Understanding Creativity: Affect Decision and Inference


In this essay we collect and put together a number of ideas relevant to the under- standing of the phenomenon of creativity, confining our considerations mostly to the domain of cognitive psychology while we will, on a few occasions, hint at neuropsy- chological underpinnings as well. In this, we will mostly focus on creativity in science, since creativity in other domains of human endeavor have common links with scientific creativity while differing in numerous other specific respects. We begin by briefly introducing a few basic notions relating to cognition, among which the notion of ‘concepts’ is of basic relevance. The myriads of concepts lodged in our mind constitute a ‘conceptual space’ of an enormously complex structure, where con- cepts are correlated by beliefs that are themselves made up of concepts and are as- sociated with emotions. The conceptual space, moreover, is perpetually in a state of dynamic evolution that is once again of a complex nature. A major component of the dynamic evolution is made up of incessant acts of inference, where an inference occurs essentially by means of a succession of correlations among concepts set up with beliefs and heuristics, the latter being beliefs of a special kind, namely, ones relatively free of emotional associations and possessed of a relatively greater degree of justification. Beliefs, along with heuristics, have been described as the ‘mind’s software’, and con- stitute important cognitive components of the self-linked psychological resources of an individual. The self is the psychological engine driving all our mental and physical activity, and is in a state of ceaseless dynamics resulting from one’s most intimate ex- periences of the world accumulating in the course of one’s journey through life. Many of our psychological resources are of a dual character, having both a self-linked and a shared character, the latter being held in common with larger groups of people and imbibed from cultural inputs. We focus on the privately held self-linked beliefs of an individual, since these are presumably of central relevance in making possible inductive inferences – ones in which there arises a fundamental need of adopting a choice or making a decision. Beliefs, decisions, and inferences, all have the common link to the self of an individual and, in this, are fundamentally analogous to free will, where all of these have an aspect of non-determinism inherent in them. Creativity involves a major restructuring of the conceptual space where a sustained inferential process eventually links remote conceptual domains, thereby opening up the possibility of a large number of new correlations between remote concepts by a cascading process. Since the process of inductive inference depends crucially on de- cisions at critical junctures of the inferential chain, it becomes necessary to examine the basic mechanism underlying the making of decisions. In the framework that we attempt to build up for the understanding of scientific creativity, this role of decision making in the inferential process assumes central relevance. With this background in place, we briefly sketch the affect theory of decisions. Affect is an innate system of response to perceptual inputs received either from the exter- nal world or from the internal physiological and psychological environment whereby a positive or negative valence gets associated with a perceptual input. Almost every sit- uation faced by an individual, even one experienced tacitly, i.e., without overt aware-ness, elicits an affective response from him, carrying a positive or negative valence that underlies all sorts of decision making, including ones carried out unconsciously in inferential processes. Referring to the process of inferential exploration of the conceptual space that gener- ates the possibility of correlations being established between remote conceptual do- mains, such exploration is guided and steered at every stage by the affect system, analogous to the way a complex computer program proceeds through junctures where the program ascertains whether specified conditions are met with by way of generating appropriate numerical values – for instance, the program takes different routes, depending on whether some particular numerical value turns out to be positive or negative. The valence generated by the affect system in the process of adoption of a choice plays a similar role which therefore is of crucial relevance in inferential processes, especially in the exploration of the conceptual space where remote domains need to be linked up – the affect system produces a response along a single value dimension, resembling a number with a sign and a magnitude. While the affect system plays a guiding role in the exploration of the conceptual space, the process of exploration itself consists of the establishment of correlations between concepts by means of beliefs and heuristics, the self-linked ones among the latter having a special role in making possible the inferential journey along alternative routes whenever the shared rules of inference become inadequate. A successful access to a remote conceptual domain, necessary for the creative solution of a standing problem or anomaly – one that could not be solved within the limited domain hitherto accessed – requires a phase of relatively slow cumulative search and then, at some stage, a rapid cascading process when a solution is in sight. Representing the conceptual space in the form of a complex network, the overall process can be likened to one of self-organized criticality commonly observed in the dynamical evolution of complex systems. In order that inferential access to remote domains may actually be possible, it is necessary that restrictions on the exploration process – necessary for setting the context in ordinary instances of inductive inference – be relaxed and a relatively free exploration in a larger conceptual terrain be made possible. This is achieved by the mind going into the default mode, where external constraints – ones imposed by shared beliefs and modes of exploration – are made inoperative. While explaining all these various aspects of the creative process, we underline the supremely important role that analogy plays in it. Broadly speaking, analogy is in the nature of a heuristic, establishing correlations between concepts. However, analo- gies are very special in that these are particularly effective in establishing correlations among remote concepts, since analogy works without regard to the contiguity of the concepts in the conceptual space. In establishing links between concepts, analogies have the power to light up entire terrains in the conceptual space when a rapid cas- cading of fresh correlations becomes possible. The creative process occurs within the mind of a single individual or of a few closely collaborating individuals, but is then continued by an entire epistemic community, eventually resulting in a conceptual revolution. Such conceptual revolutions make pos- sible the radical revision of scientific theories whereby the scope of an extant theory is broadened and a new theoretical framework makes its appearance. The emerging theory is characterized by a certain degree of incommensurability when compared with the earlier one – a feature that may appear strange at first sight. But incommen- surability does not mean incompatibility and the apparently contrary features of the relation between the successive theories may be traced to the multi-layered structureof the conceptual space where concepts are correlated not by means of single links but by multiple ones, thereby generating multiple layers of correlation, among which some are retained and some created afresh in a conceptual restructuring. We conclude with the observation that creativity occurs on all scales. Analogous to correlations being set up across domains in the conceptual space and new domains being generated, processes with similar features can occur within the confines of a domain where a new layer of inferential links may be generated, connecting up sub- domains. In this context, insight can be looked upon as an instance of creativity within the confines of a domain of a relatively limited extent.

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Avijit Lahiri
Calcutta University (Alumnus)


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