Creativity, according to Margaret Boden

“Creativity is the ability to come up with ideas or artifacts that are new, surprising, and valuable.”

-Margaret Boden

I found a podcast a week ago of a short interview with Margaret Boden, author of The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms. She chatted a bit with the interviewer (who sounded a bit rushed, to be honest), attempting to explain her proposed definition of creativity (stated above). My interest spiked, I did a little net-surfing for more information, whereupon I found this article. It is a short one, “Creativity in a Nutshell”, written by Boden herself.

Her first requirement for the “creative” label is that the idea of artifact is new. But how new? And to who? Psychological creativity ” involves coming up with a surprising, valuable idea that’s new to the person who comes up with it.” A special case of this “P-creativity” is Historical creativity (or “H-creativity) in which the idea or artifact is not only new to that person, but new to the human race. Never before, then, has it been “discovered”.

Now, she goes on to examine the idea of surprise. breaking it down into three different experiences:
⓵ The idea/artifact is surprising because it is so very unlikely. Unlikely, but you concede to its possibility. This type of creativity combines familiar ideas into unfamiliar combinations.

Before discussing the other two, it is important that we understand Boden’s idea of conceptual space:
“Within a given conceptual space, many thoughts are possible, only some of which may have been actually thought. Some spaces, of course, have a richer potential than others.” (She doesn’t go into detail about what it means to have richer potential. Too bad.)

This space, I imagine, is like that a huge landscape in your head. Yourexperiences in the world make up the features of this landscape. The information is stored, but that doesn’t mean that those memories/experiences pop up in your consciousness as thought all the time. Thought is more about the here-and-now; it is rather 2D, whereas this landscape is more 3D. Someone’s “thinking style” can be compared to pathways in that landscape. Certain thoughts and memories pop up more often than others in your consciousness. The web of paths connecting features in your mind’s landscape in well worn in some areas and not at all in others.

Ok, back to Boden’s types:

⓶ An unexpected idea arrises, but it makes sense: “[the] idea may ‘Œfit’ into a style of thinking that you already had — but you’re surprised because you hadn’t realized that this particular idea was part of it.” You develop this idea within the boundaries of your normal thinking style. Consider the landscape metaphor: you follow that path of thought, but when you reach the end, you turn and follow a path you’ve never taken before.

⓷This idea is apparently impossible. There is a sense of “astonishment,” a lingering wonder as to how in the world it could have formed in someone’s head. Imagine walking along you mind-paths. There is a mountain ahead around which your path usually takes you. Instead, you jump to the top. JUMP TO THE TOP? HOW CAN THIS BE?? What else can you do now that jumping is an option?

When it comes to value, she has little to say. Boden believes that “aesthetic values are difficult to recognize, more difficult to put into words, and even more difficult to state really clearly.” Values, then, are the root of conflict in creative judgement, because everyone has their own, complex set.

So what does this mean to the artist and their viewer? Creativity is kind of a big deal…we all know this. Novelty? I think we descendents of 20th century artists have the notion of “surprise” down-packed. But as Margaret Boden claims, there are varying shades of creativity, and different value judgements are made by every individual. But is it really that we have different values? Perhaps (especially superficially). But what about our deepest values? Are there universal morals that we all share?

If there are, I believe it most likely that Art is the method to bring them to light. It is language that can wind around the limitations of linguistics, our wrapping of definitions around values. Do the most successful and meaningful works of Art somehow translate into solid form the values so many (if not all) of us share. We share them, but our feeble attempts to explain seem to paint them different colors.


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