One of the many paradoxes of human creativity is that it seems to benefit from constraints. Although we imagine the imagination as requiring total freedom, the reality of the creative process is that it’s often entangled with strict conventions and formal requirements. Pop songs have choruses and refrains; symphonies have four movements; plays have five acts; painters still rely on the tropes of portraiture.
Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is poetry. At first glance, the art seems to be defined by its liberation from ordinary language – poets don’t have to obey the rules of syntax and punctuation. And yet, most poetry still depends on literary forms with exacting requirements, such as haikus, sestets and sonnets. This writing method seems to make little sense, since it makes the creative act much more difficult. Instead of composing free verse, poets frustrate themselves with structural constraints. Why?
A new study led by Janina Marguc at the University of Amsterdam, and published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, provides an interesting answer. It turns out that the obstacles of form come with an unexpected psychological perk, allowing people to think in a more all-encompassing fashion. The introduction of the paper sets up the mystery:
Daily life is full of obstacles: A construction site blocking the usual road to work, a colleague’s background chatter interfering with one’s ability to concentrate, a newborn child hindering parents in completing their daily routines, or a lack of resources standing in the way of realizing an ambitious plan. How do people cognitively respond to such obstacles? How do the ways in which they perceive and process information from their environment change when an obstacle interferes with what they want to accomplish? In the present research, we aim to shed light on these questions by investigating the impact of obstacles on global versus local processing. We propose that unless people are inclined to disengage prematurely from ongoing activities, obstacles will prompt them to step back and adopt a more global, Gestalt-like processing style that allows them to look at the “big picture” and conceptually integrate seemingly unrelated pieces of information.
To test this hypothesis, the psychologists ran several clever experiments. The first experiment went like this: twenty five students were given a series of verbal anagram puzzles. Half of the students were then assigned to the obstacle condition, in which they were forced to listen to a neutral voice repeating words unrelated to the anagrams. Then, everyone was given a cognitive test that assessed global versus local thinking. (A more global thought process is generally ideal for coming up with truly creative solutions, as it makes people more likely to notice cross-cutting connections.) As expected, subjects exposed to the auditory obstacle were significantly better at responding to global visual targets – they focused on the whole, rather than the detailed parts. For example, when shown the following Navon letters task, the students were more likely to automatically respond that the pictures contained (in clockwise order, from the top left corner) an E, S, H and A:
(In contrast, those subjects not first exposed to an obstacle insisted that the picture contained an A, H, S and E. They were entirely tuned to the particular.) The psychologists refer to this shift as an expansion of “perceptual scope,” suggesting that the obstacle had literally increased what the subjects were able to notice. The struggle allowed them to see the whole.
But obstacles don’t just increase the possibilities of perception – they also expand our conceptual scope, allowing us to consider a greater range of possibilities and ideas. In this experiment, subjects forced to listen to a random list of numbers while solving anagrams – that was the annoying hurdle – demonstrated an increased flexibility in their use of conceptual categories. Most of the time, for instance, we don’t consider “telephone” to be in the “furniture” category. Instead, we think of phones as appliances or communication devices. However, those who had first dealt with a mental constraint – they had to overcome those numbers in the background – were much more likely to consider phones as loosely related to furniture. Such flexibility is often necessary when coming up with new ideas, as people must trespass on the familiar boundaries of thought.
In their final study, the psychologists demonstrated that the benefits of obstacles were particularly important for those people willing to stay engaged in a difficult task. (The danger of constraints, after all, is that they cause people to quit.) The experiment began by giving all of the students a computer maze game. Some played the game with a blocking obstacle, which made it much more difficult to figure out the escape route. Then, they were given a standard measure of creativity known as a remote associates test. Three sample words appeared on a screen – say, “envy,” “golf” and “beans” – and the students were asked to find the fourth word that connects them all. (The answer is “green”.) Interestingly, those students who were first exposed to the obstacle solved 40 percent more remote associate puzzles. The constraint had forced them into a creative mindset; their imaginations benefited from the struggle.
The larger lesson is that the brain is a neural tangle of near infinite possibility, which means that it spends a lot of time and energy choosing what not to notice. As a result, creativity is traded away for efficiency; we think in literal prose, not symbolist poetry. And this is why constraints are so important: It’s not until we encounter an unexpected hindrance – a challenge we can’t easily resolve – that the chains of cognition are loosened, giving us newfound access to the weird connections simmering in the unconscious. Here are the scientists:
Consistently, these studies show that encountering an obstacle in one task can elicit a more global, Gestalt-like processing style that automatically carries over to unrelated tasks, leading people to broaden their perception, open up mental categories, and improve at integrating seemingly unrelated concepts.
And this returns us to poetic form. The artificial requirements of the sonnet are just another cognitive obstacle, a hurdle that compels the mind to think in a more holistic fashion. Unless poets are stumped by their art, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they’ll never invent an original line. They’ll be stuck with clichés and banalities, with predictable adjectives and boring verbs. And this helps explain the stubborn endurance of poetic forms: because poets need to find a rhyming word with exactly three syllables, or an adjective that fits the iambic scheme, they end up uncovering all sorts of unexpected associations. As Paul Valery declared: “A person is a poet if his imagination is stimulated by the dif?culties inherent in his art and not if his imagination is dulled by them.”
We break out of the box by stepping into shackles.
PS. Reader DW sends in this wonderful aphorism from Chesterton: “Art consists in limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.”
Image: Phil Roeder/Flickr/CC