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Creativity and Ennui

[Mark Safranski a.k.a. “zen“]

Creativity is a subject that has  interested me, going back to the days long, long ago when I was an art student. Creativity is only mildly correlated with IQ, but like “intelligence”, the deeper you delve into the study of  creativity and creative thinking the more “creativity” looks like a multifaceted, multidimensional and diverse set of capacities, habits and circumstances than it does a single, universal, characteristic or ability.

Creativity has been studied from a neuroscientific, psychological, evolutionary,  behavioral, economic and social perspective but what of creativity”s opposite?  What about Ennui?

From a cognitive perspective, the two may be flip sides of the same coin, note the correlation between highly   creative  people and incidence of depression. It may also be a sign of overuse of certain brain functions, like adrenal exhaustion from an excess of physical and mental stress over a long period of time. Creativity, being in “the flow” is intoxicating but it usually involves peak exertion which accumulates weariness. Exemplary performance in one area can also come at the expense of penalties in another area.

Or perhaps ennui is the natural, cyclical ebb and flow between generative conceptual fertility and barrenness, the brain preparing itself for the next creative “surge” to come?

When are you creative and when are you not?

12 Responses to “Creativity and Ennui”

  1. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi Charles (make that, Zen!),
    This is a topic which has an abiding interest. Perhaps we are most creative when surrounded/exposed to the uncertain, paradoxical, and doubtful—something many avoid due to the risk and discomfort with novelty/the unknown. I don’t know; but your post reminded me of a draft post over a year old that speaks to this question, albeit tangentially—so thanks for the reminder. 

  2. Grurray Says:

    In the book ‘Flow’ there was a description of him playing a chase game with his dog. The dog would run around and he would occasionally lunge and try to catch him. As he got tired and didn’t move as far or as fast, the dog would adjust the spacing or his speed accordingly. His dog was optimizing the game and keeping it balanced.
    The right orientation for flow experience requires clear goals, immediate feedback, and manageable challenges, but, like you said, it’s a delicate balance that doesn’t last. Mismatches occur when we get too excited, burn out, get bored, or get overmatched. The mismatches are actually where the real good stuff is (even if we don’t know it yet).
    The way I like to look at it is that there are different degrees or scales of flow experiences. A lot of little experiences moving in and out of flow are part of one bigger flow experience, and then a lot of bigger experiences make up the next higher level of flow, etc.
    In the book he also talks about how Flow is so nice to experience that we want to go keep going back to it.
    This makes flow a teleonomic growth machine
    In order to continue to experience flow, we need to fall out of it then create more complicated challenges and goals and a more complex environment.
    This qualifies experience as
    information, eligible to be excluded from the second law of thermodynamics
    and therefore transcendence

    So that’s it for me. Those little or big moments or tasks of creativity are nice while they last, but the real key is the synthesis into the bigger picture. 

  3. zen Says:

    Hi Gents
    Excellent comments
    Mismatches, paradox, novelty, uncertainty, flow, doubt, teleonomy – I will add juxtaposition, antipodes, metaphor, comparison, myth, intuition, insight.

    I think these things are important because they are incomplete, unresolved, unanswered, unsolved etc. with finality – they dangle *part*  of an answer , tantalizing us with what may be so that we move to find out, explore. Catalysts for creativity.
    Ennui may be the canvas or background against which these stand out intensely so they are not missed in the “noise” 

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    Great provocative post, Zen. You ask:

    When are you creative?

    Why, when the moon is full, of course.  
    In the trembling uncertainties of a love glimpsed but as yet unknown.  
    At the rich intersection of two rich concepts.  
    When visiting graveyards, or conversely when haunted.  
    In between.
    Always, underneath all else.
    And most of all: when there’s space on Zenpundit for a new post… 

  5. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    As an aside, the wiki definition of flow is very similar to Polanyi’s idea of tacit knowledge. Actually, there is so much of Polanyi’s thinking involved, I’d have to do a post—or add to the old draft.

  6. Charles Cameron Says:

    I’m eager to see that post, Scott!

  7. Madhu Says:

    Ah, ennui. I know her well, it’s almost luxurious, that feeling, a kind of intoxicating languor….
    I always say that I DO have a creative muse but unfortunately my muse is extremely idle….a slightly but pleasingly rotund Botticelli resting as if an invalid on a Victorian fainting couch (just let that go, let it mix up, don’t be squares or prudes) eating bon-bons and waiting for the moment to arrive when the couch is abandoned and the box of chocolates thrown on the floor, empty wrappers flying everywhere….
    She sure does take a long time getting around to actually doing any muse-like work, you lazy MUSE….Get off the Couch!!!!

  8. Madhu Says:

    Funny that you use “ennui” and barreness together, no one that every read Bronte or anything Gothic would think that, it really is very well padded and luxurious when viewed in that way….

  9. Madhu Says:

    Google Villette and Ennui, see what I mean 🙂

  10. Madhu Says:


  11. Lynn C. Rees Says:

    Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.

  12. zen Says:

    Hi Doc Madhu
    Heh. Bronte does not run to my tastes in Lit, I am more a Dostoyevskii, Solzhenitsyn, Sinclair Lewis, Orwell type but *languor* is definitely the right word for that kind of ennui 

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