Chapter 2.1: Preconscious Aspects Of Creative Expression

Creativity and Unconscious

The workings of the unconscious mind are still dependent on early pioneers such as Jung, though brain imaging has allowed scientists to measure and explain this phenomenon better. This research and insight is important to this essay, as the unconscious and non-verbal right hemisphere of the brain form the ‘black box’ of the creative process – how much of an idea comes together in the unconscious, before we are even aware of it?

Jung (1923, p.120) describes how the unconscious develops associations that are valuable to the problem, or at least show promise until a point where they are formed enough to translate to the conscious mind. A thinker will develop the idea in their conscious mind – Archimedes sitting in the public baths, watching people getting in and out of the water, had ‘Prepared’ his mind with a problem and was ‘Incubating’ along the very lines he needed to connect for some time, the ‘Illumination’ moment happened in his conscious thought. The fact that most of the processing work of his brain had been unconscious only to gently feed the idea to him, after much time spent ‘doing nothing’ gives rise to the question of whether he unconsciously knew the answer, fully formed, as it were, without his being ‘there’ to understand it. Can the unconscious develop ideas that the conscious mind is never privy to? We have already seen evidence for the argument that creativity actually happens in spite of our consciousness, rather than as a result of it (Smallwood, Schooler, and Handy, 2008).

Poincaré’s (1913) explains of how, out of all possible variations, the mind can deliver the “good combinations”. He believed that these combinations occur in the unconscious or subliminal self. Poincare describes the divining of delicate intuition that either forms the ideas he experiences or whether it only feeds him the most promising, the rest becoming lost to the unconscious. Is it just a random associative phenomenon that we attach meaning to culturally, or is there some sort of value system in the unconscious that helps us choose from more valuable ideas? We will see how his hypotheses relates to more recent research in a later section.

Jung’s (1923) descriptions of the creative process reflect Wallas’ stages of creativity. He explains that ‘Illumination’ is when the incubating ideas in the unconscious develop enough ‘energy’ or become significant to the consciousness they move into conscious thought. Like water that changes state when it reaches a certain energy level – evaporating and becoming vapor – so some sort of energy is required that can translate an idea from one state to another, one hemisphere to the other, where it changes enough to become a conscious and therefore externally represented, as if through our sense, such as an image.

Neuroscientific research into subliminal and pre-consciousness of decisions; dreaming and even daydreaming ,show that the work of taking huge amounts of data from our environments is largely subliminal and automatic (Lewicki et al. 1992). This is what leads me to argue that creative individuals do not necessarily need to be more intelligent, skilled or culturally positioned in order to have good ideas. But something they do need and often exhibit, is the ability to listen to their preconscious machinations and to cherry-pick ideas from it that are far more conflicted and incompatible than any in conscious thought, though their self-conflicting state is only an external judgment. It is the prefrontal cortex that both allows for secondary level thinking and analysis. It is even where we need to decide to ‘listen’ to our primary processes. But it is also what effectively blocks much of the scatter of ideas and information from the conscious mind to allow it to focus on the goal at hand. When we daydream or sleep, the prefrontal cortex ‘switches off,’ allowing a larger amount of brain power to go to processing recent experiences and endocepts. When you ‘experience’ being unconscious most of your brain actually wakes up. It is simply the ‘me’ consciousness that stops holding everything back and all of the ideas and experiences collected through the day are churned up and explored in new ways.  When our consciousness recedes in sleep, more brain processes become involved in the transfer of cognitive information (Wagner et al. 2004, Cai et al. 2009, Snyder 2009). Unfortunately many of our experiences during REM and daydreaming do not get experienced by the conscious mind, or if they do they soon fade as the ‘real’ experiences of the day take over.

This means that creative expression requires an ability to ‘tap into’ our unconscious processes. The artist needs to be able to operate with an awareness of their primary processes, a ‘loose’ consciousness in order both to increase the amount of primary process idea generation and to be able to remember them. Somehow they are aware of themselves as they daydream and can recollect their ideas as they are randomly and emotionally combined. This is supported by literature that suggests artists are more comfortable with ambiguity and conflicting states – that their consciousness is slower to ‘delete’ or repress the ideas that the unconscious develops thus allowing them to absorb these problematic endoceptual combinations into working memory.