Roger van Oech's Whack on the Side of the Head series of books and lectures were once very popular. The idea that creativity can be stimulated directly has been discounted however by studies such as Robert J. Sternberg's The Nature of Creativity. He underscores the view that a regular `massage' of the right side of the head is more likely to nurture a creative spirit than any number of rude awakenings. Sternberg reviews creativity studies and concludes that in addition to intellectual abilities, knowledge, styles of thinking, personality and motivation, extrinsic factors are decisive.1 He points out that a person could possess the internal resources needed for creative thought, but without some external support, for example a forum for expressing those ideas, his or her creativity might never come to light. He also finds that societies do not characteristically encourage one's use of creativity, finding that negative feedback is a minor hindrance, while hostile responses to unconventionally creative ideas are a major discouragement. That unfortunately leaves the individual to cope with adverse pressures that obstruct their creative work.

Another noted study, Social Influences on Creativity: The Effects of Contracted-for Reward, discourages the belief that direct incentives can stimulate creativity.2 The authors' experiments demonstrate that, when a reward is clearly offered for an activity, the task is performed with less creativity than when no reward is offered at all. Underscoring this is the finding that the subjects—workers and students—will be less creative when they are allowed to choose tasks for which rewards are specified, than when there is no reward tied to any of the available tasks.

Discussing chaos and creativity, Ruth Richards observes that:

    Creative coping with adversity may not always be fun, but it can be powerful, with a rewarding aftermath... What are the secrets of the resilient ones? If these people are not the majority, then how might they become the majority? As we cope with the problems and illnesses of our times, how might we too—a great many more of us—learn to cope more creatively?3

Certainly her views are confirmed by Temple Grandin and by the epilepsy patient* who devised a way of coping with seizures. They met their autistic and epileptic challenges with great imagination, and this in turn affirms the role of negative capability lauded by Keats. It also points to the capacity for resilience, which deserves a closer look.

The discipline of Resilience Theory allows us to explore the study of ecological flexibility and provides some valuable guidelines. The Resilience of Past Landscapes 4 is a scientific exposition of the `progress trap' from perspectives that embrace anthropology, archeology and ecology. Most significantly, the authors point out that resilient adaptation can take place rapidly in human society, since it does not need to wait for the supporting genetic evolution.

These observations reveal a human community that has the talent and ability to relent from engineering its own demise, yet whose creativity cannot be directly accelerated. The innovative phases of Athens, Florence or London show that optimal conditions for creativity can develop. Can these conditions be deliberately sustained? Probably, since deliberate human actions led to their decline. Sustaining creativity is not an easy task though, and the kind of ingenuity it requires may consist mostly of patience. Each of us has a hundred billion brain cells and there are billions of people on the planet. Our abilities have been evolving for millions of years. The odds in favor of producing the right solutions are high, and it may take some time for this to come about. Providing the conditions that nurture these solutions is essential. Gilla Family observes in Collective Creativity: A Complex Solution for the Complex Problem of the State of Our Planet, 5 that there are plenty of reasons for having faith that catastrophe can be avoided. She mentions the protection of stratospheric ozone, changing attitudes to birth control, the end of the Cold War and of apartheid as evidence. Family calls for a proactive shift towards a collective creativity paradigm, guided by psychology with its ability to embrace science, art and philosophy.

Recalling Danny Miller's account of large corporations that fail, we note that several could have collapsed, but did not.6 They changed their corporate cultures, dismissed inflexible leaders and resiliently applied what they had learned from their difficult lessons. Societies are not unlike large companies. If they see themselves as living organisms that get sick, get well, learn and adapt in any way that ensures survival, they have a much better chance than if they attempt to adhere to a fixed ideal.

A great institution such as Science is like a society, and the scientific paradigm is at risk of failing to shift from the defining, isolating laboratory mode to an inclusive, open culture of human and natural possibilities. The medieval Church as an institution, might not be thought of as having much in common with Easter Island, or frogs in hot water, but all these share a similar fate: compromised survival. If modern science fails the inhabitants of the globe, it too will fall from grace.

There can be no doubt that each human being is a reserve of great potential. In The creative mind: myths and mechanisms, Margaret Boden explains how the culture of the scientific revolution demoted the subjective properties of creativity:7

    .. no room for notions like creativity, freedom, and subjectivity. As a result, the matters of the mind have been insidiously downgraded in scientific circles for several centuries.

In her book, Boden considers many creative minds in the context of analytical machines: Beethoven, Mozart, Kekulé, Coleridge, Kepler, Copernicus, Dickens, Crick and others from the arts and sciences. She is encouraged by the fact that:

    computational psychology is helping us to understand such things in scientific terms. It does this without lessening our wonder or our self-respect; on the contrary it increases them, by showing how extraordinary is the ordinary person's mind.

There is one last case, that of Abraham Lincoln, which brings together resilience and creativity. It is well known that he suffered from melancholy, but how he came to terms with it is not part of popular legend. Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, describes how Lincoln made use of his affliction, rather than attempt to defeat it:8

    In his mid-forties the dark soil of Lincoln's melancholy began to yield fruit. When he threw himself into the fight against the extension of slavery, the same qualities that had long brought him so much trouble played a defining role. The suffering he had endured lent him clarity and conviction, creative skills in the face of adversity, and a faithful humility that helped him guide the nation through its greatest peril.

We may not all be as gifted as Lincoln or Beethoven, but as Pinker9 and Boden suggest, each of us can come up with extraordinarily good ideas. As a global community, our reserve of skills, our long evolution and our modern rejection of isolation all point toward a positive future.

* Merlin Donald, Evolution of the Modern Mind, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1991, pp. 84-85.

  1. R.J. Sternberg, "The Nature of Creativity" Creativity Research Journal, 18, no. 1, (2006):8798.
  2. Teresa M. Amabile, Beth Ann Hennessey, and Barbara S. Grossman, "Social Influences on Creativity: The Effects of Contracted-for Reward" Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, no. 1, (1986):1423.
  3. Ruth Richards, "Millennium as Opportunity: Chaos, Creativity, and Guilford's Structure of Intellect Model," Creativity Research Journal, 13, nos. 3 & 4, (20002001):249-265.
  4. C.L. Redman, and A. P. Kinzig, "Resilience of past landscapes: resilience theory, society, and the longue durée," Conservation Ecology, 7, no. 1 (2003): 14.
  5. Gilla Family, "Collective Creativity: A Complex Solution for the Complex Problem of the State of Our Planet" Creativity Research Journal, 15, no. 1 (2003): 83-90.
  6. Danny Miller, The Icarus Paradox: how exceptional companies bring about their own downfall, Harper Business, New York, 1990.
  7. Margaret A. Boden, The creative mind: myths and mechanisms, Routledge, New York, 2004, p. 304.
  8. Joshua Wolf Shenk, Lincoln's Great Depression, The Atlantic, Oct. 2005, p.60.
  9. Stephen Pinker, How the Mind Works, Norton, New York, 1997

The eBook is available at
Progress Trap - the book
Google Play / Books

Progress Trap - the book
and (Kindle) at

Download the Kindle version: US UK

You don't actually need a Kindle -

"The Progress Trap - and how to avoid it" Copyright Daniel O'Leary, registered at
the Copyright Office, Consumer and Corporate Affairs, Canada on April 5, 1991 (ref 405917)