Creativity, Positive, and Negative Feelings

(Saturday, July 30, 2005, 10:36 p.m.)

copied from Myspace blog

Oddly enough, in my human-computer interaction class I read an interesting reading (by Don Norman) comparing the cognitive effects of positive and negative affect (good and bad emotions for those that aren't up on psycho-jargon). The puzzling thing people had observed is that user interfaces that were considered more esthetically attractive were also considered easier to use. Norman's explanation was that esthetic interfaces lead to positive affect, and positive affect leads to a mode of thinking which is more explorative and creative, whereas negative affect leads to more focused and perseverative thinking. A person who's stressed will try to open a door by pushing over and over again, harder as they get more frustrated and panicked. A person who's in a good mood will tend to relax, try out lots of different options, and be in less of a hurry.

I wonder if the causal arrow sometimes goes the other direction too. Good feelings may lead to creative behavior, and bad feelings may lead to more focused, but inflexible behavior. Could it be also true, though, that creative activity might lead to positive affect, and maybe even that constant focus on one object/task may lead to negative affect?

I've had much experience with creative activity lifting my morale, even when I don't have an audience I intend to share the work with. I've often thought that people who are compulsively creative are that way because the activity and maybe the expression are intrinsically morale-lifting. Sometimes I think that creative types, especially writers, are trying to create a more satisfactory world to replace the blase, unsatisfactory one they inhabit. Perhaps the focus on the inner ideal stirs the positive emotions in them that the messy, often unpleasant real world fails to nurture in them. Creativity may therefore be a more active form of escape, like watching TV only more cognitively demanding and productive. Should surprise anyone, then, that some of the most creative people are often of a melancholy disposition?

Some degree of suffering seems to go hand in hand with Promethean (creative) types. I wonder if we would still have the same degree of artistic creativity if everyone were Brave-New-World-happy. A poem I wrote on this subject a few years ago...

If I Could End All Sorrows

If I could end all sorrows,
What would be the cost?
Would art survive? Would man?
What greatness would be lost?

I do not care for suffering.
I am not fond of pain,
And in despair there seems
To be more loss than gain.

Yet is reward and pleasure
Enough to move a man
To deeds of worth and wisdom,
To make a hero’s stand?

Without a note of discord,
Would any person strive
To grow, to overcome
The boundaries in their lives?

Would brave Prometheus
Have seized Olympian fire,
And fashioned his creations
If bliss’ highest spire

Had been his home? Content
With how the world had gone,
Would he have tried the wrath
His foresight surely had known?

Would you, would I, in his stead
Dare seize the forging flame
If swift and unearned bliss
And love lay in our claim?

Or would we lie contented
To bask in sensual joys
And be content to die
Unmarked, our frail voice

A memory only, fading,
Our strength untried, unspent,
As idle as the bow
Unstrung, unshot, unbent,

As silent as the bow
That drew the violin?
What music shall we have
If the player won’t begin?

If I were God and able,
Yet still I’d have a care:
If I could end all sorrows,
Would I be one to dare?


An afterthought: Still, though... it seems like it would be great for a person to have a choice whether to allow sorrow to be a part of their lives, or to banish it when it grows too heavy a burden.

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