Creativity: Exploring the Unexplainable

A few years ago the teacher of a third grade class in Cleveland gave one of her students a set of colored blocks and asked him to match them according to size and shape. The student set to work carefully, but when the teacher returned she saw only a jumble of triangles, circles and squares. The boy saw a spectrum. The teacher again instructed her students, and he again formed a pattern of colors. But the teacher, whose attention was focused on the forms of the blocks, still did not recognize the alignment; to her, it looked like a mess. After a few more tries, the frustrated teacher put the blocks away and muttered to herself about the student's stupidity. A better world might have been "creativity."

What is creativity? Nearly everyone recognizes it when it comes in the form of Albert Einstein, or Sigmund Freud, or James Joyce. Some even acknowledge it in the discovery of a new plastic, the invention of the safety pin, the unexpected observation that turns an ordinary conversation around an unusual corner. But what is this process which leads people to new insights and fresh perceptions, this force which takes the mind down unexplored paths, this ultimately renewable human resource? What is creativity?

A new exhibit, which opened yesterday at the Museum of Science, explores that basically unanswerable question. "Creativity: The Human Resources," focuses on the works of 15 creative American individuals and one team drawn from the ranks of science, architecture, music and art. From the notebooks, sketches, diagrams and models of these people, and from taped and filmed discussions with them, the visitor can observe some of the characteristics shared by creative people and watch the creative process unfolding.

The individuals highlighted in the exhibit include scientists Melvin Calvin, Margaret Mead, Linus Pauling, Simon Ramo, Jonas Salk and Charles Townes; designers Buckminster Fuller, Lawrence Halprin and George Nelson; composer John Cage; artists Romare Beardon, Judy Chicago, Jasper Johns and Roman Vishniac; and choreographer Merce Cunningham. In addition, the show examines the work of the team of seismologists, geologists, and oceanographers which developed the theory of plate tectonics.

No one is quite sure what prompts creativity, but psychologists working in the field have identified several characteristics which creative people share. The first, and perhaps the most important, is the willingness to challenge assumptions.


"Field work is a very difficult thing to do," Mead, a pioneer in the field of anthropology, once said. "To do it well, one has to sweep one's mind clear of every presupposition.... Ideally, even the appearance of a house should be a new, fresh impression. In a sense, it should come to one as a surprise that houses even exist..."

The same characteristic which, in part, inspired Mead's exploration of other cultures helped bring about a vaccine for polio and the invention of the geodesic dome. Salk developed the polio vaccine after he challenged the wisdom fed to him in medical school that only living viruses could be used to vaccinate against viral diseases. Fuller developed the geodesic dome after he discarded the square and turned to the triangle as the most stable figure in nature. His domes, built from a collection of triangles, enclose, per pound of material, 30 times the unobstructed interior space of any known alternative clear-span engineering system.

Not only do creative people challenge basic assumptions, they discern previously unseen patterns. This, according to biochemist Calvin, is one of the most important abilities of the scientist. Gregor Mendel, cross-breeding peas in a monastery, noticed a pattern and extended the understanding of heredity. "It's no trick at all," Calvin notes, "to get the right answer when you have all the data. The real creative trick is to get the right answer when you have only half the data, and half of that is wrong."

Creativity also suggests seeing things in new ways. "Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise," composer Cage observes. "When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating." Cage's elimination of harmony in his compositions, as well as his use of silence, gives his music an unusual twist. One of his most famous compositions, "4'33," is a piano piece during which the pianist merely sits in front of the piano, raising and lowering the keyboard cover three times to distinguish the three "movements."

At times this capacity for transformed vision is accidental. Fuller's crossed eyes were not corrected until he was four years old. As a result, he could see only large color areas--the shape of a face, but not a teardrop or a hair. He credits his later dependence on "big patterns" to this childhood inability to see anything small.

The fourth characteristic which psychologists attribute to the creative mind is the ability to make connections. Pauling utilized two widely separated area of science--x-ray deflection and quantum mechanics--to develop a theory of chemical bonding which revolutionized chemistry. Beardon, an artist, made connections between art and the jazz he grew up with in Harlem. The result: a new art form called "abstract expressionism."

Most creative people are willing to take risks: Mead went to Somoa against the advice of her adviser (he thought it would be safer for a young woman to study the American Indian). They also take advantage of chance. Charles Goodyear discovered the process of vulcanizing rubber after carelessly dropping some raw rubber on a hot stove. Cage makes more intentional use of chance, employing an I Ching--an ancient Chinese book of charts used to determine oracles--to compose some of his music. "Most people who believe that I'm interested in chance don't realize that I use chance as a discipline," he says. "They think I use it--I don't know--as a way of giving up making choices. But my choices consist in choosing what questions to ask."

Finally, creative people form networks with others like themselves. Like the avante guarde of Paris during the 1920s or members or Moscow's literary salons during the 1950s, they meet to exchange ideas, perceptions, questions and encouragement. Sometimes--as in the case of the plate tectonics team--the association is planned; sometimes it is spontaneous. But generally it is there, for the creative mind needs an audience. New ideas are delicate things, and they perish easily in a hostile environment.

Little more is known about creative people. They tend to be independent and often span several fields. They are challenged by irregularity and can tolerate perplexity. But ultimately--beyond having the fresh eye and the curious mind--the creative person must be courageous. He must be unafraid to take what Calvin calls "the step beyond."