Rollo May’s “The Nature of Creativity,” Part 3

What exactly happens to us when we become full absorbed in creativity? It affects more than we may realize. Yesterday, we looked at the portion of Rollo May‘s writings on the creative process. Today, we move on to the Intensity of the Encounter, what May calls the the second element of the creative act. “Absorption, being caught up in, wholly involved, and so on, are used commonly to describe the State of the artist or scientist when creating or even the child at play,” explains May. No matter what we call it, “genuine creativity is characterized by intensity of awareness, a heightened consciousness.” He claims we all, artists included,”in moments of intensive encounter,” experience very clear neurological changes. May said these include

  • quickened heart beat;
  • higher blood pressure;
  • increased intensity and constriction of vision, with eyelids narrowed so that we can see more vividly the scene we are painting;
  • we become oblivious to things around us (as well as to the passage of time).”

The part about losing track of time explains a lot to me. Time ‘curves’ when I’m intently working on a project or work. I can even relate to the narrowing of the eyes; however, as yet, I cannot relate to the next aspect. “We experience a lessening of appetite — persons engaged in a creative act lose interest in eating at the moment,” according to May, “and may work right through mealtime without noticing it.” Maybe it differs with ceramics! After all, some of it is exercise, like wedging a big hunk of clay or working against centrifugal force on a wheel; it adds up! I will have to conduct my own scientific experiment and see if my appetite wanes with painting and drawing… May goes on to say that all of the reactions he listed inhibit the parasympathetic part of our autonomic nervous system, “which has to do with care, comfort, nourishment” and activate the sympathetic portion of our nervous system. When this occurs, it engages our fight or flight mechanism.  Ordinarily, such information, he says, neurologically

"I love the high from painting. The intense concentration and discovery, pushing my limits. Motivation isn't a problem - it would be much harder not to paint." — David Ladmore

correlates with fear and anxiety. However, though the fighting or fleeing mechanism is triggered, May states that “what the artist or creative scientist feels is not anxiety or fear; it is joy.” May said he used the word ‘joy’ as a contrast to pleasure or happiness. He explains that at the very “moment of creating,” the artist doesn’t feel satisfied or gratified, even though they might feel that way later. “Rather, it is joy, joy defined as the emotion that goes with heightened consciousness, the mood that accompanies the experience of actualizing one’s own potentialities.” I am astounded…May was so very insightful and wise. He continues, saying that “this intensity of awareness is not necessarily connected with conscious purpose or willing. It may occur in reverie or in dreams, or from so-called unconscious levels.” He then gives the example of a professor who for some time had been unsuccessful in figuring out a chemical formula. Suddenly, the very formula he sought came to him wholesale in a dream, after which he awoke and scribbled it on a piece of tissue in the dark. However, the next day, he couldn’t read his writing. Compelled, from then on, he thought about the dream intently before retiring. He recalled the formula, after a fashion, and wrote it down clearly. May said, “It was the formula he had sought and for which he received the Nobel prize.”

(Next: continuation of May’s the Intensity of the Encounter…covering will power and creativity and ecstatic Dionysian states, which May does not advocate as a vehicle for creativity.)

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About Jan

I have a background in ceramics, graphic design and journalism.
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One Response to Rollo May’s “The Nature of Creativity,” Part 3

  1. Pingback: Creative Kids « Elenacaravela's Blog

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