Skip to main content

Creativity: the psychology of discovery and invention - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi ***

With a name that will always be associated with the concept of 'flow', Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi was a likely choice for a book giving a scientific view of creativity. The way this has been achieved is primarily to identify a large number of people that Csiksgentmihalyi considered highly creative and to ask them if they will be interviewed. There are a number of problems with this approach - would Einstein have said yes, for instance? But there is no doubt that the popular psychologist is able to winkle out a few interesting thoughts on the matter.

We are first introduced the the creative process, through a little bit about the nature of creativity, the creativity personality, how they go about the creative act and the inevitable link in with the concept of 'flow'. Perhaps the most interesting thing in this section is the suggestion that creativity can never be solely about the creative individual. Csiksgentmihalyi tells us that we need three components: an existing domain - an area of knowledge that that the creative individual knows, the act by the individual, which often involves coming at some aspect of the domain in a novel way, and the field, which are the creative person's peers. Csiksgentmihalyi's argument is that without the field's recognition, the creativity isn't 'real'. So, for instance, he suggests that Bach's work only became creative once it was recognised as great after a couple of centuries of being dismissed.

The next part of the book takes us through the creative lives of his interviewees. I find this kind of thing somewhat tedious to read, as it doesn't really add much to the discussion. We then move on to 'domains of creativity', looking for differences and similarities between, for instance, the 'domain of the word' and 'the domain of life'. This, frankly, was also fairly hard work with little concrete scientific analysis provided.

A final section, protestingly (as Csiksgentmihalyi doesn't want this to be a self-improvement book particularly) adds ways to enhance personal creativity. Although what's here isn't bad, it tries hard to ignore most of the work that has been done on enhancing creativity, so skirts around the kind of techniques espoused by the likes of de Bono and Osborn without really acknowledging them, which is a shame and makes it relatively weak in practical terms.

The book is worth reading for the first 150 pages, which make up the section on what creativity is and how it works. These are genuinely fascinating. But the rest of the book lacks the same level of scientific focus or interesting content, so sags by comparison.


Paperback 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you

Bizarrely not on Kindle
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Patricia Fara - Four Way Interview

Patricia Fara lectures in the history of science at Cambridge University, where she is a Fellow of Clare College. She was the President of the British Society for the History of Science (2016-18) and her prize-winning book, Science: A Four Thousand Year History (OUP, 2009), has been translated into nine languages. An experienced public lecturer, Patricia Fara appears regularly in TV documentaries and radio programmes. She also contributes articles and reviews to many popular magazines and journals, including History Today, BBC History, New Scientist, Nature and the Times Literary SupplementHer new book is Erasmus Darwin.

Why history of science?
I read physics at university, but half-way through the course I realised that had been a big mistake. Although I relished the intellectual challenge, I was bored by the long hours spent lining up recalcitrant instruments in dusty laboratories. Why was nobody encouraging us to think about the big questions – What is gravity? Does quantum mechani…

The Idea of the Brain: Matthew Cobb *****

Matthew Cobb is one of those people that you can’t help but admire but also secretly hate just a little bit for being so awesome. He is professor for zoology at the University of Manchester with a sizable teaching load that he apparently masters with consummate skill. He’s a scientific researcher, who researches the sense of smell of fruit fly maggots; I kid you not!  He’s also an attentive and loving family father but he still finds time and energy to write brilliant history of science books, three to date. His first, The Egg and Sperm Race, describes the search for the secret of human reproduction in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and is one of my favourite history of science books, on the period. His second, Life’s Greatest Secret is a monster, both in scope and detail, description of the hunt to decipher the structure and function of DNA that along the way demolishes a whole boatload of modern history of science myths. The most recent, and the subject of this review, is

The Big Ideas in Science - Jon Evans ***

The starting point of a review like this has to be to congratulate the author on his achievement, Jon Evans, because getting all of science into one relatively short book is a massive (and thankless) task. Although inevitably the result is a fairly hectic dash through the material, with limited space for subtleness, Evans manages to make the experience readable and has a light touch that is effective without becoming too simplistic.

There is only one reason this book doesn't get four stars - it's not the quality of the writing but rather the selection of the contents. Of course, there is bound to be plenty of stuff missed out - how else could you get all of science into 269 pages? But the balance is strangely skewed. Chemistry is pretty much omitted, though aspects of chemistry occur under other headings. But for me, the real problem is that physics is really under-represented. It's interesting to use Jim Al-Khalili's recent excellent physics summary title The World Acc…