The Mystique of the Unconscious in Creativity

September 16, 2019

Creativity is Unconscious

There is a long-standing belief in the unconscious wellspring of creativity. Invoked more frequently in connection with creativity than with almost any other human action or experience, the unconscious is considered responsible for mysterious bolts from the blue, flashes of insight, waking from sleep with ideas already formed, and energy-releasing altered states of consciousness. Also, creative writings and works of art seem perfused with unconscious content. So ingrained is the idea that creativity arises from unconscious sources that investigators who present evidence for conscious factors do so at their peril; they run the risk of being rejected out of hand by both professionals and laypersons.

The belief in the unconscious roots of creativity is tenacious and misleading. Because creativity is unconscious, the adherents often also say, it cannot be explained or adequately understood. This idea has a long and almost hallowed history. It goes back to the philosopher Plato, who laid the groundwork in the following remarks to the poet Ion:

For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses and the mind is no longer in him; when he has not attained to this state, he is powerless and is unable to utter his oracles.

Many are the noble words in which poets speak concerning the actions of men; but like yourself [Ion] when speaking about Homer, they do not speak of them by any rules of art: they are simply inspired to utter that to which the Muse impels them, and that only; and when inspired, one of them will make dithyrambs, another hymns of praise, another choral strains, another epic or iambic verses-and he who is good at one is not good at any other kind of verse: for not by art does the poet sing, but by power divine.

Had he learned by rules of art, he would have known how to speak not of one theme only, but of all; and therefore God takes away the minds of poets, and uses them as his ministers, as he also uses diviners and holy prophets, in order that we who hear them may know them to be speaking not of themselves who utter these priceless words in a state of unconsciousness, but that God himself is the speaker, and that through them is conversing with us. (Plato, 1924a)

I do not mean to say that in this passage Plato formulated a concept of an unconscious or that he considered the roots of creativity to lie in some particular aspect of the human mind.

On the contrary, he clearly considered creativity to be supernatural or divine in origin and, in another place, stated explicitly that the creative artist’s performance was the result of “divine madness.” (Plato,1924b) When performing creatively, the artist’s own senses were not directly responsible for the product, and consequently the creative process was a matter of being out of one’s mind and bereft of one’s senses. Such emphasis on the seemingly possessed aspect of creative activity has been a basis for a long tradition citing both madness and supra-human or external sources for creativity.

It has, on the one hand, continued and fostered the classical idea of inspiration by the muse, and on the other, it has today culminated in a psychological emphasis on the unconscious aspect of the mind: rather than ideas being inspired by a source outside the creator himself, they have been located within the creator as another aspect of his mind . Although the idea of creativity arising from the unconscious is not the same as Plato’s madness notion, it raises many problems. The modern concept of the unconscious is primarily associated with psychoanalysis and Sigmund Freud (also C.G. Jung, “Collective Unconscious”).

Psychoanalysts have fostered the idea that the unconscious and its operant primary process thinking (non-logical nor reality-oriented) plays a significant role in creativity. Turning to great works of art in order to corroborate findings about psychological processes derived from work with patients, psychoanalysts have long been interested in apparent manifestations of the unconscious and the primary process in works of literature and visual art.

In his initial presentation of his cornerstone concept of the Oedipus complex, Freud turned for illustration and support to Shakespeare’s great play Hamlet. Citing Hamlet’s inability to act against his uncle-stepfather, together with the intense relationship between Hamlet and his mother, Gertrude, Freud proposed that unconscious incestuous feelings toward Gertrude and murderous feelings toward his real father could explain Hamlet’s doubt and torment. After this and other artistic analyses by Freud, numerous other psychoanalysts have attempted to describe myriad instances of unconscious phenomena in works of art. Because of the seeming universality of these instances, creative artists were alleged to be particularly sensitive to their own unconscious processes, and these processes were considered to play a critical role in artistic creation.

Artists’ own testimonies have also strengthened these considerations. Repeatedly, artists of all types report that they cannot trace the steps in their achievement of outstanding ideas and that such ideas seem to intrude into their awareness without warning or preparation. In many cases, important ideas are said to arise when the artist is not directly working on a creative task but rather while he is relaxing or occupied with something else. In effect, therefore, the Platonic idea of possession by an external factor has been changed to a factor that is external to awareness.

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