Sunday, October 30, 2005

Uncertainty and the Creative Process

Werner Heisenberg (shown at left in 1927... what a sweet lookin' kid) said, basically, that you can either know the location or the momentum (mass times velocity) of a particle, but not both. The more you know about one... the less you will know about the other.


I love the principle, because, loosely translated, it comes out to: "You can't really know where you're at and where you're going."


Lots of crazy shit (from a quantum mechanical crazy-shit perspective) jumps out from Heisenberg. It was this principle that caused Einstein to say, "God does not play dice with the universe."


Oops. But he does. And so do we. And dice, which are measurers of randomness to a degree, measure outcomes in terms of curves, which are wave patterns. And the universe is made up a waves, not points... But we like to think in terms of points, not waves.


This will get to the subject of creativity, I assure you.


What do waves have to do with anything? Well, have you heard of the "two slit experiment?" The one where you fire photons through slits in a wall and observe their effect on photographic paper? OK. Play along for a moment in physics class.

Waves, slits and how-the-hell did that happen?

  1. Imagine a wall in the middle of a pond. Drop a rock on one side. Waves hit the wall. Nothing happens on the other side.

  2. Put a hole in the wall. Drop a rock on one side. Some of the waves go through the hole and make waves on the other side.

  3. Put two holes in the wall. Drop the rock. Some waves go through both holes and make interference pattern/waves on the other side.

    No prob, right? We know from waves. Bouncy, bouncy, they mash into each other and get wiggy and cross and get bigger and smaller. Great. OK.

  4. Put a wall in the middle of a room. Shoot photons (light waves) at it. On other side of wall is photographic paper to measure light wave patterns.

  5. Put slit in wall. Shoot streams of photons through. Photographic paper reveals light wave patterns consistent with light behaving like wave. Right-i-o.

  6. Keep slit in wall. Shoot one photon through; one particle (point) of light. Photographic paper reveals pattern consistent with light behaving like single-point.

  7. Make two slits. Shoot streams of photons through. Photo paper reveals wave patterns consistent with light behaving like waves; i.e., interference patterns.

  8. Keep two slits. Shoot one photon through one of them. Photo paper reveals wave pattern consistent with photon going through BOTH HOLES.



Light is a particle that behaves like a wave. There is uncertainty and randomness involved in whether it goes through one, the other or both slits. This uncertainty has a measurable impact on the world. Welcome to quantum mechanics and uncertainty.


A tenuous link back to the subject of creativity

In order to be creative, we have a
process. Nature might be beautiful, and we love looking at babies, but we're not talking about that kind of creativity here. Just like light has to get from "Point A" to "Point B," so we want to start with nothing and end up with a poem or a marketing campaign or a painting or a curriculum.

Often, we'd rather shortcut than "narrate a process."  We'd rather know "where we are" (especially after we get there) than "how to get there." In Heisenbergian terms, we much prefer location to momentum. Which is understandable, as location requires only one measurement -- "where am I?" -- which is, often, done on the fly and anecdotally. Whereas momentum involves mass and velocity measurements, which require you to know weight (and the gravity of the environment), speed and direction. Crap! That's three-times as many measurements, and you can't just fake those out by saying, "Hell, I'm right here, ain't I?" the way you can with location.


Many of us assume that "creative" people get where they are going through "natural" processes. The most common word I've encountered for that is "talent." My brother, the actor, will tell you that talent only gets you so far. Talent is, in its way, a "given" issue in the creativity equation, like location. You're born with a certain amount. It is like the gravity of the planet or the atomic weight of your particular element, which determines your mass. Can't do anything with it. If you rely solely on talent, you're probably hosed. Luck might come into play, too... but if you want to base the outcome of your marketing campaign or child's musical career on luck, go buy lottery tickets or visit Vegas. Creativity and luck have nothing to do with each other in my opinion.


Actors often speak about "the craft." This is the part of acting that actors work on. The best of them work on their craft all the time. They go to classes, do exercises, think about acting when they're on the train, observe all kinds of people in various environments, practice lines with friends and family. They improve their creative abilities. They effect a change in the velocity of their careers. If talent is mass, then the only way to change your career's momentum is to go faster or change direction -- both aspects of velocity. Those are things you control. Those are process elements.


Is there an equation for creative success?

Does this mean that one process -- one pre-set series of forms -- will turn everyone who goes through the motions into a best-selling writer or famous actor? Of course not. Because the one-slit experiment only really works in a completely dark room, with a single proton. It's one of those physics things that shows of a weird-ity of nature, but doesn't occur in the real world often or at all. In nature, there are billions and skillions of protons flying around, all mashing into each other a gazillions times a second, all interfering with each other.


So... your processes will still be very "uncertain," no matter how hard you try to refine them. They will be influenced by your genes (your innate "talent"), your upbringing, the other people involved in teaching you the process, the folks with whom you engage in the process, the timing relative to other events in your life, how concentrated you are, your reasons for doing it, etc. You can give two very similar people the same simple "creativity exercise" and they'll come out with very different responses. You can give two actors who resemble each other remarkably the same script, and they'll perform it in unique ways.


We are innately dismissive of creative product that allows for little or no unique personality in the equation. We, in fact, derride it as "formulaic." Movies and books that take tired, old clichés and run them up and down the same tired, old streets. We've been here before, we've seen it again and again. In some sense, we might even say that these derivative works aren't even really creative. They are a "creation," in the sense that something has been "made," but then again, something is often made when I take my dog for a stroll in the park. But I don't refer to it as creativity.


The physics metaphor continues... when we view or read a work that is "formulaic," we often say, "I know exactly where this is going." We've evaluated the creative momentum of the piece and determined its final destination pretty accurately.


Does this mean that we need a bit of randomness in order to really enjoy a creative work? Or at least, if not randomness, newness? I think many of us would certainly argue that originality is one important aspect of artistic creativity. Merely copying a great work of art may be an expression of craftsmanship, but not of creativity. Nothing new has been made, so there is no real creation.

So... to be creative, maybe we need to be like the universe. We need the element of randomness, or uncertainty. But I'd also argue that, just like the universe, there are also rules that help us get to where we are going. Total randomness will produce only noise. Just because something is new, doesn't make it worth looking at. Just ask my dog.

Where does that leave us? I think we need a "Heisenberg's (or Havens?) Principle for Creative Uncertainty." An understanding that there is or should be a balance between location -- those things that are set, required and necessary -- and momentum -- those things that can be worked on and changed. We need, for example, to hire "talented" people. But we then need to train them. We need to recognize and take advantage of naturally ocurring, spontaneous, serendipitous events and resources in our creative lives... but we then need to leverage the hell out of them.

And when we find ourselves relying too heavily on one side or the other of the equation... we need to kick ourselves in the pants and go looking for more of the other.

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