Updated: Jan 14
Does it sometimes feel to you as though we’re in a human experiment, and that all the weirdness and challenge that has been thrown at us this year has a higher purpose, sort of like testing us to find out what we’re capable of?
I mean, Salvador Dali himself would marvel at the horrific corners we're painting ourselves into…
In the twisted experiment, I’m slipping around in the warp and weft of one of Dali’s forgotten works—caught between worlds. I’m fending off oversized caterpillars that are trying to chew holes in each other, and everything, as they projectile towards my head. I realise they are actually maps—this collective experience seen through different lenses (conspiratorial, cultural, spiritual, indigenous, mythopoetic, memetic,...) but with wings. They point out the way as they zip by. It feels helpful, and I notice I don’t feel so crazy anymore. I see everyone in the world, and they ask me what it all means. So we merge hearts for a bit. It feels good to be together. An electric butterfly whispers in my ear that there is more in me to give. I ask it about the potential all this may hold for us together, as humans. It winks and bursts into a puff of balloon as I’m sucked into a black hole stamped: #2020.
And I keep drifting.
because I haven't heard as much talk of that side of things yet.
I say this partly because as I reflect back on the nature of 2020—the unexpectedness, the contradictions, how it has unfolded, how I’ve responded—it strikes me that alongside the separation, grief, and upheaval there’s also a part of it all that has been a powerful trigger for resilience, and inspiring creative thought.
Which reminds me of something I read a while back...about how we bring new stuff out by bending our perspectives a little bit.
So let’s try something. Let’s run this year through a creativity lens.
Because getting a glimpse of the creative potential all this may hold for us together, as humans, well...that'd be hopeful.
To get started, here are a few initial ideas about how conspiracy theories and crazy events could be good for creativity, problem solving, and our human (cognitive) evolution.
But I’m not a scientist, I’m more a storyteller…
(Kafka reconstructed artwork by Loui Jover)
A few years ago I read a book that really took my thinking about creativity and the brain in all sorts of new directions: The Wisdom of Not Knowing: Discovering a Life of Wonder by Embracing Uncertainty by Estelle Frankel.
Estelle’s words dreamed me back into infancy, that blank canvas where we exist in a state of timeless, wordless, interconnectedness... wonder-fully adrift in an endless string of present moments. “Nothing natural or interesting goes in a straight line”, she said.
I wish I could remember how I first came across this magical book, a mix of psychology, eastern and western mysticism, ancient myth, and clinical case studies courtesy of Estelle's practice. All I can say is that it was certainly one of life's beautiful synchronicities that drew us together at that time, each of us vibrating on that same frequency of not-knowingness opening toward wisdom.
At the time I was fully adrift in an endless string of unknowns, attempting to pluck transformational film ideas out of the ether in order to rebirth a production that had lost its way. Nothing about the process seemed to be going in a straight line. But the words and stories in this book pointed to experiences like these—of uncertainty and crisis—as containers of a kind of source code for life, birthplaces of freedom, creativity, and insight...
Exploring the mythopoetic, Estelle explains how through the deeply encoded wisdom of the ages we uncover eternal truths, meaning, and motivation that can help us in the present. Especially during uncertain times such as those we’re now collectively experiencing. Encoded within the myth of the Exodus is the concept of the unknown as the birthplace of freedom. This freedom, I learned, comes from trusting deeply in ‘the bread of imagination’ for sustenance (symbolised by the manna), and the ability to ride strong on a wave of unpredictability.
It was through The Wisdom of Not Knowing that I first became aware of the real mode and purpose of Zen koans. Koans are often enigmatic and mind-bending paradoxes capable of perplexing the thinking mind so much that it eventually tires, and gives up trying to make sense of the words. Frankel spoke of them as a kind of spiritual sustenance, intended to keep us vital and alive. The cool idea with Koans is that it’s precisely during the pause, beyond the limits of the thinking mind, that an experience of satori (or illumination) becomes possible.
I feel like this year has exhausted my mind in a similar way so I’m often reminded of this practice, a kind of mind-hack psychotechnology from the ancients. For months I was tuned in to all the unexpectedness, the conspiracy propositions—it was like pieces of a puzzle that needed solving. Yes, the focus was largely due to an interest in narrative, and how information and meaning is transmitted through the media—affecting us—but there was so much of it... and so contradictory! My mind got totally exhausted trying to work through all the pieces.
So, eventually, I let them go.
Which is when I got ‘thinking’ (might be a bit weird to say ‘I got thinking’ when I just said I’d stopped all that, but... you know what I mean)… I got ‘feeling’ into the particular nature of this year, with all its exhausting perplexities, not just for me, for so many people. It felt as though we’d been living (and continue to do so) in a kind of collective, multi-dimensional Zen Koan experience...
With life as a koan, I start imagining all the potential future insights coming from so many individuals forced into this same kind of experience, beyond the limits of the thinking mind, at the same time...
('Magic Arts', Salvador Dalí)
There was another seed that piqued my interest massively when I first read it. It was just a short mention of a research study in which psychologists at UC Santa Barbara, and the University of British Columbia tested a hypothesis related to creativity, and enhanced pattern recognition. I’d always been curious to know more so recently I got around to looking for the published article. I found this provocative headline in a psychology today article:
"Exposure to surrealism enhances the cognitive mechanisms that oversee implicit learning functions.”
before finally landing on the actual study.
Here's the low-down:
There were two groups of students.
One group got a modified version of an absurd short story by Kafka, called The Country Doctor, containing nonsensical (and somewhat disturbing) events, an illogical conclusion, and bizarre illustrations. Then a second task involving arguing against one’s own self-unity.
Sounds a lot like this year... wouldn't you agree?
The second group (the control) got a story based on the same characters and ideas but structured with a clear narrative, and logical conclusion, normal illustrations, plus a second task involving arguing for one’s own self-unity.
They were then tested with a bunch of pattern recognition, problem-solving kinds of tasks.
It turns out that those in the group exposed to ‘absurd’ material, who had also had to argue against contradictions in their own behaviour, performed better than the control group.
Why is this?
Essentially when your expected associations are violated by what researchers call a ‘meaning-threat event’—something that fundamentally does not make sense—it makes you feel uncomfortable. When you feel uncomfortable your brain responds by looking for some other kind of structure within your environment in order to get rid of the sense of discomfort—unconsciously you’re motivated to learn new patterns to make sense of the surroundings.
When I watch more abstract or experimental forms (as in filmmakers like David Lynch or genres like magic realism, with their ability to bend us in and around the edges of reality) I definitely notice a deep soul-stirring within the mesmerising lostness. To consider that confusion or difficulty constructing meaning can lead to a positive effect on the creative, and problem solving areas of the brain is a huge buzz. Especially for me as a filmmaker playing around with the short and long-term benefits of non-linear film structures, and lateral storytelling approaches for cognitive development, cultivating epiphany, and inspiring creative thought.
I'm sure there's more to this complex picture but, in at least as much as I understand this so far, I find it very cool, and worth exploring.
(image from Twin Peaks: The Return, Dir. David Lynch)
There's actually a phenomena—called the ‘Kafka Effect’—that describes how an unexpected change, which we’ve had plenty of this year, can be what creativity researchers call a “seed incident.” A seed incident is an incident that stimulates people to explore new ideas because something happened that the same old stories we tell ourselves can’t quite explain.
Reflecting on the last 12 months it seems there have been plenty of these so-called meaning threats. The most common words I hear people use to describe what has been going on is ‘surreal’ and ‘unprecedented’, and I think it’s fair to say that the same old stories many of us have been telling ourselves can’t quite explain it all. There is so much talk about the need for new narratives, the depth of change required. People are confused, lost in the liminal...The list goes on.
"The seed incident sends us on a journey of discovery. What we end up finding on that journey is another story."
I am enjoying thinking of 2020 as a seed incident—a journey of discovery into the unknown that will result in us being more creative, cognitively dextrous, and able to notice patterns that may otherwise not have been visible to us in that way.
I am also enjoying wondering whether this contemplation of paradox, conspiracy, and confusion will help our collectively exhausted minds experience satori, opening us to insight or clues—big ideas—capable of helping us to achieve the seemingly impossible.
We may even find a new story.
What do you think?