Mad and Civilized

Often the creative process involves singular amounts of discipline: Mary Oliver walking the same path in the woods a hundred times, Yayoi Kusama committing to explore polka dots for 4 decades, Jackson Pollock’s apparently random ‘action paintings’ produced by committed process repetition. There is, to pinch an oft-applied aphorism, “method to the madness”. This seems to complicate the cultural icon of the scatter-brained, even ‘insane’ artist. Perhaps a little complication is in order.


It is worth considering why the word ‘madness’ enters into common parlance regarding creativity. Why the Ancient Greeks refer to an occult daimon driving their creative process, why performance artists often refer to out-of-body experiences, why William Blake claimed his poetry was ‘dictated to him’.


It would seem, and modern neuroscience affords hints as to why, that moments of creative brilliance involve the introduction of madness to the method, rather than the other way around. Dr. Rex Jung’s work focuses on transient hypofrontality in the brain--in short, the hypothesis that creativity is a sudden loss of executive function, a passing deactivation of attentional supervision: A passing entrance into a state of executive dysfunction, which would, if not transient, likely be diagnosed as dis-order per the DSM (EFD, ADD, etc). Captured within this transient hypofrontality is the medial prefrontal cortex, locus of the default mode network, thought to play a key role in ego-related thought; perhaps here is the root of the out-of-ego experience Blake mentions above.


Point being, our brain-states are malleable, we are composed of many selves, and the creative spark appears to be in the transition between ‘madness’ and method. This hypofrontality allows for intense, novel associations, ones that would be otherwise restricted by the repetition of previous cognitive pathways (same question→ same answer) and the nearly automatic surveillance and redirection of our cognition straying from them. Its transience, in turn, allows for effective attentional orienteering necessary to grab hold of valuable novel associations and mold them into plans of action.


The creative process internally involves allowing free association and then backing away from these momentary lapses of supervision to pull out the best new connections, so what are its external parallels? What can we learn from understanding the mechanisms of creativity to ‘create creativity’? What sort of space would work like a creative brain? Structures, physical and organizational, that permit and promote cross-pollination and the marriage of dis/organization. Creativity across scales, as is were, rhizomes with depth. Paired with the powerful realization that we are all creatives on a spectrum, containing both madness and method, this concept calls for a new, anti-disciplinary approach to creative production across industries, and invites a new wave of as-yet contained creatives to enter the fray.

A panel discussion on this topic would begin with recent contributions from neuroscience to our understanding of creativity, implications for how and whether to change spaces we work in accordingly, successful projects that exist across disciplines and methods, and, importantly, the technologies and tools that allow for maximal creative output building on the wisdom gained from peering into artistic and scientific inter/anti-disciplinary practice.