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The Uniqueness of Our Creativity

Human nature is heavily contingent on the surrounding environment. The environment of our ancestors interacted with their genes to make us who we are today. What did not assist our ancestors in regards to fitness was disposed of by means of natural selection. In essence, a past or present environment affects all factors that shape human nature. This is true of all other organisms as well. Yet our ability to assess and interpret the environment subjectively may be what separates us from other species. This unique mental capability can be identified as creativity and it is precisely our advanced mental aptitude that has produced its fecundity. When we look at a work of art we see the human mind’s creative ability to absorb objective reality by subjective means. Like other organisms, our environment dictates our behaviour. What is it about us that differentiates our creative abilities from that of all other forms of life? Extreme examples of human creativity would be M.C. Escher’s mathematical metaphors and Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, the former being wholly subjective works of art that are based on mathematical formulations and the latter being the ability to understand the complexity of reality using mental constructs. In an attempt to better understand the human brain’s uniqueness, we can explore creativity in terms of subjectivity and objectivity.


Photo: Sharon McCutcheon

Pure objective reality is a phantom concept. The idea of objectivity can be understood yet it does not exist. Humans are only able to respond to the environment subjectively. Objectivity is and will always be an unattainable goal or Holy Grail. There are numerous ways of interpreting our environment and our assumptions about all that surrounds us is based on who we are and how we think. We approach reality with preconceived notions and all our presumed objective assessments are in truth more likely to be subjective interpretations.

It may seem presumptuous to assume that all creativity is based on subjective perceptions of reality, yet perhaps it would be easier to understand if we regard all our perceptions as ingredients that produce creativity. Most assume the act of creating can only be done by an organism of supposed high intelligence, but a wide variety of organisms are able to create. For example, a beaver is able to create a dam. What we must ask ourselves now is whether the creation of a dam is purely instinctual on the beaver’s part. There is, after all, a need for the dam yet the construction of a dam by a single beaver is not particularly unique to that beaver. Dam construction is commonplace within beaver populations. Unlike beavers, humans are able to creatively think in a way that is unique to the individual. We can now propose, “that by definition creativity denotes an original vision, work, or breakthrough of a high order, so that achievements are distinguished not by what they share in common but by what endows each with the stamp of uniqueness.” [1]

It is difficult to correspond uniqueness and creativity in humans because we can also consider every individual animal in a species to be unique. Perhaps creative ability is about degrees of uniqueness. “Humans are constantly about the business of constructing and modifying new mental representations that are relevant to some goal.”[2] Our creative abilities have catalyzed our capacity to advance as a human species. What must be emphasized here is that creativity is present in all humans to varying degrees. Creativity does not only exist in certain people but rather is present in the most commonplace of human activities. There is a continuum of creativity and it is possible to “distinguish between mundane forms of creativity that characterize the day-to-day activities of virtually all ordinary humans and the more striking forms of genius that seem to occur only rarely, and only among a limited set of individuals…the differences between mundane creativity and genius are quantitative rather than qualitative.”[3]
As a whole, creativity can be considered a mixture of cognitive abilities and conceptual skills. Humans have a penchant for metaphorical thought that better enables us to process information related to the outer world. Once we understand the relationship between creativity, perception, and subjectivity, we are better able to approach creativity from an evolutionary perspective.

When we look at evolutionary history, we must look at creativity as being inherent in all humans rather than only a distinct few. Creativity thought of in this way emphasizes each human being’s individuality and distinctness. This distinctness separates all human individuals from each other and to a greater extent from individuals of other species.


Photo: Mark Basarab

If we consider prehistoric art from 30,000 B.C. to 10,000 B.C. we can see that there is a difference in the way humans react to the environment. By producing works of art on the walls of caves, hunter/gatherers directed their energy toward an act that did not directly improve fitness. However, it is possible that cave painting indirectly improved fitness by acting upon the emotions or enabling cave dwellers to better interpret their surroundings. These artistic creations were in essence subjective reconstructions of the environment. The vast majority of these reconstructions were wild animals. In many cases cave paintings were created to honour successful hunting. The cave paintings were coloured as well, perhaps in an effort to better depict reality or for aesthetic reasons. Today we continue to produce art in the same vein as our prehistoric ancestors. This is a testament to the fact that our creative abilities continue to enable us to strive toward subjectively interpreting the mystery of reality.

Both science and art can be considered sources of creativity in humans. Many would argue that the major difference between science and art is that science is mainly objective. It is true that the main goal of science is the explicate the workings of nature yet pure objective explanation is impossible. Science exists only with theories and mental constructs. Scientists attempt to explain nature mechanically by creating theories. Scientists construct theories in much the same way as writers create stories and painters create paintings. For instance, M.C. Escher continually repudiated the claim that he had a deep understanding of mathematical principles even though his lithographic works show a grasp of complex geometrical precepts. In fact, his art is used in mathematics texts to help explain complex principles. How could it be that a man of an artistic bent was able to create such profound mathematical metaphors? There must be a connection between the diverse creative abilities that humans manifest. Creativity may well be the bridge that connects the seemingly disparate human capacities for mathematics, science, and art.

Creativity seems apparent in these three subjects because each subject allows for extreme creative potential. Mathematical theories, scientific breakthroughs, and works of art are prime examples of one end of the creativity continuum yet all humans have creative potential and all humans show creativity to various degrees. It was mentioned earlier that creativity includes the ability to assess, interpret, and react to our environment. What must be added is that we not only react to nature but also attempt to harness and control it. Einstein’s theory of relativity is an extreme example of creatively assessing and interpreting nature by employing mental constructs. The strength of Einstein’s creative ability is demonstrated by the fact that the theory of relativity gave way to the atomic bomb, which can be considered the apotheosis of the idea of creative control over nature. It now becomes clear that creativity is based on difference. More specifically, creativity is an act that produces a deviation. For example, there seems to be a correlation between creativity and mental illness, mental illness being a deviation from the norm itself. Research on the subject has shown that a surprisingly large number of creative individuals are prone to mental illness. [4]

Creativity is what differentiates the interplay between humans and nature from the interplay between all other organisms and nature. The evolutionary implication of this is that it is precisely our creative ingenuity that has enabled us to react toward and perhaps even react against nature to an excessive degree.

When observing other species of organisms it appears as if they operate by way of set instinctual patterns. The idea of natural selection is more defined and fitness is a top priority. All species seem to move like clockwork through time adhering to the laws of natural selection. At least this is what appears to be so according to the social clockwork model. Of course, there are deviations within certain populations of organisms, but they are less pronounced than in humans and the majority of these deviations seem to be directed toward better fitness thus being more instinctual. Uniqueness within social interactions of certain species tend to lead to behaviour that can be looked upon as creating a set pattern when viewed within the context of a large time frame. It becomes more difficult to find examples of creative assessment in animal populations and there are no overriding urges to harness nature for the good of the species and against the ecosystem. This is demonstrated through the behaviour patterns of bonobos (Pan paniscus).


Photo: Paul Brennan

In order to better understand the uniqueness of the human brain, it is wise to look at one of our closest relatives in regards to evolutionary history. The bonobo are known as a female-centred species that substitutes sex for aggression. They share 98 percent of our genetic profile. There has been extensive research on their linguistic capacities. Recent work on ape cognition “contends that all ape cognition is significantly different from our own because all apes are unable to recognize that others may have different experiences and thus share different states of knowledge about the external world.”[5] Herein lies a major cognitive faculty that differentiates apes, particularly bonobos, from humans. Their inability to recognize that others perceive and assess the external world differently hampers their ability to be truly creative on their own. For them all subjective experiences are the same and a non-existent objectivity encompasses all. This negates the whole idea of subjectivity and denies the bonobo the ability to think in the truly unique and creative ways humans do. Not being able to understand that experiences between individuals differ causes the bonobos to act in a mechanistic and instinctive manner.

By observing bonobo social encounters, it can be seen that there is uniqueness between each social encounter and each individual. Yet this uniqueness exists within a relatively non-changing, rhythmical, and rule-oriented environment. Since bonobos view all individual perception of the environment as being the same, there is no deviation that is inherent in human creativity.

Creativity can only be understood in relation to the environment. When reality is sifted through the mind’s eye, it becomes something different in each individual. This is the basis of subjectivity and it plays a crucial role in the subject of creativity. All creativity is based on existing knowledge about our environment. There can be no creativity without the ability to depart from set patterns. The way humans interpret and react to reality is unique to our species. This has be exemplified in our tangible as well as intangible creations based on subjective reactions to the environment. “Creativity may even be better thought of as the entire system by which processes operate on structures to produce outcomes that are novel but nevertheless rooted in existing knowledge.”[6] This can be regarded as truly human.

1   Dervin, Daniel. Creativity and Culture: A Psychoanalytic Study of the Creative Process in the Arts, Sciences, and Culture. London: Associated University Press, 1990. p. 9


2   Smith, Steven M., Vaid, Jyotsna, and Ward, Thomas B., ed. Creative Thought: An Investigation of Conceptual Structures and Processes. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1997. p.1


3   Smith, Steven M., Vaid, Jyotsna, and Ward, Thomas B., ed. Creative Thought: An Investigation of Conceptual Structures and Processes. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1997. p.5


4   Jamison, Kay Redfield. “Manic-Depressive Illness and Creativity.”  Scientific American February 1995: pages 62-67


5  Fields, William M., Savage-Rumbaugh, E. Sue. “Linguistic, Cultural and Cognitive Capacities of Bonobos (Pan Paniscus).” Culture & Psychology 2000 Vol. 6(2) p. 144


6   Smith, Steven M., Vaid, Jyotsna, and Ward, Thomas B., ed. Creative Thought: An Investigation of Conceptual Structures and Processes. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association. 1997. p. 18