Ward et al.

Ward, Finke, and Smith's Creativity and the Mind

Reading Questions

This is a new selection this year, in several ways. It is certainly the most recent book we are reading, with a 1995 copyright. It also takes a fresh, empirical look at a topic long sunken in obfuscation. The authors all teach at Texas A&M university, and have an online site, The Creative Cognition Compound, that explains their research in some detail (though not as much detail as you will get from the book).

Americans who do badly at mathematics in junior high school often claim "I'm not good at math." But much research on math learning skills suggests that "mathematical ability" is a convenient cultural fiction. For most children, learning basic mathematics is more a function of learning mathematical ways of thinking than of innate ability. The same argument is now being made by cognitive scientists about the more mysterious domain of creativity. In this popular treatment of what the authors call the "creative cognition" approach, the standard armamentarium of cognitive psychology is brought to bear on the problem of creativity.

Beginning in the 1950s (see the timeline for some details), psychologists began to break away from what they viewed as the constraining assumptions and methods of behaviorist psychology. You have undoubtedly experienced some chafing yourself as you read Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Partially as a result of the advent of the computer--a thinking machine, psychologists began to think that it was possible to talk about thinking itself, in terms of the contexts of thought and the processes that operated on them. We have now been 50 years into the "cognitive revolution" and have much to show for it. We will talk in class about how research on memory has been influenced by this approach, but the bulk of our time will be spent understanding how people solve problems, and how this understanding can help us understand creativity.

According to Ward et al., creativity is not a "mysterious, unobservable process," nor is it an innate, unlearnable ability. It is, instead, a set of skills that can be taught and learned by regular folks. This egalitarian and hopeful view of creativity is backed by the authors' own and their colleagues' extensive research programs. They eschew references to development, emotion, personality, and social structure. Instead, they rely on the regular furnishings of the cognitive cabinet: abstraction, categorization, forgetting, heuristics, mental models, mental images, mental sets, metacognition, metaphor, problem solving, schemas, scripts. If you take this list of terms and compare it to the terms list for our class, you will see you are getting a bargain. There is lots of basic cognitive psychology presented here in a readable manner.

After introducing these concepts in an appropriately chatty way for a popular text, they then apply them to a variety of real-world creative areas (business, writing, invention, etc.). Their application is given life by a set of conceptual tools the authors have evolved. These tools are, unlike the general cognitive concepts listed above, specific to the domain of creativity. They are practical descriptions of cognitive processes (conceptual combination, generation, exploration), characteristics of creative solutions (structural connectedness, imaginative divergence), or of interim solutions (preinventive forms). The great advantage of these tools in this setting is that they suggest practical advice for the aspiring creative thinker (that's you).

None of these tools for creative thinkers are conceptual breakthroughs on the level of cognitive psychology. But they do provide a conceptual coherence for a narrowly cognitive theory of creativity. It this way they might well be thought of as providing a conceptual pedagogical breakthrough. The house of cards of differing cognitive concepts takes on substance in the domain of creativity when viewed through this approach.

Precisely because it attempts to do the most it can with only the traditional cognitive tools, this treatment inherits the conceptual shortcomings associated with those tools. For instance, it does not take account of developmental processes that might explain why some people learn these skills while others do not. It disregards emotional attachment to ideas, except as a hindrance to flexibility or as a spur thought. In sum, it deals only superficially with the problem of motivation. Freud would certainly point out this shortcoming. Finally, it ignores the special problems associated with each applied area, and is thus not "situated" in real applications. But these are surely forgivable flaws in a popular treatment. And the authors do, after all, accomplish a rare feat, they make the sometimes esoteric language of cognitive psychology available and interesting for regular folks.