“Art is a marriage of the conscious and the unconscious.” Jean Cocteau
How much of creative inspiration and problem solving is from our unconscious, and how can we get more in touch with our vast inner landscape?
This famous “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” is a 1907 painting by Gustav Klimt.
In his book “The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present,” Nobel Prize winner psychiatrist Eric R. Kandel notes that Klimt historians Sophie Lillie and Georg Gaugusch commented about the painting that it “appears a compelling visual expression of Freud’s theory that emotions buried in the subconscious rise to the surface in disguised form.”
In another passage, Kandel writes, “Like other modern artists faced with the advent of photography, Klimt sought newer truths that could not be captured by the camera.
“He, and particularly his younger protégés Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, turned the artist’s view inward — away from the three-dimensional outside world and toward the multidimensional inner self and the unconscious mind.”
“Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious.” Sigmund Freud
Along with many other people, Tracey Cleantis, a writer and licensed marriage and family therapist, thinks Freud was right, and suggests taking advantage of dreaming: “Go to sleep. Dream. Wake. Write that crazy dream down in a journal and ask yourself the simple questions, “What does x mean to me? What does x remind me of?”
From her post: Freudian-Express: Dreams, The Royal Road to the Unconscious.
Neuroscience and psychology of the unconscious
In her book “The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius,” brain scientist Nancy Andreasen “proposes that, due to enriched connections between certain areas of the brain, geniuses are able to tap into the unconscious mind… She also explores the link between creativity and mental illness, and she shows how all of us can enhance our creative potential through mental exercises.” [Amazon summary]
In his post Unconscious Creativity: Step Back To Step Forward, Sam McNerney notes that “psychologists as recent as the 1980s began studying moments of insight empirically. A key finding was that the unconscious mind, contrary to the Freudian picture, was an effective problem solver.
“Since then, research has confirmed ancient wisdom: when it comes to creative breakthroughs, it’s better to relax and let the unconscious mind do the work.”
He reports that in one experiment, participants were asked a common creativity test question: to generate a list of “things one can do with a brick.”
The study involved three groups that generated a list “either immediately upon request, after three minutes of conscious deliberation, or after engaging a distracter task for three minutes. The purpose of this delay was to give the participants’ unconscious minds a chance to marinate the problem, to prevent the conscious mind from getting in the way.”
Although researchers “found no difference in the number of items each group generated, participants engaged in a distracter task were more divergent and creative with their lists – their unconscious minds had time to be creative!”
Referring to additional studies, McNerney concludes, “What does this research tell us? When it comes to insight-based solutions the best strategy is to let your unconscious mind do the work.”
He quotes Eric Kandel from his book mentioned above: “When we take the wrong approach to a problem, which happens often, we get nowhere by continuing to think about it. But if we refrain from thinking about the problem and distract ourselves… [we] transition from a rigid, convergent perspective to an associative, divergent perspective.”
> Video: Eric Kandel: Unconscious Decision Making – from post: A Biological Basis for the Unconscious?
In his article How Our Senses Influence Creativity, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman describes other research on how this may work, in particular studies on unconscious priming and cognition.
He comments, “These results are fascinating and suggest the way we watch, touch, taste, listen or smell affects our analytical thought, creativity and categorization automatically, and without our conscious awareness.”
So there is a growing collection of evidence supporting the creative value of mentally “stepping away” from our work for a while, and not being so captivated by only what our cerebral cortex is doing.
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Last reviewed: 26 Jul 2012