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10 May 2009

Creative States of Consciousness


This past Friday, I sent my Shamanism professor a paper. It was 2 pages under the lower limit, full of grand claims lacking citations, and about half an hour late. To be fair, I was rushing at the end to get my bibliography together and my citations in order, and so I didn't do as thorough a job as I should have. It was a great idea for a paper, but I didn't give myself enough time to flesh it out, and I didn't anticipate getting really bad allergies this past week. The end result was a crappy paper, which probably deserves a 'C', but will probably get a 'B' or an 'A' because the professor is really nice. I am not going to post the paper here, as I had promised earlier, because of its poor quality. However, I will give a synopsis of what I found, because it's still really interesting.

Stochastic Creativity
As some of you know, I've been thinking for a long time about change, cultural, personal and otherwise. When anthropologists typically talk about change they'll mostly be talking about diffusion, fusion and acculturation - in other words, they're focused on contact between cultures. This makes sense, since most cultural anthropological research has been conducted under conditions of contact (i.e. colonialism). But cultures and people must change independently of external pressures, so what mechanisms are there for intrinsic change? The answer is creativity (to be fair, anthropologists do recognize creativity as a factor, but culture contact is part of the inherent bias of anthropology).
What I've realized recently is that creativity in both culture and individuals can be understood as a stochastic system. A stochastic system is on which has a foundation in randomness, diversity, or variability with an overarching selective structure. The prototypical stochastic system is evolution, where there is variable traits within individuals of a species which is molded by natural selection to adapt the species to its environmental conditions. The result is a highly stable structure which can easily adapt to changing conditions.
There are a lot of structures that follow this pattern, such as crystal formation, ecosystems, and cultures. What's more, a lot of issues can be predicted by looking at structures using a stochastic model. Jeremy Trombley's Economic Principle No. 1, for example. Capitalism, as articulated by neoliberals, SHOULD work if it were based in a diversity of businesses and financial institutions. It DOES NOT work because it fails to conserve underlying diversity (through redistribution and decentralization) and allows a handful of large financial structures (corporations) to dominate. This makes it too rigid and maladaptive should large changes occur (i.e. a housing bubble). On the opposite end of the spectrum, structures that are too random will simply dissipate. Both the randomness and the selective mechanism are required to make a stable system.

Creativity in Individuals
I read through a whole bunch of neurological and cognitive sciences research into creativity. It was fascinating - I'm actually getting really interested in cognitive science stuff. What I learned from all of it is that creativity relies upon what we would call "altered states of consciousness."
Really the term "altered states of consciousness" is very misleading. We go through our lives moving from one state of consciousness to another, and it's virtually impossible to isolate a "normal" state of consciousness to contrast with "altered states." It's better to look at states of consciousness on a continuum, rather than to try and categorize them into two discrete groups. There are several axes along which consciousness could could be mapped, but I'm only going to look at one - controlled states and relaxed states. Controlled states of consciousness are characterized by focused attention, and purposiveness. This is when your mind is set on a goal or a task and nothing can distract you from it. Relaxed states, on the other hand are characterized by a wandering, free floating state of mind. This is when you allow yourself to let go and daydream or just think about whatever comes into your head. The most extreme relaxed state is, of course, dreaming, where there is absolutely no control over the content of consciousness and things just seem to come up out of nowhere. This continuum was referred to by Freud in terms of the primary process (unconscious) and secondary process (conscious) functions.
It is apparent that primary processes or relaxed states of consciousness are an essential part of creativity. The reason is that relaxed states allow us to think outside of habitual modes, and hold multiple ideas in mind at once. This makes it possible to think of new ideas, and to create new associations between existing ideas. Neurological studies back this up. When we enter relaxed states, the brain goes into what is referred to as "default mode." Instead of an inactive state, this is a highly active state over a broad range of brain structures. It may be that this default mode allows connections to be made between many different parts of the brain which allows us to make these novel connections in consciousness.
However, creativity isn't only the ability to come up with novel ideas. If asked to solve a problem that has never been encountered, the solution must be innovative, but it must also be appropriate. This is where the selective mechanism of the stochastic system comes into play. From all of these new ideas being generated, we must be able to select the ones that are actually useful. Cognitively, this manifests as an ability to modulate between relaxed states and focused states of consciousness. Indeed, people who were better at modulating between these two extremes performed better on creativity tests. Neurologically, this appears as a modulation between temporal lobe dominance (which is associated with relaxed, unconscious thought) and Prefrontal Cortex dominance (which is associated with focused thought).
What about the more extreme relaxed states of consciousness, such as dreams or psychedelic states? These are much more difficult to study, for obvious reasons. However, preliminary evidence shows that there is an increase in novel ideas from these states, but that those ideas are less likely to be appropriate. In fact, those ideas may be completely indecipherable at times. These states lack any kind of selective structure. It is next to impossible to modulate between extreme relaxed states and focused states of consciousness. Instead, those ideas found in these states have to be interpreted and evaluated after the fact, from a sober point of view.

Creativity and Culture
Looking at creativity in a larger scale, the same pattern can be seen. Individuals are the source of creativity in cultures (since cultures are, at base, associations of individuals), and, as a result, similar rules apply to cultures as those described above. The question is, what would a cultural structure for creativity look like? Based on the idea of creativity as a stochastic system, there are two basic criteria - one, culturally sanctioned access to relaxed states of consciousness (particularly extreme relaxed states, which are less common and more threatening) and, two, a culturally circumscribed context for evaluating and interpreting those states.
Shamanism and other similar practices fit these criteria nicely. Shamanism is defined by most researchers as a practice which uses altered (relaxed) states of consciousness to access other worlds. From these other worlds, the practitioners (shamans) gain insight and the ability to cure disease and solve problems. (Avoiding a precise definition of "shaman" and "shamanism," I will simply use those terms to refer to traditions which utilize altered states of consciousness for various purposes).
However, in most cultures, shamans don't merely use relaxed states, they are highly trained individuals with a great deal of background knowledge in medicinal plants, human illness, and a host of other phenomena. Furthermore, they are extremely experienced in inducing relaxed states in others and interpreting their imagery from a culturally specific prespective. As a result, the experiences are not just random, but capable of generating culturally useful information and novel ideas. The result is the ideal stochastic structure for cultural creativity.
These ideas haven't been thoroughly evaluated yet, but it's an avenue for further study (as so many of my ideas end up being). In terms of our own society, this model suggests a lack of cultural context for the many people experimenting with mind altering substances. That's not to say that no creative ideas come out of those experiences, but that an awful lot of nonsense comes out of them as well, since there is no selective mechanism to weed out that nonsense. I'm not sure what to do about it, and I'm too burned out to think about it now.
If anyone wants some background information, let me know, I'll be glad to email some of my sources.

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