Greg’s research focuses on the arts and cognition. His latest essay, entitled “Creativity and the Insight that Literature Brings”, appeared in the edited volume The Philosophy of Creativity: New Essays (Oxford University Press, 2014).
GC: I wouldn’t attempt a watertight definition but I think of creativity as the capacity to find good, unpredictable solutions to problems. Without the first clause about good solutions we simply have wildly unconventional behaviour which does not succeed, and I think a tendency to success is part of what it takes to be creative. The point about unpredictability highlights a point I would want to make about creativity being an epistemic notion: we judge certain behaviours as creative but other beings, knowing more about the workings of our cognition, might be able to predict the behaviour and for them it would not be creative. But I’d like to avoid complete relativism about this in the following way. There is generally a right perspective: that of the agent’s peers. That super-beings won’t find Einstein creative should not mean that he was not creative in thinking up the General Theory of Relativity.
MA: Is creativity beneficial for the mind?
GC: I guess the answer has to be yes and no—or rather it is beneficial to the agent whose mind it is, and often to the wider society. But as is often said, there is at least some reason to think that creativity in humans is tied to tendencies of mind such as psychoticism and bipolar disorder which certainly have their negative aspects. However, it is surely true that being highly creative creates opportunities for experiencing a kind of satisfaction that most of us can’t experience—the satisfaction of producing something really new and worthwhile.
MA: In our project, we are interested in cognitive benefits of imperfect cognitions. What is your view as to whether creativity and mental illness could be related?
GC: I think there is some evidence that they are related. There is quite a lot of specific evidence for this and I review some of it in my paper. Additionally, there is the following rather plausible thought. Creativity requires imagination, and the unusual creativity we associate with Einstein and Virginia Wolf requires unusual amounts of imagination. Now there is a long tradition of thinking of madness as a kind of over-imaginativeness, involving a loss of control over the imagination. That simple thought needs a lot of qualification of course but the idea that having a great deal of imagination poses problems of control, is a plausible one. Perhaps certain forms of mental illness are due partly to failure to control imagination, and one would expect that to occur disproportionately in people with lots of imagination.
MA: What do you consider to be the greatest challenge for research into the relationship between creativity and imperfect cognitions?
GC: No doubt there are many challenges in this area where often times the results of one experiment contradict the results of another similar one. One particular difficulty we face in studying the relation between high levels of creativity and mental illness is the use of retrospective studies: studies, that is, of people whose lives over a long period have proven to be highly creative, and one cannot usually carry out these studies until the person is dead or at least past the stage of creativity. These studies can be very suggestive but are heavily reliant on hearsay evidence and may be subject to all sorts of retrospective reinterpretation. It would be good if we could identify highly creative people early and study them directly, but one can see difficulties here, including the possibility that such investigations might actually precipitate the disorders they are supposed to discover.