Imagine your ancestor sitting in a cave surrounded by rocks and bones.
One day, doing nothing at all, something in her moves. She touches two objects together a few times in a row, creating a curious, syncopated noise. It almost sounds like the rain earlier in the day when it started slowing down, dripping into puddles. She wants to hear it again.
Another cave, a few thousand kilometers and years away. Following his meal, a man sits, entranced, at the edge of a fire pit. He watches the whirling smoke, the dancing flames. Memories of a wild animal envelop his mind’s eye. Lost in contemplation, he plays with a piece of charred wood and begins to transfer the mental imagery to the wall.
What’s going on here?
The creative process, universal and ubiquitous, remains largely mysterious. In the coming months, this space will be dedicated to a wide-ranging exploration of this process in an effort to foster reflection about, enhance, and cultivate artistic creativity.
To create is simply unavoidable. Each time we open our mouths to speak, we create. What often comes out is a phrase, imbued with meaning, that has never before been spoken in the history of time. This process happens almost automatically, without work. How many new configurations of words do we put together in this way every day? Every hour? How many hundreds of millions of original sentences have just been uttered by people around the world in the time it took you to read this paragraph?
While creativity is a defining part of what we do as a species, the environment we are surrounded by — and the environment we choose to surround ourselves with — also determines our creative output. The woman in the cave had the opportunity to make music because she sat among rocks and bones, and she came to her idea because she had paid attention to the rain drip-drop into puddles. The man started drawing because the charcoal was next to him, and because dancing gazelles were not far away.
While our nature has not changed much in the last 100,000 years, our environment is undergoing increasingly rapid and dramatic evolution. As technological change accelerates — as it feeds on itself — the environments of the 21st century that modify our creativity are being wholly revolutionized.
People living in rich societies today are processing more information than ever before. We can now easily max out our mental capacities whenever we like, like a constantly overflowing glass. Because this usually has the pleasant effect of a sensual or intellectual massage, many of us revel and splash around in the digital waterfall throughout most of the day.
Yet the modern media massage is not without costs. Due to a phenomenon that scientists call neuroplasticity, our brains are rewiring themselves to adapt to this new mental environment. Research suggests that engaging with a constant stream of digital information fragments and hyperlinks has significant effects on attention, concentration, memory, and comprehension.
How is human creativity impacted by all this? What is being gained and what is being lost as our creative energies get sucked into hyperconnectedness, as our brains adapt and restructure, as we let ourselves be continually distracted by ever newer-better-faster morsels of information?
One potential concern for artists is the deprioritization of valuable blank time — that fertile mindspace that permits ideas and inspiration to grow and flourish. Quiet reflection and contemplation bolster our creativity. What can we expect if mental stillness becomes increasingly rare?
The amount of time we spend disengaged from the noise of the network, the amount of time we spend doing nothing at all, just being alone with ourselves, is fast dwindling. Our digital devices are always available during empty moments, helping us to feel — however briefly or obliquely — a little less alone, a little less anxious, a little less angst.
Does that mean we are also listening less to the rain?