Notes On Creativity As Blind Variation And Selective Retention

 

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In a chapter on the sources of creativity in his book The Wandering Mind (2015), Michael C. Corballis draws on a 1960 article by D.T. Campbell (“Blind variation and selective retention in creative thought as in other knowledge processes.” Psychological Review 67, 380-400) about the constitutive elements of creative thought. Campbell distills the process into two concepts: “blind variation” or wandering which is subject to chance discoveries, and “selective retention” or recognition of these discoveries. Using the metaphors of paths and sparks, Corballis elaborates:

“Blind variation is captured in the very notion of wandering, whether ambulatory or mental–straying from a set path into unknown territory. What we find there depends on chance. It is the randomness of our wanderings, then, that supplies the spark of creativity, although when we do stumble across something new and important we need to recognise it as such–what Campbell called ‘selective retention'” (154).

This notion of blind variation/wandering subject to chance discoveries resonates with Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s notion of creative tinkering described in his essential book Antifragile (which I wrote about here). And the selective retention/recognition part reminds me of Gerd Gigerenzer’s work on gut feelings, which are intuitive judgments derived from paying attention to cues in one’s immediate environment while ignoring unnecessary information. To sum up, what’s powerful about Campbell’s blind variation + chance + recognition model of creativity is how it posits the process of ideational/artistic craftsmanship as not inventing per se, but rather setting ourselves on paths where we might notice sparks flying around.

Performance Notes: Imagining A Perfect Musical System

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I imagine a perfect musical system would begin by asking me questions.

What are you feeling today?
What is on your mind?
Where do you want to go?
How do you want to be?

Then the system would generate a series of sound sets based on my mood and my imagination. These sound sets would draw on all the work I had ever done, plus other sounds I might be interested in. It could be a set of soft sounds like pads, or crystalline bell tones halfway between a wine glass and an organ. Or it could be a set of angular wooden percussion sounds. Or voices. Or chord kits. Or sounds so synthetic they sound hyperreal. Surprise me!

Another stage in the interaction would have the musical system ask me to improvise around an idea—say an image presented to me based on today’s mood. I would improvise around this idea, tentatively at first, then with more gusto-abandon, until I had played continuously for say, ten minutes—long enough to hopefully stumble upon some interesting trajectories across the musical terrain. The musical system would then guide me back to a few promising sections of my improvisation in which I had played melodic figures and chords that suggested a new moment, an altered state, a deeper consciousness—something that makes you take notice. These sections would then be offered to me as springboards for further elaboration through counterpoint, sampling, sound design, or some other manipulation.

Alternately, the system could also spin out variations of its own on these moments of inspired improvisation that I could then fold back into the new piece. In other words, the system would spot my moments of inspiration and in turn become inspired, improvising on me to push us further along. This symbiosis would circle around and around in an intensifying feedback circuit, until a novel music emerged from the encounter like a fireproof bird soaring out from flames. How did that happen?

But here’s the thing: while I believe in all of these ideas and understand they sound like an AI imagining, I don’t want my computer to do the work. No, I want to do it all myself because the fun and challenge of art-making is figuring out how intuitive and rational thinking can get along.

On Intensity And Focus: Applying Physical Training Principles To Creative Work

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We often think about physical fitness and creative work as completely separate and unrelated domains, but training principles can be applied outside of exercise. Here are a few I have been applying from endurance sports:

The 80/20 Rule
The 80/20 rule suggests that 80 percent of your training should take place at a relaxed and easy or conversational pace. In other words, if you’re running or riding bike, you should be able to hold a conversation while doing so. The thinking behind this go easy strategy is that it gives you a chance to log miles while simultaneously recovering from harder efforts.

The Tempo Workout 
A tempo workout (and I like the rhythmic resonances here) brings you up to an effortful level, just below an all-out racing pace. Tempo workouts train you to be comfortable with an uncomfortable and sustained level of activity. If you’re running or riding a bike, you can’t talk much at a tempo pace. You just grunt.

Going Long
Going long is a workout where you move at a moderate pace for an extended period. If you don’t mind repetition, this is perhaps the most rewarding kind of exercise for the perceptual surprises it brings: a lot can happen after one hour or more of continuous activity.

Maximal Efforts/Intervals
Maximal efforts are relatively brief bouts of very intense exertion interspersed with rest or walking. What is interesting about this workout type is how it kicks your body into new mechanical gears. When you go this hard your body stretches into new postures, remembering the fluid ergonomics that accompany high speed and intensity.

Fartlek 
Fartlek is a Swedish term for “speed play” which refers to a training that mixes up steady-paced activity with intervals of higher intensity. This workout type is fun because you can improvise on the fly.

In my experience, all of these workout types can be applied to creative work fairly directly. The 80/20 rule, for example, can mean that you do most of your work at an easy intensity. Tempo and maximal effort workouts can be applied by giving yourself a tight time constraint in which to get something done (like 10 minutes to generate a new paragraph, or 25 minutes to improvise your way into a musical theme). Going Long can mean staying with a single project for an extended period (like a few hours) without a break, to facilitate what Cal Newport calls “deep work.” And fartlek workouts can be a chance to mix everything up within a single work session–moving among different levels of intensities as you see fit.

The takeaway from applying these training principles to creative pursuits is that different levels of intensity bring with them different kinds of focus. And when you’re trying to make something new, focus is everything.

On Key Moments In Composing

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Each time you sit down at the computer and the keyboard to compose it feels as if you have no prior experience to draw on. Even though all your conscious knowing tells you that this can’t be the case, you’re beginning as if from scratch, facing the empty screen without being able recall the hundreds of tracks you’ve already recorded and meticulously edited down to their nano structures. Sigh.

What’s going on here? Is this simply a default way of thinking, or is it a self-imposed constraint to focus yourself on the present? Either way, because you can’t recall what you’ve already done you hunker down with the unlikely prospect of doing something significant today. Your quiet desperation is registered as you pull in your chair a bit, wipe off some dust from the keyboard, stretch the hands. Sigh. But this is a key moment in the process because in momentarily forgetting your creative past and at a loss for what to do right now you’ve adapted a shoulder shrugging, whatever happens happens mindset, resigned to the reality that you’re not much improved since the last time you sat down to face down musical uncertainty. It’s a key moment because you’ve almost—but not quite—given up before you’ve begun. Usually we construe this kind of mindset as a species of negative thinking, but negative thinking in doses is not necessarily bad. In this case, your almost—but not quite—giving up frees yourself from self-imposed and unnecessary expectations derived from your past outcomes or imagined futures. A whatever happens happens mindset as you sit in front of your computer and keyboard is a perfectly imperfect state in which to dwell for a while. You’ve tapped into something priceless: attention unmodulated by assumptions.

It took a few minutes, but it’s only now, with your attention unmodulated, that you bring your hands to the keyboard. Evidently your hands didn’t fully absorb the lessons of your whatever happens happens mindset and they immediately move along their old pathways, finding friendly routes through g and d-minor maybe, or staying safe within F major. But your hands are just scared and need a little push. You ask them why they so often ignore D-flat and F-sharp or any of those terrains over the black, mountainous accidentals. This is not to say that you’re conscious of keys and scales all the time. You’re just trying to point out to your hands that, from where you sit, the terrain is wide open. Go explore a bit! This frees up the hands and now they roam. This is a second key moment because your hands have almost—but not quite—given up trying to make any definitive musical statements. They have permission to stay local or travel far, but either way it’s just messing around. It doesn’t count. No one cares what happens. It’s just music. Just do whatever seems interesting. And so it goes for a while, as your hands bounce around and you follow them. In your state of pure attention, no one—not you, not your hands, not your computer or your keyboard—really cares about what is happening.

Which brings us to a third key moment where not really caring transforms itself instantaneously into…caring deeply. Boom! Something happened—the hands fell into something and now you’re woke. It could be a dissonance, or a rhythm, or a symmetry. Playtime’s over, folks. Forget what you did yesterday or what you might do tomorrow—this thing here, right here, is something special, no? Your quiet desperation is now sure-footedness. Boom! Now you have goal and a purpose which is to flesh out the possibilities of this something the hands fell into—mobilize its potentials as quickly as possible before the magic dissipates. You’re like the mother whose child is trapped underneath the car who summons a bolt of energy to do some heavy lifting. What you thought was a quiet resignation, a shoulder shrugging, whatever happens happens mindset was not a lack of confidence or some calculated Zen move. No, you were saving your quality energy for this pivotal moment where you can rescue what may be a good idea from being crushed under the world’s indifference.

Owning The Phenomenal World: Jeong Kwan On Creativity

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“Creativity and ego cannot go together.

If you free yourself from the comparing and jealous mind,

your creativity opens up endlessly.

Just as water springs from a fountain, creativity springs from every moment.

You must not be your own obstacle.

You must not be owned by the environment you are in.

You must own the environment, the phenomenal world around you.

You must be able to freely move in and out of your mind.

This is being free.

There is no way you can’t open up your creativity.

There is no ego to speak of.”

(From Netflix’s Chef’s Table, season 3, episode 1)

Chasing Creativity

 

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Creativity is a wolf that you’re chasing in a mountain forest in the middle of winter. You run after this stealth silent and fleet-footed animal that sprints ahead of you, flying over rocks and branches, leaping over iced streams, always vanishing just around the next bend in the trail. You’re patient in your pursuit, keeping him in your sights from a distance while maintaining an even pace you’ve learned from your training. The advantage you have over Creativity is that he occasionally gets lost (he never has a plan of action) and likes to stop once in a while to ponder, pursue scents, take in the sights. These are the moments when you make headway on him, closing in—but not too close to scare him away or provoke an attack—to spy the animal up close.

At one point he turns around and notices you as you both stand motionless, taking in one another from ten feet, your breaths turning to steam in the cold air. It’s scary. Creativity is elegantly wild: a strong build, smooth white fur, unafraid of frigid temperatures, effortlessly going for long stretches without food or water, and of course, he has those eyes. Those penetrating, blue-grey eyes that decipher your weaknesses in a second, while at the same time looking at you uncomprehendingly because clearly you’re of an alien species. Creativity can easily outrun you, but for the moment he stares you eye to eye in the alpine stillness and the fading light of a late afternoon sun. What are you to do? You’re in his environment now—way off the grid, feeling your feet, nose, and fingers freezing by the second, and your GPS watch has lost its signal. You can’t stay out here as long as Creativity can—he lives here, after all—but you can give chase for a while and maybe learn some things from him. Then Creativity speaks.

Let’s keep running he says in confident, perfectly unaccented English, and then disappears deeper into the forest pine.

As you chase after Creativity you think about what it felt like to look into his wolf eyes up close. You realize that Creativity doesn’t care about you. He only sized you up as a less efficient animal intruding upon his habitat, leaving much unspoken.

You’re welcome to follow me, but I won’t wait for you.

I may change direction at any time and I won’t help you if you fall.

On the upside, follow my footstep patterns and learn from my maneuvering.

Maybe later you can analyze why I moved as I moved.

And remember, unlike you I’m a wild animal: my appetites are my survival.

(Do you like wolf analogies? Here is a bird analogy.)

Reading Analogically: Ideas From René Redzepi’s “A Work In Progress”

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“We’re always searching for an association that allows the dish to make sense on a fundamental level–a connection we can build the finishing elements on.”

“We made a dish with no reference points in the past nor in other lands.”

Examining in depth a single ingredient.

Mapping ingredients and creating a knowledge bank.

“It’s almost as if our intuition wants more than our mind is capable of understanding. But from that moment, you subconsciously start gathering the tools for it to make sense down the line.”

“A new tool for us, a way of creating brightness…a way to sharpen anything, really.”

“Creativity is the ability to store the special moments, big or small, that occur throughout your life, then being able to see how they connect to the moment you’re in. When past and present merge, something new happens.”

“Gut reactions are just as important in discarding an idea as they are in generating one. The answer that appears milliseconds after a question is posed is likely to be the purest, most honest answer you have.”

“Efficiency and longevity are the difficult things to achieve in any creative activity.”
(Ferran Adrià)