The beauty of creativity

The beauty of creativity

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One of the most powerful insights I obtained from writing Defining Creativity is that our unconscious mind is in many ways superior to our conscious mind. One of the reasons is that our unconscious mind is responsible for producing the great insights that we experience as ‘aha’ moments. And what’s fascinating about this is that while our unconscious brain constantly and rapidly produces ideas, it only forwards the really interesting ones to our conscious. So, how does it separate the good ideas from the bad ones?

Our unconscious recognises ideas with real potential through something that is called ‘aesthetic sensibility’

Aesthetic sensibility
Our unconscious recognises ideas with real potential through something that is called ‘aesthetic sensibility,’ a term that was coined by the French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher Henri Poincaré in the beginning of the 20th century.

The word ‘aesthetic,’ I explain in my book, might come across as somewhat misleading because – as we all know – beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Beauty, however, should be explained in the context of (re)designing knowledge structures in our mind; “our unconscious (…) assists us not literally in finding beautiful ideas, but in finding ideas that beautifully fit in an existing body of knowledge” – page 104. Poincaré described the knowledge structures that appeal to our aesthetic sensibility as structures that are “harmonious, elegant, and well-proportioned.”

Recently I read “In Pursuit of Elegance,” written by Matthew E. May, a book that explains in more detail why elegant ideas appeal to us. Though I found many parts of May’s book not so elegant – rather farfetched – I did appreciate the part about the attractiveness of symmetry. And symmetry, in May’s book, should be understood in the generous meaning of the word: with balanced proportions and remaining invariant under change. May:

Most of nature, with its infinitely repeating patterns, is symmetrical

“We are natural-born symmetry seekers. Most of nature, with its infinitely repeating patterns, is symmetrical. It is present in nearly every living thing, and we generally equate symmetry with beauty and balance. In fact, a number of studies have found that most people find symmetrical faces more attractive. But symmetry isn’t limited to biology. Symmetry is where mathematics, nature, science, and art come together.”

The fact that we feel naturally drawn to symmetry actually helps the brain to complete (incomplete) patterns and knowledge structures. Or put differently, it helps us to solve problems. May:

We are adept at noticing a lack of symmetry, which is why we can exploit it to our advantage – when someone experiences a degree of asymmetry, they naturally want to “fill in” the obviously missing piece. It’s the nature of symmetry that enables us to find solutions given only partial information.”

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