The Ethics And Psychology Of Creativity

Posted by Bela Shah on Oct 11, 2014
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"The creative process is a moment of humility. What may emerge, we might not ever have thought about. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts."  ~Dr. Ruth Richards

True or False?  There are those of us that are creative and those of us that just aren't.  

If you think you're in the "not creative" camp, then you might be surprised and delighted to hear that the answer is "false".  

On our Global Awakin Call, Dr. Ruth Richards, author of "Everyday Creativity", and Professor Seana Moran, editor and contributing author to "Ethics of Creativity", engaged us in a dynamic conversation about the psychology and ethics of creativity. โ€‹

With an M.D. from Harvard and a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley, Dr. Ruth Richards is one of the leading researchers on creativity in daily life. โ€‹
Professor Seana Moran, who has an M.Ed. in Mind, Brain and Behavior from Harvard, researches how individuals make contributions to situations, institutions and communities and how they recognize themselves as contributors.

Deven: What is creativity?

โ€‹Seana: Creativity launches into existing systems of relationships and changes some of those relationships. In this sense, I don't think of creativity as breaking from the past, but instead as one of the dynamics of culture that has momentum into the future so it shifts meanings. Meaning can be infinitely malleable.

As we make it a practice of “what is” into “what could be”, we create these ripple effects that increase the capacity of humanity in the broadest sense.

We contribute to each other's thinking far more than we probably realize and we don't have a feedback loop to see the consequences of the seeds that we've planted in each other.

Deven: What are ways to unlock this creativity?

Ruth: We unlock our creativity by getting out of our own way. This means that we have to let go of this image of ourselves and we also have to let go of our worry that our idea won’t be good enough.  This means being open to new ideas.
When we’re open to inspiration, we’re not in ordinary waking mind and our brain waves shift from beta waves to theta waves. Theta waves are what our brains experience when we’re meditating.

The creative process is a moment of humility and it’s an opportunity to stretch ourselves beyond all these preconditioned ideas. What may emerge we may never even have thought about before and we are reminded that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Seana: I think that “unlock” is an interesting term. There are two thoughts that come to mind. I currently teach a seminar on creativity, collaboration, and human development. I think collaboration, as in co-labor, is a key tool for helping each other stretch, reminding us that we’re all creating together, and then internalizing that.

Also, a principle that I work by is that we’re working toward something, which is a forward thinking attitude, and we’re not working against something, which is a reactionary attitude. There is much more power in the energy it takes to build something instead of trying to resist something you don't like.

My classes involve activities on noticing and sensitivity. For example, I take my students on walks and ask them to close their eyes. Then I ask, “What do you feel on your face?” We’re such a visually oriented society so it might take some time but then they feel the slight wind on their face or they hear the birds.

I usually jolt or shift something to shock them out of their habit. I also might ask them something where the first answer is usually the obvious one. For example, I might ask, “One plus one equals?” Most people respond by answering, “Two”. Then I ask, “What else could it be?” For example, if you’re a computer coder and you know a binary math system, then one plus one equals zero. After they realize that there is more than one right answer, they start to realize that visually you can place the ones together and it becomes eleven or you can cross the ones and it becomes a plus sign. It becomes a popcorn effect!

Deven: One of the things that you touched upon, Ruth, is about being vulnerable. When you are opening yourself up for creative ideas, you are making yourself susceptible in that moment. Whatever your perception was up to that point might be shaken up. It reminded me of Stephen Covey, who said that if you are genuinely trying to understand a person then you are letting your guard down and you need security from the inside to be able to do that.

What tools do you recommend for changemakers that are trying to be creative to move forward and might be met with resistance?

Seana: It’s important to stay present in the here and now and remember that we don’t know everything we need to know. Work first to understand and then work to be understood.

A lot of times with creativity I come in with this notion of the “other” and then I try to not be afraid of the “other”. I ask, “What is going on in this situation? What are this person’s interests or needs? Where are they coming from when they’re resisting my new idea?”

Sometimes even if it’s a wonderful new idea, people are afraid of what they might have to give up and there is some uncertainty about how the new idea will be implemented. When you recognize this type of resistance as inertia, you realize that there is energy there. Even anger has energy.

I tell my students about “collywobbles”, that feeling in your stomach you get when you’re both excited and afraid at the same time. There is interest but you’re not quite sure what to do. That is information and you might be on to something.

Deven: You touched on understanding the other person first. Empathy is one of the core values of Service Space. Can you talk more about the role of empathy in creativity?

Ruth: I once asked a Zen Master, “Why can’t we just worry about ourselves? Why should we care about everyone else?” But empathy is a form of creativity; they are related. If people are really relating to each other and are authentic and in the moment, they are changing.

Bela: Can you elaborate on the ethics of creativity? As you mentioned, it seemed that before ethics and creativity just didn’t seem to go together because if you think of ethics you think of what’s moral and right and boring and when you think of creativity, you think of what’s outside of the box and what’s radical and new. Can you give examples of ethics in creativity?

Seana: I think of ethics in terms of “response-ability”, that is, the ability to respond and influence a situation. It’s important to make a difference between responsibility and accountability. Accountability comes from the word “account”, which means to settle the costs and figure out liability. Ethics is our ability to make good. Creativity and ethics were always thought about in different fields but this book creates a conversation about how much mindful good creativity can do.

The book, "Ethics of Creativity", has several chapters from creativity researchers trying to address this cross roads of creativity and ethics because it’s so new. The book explores how to be more responsible and mindful about creativity. Several of the authors use real world creators and the types of ethical dimensions that were present in their work.

One case study is of the photographer Dorothea Lang during the Depression era. The chapter explores the seemingly small decisions that the artist made. How did she determine what to include and what not to include in a photo? How did she determine the framing and composition of the photo and how might this affect the thoughts and emotions and biases and prejudices that might come forth as a result? These were all ethical decisions. Another example is mathematics. What do ethics have to do with mathematics? Mathematics describes relationships among things in the world and by better understanding these relationships it increases the possibility for us to have an effect on these relationships in a positive way.

Deven: This whole journey of creativity, understanding it, writing about it, teaching about it, etc., how has it made an impact on you personally?

Ruth: This makes me think about being out there in the world, working with others, and hearing them and living with those “collywobbles”. It’s really an opportunity.

We are in a cosmos of awe and mystery and it’s more than just what we can see. When we’re being creative, we are aware of this and we’re open to knowing more than we know now. If we’re truly committed to this, we are more committed to process than to product. We are committed to ourselves changing, connecting, and growing instead of being stuck to some fixed image of self.

How can we enhance our creativity? Just ask yourself three new questions every hour; it’s a different way of being in the world. It’s saying, “I don’t know everything and there is more stuff out there to learn.”
What I want to emphasize is how healthy this could be in a day-to-day way and how it can help us to become more altruistic. It’s healthy because you’re looking beyond your conscious mind for answers, so sometimes this reaction to creativity, “Ewe, we don’t want that!”, comes from others that want to shut us down. We can do that to ourselves as well because we don’t want to know all that irrational stuff we’ve hidden away or what Carl Jung calls the shadow side. It’s going back to the idea that one plus one doesn’t have to equal two. If we are truly committed to being creative, we are committed to knowing everything, including our shadow selves, with the awareness to integrate this information. It’s about openness and adaptive use. This balance can be extremely healthy because less is hidden. Depending on the issue, we might not be able to make a difference individually but working together we can do a lot.

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