Cognitive Processes in Creative Contexts

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Cognitive Processes in Creative Contexts
Steven M. Smith, Thomas B. Ward, and Ronald A. Finke
Creativity depends on how people think. Obviously, it depends on

many other factors as well, such as the environment, one's culture,

and individual abilities (e.g., Sternberg 1988). Nonetheless, mental

processes are, in our view, the essence and the engine of creative

endeavors. Although there are many useful and productive ap-

proaches to understanding creativity, the creative cognition approach

(Finke, Ward, and Smith 1992) focuses on the cognitive processes and

structures that underlie creative thinking. This book unites the theo-

retical ideas and research findings of cognitive scientists who have

studied various aspects of creative cognition.

One basic goal of the creative cognition approach is to improve

understanding of creative processes by using the methods and con-

cepts of cognitive science. Most of the contributors to this book would

agree, however, that there is no single process that we can identify as

the creative process. Instead, creative thinking encompasses special

combinations and patterns of the same cognitive processes seen in

other noncreative endeavors.
A second goal of the creative cognition approach is to learn more

and raise new questions about cognition by examining it in creative

contexts. For example, research on how creative thinking is inhibited

or blocked may stimulate new ideas about how noncreative thinking

is inhibited. The creative use of categories may yield insights about

the way categories in general are represented. Theoretical models for

inducing new ideas may have implications for models of text compre-

hension. Just as ecological approaches have uncovered important

properties of cognition by examining it in naturalistic contexts (Neisser

1982), so, too, does a creative cognition approach suggest new ideas

about cognition by placing it in a creative context.
The creative cognition approach has roots in associationism (Thorn-

dike 1911; Watson 1958), Gestalt psychology (Duncker 1945; Maier

1940; Wertheimer 1959), and computational modeling (Newell, Shaw,

and Simon 1962). The associationist approach reflected a work ethic: more work should be rewarded with more products and greater suc-

cess. Because creative behavior was conceived as generalizations of

learned behaviors, it was thought that learning more associations

should improve creativity. This work ethic can be seen in the more

contemporary context of this book in chapters 2 and 3, by authors who

maintain that creative ideas are produced incrementally.
The Gestalt point of view, in contrast, posited special processes in

creative thinking, particularly insight, which is a major topic of con-

cern in chapters 3 through 7. These authors deal with such traditional

issues as whether insight involves incremental processes or rapid

restructuring and whether it plays any role in creative discovery.
Computational approaches to creativity have emphasized precisely

defined operations that can yield the same sorts of ideas that are

produced by creative humans. Although they consider different types

of symbolic operations, chapters 9 through 11 deal with current com-

putational approaches to creative cognition.
The claim that the same underlying structures and processes in-

volved in noncreative cognition can explain creative thinking may be

thought of as an approach for demystifying creativity. The hidden and

fascinating ways in which new ideas are created may seem less mys-

terious when expressed in terms that are used to explain everyday

cognition. The idea of demystification, however, presupposes that

creative thinking is not an everyday activity and that noncreative

cognition is perfectly well understood. Neither assumption is valid.

On the contrary, creative thinking evidently involves many aspects of

everyday cognition, and noncreative thinking remains somewhat

mysterious. Creative cognition should therefore help our understand-

ing of both creativity and cognition.

Finally, the creative cognition approach should lead to a better

understanding of how to improve or optimize creativity. Whereas a

personality approach is better suited to identifying creative people or

assessing their creative talents, the creative cognition approach fo-

cuses on the cognitive processes themselves that lead to creativity.

The better we understand these processes, the more we will be able

to improve them. Furthermore, theories about creative cognitive pro-

cesses should be empirically testable, as clearly demonstrated by many

of the contributing authors.
The chapters in this book represent a diversity of interests in cog-

nitive psychology and creativity. We begin with a contemporary treat-

ment of the ancient issue of dreams. George Mandler ("Origins and

Consequences of Novelty") considers the dream as a natural mecha-

nism and model for the type of unstructured thinking that can produce

novelty. Cognitive processes that occur during dreaming encourage new organizations, classifications, and concepts. Mandler also consid-

ers affect as an important consequence of novel thought rather than

an irrelevant by-product of it.

Kenneth Bowers, Peter Farvolden, and Lambros Mermigis ("Intui-

tive Antecedents of Insight") tackle intuition and insight from a con-

temporary cognitive perspective. Blending theory and empirical

research, they extend the idea that intuition can implicitly guide one

to coherent ideas and correct solutions using incremental mechanisms,

such as spreading activation. Also, using indirect measures of perfor-

mance, they show that subjects make progress toward problem solu-

tions without being aware they are doing so.

Robert Weisberg ("Case Studies of Creative Thinking: Reproduction

versus Restructuring in the Real World") proposes that real-world

creativity often involves incremental progress toward solutions rather

than restructuring. Citing examples from artists and scientists, he

traces the development of highly successful, creative ideas. Weisberg

emphasizes the importance of using prior knowledge in creative

thought, whether or not restructuring is involved.
In contrast to the incremental view of creative problem solving

advocated by Bowers, Farvolden, and Mermigis and by Weisberg,

Roger Dominowski ("Productive Problem Solving") asserts the im-

portance of special insight processes in problem solving. Tracing ideas

from early Gestalt work to contemporary research, Dominowski cites

evidence of various forms of fixation and sudden insight and makes

some general proposals about how insight problem solving can be


Like Dominowski, Jonathan Schooler and Joseph Melcher ("The

Ineffability of Insight") regard insight as a special process. Using

protocols from subjects' verbalizations during insight and analytic

problem solving, they find detrimental effects of verbalization only on

insight problems. Their studies provide new methods for distinguish-

ing insight problem solving from analytic problem solving.

Steven Smith ("Fixation, Incubation, and Insight in Memory and

Creative Thinking") integrates a number of theoretical ideas from

memory and problem solving, including interference and recovery,

contextual fluctuation, plans as long-term knowledge structures, and

memory probes, to provide a general description of recall, problem

solving, and creative thinking. The patterns of cognition are used to

explain fixation, incubation, and insight experiences. Smith provides

relevant experimental evidence from tasks that involve memory and

creative idea generation.
Thomas Ward ("What's Old About New Ideas") also addresses

creative idea generation but from the point of view of concept for-

mation and representation. He proposes that imagination is not ran-

dom but is structured by underlying conceptual constraints. He also

argues that creative ideas are often a mixture of old and new infor-

mation, and he uses principles of noncreative categorization to predict

the established frameworks within which new variations will be

embedded. Numerous laboratory studies of creative idea generation

are described that reveal the conceptual structures that give rise to

imaginative thinking.

Jennifer Freyd and Teresa Pantzer ("Static Patterns Moving in the

Mind") relate dynamic perceptual properties of mental representa-

tions to dynamic aspects of creative thinking. These dynamic qualities

are considered in the context of memory distortions and generating

and interpreting "preinventive forms," rudimentary structures that

can be used to develop creative ideas.

Peter Cheng and Herbert Simon ("Scientific Discovery and Creative

Reasoning with Diagrams") also focus on visual representations as

they discuss the use of diagrams in scientific discovery. Special qual-

ities of these diagrams are embodied in a computational model that is

capable of discovering scientific principles.
Roger Schank and Chip Cleary ("Making Machines Creative") use

a different computational approach to creative thinking, modeling

operations for comprehension and creative explanation. The models

they discuss help to clarify the relation between comprehension and

Colin Martindale ("Creativity and Connectionism") provides a novel

integration of ideas from diverse areas, such as primary and secondary

process thinking, conditioning, genetic algorithms, chaos theory, and

the thermodynamics of crystallography. Martindale characterizes re-

mote association in terms of arousal in a connectionist framework,

providing yet another computational approach to creative cognition.

Todd Lubart and Robert Sternberg ("An Investment Approach to

Creativity: Theory and Data") present a multivariate investment ap-

proach to creative performance. Their theory states that creative in-

dividuals "buy low" by investing their efforts in new ideas that are

not yet popular and "sell high" by moving on to new ideas once an

idea has become popular. Their studies show that those who are

identified as more creative are more likely to risk judgment of their

work for a high reward.

Ronald Finke ("Creative Realism") proposes that creativity must be

more than fun and wild imagination; realistic impact is also essential.

Distinguishing creative realism from creative idealism and conserva-

tive thinking, Finke details criteria for assessing and enhancing crea-

tive realism and discusses the concept in terms of "preinventive forms"

generated in his creative visualization research.

In the final chapter ("Conclusion: Principles, Paradoxes, and Pros-

pects for the Future of Creative Cognition") we summarize the major

themes of the book, highlighting, and in some cases resolving some

of the paradoxes of creativity research. We conclude by discussing the

potential value of the creative cognition approach.
Each of the chapters deals with central issues in cognition and

creativity. Many of them consider new ways in which creativity can

be studied under controlled conditions. We hope that the creative

cognition approach will help reveal the basic cognitive processes un-

derlying creativity and will offer exciting new directions for contem-

porary work in human cognition.

This chapter was supported by grant R01MH-44730 awarded to Steven

M. Smith.

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Maier, N. R. P. (1940). The behavior mechanisms concerned with problem solving.

Psychological Review, 47, 43-58.

Neisser, U. (ed.) (1982). Memory observed. San Francisco: Freeman.

Newell, A., Shaw, J. C., and Simon, H. A. (1962). The process of creative thinking. In
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creative thinking. New York: Atherton Press.

Sternberg, R. J. (ed.) (1988). The nature of creativity: Contemporary psychological perspectives.

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