Barry J. Schwartz, Ph.D. (aka Simon Blackthorn)

Before I began doing comedy, I taught college classes and did research in the neurosciences – propelled initially by curiosity about the creative process. I am happy to say that things in the neurosciences have been getting much friendlier for the study of creativity.   One thing we know:  creativity and creative insight is a special interplay between the unguided subconscious part of the mind, and the deliberate, story telling, logical, conscious portion of mentality.   We are learning more about the conditions of this process in humans and, not surprisingly, in other animals too.   They have cognition but not conceptual language, and they too are inventive, playful, and insightful in their own way, as we might have suspected all along.

Neuroscience has been a late entry into the discussion on creativity because of several older influences: 1) Behaviorism; 2) Freud; and 3) the computer model (or Artificial Intelligence).

Back in the 1960’s when I began as an undergrad, Behaviorism was in fashion. They denied that mentality of any kind could be the object of science.  They are no longer listened to very much, but they once dominated the university scene.  Their discouraging influence lives on however in the design of our government schools, which followed the behaviorist blueprint. Enough said (for now).

A second hindrance to the study of creativity was the influence of Freud, which happily has also faded.  Freud, like Plato (and Christianity) before him, felt that the subconscious was in perpetual conflict with the rational mind.  So, rather than being the source of inspiration, the subconscious (the Id) was defined as the dangerous, corrupted enemy of all that’s decent and rational.  Not a good way to encourage artistic or scientific growth, much less humor.  (You could tell jokes about Freudians, but not to Freudians. Instead of laughing, they would dissect your motivation.)

A third barrier, just now fading, was the idea of brain as a computer and mind as software.  This idea held back progress in neurophysiology for decades.  Finally, now, people doing applied “AI” and robotics are using brain-like principles to improve computers, rather than continuing with the foolish assumption that brains must operate under the limitations of existing machines.  Since a computer has no conscious or subconscious mind, and no distinction between the two, it cannot be expected to inform us about the creative interplay between conscious and subconscious mental (or physiological) events.   Happily, the more we learn of brain function, the less computer like it looks.

Science is expanding our understanding of the brain side of creativity.  Why is that good? Apart from satisfying our simple curiosity, the benefits are a bit like learning musical notation.  You can surely appreciate and create music without it, but the notation can supply a means for seeing structure more clearly, making new connections and taking care of the process in a way that’s optimal for the mind.  Besides, the sciences, like everything else worthwhile in life, are themselves a product of creative innovation.  Creativity is not just for poets. People who conduct research get to experience that human creativity in their own way.


That being said, a great place to start exploring is with Arthur Koestler’s book, The Act of Creation, written way back in the 1960’s.  It’s as comprehensive a descriptive guide to the mental processes of creativity as I’ve seen in print, with some reference to what was then known about the brain.  And it’s entertaining and rewarding to read…  I’ll stop here and perhaps talk about that book another time…