Physicist David Bohm on Creativity

“No really creative transformation can possibly be effected by human beings … unless they are in the creative state of mind that is generally sensitive to the differences that always exist between the observed fact and any preconceived ideas, however noble, beautiful, and magnificent they may seem to be.”


Physicist David Bohm on Creativity

“The most regretful people on earth,” Mary Oliver wrote in her exquisite meditation on the central commitment of the creative life, “are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.” The past century has sprouted a great many theories of how creativity works and what it takes to master it, and yet its innermost nature remains so nebulous and elusive that the call of creative work may be as difficult to hear as it is to answer.

What to listen for and how to tune the listening ear is what the trailblazing physicist David Bohm (December 20, 1917–October 27, 1992) explores in the 1968 title essay in On Creativity (public library) — his previously unpublished writings on art, science, and originality, edited by Lee Nichol.

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Bohm, who maintained a lively affinity for the arts in his forty-five years as a theoretical physicist, argues that the creative impulse in both art and science aims at “a certain oneness and totality, or wholeness, constituting a kind of harmony that is felt to be beautiful.” He writes:

The scientist emphasizes the aspect of discovering oneness and totality in nature. For this reason, the fact that his work can also be creative is often overlooked. But in order to discover oneness and totality, the scientist has to create the new overall structures of ideas which are needed to express the harmony and beauty that can be found in nature.

[…]

The artist, the musical composer, the architect, the scientist all feel a fundamental need to discover and create something new that is whole and total, harmonious and beautiful. Few ever get a chance to try to do this, and even fewer actually manage to do it. Yet, deep down, it is probably what very large numbers of people in all walks of life are seeking when they attempt to escape the daily humdrum routine by engaging in every kind of entertainment, excitement, stimulation, change of occupation, and so forth, through which they ineffectively try to compensate for the unsatisfying narrowness and mechanicalness of their lives.

Illustration from What Can I Be?, a vintage concept book about how creativity works

Creativity, Bohm notes, isn’t a matter of mere talent, for “there are a tremendous number of highly talented people who remain mediocre.” (A century earlier, Schopenhauer made his famous distinction between talent and genius.) With an eye to Einstein — a scientist whose uncommonly creative vision is revolutionizing science a century later — Bohm points out that he possessed something greater than mere talent, for he had many contemporaries who knew more about physics and were better skilled at mathematics than him; what Einstein possessed was a certain quality of originality. Half a millennium after Galileo’s elegant admonition against the peril of clinging to one’s preconceptions, Bohm considers a central demand of originality:

One prerequisite for originality is clearly that a person shall not be inclined to impose his preconceptions on the fact as he sees it. Rather, he must be able to learn something new, even if this means that the ideas and notions that are comfortable or dear to him may be overturned.

Elizabeth Gilbert has a rather poetic term for this orientation of mind: “a state of uninterrupted marvel.” Bohm argues that we are born with it — a child, for instance, learns to walk by “trying something out and seeing what happens, then modifying what he does (or thinks) in accordance with what has actually happened.” But as we grow older, we become indoctrinated in the standard way of doing things and our originality is gradually blunted as we relinquish the willingness to see alternative ways. Bohm considers what is needed for the conservation of creativity:

The action of learning is the essence of real perception, in the sense that without it a person is unable to see, in any new situation, what is a fact and what is not… But real perception that is capable of seeing something new and unfamiliar requires that one be attentive, alert, aware, and sensitive.

Long before pioneering psychologist Carol Dweck demonstrated this empirically in her trailblazing work on fixed vs. growth mindsets, Bohm articulates a key difference between the creatively fertile and the creatively withered mind:

One thing that prevents us from thus giving primary emphasis to the perception of what is new and different is that we are afraid to make mistakes… If one will not try anything until he is assured that he will not make a mistake in whatever he does, he will never be able to learn anything new at all. And this is more or less the state in which most people are. Such a fear of making a mistake is added to one’s habits of mechanical perception in terms of preconceived ideas and learning only for specific utilitarian purposes. All of these combine to make a person who cannot perceive what is new and who is therefore mediocre rather than original.

In a sentiment which John Cleese would come to echo a quarter century later in his famous assertion that creativity is not a talent but a way of operating, Bohm adds:

The ability to learn something new is based on the general state of mind of a human being. It does not depend on special talents, nor does it operate only in special fields, such as science, art, music or architecture. But when it does operate, there is an undivided and total interest in what one is doing. Recall, for example, the kind of interest that a young child shows when he is learning to walk. If you watch him, you will see that he is putting his whole being into it. Only this kind of whole-hearted interest will give the mind the energy needed to see what is new and different, especially when the latter seems to threaten what is familiar, precious, secure, or otherwise dear to us.

It is clear that all the great scientists and artists had such a feeling for their work.

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky for On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne

In a point of importance which cannot be understated, Bohm asserts that because the nature of originality requires a lively attentiveness to the new and different, pioneers often end up creating entire fields that didn’t previously exist, often at great personal expense. (The history of creative work is strewn with examples, from Van Gogh, who took enormous creative risks only redeemed posthumously, to gravitational astronomy pioneer Joe Weber, who died a tragic hero of science but opened up the brand new field that eventually furnished one of the most significant discoveries in the entire history of science.) A decade after artist Ben Shahn’s exquisite case for why nonconformists are society’s engine of growth and greatness, Bohm writes:

Such an opportunity arises in many fields which may at first show little promise, especially because (at least at first) society is not in the habit of recognizing them to be potentially creative. Indeed, real originality and creativity imply that one does not work only in fields that are recognized in this way, but that one is ready in each case to inquire for oneself as to whether there is or is not a fundamentally significant difference between the actual fact and one’s preconceived notions that opens up the possibility for creative and original work… Creativity of some kind may be possible in almost any conceivable field… It is always founded on the sensitive perception of what is new and different from what is inferred from previous knowledge.

From these prerequisites Bohm extrapolates the central orientation of the creative mind in any field:

The creative state of mind … is, first of all, one whose interest in what is being done is wholehearted and total, like that of a young child. With this spirit, it is always open to learning what is new, to perceiving new differences and new similarities, leading to new orders and structures, rather than always tending to impose familiar orders and structures in the field of what is seen.

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Echoing Annie Dillard’s warm wisdom on why a generosity of spirit is the greatest animating force of creative work, Bohm adds:

This kind of action of the creative state of mind is impossible if one is limited by narrow and petty aims, such as security, furthering of personal ambition, glorification of the individual or the state… Although such motives may permit occasional flashes of penetrating insight, they evidently tend to hold the mind a prisoner of its old and familiar structure of thought and perception. Indeed, merely to inquire into what is unknown must inevitably lead one into a situation in which all that is done may well constitute a threat to the successful achievement of those narrow and limited goals. A genuinely new and untried step may either fail altogether or else, even if it succeeds, lead to ideas that are not recognized until after one is dead.

Besides, such aims are not compatible with the harmony, beauty, and totality that is characteristic of real creation.

Above all, Bohm argues, creativity demands the willingness to relinquish even our most dearly held ideas if they are contradicted by experiment and experience:

No really creative transformation can possibly be effected by human beings, either in nature or in society, unless they are in the creative state of mind that is generally sensitive to the differences that always exist between the observed fact and any preconceived ideas, however noble, beautiful, and magnificent they may seem to be.

In a sentiment of especial poignancy today, in a cultural climate dominated by reaction rather than creative response, Bohm emphasizes that creativity is predicated on rising above our mechanical reactions, which are conditioned by society and by habitual forms of thought, and which render us in “a painful and unpleasant state of dissatisfaction and conflict, covered up by self-sustaining confusion.” He considers the ennobling alternative:

For as long as the individual cannot learn from what he does and sees, whenever such learning requires that he go outside the framework of his basic preconceptions, then his action will ultimately be directed by some idea that does not correspond to the fact as it is. Such action is worse than useless, and evidently cannot possibly give rise to a genuine solution of the problems of the individual and of society.

[…]

If one is serious about being original and creative, it is necessary for him first to be original and creative about reactions that are making him mediocre and mechanical. Then eventually the natural creative action of the mind may fully awaken, so that it will start to operate in a basically new order that is no longer determined mainly by the mechanical aspects of thought… Just as the health of the body demands that we breathe properly, so, whether we like it or not, the health of the mind requires that we be creative.

[…]

But, of course, to awaken the creative state of mind is not at all easy. On the contrary, it is one of the most difficult things that could possibly be attempted. Nevertheless, for the reasons that I have given, I feel that it is for each of us individually and for society as a whole the most important thing to be done in the circumstances in which humanity now finds itself.

The orientations of mind and spirit most conducive to doing that — in science, in art, and in all domains of human life — is what Bohm goes on to examine in the remainder of the thoroughly awakening On Creativity. Complement it with pioneering psychologist Jerome Bruner on the six pillars of creativity and Leonard Cohen on its mystique, then revisit Bohm on what is keeping us from listening to one another, how our perceptions shape our reality, and his magnificent conversation with the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti about intelligence and love.


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