Creative misconceptions

Chapter 11 of Turning Signs introduced Robert Ulanowicz’s theory about the ascendency of ecosystems and the importance of overhead (inefficiencies) in the system’s response to stress. This is a clue to the nature of creativity.

Ulanowicz observes that systems ‘can create too much structure and thereby become “brittle.” Thus, efficiency can become the road to senescence and catastrophe.’

So long as the magnitudes of perturbations remain within certain bounds, however, and occur on a more-or-less regular basis, ecosystems will develop. That is, their ascendencies tend to increase through the pruning of their less efficient, less cooperative elements. But when a system is confronted by a novel or extremely infrequent challenge, something that under normal circumstances had been a liability suddenly takes on a potential for strength-in-reserve. It is from the reservoir of sundry and unfit processes that comprise its overhead that the system draws to create an adaptive response to the new threat.
This glimpse into the origins of creativity in the natural world highlights an often unappreciated facet of human creativity. We correctly assume that to be creative a person requires a given amount of the right mental ‘machinery’ or intellectual capacity – but it happens all too often that the brightest individuals are not that creative. Many (I am prone to argue all) acts of human creation involve mistakes, chance happenings, or misconceptions that occur at or prior to the moment of creativity.

— Ulanowicz (1997, 92-93)

At the psychological level, Arthur Koestler pointed out that ‘displacement of attention,’ which is often a factor in humour, can also be a factor in art and discovery, when the attention is displaced ‘from a dominant to a previously neglected aspect of the whole, showing it in a new light’ (Koestler 1964, 77). A similar role is played by the ‘slipnet’ in the computer models of human analogy-making devised by Douglas Hofstadter and associates (Chapter 11).

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