Psychiatric Annals

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Creativity and Altered States of Consciousness

Manoochehr Khatami, MD

Abstract

As mysterious as creativity may seem and as elusive as its definitions can be, when the act of creation does take place we are in an altered state of consciousness. At that point, the creator breaks free of logic and deductive reasoning, of familiar pathways, of taken-for-granted approaches. An invention comes forth; a discovery is made; what was not is.

This takes place on levels that range from the everyday to the sublime, from the casual to the serious, from the passing remark to the profound observation. Alfred North Whitehead spoke of "the state of imaginative muddled suspense which precedes successful inductive generalization." Bertrand Russell noted that he had to abandon the effort of sheer will in trying to complete his creative work and let subconscious development take place. The mathematician Poincaré cited with approbation the expression "To invent, you must think aside." In short, will is not enough.

Freud1 stated that "in the case of the creative mind the intellect has withdrawn its watchers at the gate and the idea rushes pell-mell in." History is full of examples of great people whose creativity occurred under an altered state of consciousness. Wagner was reported to have heard music spontaneously; Brahms once disclosed that he heard fragments of his themes as "inner harmony"; Mozart stated that he composed more easily while riding or walking. Darwin gathered specific biologic data during many years of conscious struggle, but his theory of evolution came to him while he was taking a carriage ride.

Why, we ask ourselves - with all the experience and knowledge we have accumulated, with all the subject matter we have studied, and with the vast array of material at our disposal - why can we not come up with creative ideas? Why do we not generate more numerous and more fruitful alternatives? Why do we return repeatedly to old solutions and standardized responses, even when we firmly believe that new and liberating situations are at hand? We are blocked, and no amount of will power is strong enough for us to make the creative jump over the hurdles that we call mental blocks. We are stopped in our mental tracks the way an unwinding reel of motion-picture film can be stopped at a particular scene in a particular episode.

If we examine a split second of conscious life, we may understand mental blocks. We start with sensations that come from the external environment or internal images and sensations; then we immediately put meaning into these data, to identify, catalogue, and interpret. As fast as the data flow in, we are applying labels, whether or not we are conscious of the cognitive process at work. This process operates at different levels, involving higher and higher complexities, as we move from labels to characteristics and experiences that are part of the identification process. Associations, mental constructs, and belief systems enter into the cognitive process. They operate rapidly, simultaneously, and without our awareness that they can direct our mental processes. So much of our thinking is automatic and taken for granted that we tend to forget how difficult it is to achieve an open mind. Without a mind open to possibilities and alternatives, creativity faces mental blocks and impediments. While it is necessary to categorize and classify in order to function amidst the volume of data, deeply embedded patterns readily escape attention as they close us off at the same time as they help us cope with the bombardment of perceptions.

As a result of the meanings attached to perceptions, feelings develop - happiness, sadness, fear, exaltation, etc. Feelings, which are either subjective…

As mysterious as creativity may seem and as elusive as its definitions can be, when the act of creation does take place we are in an altered state of consciousness. At that point, the creator breaks free of logic and deductive reasoning, of familiar pathways, of taken-for-granted approaches. An invention comes forth; a discovery is made; what was not is.

This takes place on levels that range from the everyday to the sublime, from the casual to the serious, from the passing remark to the profound observation. Alfred North Whitehead spoke of "the state of imaginative muddled suspense which precedes successful inductive generalization." Bertrand Russell noted that he had to abandon the effort of sheer will in trying to complete his creative work and let subconscious development take place. The mathematician Poincaré cited with approbation the expression "To invent, you must think aside." In short, will is not enough.

Freud1 stated that "in the case of the creative mind the intellect has withdrawn its watchers at the gate and the idea rushes pell-mell in." History is full of examples of great people whose creativity occurred under an altered state of consciousness. Wagner was reported to have heard music spontaneously; Brahms once disclosed that he heard fragments of his themes as "inner harmony"; Mozart stated that he composed more easily while riding or walking. Darwin gathered specific biologic data during many years of conscious struggle, but his theory of evolution came to him while he was taking a carriage ride.

Why, we ask ourselves - with all the experience and knowledge we have accumulated, with all the subject matter we have studied, and with the vast array of material at our disposal - why can we not come up with creative ideas? Why do we not generate more numerous and more fruitful alternatives? Why do we return repeatedly to old solutions and standardized responses, even when we firmly believe that new and liberating situations are at hand? We are blocked, and no amount of will power is strong enough for us to make the creative jump over the hurdles that we call mental blocks. We are stopped in our mental tracks the way an unwinding reel of motion-picture film can be stopped at a particular scene in a particular episode.

If we examine a split second of conscious life, we may understand mental blocks. We start with sensations that come from the external environment or internal images and sensations; then we immediately put meaning into these data, to identify, catalogue, and interpret. As fast as the data flow in, we are applying labels, whether or not we are conscious of the cognitive process at work. This process operates at different levels, involving higher and higher complexities, as we move from labels to characteristics and experiences that are part of the identification process. Associations, mental constructs, and belief systems enter into the cognitive process. They operate rapidly, simultaneously, and without our awareness that they can direct our mental processes. So much of our thinking is automatic and taken for granted that we tend to forget how difficult it is to achieve an open mind. Without a mind open to possibilities and alternatives, creativity faces mental blocks and impediments. While it is necessary to categorize and classify in order to function amidst the volume of data, deeply embedded patterns readily escape attention as they close us off at the same time as they help us cope with the bombardment of perceptions.

As a result of the meanings attached to perceptions, feelings develop - happiness, sadness, fear, exaltation, etc. Feelings, which are either subjective internal reactions or bodily sensations or both, are set in motion by a prior cognitive process. Once perception leads to cognition, which in turn leads to feeling (affect), behavior follows. This is by no means a linear, one-directional process. It involves feedback and may operate from any direction. In the pursuit of creativity, mental blocks may develop at any point in this cycle of four basic steps - perception, cognition, affect, and behavior.

The degree of blockage varies in different steps. My observation has been that the greatest mental blocks in the human being occur in the second stage, cognition. Perceptual blocks limiting our experience are also quite evident. Our auditory range is only 20 to 20,000 cycles per second, and many studies have demonstrated the extent of our visual errors, lack of visual discrimination of details, and misperception of visual information. The same holds true for other sensory modalities. We also have a discrimination system that exerts an inhibitory or excitatory effect on our sensory organs, screening or passing through perception of information according to our selective attention and preconceived notions. This system is a safeguard mechanism for satisfying relationships and ascribing meaning to events that is congruent with our whole personality.

Cognitive resistance is an inability to overcome a preconceived viewpoint and visualize events or problems as having more than one function or solution. Our thinking becomes an automatic habit, just like walking or any other behavior we learn in childhood. We begin to think without thinking that we are thinking. If we are taught that function is important, whenever we observe something we first pay attention to what it does rather than to any other quality. Many of our underlying belief systems and assumptions clearly block our thinking system from other alternatives. Most of these are acquired in childhood; although they are no longer useful, we carry them around in our adult life as though we still needed them for survival - perfectionist standards, all-ornothing law, overgeneralization, approval seeking, etc.2 Cultural norms - such as conformity, dependence, authority and group domination, power struggle, and prejudice - may contribute to our cognitive blocks.

One tendency that most people share is to judge events and situations rapidly. The basic principle of creative problem solving addresses itself to the notion of deferred judgment, to ensure the flow of uncommon associations that tend to occur under different judgments.

In the affective arena, any emotional state that exceeds the optimal range for mental functioning can cause blocks to the creative state. A high level of anxiety or tension prevents the person from being absorbed creatively, because he becomes more occupied with emergency selfrescue operations. Depression, despondency, and apathy also cloud our consciousness and block the creative state. Hyperarousal states, such as overexcitement, operate in the same fashion.

Finally, because behavior is conditioned, our reflective habitual behavior (with its specific patterns) exerts limitations on our body, actions, and attitudes to respond otherwise.

When creative responses emerge, such blocks are dissolved and the creator "thinks aside" in an altered state of consciousness, an experience that is dramatically recounted by both artists and scientists. It is an experience that also occurs in less dramatic but nonetheless creative events in everyday life.

Psychologists describe such episodes as taking place in an altered state of consciousness (ASC), a term covering a wide variety of human experience. This includes daydreaming, sleep, dreams, hypnosis, sensory deprivation, hysterical state, religious experiences, meditation, and states induced by drugs or yoga. ASC is any mental state induced by various physiologic, psychologic, or pharmacologic maneuvers or agents. It entails a significant change in subjective experience or psychologic functioning from a person's normal state of alert, waking consciousness. The state represents more involvement with internal sensations or mental functioning and less preoccupation with formal logic. A change in reality orientation is also characteristic of ASC.

Pierce3 summarizes trance experiences as disengagements from ordinary reality orientation. They are suspensions of the ordinary criteria of common consensus. Trance falls into the autistic mode of thinking. An adult who is able to suspend his reality orientation is one who retains the pleasant recollections of former disengagements. His childhood fantasies were forms of play in which parental tolerance, approval, or participation played a specific part. The child always came back to a warm place of security. Trance state occurs in a primitive domain, because "the psychology of archaic man and children is marked by the fusion of volitions, moods, emotions, instincts and somatic reactions."4

Fischer,5 on the other hand, constructed a "biocybernetic model of consciousness." He placed states of consciousness in order along a continuum of central nervous system arousal. At one end of the continuum is reduced arousal (tranquil states induced by yoga, relaxation, meditation); at the other is hyperarousal, ranging from hypersensitivity and anxiety to the hyperarousal seen in schizophrenia. In his view, altered states of consciousness are characterized by deviations from normal in the quantity of CNS arousal. There is a certain range of environmental stimulation that is necessary for maintaining our normal cognitive, perceptual, and emotional experiences. Any change above or below this range is conducive to the production of ASC.

Ludwig6 categorized variables that play a major role in producing ASCs:

1. Increase in environmental stimulation, motor activities, or emotion. The excitatory mental state produced by sensory overload may be unaccompanied by physical activity or exertion, as is demonstrated by trance states. Alteration in consciousness may also arise from the inner emotional turbulence secondary to an external condition (fugues, traumatic neuroses, panic states, conversion reactions, rage reactions).

2. Reduction of environmental stimulation or motor activity (solitary confinement, sensory deprivation, "highway hypnosis," hypnapompic and hypnogogic states, dreams).

3. Increased alertness or mental activity.

4. Relaxation of critical faculties or decreased alertness, with goal-directed thinking suspended or minimal. This occurs in some forms of meditation, daydreaming, free association, music trance, yoga, and relaxation training.

Ludwig6 also classifies certain common characteristics of ASCs:

1. Alteration in time sense. There is a subjective feeling of timelessness or time coming to a standstill. There may be acceleration or slowing of time. Sequential order of past, present, and future may be altered or experienced simultaneously.

2. Alteration in cognition or thinking. Subjective feelings of change in concentration, memory, attention, and judgment are present. Primary-process thinking (archaic, uncritical, nonjudgmental, based on pleasure principle, ambivalent, incongruent) predominates. Under the ASC, opposites can coexist without any logical conflict.

3. Decrease in controls. Suspending a temporary feeling of control may arouse a feeling of helplessness or, paradoxically, may represent a gaining of greater control and power through this experience.

4. Change in body image. The person may experience a sense of depersonalization, feelings of derealization or separateness of body and mind, or a sense of union with others or the universe.

5. Change in emotional expression. With the decrease in inhibitions, more original and direct emotion is exhibited, ranging from ecstasy and extreme joy to fear and depression.

6. Perceptual distortions, such as auditory or visual hallucinations, increased visual imagery, different illusions. The content may be determined by group or individual wish fulfillments, fantasies, or conflicts.

7. Sense of inexplicability of the experience. Because of the nonverbal nature of the experience, there is a sense of inability to communicate its essence to someone else. Varying degrees of amnesia for the experience may therefore occur.

8. A feeling of rejuvenation.

9. Change in meaning or significance. This sense of insight or illumination is primarily an affectual experience that may have little relationship to the objective "truth" of the experience, but it may bring new dimensions to alternatives for the problem's solution.

10. Hypersuggestibility. This may be an attempt to compensate for the decrease in critical judgmental faculties.

All these conditions pave the way to creative insight. Their very presence in man attests to their importance in his everyday functioning. The widespread occurrence and use of mystical possession states and creative experiences indicate that ASCs satisfy many needs for both man and society.

An ASC serves to express both adaptive and maladaptive function. This psychologic phenomenon may prove harmful to the individual in society, while in other instances this regression will be "in the service of the ego"7 and help the person bypass the bounds of logic and express or suppress needs in a socially acceptable way.

ASC also has many social functions through common experience of the state of shared belief. It enhances group cohesion and the group sense of belonging and attachment, thereby reducing frustration, stress, and loneliness. In many primitive societies, spirit possession is believed to impart a superhuman knowledge that could not possibly be gained during waking consciousness. Such paranormal faculties as superlative wisdom and clairvoyance are supposedly demonstrated during the possession fit, which corresponds to the "Aha!" experience of creative minds.

ASC has been employed by man to gain new knowledge and new relations for relief of tension and conflict and, particularly, to effect healing. Throughout history ASCs have been employed in various healing arts and practices, including almost every conceivable aspect of psychologic therapy. Shamans use an ASC to diagnose a patient's ailments or learn of a specific remedy or healing practice.8 The early Egyptian and Greek practices of "incubation" in their sleep temples, the faith cures at Lourdes and other religious shrines, healing through prayer and meditation, cures by laying-on of hands, encounters with religious relics, spirit possession cures, exorcism, etc., are all obvious instances of the role of ASC in treatment. Hypnosis is widely used in modern medical practice to alter perception of pain. In the therapeutic process, the medicine man, physician, or psychiatrist may decide that production of an ASC is crucial for the process of healing - by emotional catharsis, suggestion for symptom relief, change in meaning or significance, or remembering past conflicts.

ASCs are evident when the process of invention and discovery is described. A famous example is that of Friedrich August Kekulé, who fell alseep one afternoon in 1865 and had what Koestler9 has called "probably the most important dream in history since Joseph's seven fat and seven lean cows." The great chemist, puzzling over the structure of the benzene molecule, turned his chair towards the fire and dozed. He later recalled his dream:

Again the atoms were gamboling before my eyes. This time the smaller groups kept modestly in the background. My mental eye, rendered more acute by repeated visions of this kind, could now distinguish larger structures, of manifold conformation; long rows, sometimes more closely fitted together; all twining and twisting in snakelike motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning, I awoke.

From the vision of the serpent biting its own tail, Kekulé had his clue to the closed-chain structure of the benzene molecule, a discovery that has been called "the most brilliant piece of prediction to be found in the whole range of organic chemistry."

The creative experience of Poincaré, also widely cited, took place after he had some coffee before retiring and could not sleep. He later recalled that "ideas rose in crowds." They collided, interlocked, formed stable combinations. By morning he had worked out a major mathematical breakthrough involving Fuchsian functions. "I had only to write out the results, which took but a few hours," he reported.

In his impressive study The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler9 has summarized the significant points in relating creativity to ASC. He cites themes that reverberate through the intimate writings of scientists: "the belittling of logic and deductive reasoning (except for verification after the act); horror of the one-track mind; distrust of too much consistency; . . . skepticism regarding all-too-conscious thinking." Koestler adds that "this skeptical reserve is compensated by trust in intuition and in unconscious guidance by quasi-religious or by aesthetic sensibilities."

Although sheer will cannot trigger creative surges, we can move ourselves toward creative responses. We can enter safely and wisely the ASC and thereby modify or even remove the blocks to creativity that are present in the four basic areas of mental functioning. Kubie1041 believes that creative ideas originate from preconscious levels from which one can rapidly mobilize large quantities of information. Under ASCs there are few contradictions or doubts, and inhibitions tend to diminish - a situation characteristic of primary-process thinking.

Other prestigious research has been done by Arieti,12 Maslow,13 and Rogers,14 who associate creative functioning with openness to exterior and interior experiences and with general flexibility. Maslow introduces concepts of spontaneity, autonomy, democratic structure, and creativity as these are found in self-actualizing people. Rogers cites "openness to experience" and "an internal locus of evaluation." Taft15 states that there are two styles of creativity, "hot" and "cold" - one an emotional free expression and the other a measured problem - solving approach. The dichotomy reflects Freud's distinction between primary- and secondary-process thinking. The primary process, "hot" creativity, occurs in the preconscious; the secondary process, "cold" creativity, requires more control and less fantasy expression.

Certain research data support the idea that creativity is enhanced by hypnosis or other ASCs. P. Bowers16 found that hypnosis improved performance on the creativity test, apparently by reducing defensiveness. K. Bowers and Vander Meulen17 found hypnotically susceptible subjects significantly more creative than hypnotically unsusceptible ones. Women also tended to be more creative under hypnosis than men, and relationships were found between creativity, hypnotic susceptibility, and trancelike experiences for women but not for men. It is suggested that women's imagination is more stimulus incited, and men's is more impulse incited. Bowers and Bowers concluded after thenreview of others' research that fantasy experiences accompany various ASCs (including hypnosis), occur more in subjects high in hypnotic susceptibility, occur occasionally in the creative act, and are often experienced by creative subjects. They believe that creativity involves regression to "passively experienced fantasy and then progression to integration of fantasy with reality."18

In hypnosis, the reduction of motor movement facilitates the alteration and expansion of subjective inner experience. The hypnotized subject usually does not move unless instructed to do so; if asked to raise his hand slightly to signal the onset of some subjective event, he will not lower it until he is told to. He lacks spontaneity, his speech is slow, and, if asked to open his eyes and move around, he goes about his assigned task mechanically, without any expression. Subjectively, the hypnotized subject reports alterations or distortions in body image and perception of reality. Some report feelings of floating, sinking, and moving outside the self. The following personal statements illustrate these alterations in awareness:19

"My thoughts were an echo of what you were saying; I was very much aware of the split in my consciousness. One part of me was analytic and listening to you, while the other part was feeling the things that the analytic part decided that I would have."

"My head sank into my body like a black sponge."

"Your voice came into my ear and filled my head."

"When I felt deepest I was in the bottom of a dark hole. I turned over and over on the way down. Now and then I would float up to the top of the hole."

"I felt as though I was inside myseìf and none of my body was touching anything."

"I felt that I was being squeezed in a closed space - like a tube - but it wasn't unpleasant."

These subjective alterations pave the way for greater combinations and alternatives and more creative resolutions.

According to White,20 the hypnotized subject, who is in an ASC, strives to behave like a hypnotized person as this is continuously defined by the operator and understood by the subject. The nature of the ASC is not specified, but it may be a kind of functional decortication. In support of this assertion, he states,

Psychopathology has accustomed us to the notion that unconscious strivings may possess a peculiarly direct communication with the autonomic nervous system, as in psychosomatic disorders, and even with certain functions of the cerebrospinal system, as in conversion hysteria. It may well be that hypnotic behavior may lie somewhere between the level of volition and the level of unconscious strivings; enjoying some of the privileges of the latter irt the way of extended control.

Reyher's research and clinical experience,21 as well as heavy borrowings from White, have led to formulation of a systematically integrated set of propositions relating neurophysiologic and psychodynamic processes to each other and to behavior. The induction of hypnosis succeeds because the subject has given up to the operator the work of analyzing and integrating sensory input. The highest level of brain functioning, which supports adaptive behavior, ceases to be maintained, and more primitive levels of brain functioning become dominant. When the induction procedure (which is really a kind of sensory restriction or deprivation) succeeds, the phylogenetically older structures of the brain, which are now in control of overall functioning, are able to mediate behavior that is difficult or impossible to produce in the waking state. These older structures (perhaps in the anterior cingulate gyrus) are known to have connections with many parts of the brain and to have inhibitory and excitatory influence over these areas. More recently developed brain areas do not have this profusion of nerve tracks connecting different parts of the brain. These older structures are also instrumental in producing psychopathology, because anxiety is assumed to be generated at this level of brain function, producing patterns of excitation and inhibition that lead to repression, psychosomatic symptoms, and other forms of psychopathology.

Krippner22 describes time distortion under hypnosis. The capacity to accomplish large amounts of work in a short time, such as speed reading and the calculus pToblem-solving experiment under hypnosis, appears to be related to the findings of hypnotic time-distortion experiments.

Cooper and Erickson23 did the pioneer work on hypnotic time distortion. They used hypnosis to slow down the subjective perception of time in 14 subjects. Three to 20 hours of training were required (depending on the subject) to develop the ability to lengthen one's experience of time. Cooper and Erickson found that a subject's ability to experience time distortion depended on his attaining a high degree of immersion in the world that was suggested by the hypnotist and on an accompanying inattentiveness to his actual surroundings. In other words, he temporarily abandoned ordinary reality and entered nonordinary reality.

They reported that subjects in this condition could accomplish in a short time far more work than usual. In one experiment, a college student who was a talented clothes designer created a dress in 10 seconds when she was hypnotized but believed the session to have been an hour long. She said that she ordinarily took several hours to design a dress. Cooper and Erickson suggested that time distortion could be utilized for creative mental activity in fields in which a person is highly skilled.

Most creative persons accomplish a larger amount of work than others during the same amount of time. They undoubtedly accomplish this feat in various ways; time distortion may be one of their techniques.

McCord and Sherrill24 reported an experiment in which a hypnotized mathematics professor was told that after the hypnosis session he would be able to solve calculus problems with a higher degree of accuracy and greater rapidity. The hypnotic episode was then terrninated, and the mathematician was given the calculus problems and asked to solve as many as possible in 20 minutes. The subject worked with great speed, skipped steps in mathematical processes, performed some of the complex calculations "in his head," and wrote down others at a high rate of speed. In 20 minutes he accomplished (without loss of accuracy) what would normally have taken him two hours. He reported that he enjoyed doing the problems and that he felt his unconscious mind had participated more than usual in the calculations.

ASCs can serve as a source of creative inspiration, sudden illumination, creative insights, and problem solving. William James stated:

Our normal awakening consciousness is but one special type of consciousness, while all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. You may go through life without suspecting their existence, but apply the requisite stimulus and at a touch they are all there in their completeness. Definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their fields of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.25

Torrance26 recognized the preverbal origin of creativity, defining it as the process of sensing gaps, forming ideas or hypotheses about them, testing the hypotheses, and communicating the results.

While a person is relaxed, his conditioned reactions to stimuli are "off guard" and flashes of creative insight occur. Unsolved problems are often best coped with by "sleeping on them" or letting go and relaxing. The solution emerges from a deep unconscious and passes through the subconscious to awareness.

Until about 1967, very little was known about the biologic and physiologic determinants of the ASC. Now there is some evidence concerning why the mind seems to function as it does. Gazzaniga and Sperry27·28 have reported on the surgical procedure of cutting the corpus callosum to control intractable epilepsy, and they observed that separation of the hemispheres creates two independent spheres of consciousness within a single organism.

The dominant left hemisphere of the brain is mostly responsible for speech, and it is suggested that this hemisphere is also responsible for the verbal secondary-process operation (the logical, reality-oriented, linear way of thinking). The right hemisphere is mostly responsible for the sense of position in space, color perception, body language, and emotion in the nonverbal sphere. The right side of the brain tends to think in patterns, images, and associations of concepts and overviews that at times explode into our awareness as the "Aha!" phenomenon. It has a Gestalt quality. Research indicates that in a very complex fashion not yet clearly defined, the two sides of the brain tend to perform different types of tasks in everyday living.

Duality of consciousness has been known in many ancient cultures. Many myths symbolize the right side as the area of the taboo, the sacred, the unconscious, the intuitive, and the dream; the left is the area of the logical and the rational. The Hopi Indians of the American Southwest, for example, distinguish the functions of the two hands: one writes, and the other makes music. Sacred writings and drawings over thousands of years show the right side of man's mind as being in touch with heaven and religious and mystical matters.

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10.3928/0048-5713-19780301-07

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