The Creative Process
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The Creative Process

Stories from the Arts and Sciences

Charlotte L. Doyle

  1. 176 pages
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

The Creative Process

Stories from the Arts and Sciences

Charlotte L. Doyle

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About This Book

The Creative Process: Stories from the Arts and Sciences asks how celebrated works of art and breakthroughs in science came to be. What was the first inkling? What were the steps and missteps along the way? How was the process experienced by the creative person as it proceeded? And what are the implications for the psychology of the creative process?

Each chapter focuses on a specific creative endeavor, situating the work in the context of domain, culture, and historical era. Then it traces the development of the work—from what we know of its beginnings to its fulfillment. Qualitative materials—interviews, notebooks, diaries, sketches, drafts, and other writings—allow a story of the creative process as lived to emerge. The narratives exemplify established concepts in the psychology of creativity, propose broadening some, reveal the need for modification, and suggest new ones. Application of phenomenological frameworks illuminate the episodes in new ways as well. The case study approach proves again that each episode is unique, yet themes and variations come into view when the episodes are considered together in a final reflection.

From Darwin's theory to an unusual jazz sound, here are 11 fascinating stories of how specific works took shape. Psychologists, students interested in creativity, and all those intrigued by the process in any creative field will find this book essential reading.

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Part I Classic Case Studies of Creative EpisodesReflections and Extensions

Chapter 1 How Poincaré Inspired PsychologistsExperiences in a Mathematics Contest

DOI: 10.4324/9781003013860-3
Henri Poincaré was a mathematician, physicist, and mining engineer who became well-known in psychology. The reason is that Poincaré was not only entranced by mathematics; he was fascinated by the workings of the mind that result in mathematical discovery. His essay on mathematical invention included a detailed description of how he experienced a creative episode. That description began this way:
It is time to penetrate more deeply and to see what goes on in the very soul of the mathematician. For this, I believe, I can do best by recalling memories of my own
 I beg the reader’s pardon; I am about to use some technical expressions
 I shall say, for example, that I have found the demonstration of such a theorem under such circumstances. This theorem will have a barbarous name, unfamiliar to many, but that is unimportant; what is of interest for the psychologist is not the theorem but the circumstances.
(Poincaré, 1908/1910, p. 326)
Poincaré’s account of his creative episode, along with a brief introduction to his path in mathematics, the context of his creative work, and why it became famous in research psychology is this chapter’s story. Along the way, his story illustrates many concepts that psychologists interested in creativity subsequently have put forward and suggests some new considerations.

Poincaré Before Entering the Competition

Henri PoincarĂ© (1854–1912) was born near-sighted and had a serious bout of diphtheria when he was five years old. It left him paralyzed for two months and with lifelong poor muscle coordination. He was unable to speak for months, but he invented a set of signs to communicate which worked especially well in “conversation” with his three-year-old sister. The near-sightedness often meant he could not see the blackboard in school, but he developed a powerful visual imagination and an excellent visual memory, so he did very well in school—he was commended for the content of his writing in elementary school and for his quickness in learning mathematics in high school. Still, he was occasionally penalized in mathematics because he had problems drawing diagrams.
In 1870, France and Prussia were at war, and Prussian soldiers occupied the PoincarĂ© home. Sixteen-year-old PoincarĂ© took the opportunity to improve his German. That later became useful when he exchanged letters with a German mathematician. France lost that war to Prussia, but unlike some parts of Alsace-Lorraine, Poincaré’s home city, Nancy, remained part of France.
Poincaré’s problems in drawing diagrams kept him from going to the top French higher institution for mathematics and so he trained as a mining engineer instead. Yet he continued to work on mathematics with one of the professors at the School of Mines. As 1877 turned into 1878, when he was still at the mining school, he submitted a doctoral dissertation on differential equations to the mathematics faculty at the University of Paris. In it, among other inventions, PoincarĂ© devised a new method for studying such equations. And though his doctoral committee chided him for submitting a dissertation with careless errors and the need for further explanation, they applauded the challenging questions he undertook to answer and the range of material. One supervisor, Darboux (quoted in Verhulst, 2012) wrote that Poincaré’s work contained enough material for several good dissertations, that he thought intuitively, and that it would be easy to correct. PoincarĂ© later explained his carelessness by telling Darboux that other ideas were occupying his mind. It was typical PoincarĂ©. When he found a school subject boring, he tuned out, a habit that sometimes lowered his class standing. Fortunately, he was fascinated by most subjects he studied and had a stellar school record. In the case of his dissertation, he had already made his discoveries and now new questions had taken over his mind. Though we don’t know much about them, those early thoughts may have been the beginnings of a new creative episode.
Why would Poincaré’s mind wander when his task was to perfect his dissertation—an important step to launching his career? Psychologists have studied mind-wandering away from an assigned task (see Smallwood & Schooler, 2015). They asked, where does the mind of the mind-wanderer go? Research found that thoughts go to matters of self-relevance—ruminations and regrets, remembering and preparing for upcoming events, planning action for future goals—in general unresolved or unfinished business of importance to the mind-wanderer. We can surmise that Poincaré’s thinking on his dissertation felt complete and the writing to be done seemed a trivial task. Once new questions came to him, finding a solution mattered. 1
It is likely that a new problem beckoned to Poincaré, stealing his concentration from the task at hand. Psychologists contrast intrinsic motivation (that which comes from within) with extrinsic motivation (that which comes from outside incentives). They have shown that intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation is more likely to lead to work judged to be creative (Amabile, 1996). Inventing in mathematics was intrinsically motivating for Poincaré. He was drawn to it like metal to a magnet. Yet, motivations are often mixed. A mathematics competition was announced a few months later and the money and the prestige provided additional extrinsic motivation.

The Prize Competition

In March 1878, the AcadĂ©mie des Sciences in Paris challenged mathematicians “To improve in some important way the theory of linear differential equations in a single independent variable.” Lazarus Fuchs was a leading German mathematician and the author of the theory. Jeremy Gray (2013), a mathematician, mathematics historian, and PoincarĂ© biographer, suggested that part of the reason for the choice of question was to spur French mathematicians to catch up and go beyond the subject of Fuchs’s work. Though France lost the war, here was an opportunity to “win” something over Prussia (Gray, 2013). The creative episode takes place in the context of a particular culture and a specific time in its history (Wallace, 1985; Gruber, 1981).
The spur provided by a competition illustrates what psychologist Csikszentmihalyi (1996) pointed out: a person’s creative process is always related to a domain, a culturally defined subject area, and a field, the people and institutions that provide opportunities and make decisions about whose work will become part of the domain. The schools and professors that educated PoincarĂ© in mathematics were part of the field. And so was the AcadĂ©mie—an opportunity maker and gatekeeper for the domain of mathematics; its sponsoring the competition created opportunity and incentive for working on particular kinds of problems. Poincaré’s (1908/1910) essay on the creative process in mathematics drew heavily on the experiences that resulted in his entry in the competition created by the field.
The word “entries” may be more appropriate than the word “entry.” PoincarĂ© submitted his first entry on March 22, 1880. But then, on May 28 he submitted a new one. PoincarĂ© added an 80-page supplement on June 28. In September and December, he sent two more supplements to the contest judges. This was not the usual way of entering a competition (Gray, 2013).
Several sources of information help us to glimpse what happened. First of all, we have Poincaré’s description of his experiences which refer to this period. Though memory almost 30 years later may be inaccurate, there is corroborating evidence. An exchange of letters between PoincarĂ© and Fuchs support the essay. Gray and Walter (1997) found the originals of the various versions of the entries and traced their progress. Finally, Toulouse (1910), a psychologist who tested and interviewed PoincarĂ©, wrote about Poincaré’s usual routine. Here is one way of putting together the story based on these sources.
Toulouse (1910) reported that Poincaré generally followed the same schedule. He worked on mathematics in the morning between 10 am and 12 pm and again between 5 and 7 pm. He was a lecturer at the University of Caen at the time and perhaps he taught in the afternoons. Poincaré told Toulouse that he did not do mathematics later in the evening for fear it would keep him awake so he read instead.
Here’s another piece of the puzzle: his first entry sent in March 1880, perhaps the problem that kept him from concentrating on the writing of his dissertation, was different from the subjects of his later submissions. Its area within the mathematics domain, real differential equations, was one less directly concerned with Fuchs’s work than the entries he sent in next.
Conjecture: perhaps the event that spurred work on the May 28 entry was reading more of Fuchs’s work during his evening reading sessions. Fuchs had theorized that for a certain class of differential equations to give a particular result, there were conditions, both necessary and sufficient, that have to be met. During his work periods, PoincarĂ© started out to prove Fuchs’s theory, but the events of one sleepless night led him elsewhere.
PoincarĂ© himself pointed out above, his description is intriguing for psychology even though many, including this author, do not understand the mathematics involved. The excerpt below is the first of five we will consider. Just as writing a novel consists of different chapters, so Poincaré’s contest entry came in a series of five related waves, five chapters in his creative episode.

The Road to a New Entry: Effortful Cognition, Heuristics, and Flow

This is how PoincarĂ© described his first discovery related to Fuchs’s work:
For fifteen days I strove to prove that there could not be any functions like those I have since called Fuchsian functions. I was then very ignorant; every day I seated myself at my work table, stayed an hour or two, tried a great number of combinations and reached no results. One evening, contrary to my custom, I drank black coffee and could not sleep. Ideas rose in crowds; I felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination. By the next morning I had established the existence of a class of Fuchsian functions, those which come from the hypergeometric series; I had only to write out the results, which took but a few hours.
(Poincaré, 1908/1910, p. 326)
This excerpt and the paragraphs that followed it became important to psychology because Graham Wallas (1926) used them to support the framework for the creative process he had been putting together, a framework psychologists have returned to again and again to support, add to, and modify (recently by Sadler-Wells, 2015; see also, Doyle, 2016). Wallas delineated four stages that resulted in what he called “the birth of an idea”: (1) preparation: preparation of two kinds: concentrated, effortful work on a known problem, but also education in the domain of a problem; (2) incubation, a period of turning away from working on the problem; (3) illumination (today called insight), the sudden appearance of a solution. Wallas added that just before illumination, the person is likely to have the feeling that an answer is coming which he called “intimation”; (4) verification, the conscious effortful task of proving the insight. Wallas quotes PoincarĂ© as saying that verification is not mechanical. The insight does not include how to prove it and once again, hard, effortful work is required. Poincaré’s description provides clear evidence of Wallas’s preparation stage, the 15 days of wrestling with a problem he set for himself. Wallas would also include his education in mathematics as part of the preparation. There was little or no incubation stage, a reason Wallas was less interested in this part of Poincaré’s description than the ones that followed. And though Wallas placed the intimation stage as occurring during incubation, we have a suggestion that intimation came immediately after preparation on a particular day. For why did PoincarĂ© abandon his usual schedule, drink black coffee, and stay awake through the night?
Another intriguing feature of Poincaré’s description is the language he used to describe his experience on the fateful night. “Ideas rose in crowds and interlocked over time.” He does not say, “I thought this” or “I tried that,” which is the way he described the 15 p...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Half-Title
  3. Title
  4. Copyright
  5. Dedication
  6. Contents
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. Illustration Permissions and Credits
  9. Introduction
  10. PART I: Classic Case Studies of Creative Episodes: Reflections and Extensions
  11. PART II: Creating as Navigating Among Different Psychological Worlds
  12. PART III: Focus on Intuition and Embodied Creating
  13. PART IV: Writers as Phenomenologists: Discoveries from Exploring the Inner Landscape
  14. PART V: Creating Collaborations in Science and Art
  15. Epilogue
  16. Index
Citation styles for The Creative Process

APA 6 Citation

Doyle, C. (2021). The Creative Process (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2021)

Chicago Citation

Doyle, Charlotte. (2021) 2021. The Creative Process. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.

Harvard Citation

Doyle, C. (2021) The Creative Process. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Doyle, Charlotte. The Creative Process. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2021. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.