In search of why:
The role of intuition in creative practice
It is generally understood that creativity relies on the coordinated operation of two contrasting forms of mental activity: reason and intuition. Although these terms represent a kind of philosophical dichotomy, they are not exclusive during the creative process. Rather, they are in continuous flux, informing an artist’s technical and aesthetic choices from the formation of incidental gestures to the establishment of large-scale structures. The faculties of reason and intuition represent the gravitational field, through which creative decisions are mediated.
Reason is transitive, objective and functional; it exerts itself through analysis. Intuition is intransitive, subjective and aesthetic; it exerts itself through association. Both are integral to creativity, but as analysis is a function of reason, the body of research devoted to it in relation to artistic practice is vast. Intuition on the other hand is largely overlooked by academics and educators alike. But however ineffable, intuition deserves our attention, as it would appear to play a vital role in the creative process and in the development of style and identity. This is a quote from Dutch composer Louis Andriessen.
“I think and I have found that what we may call style or personality is actually our limits. And I hope that is also what Picasso meant when he said that style is coming after me. I just do what I want to do. But when I try to do something completely different; I find out that I am confronted with the fact that I cannot do too much. I have my limits, and I fear that this is what people call personality.”
Louis Andriessen: The John Tulsa Interviews
I just do what I want to do
I am drawn to this quote by Andriessen because it expresses a fundamental wisdom; we are who we are, despite our best-laid plans. It is an acknowledgement that creativity is essentially a human endeavour and thus riddled with unrealised potential, and an acceptance that in many ways we are defined by our limitations. The compelling truth is, however, the only way we really come to know these limitations is by buffeting up against them in an attempt to over reach ourselves.
Of course, we possess the ability to further our craft, but perhaps there exist intrinsic and essential aspects of our make-up that exert their influence upon our artistic development, guiding us towards the fulfilment of some ambitions at the surrender of others. I believe artistic style is achieved through intuition. Style is an expression of our personality and our personality is a cultivated construct, the resounding affect of years of accumulated memory. And whether we attribute these features to emotional environments, interpersonal relationships, early childhood experiences or indeed the inheritance of our DNA, we must submit to the fact that there are fundamental aspects of our psyche that we cannot fully understand or control through purely rational means.
Good musicians engage in the continuous pursuit of new auditory experiences, but not every experience carries the same resonance. Through the ritual of identification, we are driven to pursue and understand some experiences above others, and it is through these various creative alignments that we come to know ourselves as artists. Style reveals itself in the way we filter these influences, in the way we select our material and in the manner we devise and present our work.
By academic standards, Andriessen’s declaration, ‘I just do what I want to do’ is fraught with a perilous lack of empirical justification. And yet, it is particularly salient here, as it betrays the marked assurgency of intuitive thinking that underlies his creative concerns. Andriessen is a composer known for applying rigorous objectivity in his approach to formal organisation. In his work De Stijl for instance, he bases the composition’s form entirely on the proportions of a painting by 20th Century Dutch minimalist Piet Mondrian. But as he betrays in this interview, Andriessen also reserves a place for intuition in his creative process, making exceptions to the rules in order to take advantage of the anomalous chance occurrences that arise during composition. He likens these fortunate accidents to what he calls ‘grace’. Grace is the ability to respond to unforeseen events and take creative advantage of them. It is one of the most important skills an artist can acquire, and it is also, I think, a function of intuition. But can this skill be taught or at least encouraged in those who would seek a creative life? Are there methods, by which teachers can facilitate artists in the development of their intuition?
Intuition and unconscious mind
The concept of intuition is very old, but it continues to hold value. The word is derived from the Greek intueri, which loosely translates: to look inward. Intuition may be understood a form of direct cognition; it is a state of knowing, that does not rely on rational justification. Because it supersedes the dialectic of internal reasoned debate, it carries a clarity and immediacy of purpose, which is invaluable during creative action. In fact, it is conceivable that creative endeavour could not exist without it. And yet, the source of these internal convictions has always been a mystery, and so intuition is commonly associated with concepts of expanded consciousness.
The belief that human experience encompasses multiple states of consciousness is very ancient and widespread, and many attempts have been made to understand human consciousness through various metaphysical models. In Hindu philosophy, with its roots in the Upanishads, a collection of Sanskrit texts from around 1000 BCE, human consciousness is divided into four distinct modes of experience: Vaishvanra or waking consciousness, represents outward cognition, our mental interaction with the material world. Taijasa or dream consciousness represents inward cognition and is the intermediary state between our everyday waking world and higher levels of awareness. Sushupti represents dreamless sleep or non-dual consciousness. Sushupti is associated with Prajna, transcendence of mental desire, a direct knowledge of the true nature of existence. Finally, Turiya is pure consciousness, which is understood to be trans-cognitive and immutable. (Guénon, pg. 127)
Taoist philosophy, which emerged from earlier Chinese shamanistic traditions around 500 BCE, places human experience within a Universe of dynamic and perpetual transformation. Reality is guided and sustained by the opposing principles of Yin and Yang, which flow into and out of each other continuously. The way of the Tao is to live in harmony with these natural forces. In the West, the symbol of Yin & Yang has come to represent the primary duality that shapes our intellectual understanding of the world, and many Western concepts fit neatly into this dichotomy: light & dark, male & female, reason & intuition, conscious & unconscious, but the Tao itself is non-dualistic. It is ineffable and cannot be expressed through logic or language, but only experienced. This is achieved through Wu-wei or effortless action.
Early Western philosophical explanations for the phenomenology of intuition followed similar metaphysical beliefs. Plato describes intuition as coming from, ‘a pre-existing knowledge residing in the soul of eternity’. But by the end of 19th Century, psychologists are already beginning to frame intuition within the domain of human thought. Psychiatrist Sigmund Freud also proposed a hierarchical model of human consciousness. This included three theoretical constructs: the Ego or rational conscious mind, the Id or unconscious desire and the Superego, which represented a kind of higher moral authority or idealized virtue. Freud connected intuition with activity in what he called the ‘preconscious’ and described it as a latent understanding drawn from regions of the unconscious mind that are not suppressed and thus readily accessible to the Ego. (Strachey, J. & Freud, A. pg. 238)
Whatever contemporary opinion may think of Freud’s theories, he is an intellectual giant and his ideas gave rise to our cultural understanding of the human mind. And yet, here is a man who understood the importance of creating an atmosphere conducive to self-exploration, something academia has been very slow to pick up on.
From what we can surmise of the unconscious mind, through the study of our dreams, we may conclude that it displays a radically different syntax than that used in waking life, and one that involves aspects like: symbolic representation, free association and novel recombination. It follows then, that memories undergo a transformation through their subduction and incorporation into the unconscious. In describing the possible effects of unconscious processes on memory in relation to creativity, psychologist Théodule Ribot devised a very simple formula to describe this transformation via a form of mediated association.
‘A recalls C, although there is between them neither contiguity nor resemblance, but because a middle term B, which does not enter into consciousness, serves as a transition between A and C.’
Théodule Ribot: Essai sur l’imagination créatrice
Human memories are not fixed and inside the swirling mass that is our unconscious, memory fragments, like unstable molecules, can bond with other pre-existing memory fragments to create novel combinations, which then come forward into consciousness. The memories involved may be completely removed experientially, but are drawn together because of some innate structural symmetry that encourages their amalgamation. This is not a process of conscious recollection, but rather the surfacing of unconscious memory that has undergone alteration and reformulation through the forces of free association.
Over time, an artist accrues a multiplicity of sensual memories, these are internalised into the unconscious mind, where they are transformed and recombined with pre-existing memory. If the process of incorporation is thorough enough, new ideas emerge into consciousness as indigenous structures of our imagination. Musician Tom Waits alludes to this phenomenon in the following interview, where he describes the effects of time and space in altering our perceptions of reality and the role these perceptual distortions play in informing his artistry.
“I like what time does to your memories. It all has to do with what kind of lens you’re using. I like the way things are distorted by time. I like listening to music far away; you hear it wrong. You hear it mixed in with everything else. So, I usually try to step back so that things are a little blurred for me. It’s like water stains on the wallpaper; you thought it was part of the design. But its not, you know; I like that.”
Tom Waits: Traveler’s Café Interview
I like what time does to your memories
If anyone can be accused of mining the subconscious for dramatic material, it is Waits. The title of this album alone is a statement of intent. Its incandescent stream of consciousness lyrics are a gold standard of free association, their crooked, colour soaked narrative, littered with intimate detail. But a flush of unconscious invention is equally evident in the proliferation of musical styles that cross pollinate these songs, blurring our interpretation, baffling our preconceptions and tainting our listening ear with the paradoxical cry of human existence. Elements of vaudeville and European cabaret mix freely with the dusty blues tinged folk of an American carnival midway. High and low, sacred and the profane, innocent and corrupt, all transfigured by the same gritty brush with mortality, and every moment presided over by Wait’s commanding presence, master of ceremonies, vizier of the grand bazaar, enlightened aesthete and untailored drunk.
Waits has described the aesthetic of his song writing as the effects of ‘broken memory’. It is the natural distortion of his diverse influences through their subduction into the unconscious. But in truth, the incredible artistic transformation that took place with the release of Swordfish Trombones was a brilliantly orchestrated piece of stagecraft, built upon a comprehensive knowledge of music history. The cultural strains that infuse these songs are carefully woven and held together by a meticulously chosen palette of sonorities. It is a bold and fearless example of intuitive power informing intelligent design.
At the time of its release, Swordfish Trombones was completely out of step with mainstream media, and yet it went on to become one of the most celebrated albums of all time, defining him as an artist. Rather than a prescriptive approach to our students’ creativity, perhaps we should be encouraging young artists to stretch themselves, and by over reaching, find the technical and emotional contours that will eventually define them. We should at least leave a space in their education for directed experimentation, in which they are allowed to ask questions of themselves, and to uncover and connect with the forces driving their creativity. For as we come to understand human experience in more detail, we are discovering that the unconscious mind is at work throughout our lives informing our actions, directing our relationships shaping the meaning of our lives.
The power of dreams
If we turn to the field of cognitive sciences, and consider the mind purely in terms of brain function, we find intuition at work in every aspect of human endeavour. Studies show that human beings are gathering and storing information below the level of conscious awareness constantly and that this information influences our conscious perception. (Gaillard, R., 05/06) The brain possesses modes of acquisition, known as subliminal perceptions. This latent experiential knowledge, known as ‘implicit memory’ is distinct from conscious recollection, as are the mechanisms governing its processes. (Schacter, D.J.)
Research reveals unconscious memory transformations occurring during periods of REM sleep. Changes in the balance of brain chemicals, known as neurotransmitters, suppress feedback from the hippocampus, an area where long-term memories are stored, to the neocortex, an area involved in higher brain functions. This frees activity in the neocortical areas during sleep, by weakening the influence of the hippocampus. This leads to the dissolution of associative hierarchies and a reinterpretation of memory in relation to previous semantic representations. (Cai, D.J. 06/09) In sleep, our established thought patterns are less dominant and the brains opens up to invention. Studies reveal that musical interaction activates multiple regions of the brain simultaneously. Many of the areas are connected to the circuitry of ‘implicit memory’ like early response mechanisms of arousal, motivation and reward. (Blood, A.J. 09/01) It is highly likely that the stimulation and increased communication between regions of the brain during musical activity encourages a heightened level of creativity.
Intuition and emotion
Popular descriptions of intuition often involve emotional language, i.e.: ‘I had a gut feeling’ or ‘I had a sense’. But can emotion enhance intuitive impulses by increasing the conscious mind’s engagement with unconscious processes? The role of emotion in the formation of memory is well established. Memories that contain heightened emotional arousal are recalled more easily and with greater clarity than neutral memories, and unlike neutral memories, they do not fade over time, but can actually become more vivid. (LaBar, K.S. 11/98) The role of emotion and memory in creativity has long been postulated, but until recently there has been little understanding of the physiological processes involved.
At one time, it was generally accepted that emotion and reason were distinct processes, occurring in two discrete regions of the brain. The limbic system managed emotions and sensory input, while the neocortex managed higher functions like rational thought. As our ability to scan brain activity advanced however, this construct was widely challenged, and many neurologists now consider it obsolete. (Ledoux, J.E. 10/96) Recent clinical tests have shown that the amygdalae, a part of the limbic system and crucial to the processing of emotion, also plays a key role in memory. In fact, during testing for memory retention using F.M.R.I. (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) people who showed higher activity in the amygdalae performed memory related cognitive tasks more effectively. (Schaefer, A. 09/06) Research is revealing that emotion and cognition are interactive functions and mediated through a shared architecture.
It is conceivable then, that a musician can use directed emotion as a means of unlocking unconscious musical memory. It is the migration of unconscious thought into waking thought, a creative elaboration of unconscious representation. Looked at in this way intuitive responses can be seen as the flint that ignites the flame of conscious elaboration. Intuition acts within the brain’s architecture as the impulse for creative thought.
The creative brain
Perhaps the most provocative clinical research concerning the function of the amygdalae comes out of a combined study by the University of Tokyo School of Medicine and the Nakamura Psychotherapy Institute published in 2010. Using the classic Rorschach Inkblot Test, individuals were asked to interpret a series of abstract images. A marked coincident occurred between the volume of an individual’s amygdalae, and their capacity for unusual or unique perceptions. This evidence suggests that amygdalae enlargement may actually lead to increased creative mental activity. (Asari, T. 01/10)
Intuition may be understood as the surfacing of selected unconscious thought into waking consciousness. It has been proposed that because intuition draws on specific previous knowledge, as received through experience, its faculty may be refined or improved over time. (Sadler-Smith, 06/07) If this is true, a musician’s ability to work intuitively with their material may increase with experience. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that this is indeed the case. As an artist becomes more experienced in their praxis, they come to rely more and more on the faculty of intuition to resolve questions of creative intent. Their approach to composition becomes less formalised and more immediate. The development of the amygdalae cortices through creative activity may lead to an amplification of unconscious memory and thus an increased faculty for unique perception.
An artistic temperament is the result of a heightened sensitivity to one’s environment. Experiences that contain emotion are sublimated into the unconscious. The development of intuition allows this emotional memory to be accessed during periods of ‘creativity’. The tendency towards heightened emotional sensitivity may be physiologically based. But perhaps it is also a learned disposition, encouraged through exposure to art and artistic practice. In an age when more and more of our decisions are being delegated to computer-aided processes, isn’t it crucial we remember where creativity comes from and encourage its development in our artists.
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