located in the animal brain and the animal portion of our human brain compel us to engage in sexual intercourse, even at the peril of our life.  Orgasm is our most intensive natural pleasure. 

          However, only our kind can rebel from nature’s commands and determine our own goals.  We have been gifted with a freedom organ, our cerebral cortex, with sufficient intelligence to discover our creator’s universal rules of cause-and-effect.  Knowledge allows us to self-program our behavior.  We bring physical, mental, and spiritual reality into being, and introduce these creations into a world where they have never existed.   Through the power of interpretation and imagination, we make ourselves creators and destroyers.  We increase our power by the degree we invent symbols to discover, store, share, grow, and pass knowledge forward.  No other creature has such freedom to rule its self and influence the design of the universe we call “home.”  We can educate our freedom organ to create paths original to nature.     

          Our power to create and destroy is not only unprecedented, it is accelerating so rapidly that our generation has reached a tipping point.  Suddenly we surpass fate and circumstance in determining our destiny.  Our generation may choose to create a joyous, purposeful life in an ideal world, bring about our annihilation, or any degree in between.  We are making ourselves simultaneously our best friend and our worst enemy.  Heaven and hell, the perception of two extremes, is the creation of our own doing.  The greater our power, the greater the rewards for wise choices, and the greater the punishment for stupid ones.  We are discovering that intelligence directed by our animal brain will result in the use of our weapons of ultimate destruction whereas the use of common sense wisdom can redirect the energy of our animal brain to preferred outcomes.  Like it or not, we have assumed the responsibility to manage our life experience and the destiny our world.  The value of our creativity and its danger both grow as we educate our freedom organ with symbols to think using knowledge of cause-and-effect. 

          Popularizing a newer way of thinking (ANWOT) that equips our freedom organ with common sense wisdom is our most important creative task.  Our destiny is influenced by some combination of the hardwired directions of instinct and tradition and the common sense wisdom of our freedom organ’s will power.  ANWOT is our means to selectively choose where we can allow our growing power to be directed by instinct and tradition, and when we must intervene with common sense wisdom in order to survive and thrive.  We currently apply our creative power both wisely and stupidly.  Our success in surviving and thriving require an understanding of our creative process. 
          Creativity can be taught!  We can learn to consistently direct our power using common sense wisdom, and we must, because our most informed experts tell us our intelligence will soon lead to our extinction.   We can solve our most difficult problems if we follow the road map that creative people have laid out for us by their pain and frustrations.
          What if we could learn the fastest, safest, surest path to creativity from the world’s most successful people?  How much easier is any journey when a map is provided, especially one which reveals a superhighway created to accommodate the high volume of wisdom proven to work?   We have such map.  I believe one of the world’s best was created by Eliot Dole Hutchinson for his doctorate thesis at Harvard University.   His questionnaire to about 250 of the world’s most creative leaders, “scientists, artists, authors, musicians, and just ordinary folk,” and an extensive review of literature are the reasons I have invited him as a “guest lecturer.”  All page-numbered quotes in the section below refer to Hutchinson’s thesis.   


          Creativity is the application of knowledge of cause and effect to solve problems.  We discover universal truth as we reveal the orderliness of nature.  Logic, i.e. common sense, is the chief tool.  Reasoning is at a maximum; random trial and error effort is at a minimum.  Insight leads to insight.  One idea is incorporated into a set of ideas, and the sets of ideas lead to a higher level of problem to be solved.  “Elements are put together like bricks in a wall, each space being determined by the location and size of the preceding block.” p.12  Systematic reasoning is essential to solve complex problems.  Once an insight is born through systematic reasoning, then trial and error application may be introduced to demonstrate the validity of the new truth.  Whatever the field of endeavor, be it art, music, science, or religion, the process of discovery is fraught with uncertainty and stress.  The creative process is cumulative and compounding, leading to more advanced challenges for discovery.  The most successful creators welcome challenge with emotional reserve and intellectual objectivity.  

Hutchinson’s comprehensive study consistently identified four stages of the creative process: Preparation; Frustration; Achievement; and Verification.

1. Preparation
          All major creative breakthroughs are supported by years of effort and acquiring technical skills.  Perspiration is more important than inspiration.  The direction may begin vague and attain focus over time.  Logic, systematic planning, intelligence, prior knowledge, work, and accuracy precede an important discovery.  Common sense precedes insight, only then to be followed by trial-and-error false starts, verification, and widespread application.  Wisdom is added to wisdom to encompass a more comprehensive insight, but that is not enough.  Direct results seldom come from sustained effort and  inclination.  An undirected linkage of these elements must occur that wildly and effortlessly bursts into consciousness, the moment of insight described in stage three.  It is best to keep multiple problems alive because the random events that spring insight into consciousness is more likely when multiple solutions are pursued than if one’s interest is too narrow. 

2. Frustration

          When the energy to fulfill a drive for immediate satisfaction is blocked, frustration intensifies to create neurotic behavior and sustained physical tension.  Creativity leads to a series of temporary frustrations during which uncharacteristic thinking and action is common – sleeplessness, daydreaming, depression, and exhaustion.  Defeat may be temporarily admitted, other activities pursued, and preoccupation to lessen the stress and preserve emotional balance.  The stress may continue “until a re-education has built up a whole new way of acting and thinking, so here the act of creation is not fully accomplished until the ideas contained in the insight are secured for consciousness in some objectified form – written down, made explicit in memory, and at length evaluated.” p. 113 

          Sustained stress may cause irreparable damage, such as destroying the partially created act, or even self-destruction – intentional or accidental suicide.  Even without personal experience, we can imagine the effect of waves of perceived failure, feelings of inadequacy, shame, and hopelessness.  The most competent are overcome by frustration.  Rodin put hammer to a statue; Tchaikovsky tore up and burned valuable score sheets; and Shelley hid manuscripts so that no one would discover them.  Rest and relaxation alleviate discomfort and may be required for the moment of insight.  Erudition, unrelieved industry, and accuracy are not enough.  There must be a spontaneous reorganization of  knowledge more than an addition of an insight, that is rather an interpretation of stored elements – “one not only creates something; he becomes something as well.” p.115 

          Most people have more than enough intelligence to become powerful creators, but lack the emotional resilience to sustain the regular frustrations involved in the creative process.  Children and successful creators repeatedly fall down and pick themselves up.  Mistakes are not failures; they are necessary steps to redirect us to the path of progress.  “Error” may be a poorly chosen and discouraging word as indicated by Edison when asked how he could continue with so many failures: “... all I have ever tackled and solved have been done by hard logical thinking....  I speak without exaggeration when I say that I have constructed three thousand different theories in connection with the electric light, each one of them reasonable and apparently likely to be true.  Yet in two cases only did my experiments prove the truth of my theory.” p.15   Edison didn’t have any “failures;” he continued to discover what didn’t work.  False starts are seen as clearing the way for alternative possibilities to reach the goal.  An author noted, “Personally I feel compelled to keep up my futile attempts. ... I like to be compelled to keep up these efforts ... When the right idea appears, I forget everything and work like a slave.”p.51 

          It is helpful to understand that creativity means introducing what is not already part of establishment thinking.  New ideas or knowledge that contradicts present culture is often met with scorn, shunning, and even severe physical punishment.  The temperament to face the external stresses posed by established culture are clearly seen in proponents of “radical” ideas such as Christ, Galileo, Darwin, Freud, De Chardin, Lincoln, Gandhi, and so on.  Freud observed that new ideas pass through three stages: first rejected by the establishment, later declared possibly of value but simply a modification of the standard, and thirdly heralded as the establishment’s own worthy product.  Additionally, in every field that invites creative thinking, one often has to deal with jealous colleagues whose self-interests will suppress even the most brilliant achievement as “worthless.”  Such injustice is enough to induce aberrant behavior in all but the most composed creators.  Isolation and loneliness may be a high cost of creativity that some will be unwilling to accept.
          My own struggle with creativity focuses on several related solutions: why some unlikely people are happy and fulfilled, while those seemingly endowed with every benefit confess their unhappiness and worse?  Why do we continue to make war when peace makes so much more sense?  Given rampant world misery, what is the answer to the universal wishes and prayers for peace prominent in our collective mind?   Each insight starts with an idea, and may require a week or more of collecting ideas, frustration, stop signs, and then a rush to the computer to record one more paragraphs.  For me this stress cycle still persists in spite of a lifetime of preparation as a student of the mind and my privileged opportunity to share the insights of thousands through my professional career. 

          The genuine frustration that comes with a creative mind may be understood in part from our biology.  Creativity is a continued push for progress against a seemingly unmovable obstacle.  Our innate response when we are confronted with a problem to be solved is the production of “red alert” energy to fight or run.  Our ancestors were regularly faced with life-threatening danger and, lacking agriculture, had to kill to eat.  The “fight or flight” instinct confronts and quickly resolves the stressful situation and the red alert state returns to normal.  In civilized society, fighting is punished (except in war) and technology makes physical flight ineffective.  Frustration energy is labeled as anger or anxiety, but nature’s cue to fight or run is prohibited.  New “mechanisms” are introduced to manage frustration, such as blaming, procrastination, and substance abuse, to name a few.    The emotional pain of red alert is not resolved but continues at a sustained level of pink alert leading to mild or severe symptoms.  Thoughts of the problem and wishes to be at work are negated by many of the stress-relieving behaviors.  
          Evidence from two other sources explains why the deliberate escape from problem solving is regularly described as essential during the frustration stage. Post-traumatic stress syndrome, a common result of war, is seen as an overload of anxiety without opportunity for relief.  Studies on prisoners of war who succumb to brainwashing to renounce their country and ideals concluded that any mind under sufficient stress can be twisted to take on an abnormal persona.    

3. Achievement: the moment of insight

          The culmination of the buildup of frustration is the moment of insight.  A community of experience documents that the period of tremendous ambition, threatened failure with accompanying neurotic symptoms, and abandonment into irrelevant matters to preserve sanity ends with almost hallucinatory vivid resolution, success, and release into an emotional and mental orgasm.  Smaller insights may first lead to an “Aha” or “Eureka” experience but a jelling of insight to insights to solve the greater struggles of our life is a bombastic experience.   

          At the moment of insight “one is not only astonished at their number, not only startled by the vividness and ease of their appearance, but also largely at a loss to capture them.” p.134  The rapid flood of ideas occurs at unpredictable times and places.  There is exaltation, exhilaration, disappearance of neurotic symptoms, and a sense of elevation to a new level of competence.  Hutchinson reiterates that the unannounced conscious interpretation that creates something also causes a transformation in the creator. p.115 
          The data collected during the period of preparation is largely stored in verbal imagery and is brought to consciousness in the medium of language.  The most common expression of insight is expressed in (often new) words which link the conscious mind with the data stored and hidden from awareness.  Though words are most popular medium, other means of expression are available – the musician, the artist, the dancer express visual and kinesthetic forms of creative expression difficult to capture by words.  Yet, words are the most popular means to willfully encourage the insightful rearrangement of stored data.  They are our best way to intentionally summon to consciousness the stored emotions that lead to insight.  This is why a newer way of thinking (ANWOT) emphasizes that creation of updated labels, word-switches,  linked to common sense problem solving. 
          Solutions burst suddenly “out of the blue” when insight is least expected.  Poems, musical themes, art and architecture, essays, scientific and mathematical problems, often share complete solutions at the “quick as a flash” moment of insight after multiple unsuccessful attempts.  Preparation ends with a sudden illumination and release of tension in a period without deliberation.  Creators best express their own experience:

Tchaikovsky: “I forget everything and behave like a mad man.  Everything within me starts pulsing and quivering; hardly have I begun the sketch, than one thought follows another.  In the midst of the magic process it frequently happens that some interruption wakes me from my state.” p.134

An inventor: “It is usually startling for it has no connection with what I am doing.  Immediately the idea fills my mind forcing everything else out.  I am amazed at the apparent simplicity of it.” p.118

An English scientist: “Any ideas that matter usually arise when I have time to think, i.e. in bed during the three to ten minutes before I sleep, in a train, while driving a car, or on a holiday. ...
The best moments are those, I find, in which I let the imaginative thought become a game.” p. 116

Aldous Huxley: “Smoking and walking about, calm restlessness, without taking the mind too far away from the main thought, helps.” p.117 

Wordsworth: The association of the moment of insight linked to a state of relaxation was described as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” p.159 

Will Durant re writing history: “I spend a good deal of time making notes and gathering materials. ... the notes for one chapter are classified under an outline that usually contains some six hundred headings ... I am never inspired by a big idea; ideas form in me very slowly, if at all.” p.15

Beethoven: “…became, as it were, transformed.  He no longer belonged properly to himself, being wholly possessed by the idea.” p.136

Dr. Banesh Hoffmann, Oxford mathematician: “While reading an unrelated book, I picked up some scraps of paper and straightway, without realizing that there was any difficulty in the problem, I wrote out the solution with hardly a pause.  I knew somehow or other that something had solved itself at the back of my mind, but had no idea of the solution until my pencil almost automatically wrote it out.” p. 21

A housewife trying to alter a dress: “I had worked futilely for a half-day.  Considerably discouraged, I rolled up the work and put it away, sick at heart because I needed the dress for an affair the next day.  That night after two or three hours sleep I suddenly awakened, the plan of adjustment of my dress as clear in that moment as if I had seen it actually finished before me.” p.26

Bertrand Russell, a good summary: “In all the creative work that I have done, what has come first is a problem, a puzzle involving discomfort.  Then comes concentrated voluntary application entailing great effort.  After this, a period without conscious thought, and finally a solution brings with it the complete plan of a book.”p.19 

          Hutchinson found that whatever the creative undertaking, the moment of insight is likely to occur in three favored situations:  “... during or just after periods of rest and relaxation; in periods characterized by a slight mental abstraction or dissociation which in itself furnishes a momentary relaxation; during periods of light physical activity, usually of a more or less repetitive and automatic character, which give relief from the insistent tensions involved.” p.120

          My passion in the journey to create a universal, comprehensive, and easily understood explanation of human behavior has been most relieved while relaxing in a hot tub on a balcony just off my bedroom.  Although I logically attribute any insight to my preparation, a lifetime of learning from many of the world’s greatest teachers, and the opportunity to share the creative insights of thousands of patients, the breakthrough moments seem to appear on my mental screen like an email from some unknown sender.   I have had fantasies that the hot tub is a mini-Mt. Sinai and I am a Moses waiting for the next wisdom I am to dutifully record and pass forward.    

          We have yet to learn how to predict when the moment of creative insight occurs.  It is often not limited to a single insight but relates to a whole system of issues.  One cannot say, “I’m going to arrange to have an inspiration at 9 a.m.”  During the rush, most report it is best to “let them come,” sometimes waiting for the point to be clear.

          Many creative people speak about the relationship of creativity to dreams or use of drugs, most commonly coffee (caffeine) and smoking (nicotine).  Abundant examples substantiate that “stimulants do at times release genius, contributing as much to its birth as to its decay.” p.129   Alcohol has been said to selectively dull the anxiety that inhibits our emotional brain, allowing for a temporary synthesis of animal brain and cortex to create a more productive collaboration of intellect and emotions.  What is clear is that the declared insights produced through daydreaming and use of substances lack confirmation when the extensive prior hard work of preparation is lacking.  The musician’s “creative masterpiece” from a moment of intoxicated divine insight is declared worthless by objective observers and even by its creator in sober moments.  The use of substances, especially coffee and tobacco in moderation, is within the limits of propriety when paired with the appropriate preparation.     

          Some problems are so difficult and beyond solving that we would wisely invest our energy in the more basic pieces that eventually lead to the desired payoff.  The greater danger is declaring a difficult problem unsolvable when collaborative effort is the most productive approach.  I believe the use of weapons with ultimate destructive power, the most imminent danger we face, will be prevented if we can get over the learned hopeless/helpless attitude.  Unleashing the creative energy for peace currently pent up in people’s minds throughout the world, we will be unstoppable if we unite in collective action!  
4. Verification

          Discovery does not stand alone.  Common sense ideas discovered in a moment of insight must be tested by trial-and-error applications to determine their realistic social value; overstatements are more the rule rather than the exception.  Communicating a creative insight to its judge and jury so that they can understand it is systematic work that may be regarded as dull and uninspiring.  Demonstrating the truth of one’s claim requires time, during which enthusiasm commonly diminishes or fades away to other endeavors.  Insight follows a series of insights linked in a chain that begs moving on to the next link; verification pales beside the fire that burns in the creator’s mind to follow discovery with discovery.  Finishing an effort leads to restless inactivity and a self-imposed challenge to push knowledge forward. 

          Additional phenomena may cause the verification step to fall short.  Establishment’s resistance to new ideas can be punishing.  The greater the originality from standard beliefs, the greater the resistance.  Without confidence and a brave spirit, as the excitement fades over time, one’s energy to verify may be exhausted as does the willingness to become the subject of criticism.  The perfectionism required for most leaps in knowledge causes many creators to reexamine and demean their insight as not meeting their unrealistic standard; the imperfections must first be corrected or the project may be abandoned.       
          It is more difficult to get recognition for creativity at home than abroad because vested interests in the local environment create an atmosphere of negativity.  Even though I had completed medical training from prestigious schools offering the latest in medical knowledge, at home I was still the kid who could not be trusted like the real doctor.  Traveling beyond local areas to learn from critical evaluation and obtain acceptance is usually more productive.     

Emotions in Creation

          The power of emotion inspires us to seek and repeat the moment of insight even if the inspired creation fails to meet the test of common sense.  The value of the insight may only be appreciated by the subject, or a circumscribed group of believers.  Common sense yields to passion for the untested or unprovable belief.  Disagreement or opposition from the larger community may be disregarded or even become the basis of harmful confrontation to force acceptance on the basis of authority. 

          When a creative intension goes unsolved for months or years with prolonged frustration, perhaps abandonment, and then sudden effortless insight appears, the revelation often seems to be mistakenly unrelated to past experience.  The subject concludes the source must other than one’s self – a supernatural being offering universal truth – and their role is simply to record or share the insight as one’s duty.  The automatism is a sign of divine (or evil) intervention.   Prophets, advisors, and mystics feel that their absolute “insights” are so true and authoritative they could not be their own.  The emotional relief observed in confession, chanting, and repentance is commonly regarded as divine.  Spiritual ideologies based on a “leap of faith” are often dogmatically pursued while common sense reasoning that challenges the veracity of the insight is ignored. 

          As one example among many, in 1896 Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, wrote, “The works I have written on Christian Science contain absolute truth....I was a scribe under orders, and who can restrain from transcribing what God indites?” p.172   Such resolute conclusions are not only found in most religions but also in secular ideologies such as those decreed by Hitler, Khrushchev, Mao and dictators throughout history. 

          I have personally seen individuals who profess that their discovery of a universal truth, revealed while under the influence of a hallucinatory drug, must be shared with the world – “I have discovered that a dog is a bitch!”  The musician who claims a breakthrough in his art is apt to recant his claims when reviewing the results or getting critical feedback when in a drug-free state.  These individuals usually lack the difficult stage of preparation. 

          The power of emotion is evident through the prolonged stressful anticipation of the moment of insight.  Hutchinson identifies three basic sources of the emotion that beckons our pursuit of creativity:

  1. Matured interest (what I consider to be fate and circumstance):  Once we follow a path, vocational or recreational (sports, stamp collecting), we become tuned in to data present on our early path.  Enthusiasm is pursued and grows with greater objectivity and rationality.
  2. Frustration as a source of emotional life: We are driven to solve problems by our basic needs.  The innate biology that energizes us to solve problems is well known.   “Necessity is the mother of invention.”  Our animal brain is prewired to seek whatever provides pleasure and reduces discomfort.  The emotions that demand we solve problems sustain a cycle of discomfort, leading to creativity to resolve the problem, only to be followed by more of the same. 
  3. Emotional release in insight:  “Joy, zest, gratification, enthusiasm, and even rapture and elation replace the disruptive emotions of the period of frustration.” p.155   A basic observation is that  behavior that is rewarded is repeated.  The moments of insight that follow frustration addict us to pleasure, be it symbolic such as fame or money, or physical such as orgasm or the taste of our favorite food.  Creative puzzle solving is as much a way of life as it is an act of production.  It is an antidote to the flat uniformity and spiceless mediocrity of daily life.

          Thus, some combination of interest, frustration, and pleasure, which are within our control, contribute to the spontaneous reorganization of data that make us creators. 

          With respect to age, most important advances in knowledge occur between the ages of 20 and 50, although there are many notable exceptions.  Youth has more pressing needs whereas seniority favors habitual procedures.   Through the years we tend to find comfort in less consequential things; the pursuit of usefulness and quantity may take precedence over originality.      

          We are indebted to Professor Hutchinson for his painstaking verification of each of the four stages of the creative process and the excerpts of statements by the most notable thinkers.  Education can increase creativity!  Encouraging self-expression, imagination, dreaming, and exploring deeper emotion, independent thinking, productive relaxation methods to manage frustration, the need for “mistakes,” healthy rebelliousness, discipline, and so on are specific ways to promote creativity.  We need no reminders of the various ways our current methods of education, emphasizing uncritical acceptance of authority, inhibits creativity.

          As a psychiatrist with a lifetime of professional experience, I have no doubt that a prior understanding of the normal stresses creativity encounters will prevent much of the negative effects and support the creativity that otherwise is lost to humanity.  Knowledge of the normality of frustration and a proper rest and relaxation regimen makes insight more effective and satisfying. p.114   We can strengthen the natural resilience we inherit to move up and onward instead of the learned helpless/hopeless give up behavior we learn through restrictive education.  Preventive education promises significant rewards.  

Consider these hints to be more successful at creativity:

  • Become familiar with the creative process; this and other roadmaps are available.
  • Increase motivation for the goal.  Anticipate the satisfactions of achievement.
  • Define the problem and the goal as clearly as possible.
  • Write down ideas to solve the problem and try to make them explicit. 
  • Resolve not to be discouraged by mistakes, but instead to learn from them.
  • Watch for compulsive investment that creates stress symptoms such as irritability, depression, and physical symptoms, and prepare to include rest and relaxation. 
  • Consider the views of objective colleagues to determine if your task is overwhelming.
  • Find alone times to isolate yourself from distractions and temper this with dialogue of your ideas with persons felt to be honest and reasonably objective.
  • Be prepared for prolonged frustration and uncertainty before the rush of insight.  Know that once we get over the learned helpless/hopeless belief,   we are capable of managing the struggle.
  • •The self-endorsement strens #1, 2, and 16-24 provided in this ANWOT series of wisdom tips will strengthen your resilience to the frustration that holds back creativity. 

This stren will have served its purpose if it helps release your creativity to make the world a happier, safer place. 

1 The American Heritage Dictionary, New College Edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979.
2  The World at Risk, commissioned by the U.S. Congress; Vintage Books; December, 2008.
3  How to Think Creatively, Eliot Dole Hutchinson, Abingdon Press, 1949.
4  See stren #90, Modern Flight Patterns.
See stren #5, Word-switches and stren #94, Learning Starts with Labeling.