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Creativity and the Unconscious, Part I

The relationship between creativity and the unconscious is older than our theories about it. It predates not only such doctors of the unconscious as Freud and Jung, but also such philosophers of the imagination as Plato and Coleridge. It is older, in fact, than the oldest stone carvings and cave paintings, reaching far back into the depths of our animal heritage. After all, creatures as diverse as chimps and ravens fashion makeshift tools to solve the problems of survival in novel ways, and tiny insects like ants and bees build remarkably complex structures. From the perspective of depth psychology, all creativity has its origins in a vast, unfathomable current of unconscious biological and psychic processes that is as old as life itself, if not older.

Depth psychology sees human creativity as an extension of this age-old unfolding, and it can help us not only to understand the relationship between creativity and the unconscious, but also to harness it in ways that facilitate problem-solving, creativity, and personal growth.

Jung, who was a great artist as well as a great theorist (his paintings are in the Louvre), made a broad distinction between two kinds of art. One is based primarily on its author’s personal, conscious, autobiographical experiences, and its appeal consists in shaping those impressions into a form that appeals to others. The second kind of art, according to Jung, is visionary art, which draws primarily from the artist’s unconscious, and in some cases, from the collective unconscious common to all human beings. This kind of art is often uncanny and mysterious, and seems to defy both the expectations and the explanations of the conscious mind.

While this distinction is useful in understanding art and literature, it should not obscure the fact that the unconscious influences the creation of everything we make, from the most mundane commodities to the loftiest works of high art. Contemporary neuroscience confirms the crucial role of unconscious processes in creativity of all kinds.

According to our current understanding, there are two basic modes of thinking: focused and diffuse. Diffuse thinking, which occurs in resting states and uses the brain’s default mode network, helps us come up with creative solutions to problems, especially those that are outside the range of our conscious experience and understanding. In this way, new ideas come to us while we are not actively thinking about a problem at all, such as when we are walking, driving, washing the dishes, or even sleeping. The unconscious mind works while the conscious mind rests. This process is indispensable for any kind of learning or creative activity, whether in everyday life or in the arts and sciences.