The Neuroscience of Constraints in the Creative Process

April 9th, 2012

Jonah Lehrer:

The constant need for insights has shaped the creative process. In fact, these radical breakthroughs are so valuable that we’ve invented traditions and rituals that increase the probability of an epiphany, making us more likely to hear those remote associations coming from the right hemisphere. Just look at poets, who often rely on literary forms with strict requirements, such as haikus and sonnets. At first glance, this writing method makes little sense, since the creative act then becomes much more difficult. Instead of composing freely, poets frustrate themselves with structural constraints. Unless poets are stumped by the form, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they’ll never invent an original line. They’ll be stuck with clich├ęs and conventions, with predictable adjectives and boring verbs. And this is why poetic forms are so important. When a poet needs to find a rhyming word with exactly three syllables or an adjective that fits the iambic scheme, he ends up uncovering all sorts of unexpected connections; the difficulty of the task accelerates the insight process.

Anyone who’s done any sort of creative work knows that constraints on the work are very, very useful. Lehrer argues it’s at least partly due to the structure of our brain.

(Via Chris Martucci.)