Creativity: the opposite of flow?
Here's an interesting study by Harvard: it suggests that one aspect of creativity is a poor ability to disregard random information from your environment. Your higher intelligence or awareness means your attention is constantly being pulled around by external stimuli, but this makes you more creative than less sensitive people - because you see things they don't, process more information than them, and are more alive to your environment.
But this is also why creative people are, perhaps, more likely to go mad: they can't always handle all the information they are being swamped with:
"Scientists have wondered for a long time why madness and creativity seem linked, particularly in artists, musicians, and writers," notes Shelley Carson, a Harvard psychologist. "Our research results indicate that low levels of latent inhibition and exceptional flexibility in thought predispose people to mental illness under some conditions and to creative accomplishments under others."
Carson, Jordan Peterson (now at the University of Toronto), and Daniel Higgins did experiments to find out what these conditions might be.
They put 182 Harvard graduate and undergraduate students through a series of tests involving listening to repeated strings of nonsense syllables, hearing background noise, and watching yellow lights on a video screen. (The researchers do not want to reveal details of how latent inhibition was scored because such tests are still going on with other subjects.)
The students also filled out questionnaires about their creative achievements on a new type of form developed by Carson, and they took standard intelligence tests. When all the scores and test results were compared, the most creative students had lower scores for latent inhibition than the less creative.
Some students who scored unusually high in creative achievement were seven times more likely to have low scores for latent inhibition. These low scorers also had high IQs.
"Getting swamped by new information that you have difficulty handling may predispose you to a mental disorder," Carson says. "But if you have high intelligence and a good working memory, you are more likely to be able to combine bits of new information in creative ways."
This is a very different model of creativity to the rather influential theory of 'flow' put forward by Mihaly Csikszentmiyhalyi: that highly creative people are able to achieve high states of flow, or complete absorption in what they're doing so that they lose track of time and space.
Perhaps creativity is actually the opposite of complete absorption. Perhaps it is the ability to open your mind up to your environment and let it be invaded by it, like Coleridge's Aeolian Harp...
Or perhaps creativity is both the experience of opening up and absorbing all kinds of stimuli, and then the experience of focusing in and creating something from all that information. It is an opening up, and then a narrowing in.
A great example of this process, I think, is TS Eliot's The Wasteland: Eliot opens his mind up to all the fragments and confusing elements of his cultural environment, emptying his self out and becoming passively invaded, or assaulted, by a barrage of cultural stimuli, and then asserting his attention and will to forge these elements into a new order.
Creativity is the process by which we bring order out of the chaos of information that swamps us.