Understanding creativity through memes and schemata


When it comes to the notion of creativity, both R. Dawkins and D. Dennett argue that creativity is a matter of random mutation, in the same way that genes randomly mutate. Neither Dennett nor Dawkins see anything else in the mimetic theory of creativity than a process of Darwinian evolution. However, this complete reliance upon the extension of evolution for understanding creativity needs to be supplemented by combining it with other ideas such as those of "schema theory," because creativity always occurs within a structured context and is not simply a matter of random mutation of ideas. Schema theory comes largely from the works of E.H Gombrich, who argued that "schemas" play a crucial role in how it is that we are able to be creative. He defines schemas as structure and traditions in society that help to convey the meaning of our creative efforts. Just as semantics needs syntax within language in order to formulate and convey meaning, so by analogy memes need schemas for the creation and expression of new ideas. Rather than being the antithesis of creativity, existing forms of expression and traditions are important for the creation of new ideas. This needs to be factored into any theory of creativity in order to account for the effect of the social context on creative endeavours in addition to a Darwinian account of memes. The unconscious processes at work within the brain that are involved in the generation of ideas and other creative products can be understood using the notion of a "generator", as originally conceived by D. Dennett. This notion goes beyond mere concrete Skinnerian behavioural trial and error. Within this generator, there appear to be at work processes such as those of bisociation and association, as discussed by A. Koestler, as well as processes such as the role of language, memory, generate-and-test and intentionality that must be acknowledged in addition to the syntactic operations of schemas and the replicating contents of memes. The operation of all of these ingredients within the generator, when understood together, can be seen as responsible for our ability to be creative

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Julie Hawthorne
University of New South Wales (PhD)


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