How do creative young people interpret their lives and derive meaning from their experiences? What role does creativity itself play in their psychological growth?
These were the questions I sought to answer in my doctoral dissertation, in which I studied the role of creativity in the psychological development of young people. The basis of my research was interviews with youth (ages 17-21) who were actively engaged in creative pursuits such as music composition, circus arts, painting, journaling, and writing. I took a qualitative approach, focused on the participants’ stories in the context of their whole lives. My questions were open-ended and started with what, how and why: for example, “What role did creativity play in your childhood, adolescence, or young adulthood?” or “How do you feel when you start to paint, to compose, or to write?” or “Why do you become involved with your interest?“ I then encouraged participants to reflect on these creative experiences and explore any deeper meaning they may find in them, focusing on their feelings, thoughts, dreams, choices, and memories. The quotations in this piece are drawn from those interviews, which I originally published in my dissertation.1
This sort of qualitative approach is known in the academic world as hermeneutic phenomenology—and the meaning beneath this label captures exactly what I sought to do. Hermeneutic comes from the Greek verb hermeneuein, which means “to interpret” or “to understand.” It is derived from Hermes, the playful, mischievous messenger of the gods, who had the ability to translate or interpret messages from the gods into a form that humans could understand. This was precisely my role. Through my study, I carried messages from these young people, and strove to interpret them so that their parents, grandparents, teachers, psychologists, and others interested in their development could understand them.
The theory of positive disintegration (TPD) served as a key tool in my study. By looking at these young people’s psychological development through the lens of TPD, I saw an emerging pattern: three of TPD’s levels of disintegration tended to unfold during creative adolescents’ development. Unilevel disintegration (level II) marks the early period of adolescence; spontaneous multilevel disintegration (level III) is the middle period of adolescence; and organized multilevel disintegration (level IV) tended to emerge in late adolescence and young adulthood.2
As part of my work transmitting the stories of these young people, I sought to develop a model of creativity development. At the bottom of this model is what I have labeled horizontal creativity. This is the sort of creative impulse that emerges during late childhood and early adolescence. These youngsters are searching for new, unknown, and surprising experiences that give rise to the emotions of joy, interest, surprise, and curiosity. Their behavior, however, is often impulsive, spontaneous, and shallow. It is full of indecision, doubt, and hesitation. I’ve aligned it with TPD’s level II (unilevel disintegration) because it epitomizes the fluctuation of opposing feelings, conflicting courses of action, circular patterns of thoughts, and social influences.
To draw on the chaos theory language I explained in the previous Third Factor article, unilevel disintegration can be represented as two fixed–point attractors with a tendency to stabilize in a particular state, but that require external stimuli to push the mental structure from one state to another. Young people at this level fluctuate between these two attractors over time. Their emotions act as positive feedback loops that provide the push they require to leap from one state to another—for instance, “I enjoyed [it], but was curious about something new.”
At this stage, one of the participants in my study, Alasdair, started experimenting with different instruments, but he never settled on one. “I never could decide what I like,” he told me in the interview. “I started off with bass clarinet, then French horn, bassoon, and lastly the tube.” Another participant, Krista was originally a track and field athlete; when she was eleven years old, however, she fell in love with the circus and—after a short period of oscillation between these two pursuits—she decided to start training to be a contortionist.
In some situations described by my interviewees, creativity on this level functioned as a refuge from the unfriendliness of external environment or even a stand-in for companionship. One of the participants of my study, Stephannie, was a cheerful, happy child before starting school, but once she began primary school, she changed radically—becoming almost invisible, and staying that way through junior high school. “When I got to school, I started to be quieter because people didn’t want to be around me,” she said. “They thought I was weird. I received a lot of name calling and pushing. It was a really tough time.” To cope with these difficulties, she withdrew from this brutal external environment into her internal world. “I was quiet. It was like I was invisible…I was like in a bubble. I wanted to be safe,” she said. “I just focused on my art and I really started to improve my drawing skills.”Another participant, Marsha, also went through a period of bullying at the hands of her classmates. ”They would talk about me behind my back and try to hurt me,” she said. An active reader, Marsha found inspiration in a passage she read: You are responsible for your happiness. This led her to realize that, though others might behave cruelly, she had a decisive voice about what was happening in her life. So, after realizing what she really needed in relationships, she split with her tormentors. Nevertheless, afterward, she felt very lonely. In her diary, she wrote, “Loneliness is my disease. I am alone in my thoughts and movements. It feels like I’m in exile.” During this period, Marsha found an escape through art. “The best part of life was when everything went quiet and I drew or painted,” her diary continued. “Art was one of the only things I could put my heart into.”
Young people are highly sensitive to the values, opinions, and expectations of their parents, teachers, and peers. External influences—those that are supportive, encouraging, and accepting, as well as those that are challenging, stimulating, and inspiring—play a decisive role in helping these youths reach a higher level of development and of creativity.
The transition from horizontal creativity to what I call vertical creativity occurs when a young person’s experiments with his or her creativity lead to a psychological awakening. Specifically, a young person at this point experiences vertical conflicts of values—in the words of TPD, conflicts between “what is” and “what ought to be.” These arise from some intense and personal experience that deepens their awareness. I propose that spontaneous multilevel disintegration (level III) describes the behavior of middle adolescents. People at this level of development have an extensive differentiated mental structure, governed by internal processes such as intensive inner conflicts, self-observation, self-evaluation, and existential anxiety.Returning to chaos theory, vertical creativity can be described by the chaotic attractor, which unfolds through the complex interactions between mental elements such as emotions, thoughts, memories and images. This chaotic state is a necessary condition for self-organization to more complex and ordered mental states. Young people open themselves up to new external and internal experiences, becoming interested in what is novel and unusual. Their interest can be triggered by excitement, fascination, and awe.
For example, Krista developed her interest in the circus arts when she watched a Cirque du Soleil performance that excited and inspired her tremendously. “I just fell in love with the circus,” she said in the interview. “I was amazed by what the human body is capable of doing. I was completely in awe.”
Another participant, Stephannie, tried scuba diving and had a wonderful experience. “This was where I needed to be,” she said. “It was very quiet and calm. I could focus on my breathing. It was an infinite space. This was where I needed to be.” After that initial experience, scuba diving imagery started filtering into her painting. She started painting of anemones and underwater flora.
Interest, as demonstrated by these adolescents, is highly beneficial to cognitive development. It motivates people to engage in new experiences and gain knowledge. As their interest intensifies, they become increasingly attentive, tuning themselves in to the object of their fascination in a way that leads not only to deeper understanding, but also to enhanced perception and creativity. We can see this in the example of Eton, another interviewee, whose interest in spirituality emerged when he started to read books on Zen Buddhism. Eventually, he developed this into a personal religion based on what he had come to see as virtuous. He began practicing meditation. As he developed spirituality, his art in turn began to show something of the process that was unfolding in him. “I started getting interested in non-objective art as a way of expressing something deeper, something spiritual, something mystical that is not in this world,” he explained. “I became really process-oriented.”
Another important development at this level is that young people become critical observers of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Their creative activities contribute to this process by offering rich opportunities for them to learn about themselves and connect to something that is meaningful to them. This inner openness, in turn, enhances their ability to be open to others. Because young individuals generally want to share their creative products with others, vertical creativity motivates their self-development and self-expression. Krista explained it this way: “I feel that it is something that I love doing, that I am passionate about and I am able to share that with others. In my performance, there is no speaking, there is no text, and so I create the dialogue with eyes. I don’t hope that the audience understands what my performance means to me; I do hope that one person—one is enough—is inspired in some way.”
Vertical creativity can also offer an important outlet for the increasing tension of inner conflicts, thereby providing an important defense against mental illness. As Stephannie put it, “I have been living with this claustrophobia my whole life but I didn’t figure out how bad it was until I got here. I was obsessed with something, but I was scared at the same time. By working through my art and through these ideas, I began to understand what I was going through and cope with it by reversing it a little bit—because I am not so bad anymore.”
The transition from vertical creativity to what I call integral creativity requires further intellectual and emotional growth. My study suggests that young people can approach this level through either formal or informal education; mentors are also helpful, especially if the young person is not receiving formal education.
I propose that organized multilevel disintegration (level IV) describes the behavior of late adolescents and young adults. In this level, highly conscious, autonomous, and self-determining mental processes act as negative feedback to stabilize and organize mental structure. Returning to chaos theory, this level of development can be expressed by emerging order, characterized by lesser tension and greater ability to systemize experiences and to take the development into one’s own hands.3
On this level, the creative young person’s thinking becomes relativistic and dialectic. Relativistic thinkers consider perspectives other than their own, a tendency can be a source of greater diversity and novelty. Dialectic thinkers understand that it is natural and valuable that their thoughts and perspectives constantly change. They accept contradictions and consider them as the key elements of their intellectual growth.4
At the same time, young people are naturally focused on their own futures and personal goals. This is the age when many people choose the interest that will become the focal point of their careers—or even their lives. Consider Eton: as he developed as an artist, he consciously shifted from drawing concrete to non-objective abstracts. “In the first and second year,” he explained, “there is a lot of focus on technical drawing. I was really good at drawing models. That was my thing. That was what I loved to do. When I came here [the Art Department at the University of Calgary], I was like, I am going to throw all of that out the window. I am going into non-objective abstract. I am going to take lithography because I have never done it.”
On the integral level of creativity, individuals are able to integrate their own ideas, beliefs, and values to a more complex system, enabling them to create their own unique reality. Integral creativity involves insights, a richness of ideas, and deep connections with people, nature, and one’s “higher self.” Eton demonstrated this perfectly at the end of my interview with him when he said, “Through my painting, I want to develop the virtues of patience, understanding, forbearance, and being in the present moment. Through the process of making art, we learned how to live a balanced and harmonious life.”
Kandinsky’s Artistic Development
But what about famous artists whose works you see in museum? How do they develop? Does the model I developed fit them? As I discovered, it does.
The life story of Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) reveals the similar patterns of creative development that I’ve presented above. Kandinsky was an influential Russian abstract painter who described his artistic development as consisting of three periods. As quoted in Becks-Malorny (1994), he described his experiences as follows:
1. The period of dilletantism, my childhood and youth, with its uncertain, for the most part painful emotions, to me, incomprehensible longing […] [Note that this period in Kandinsky’s life was dominated by two simultaneous but fundamentally different impulses: namely a love of nature, and the indefinite stirrings of the urge to create.]
This love of nature consisted principally of pure joy and enthusiasm for the element of colour… At the same time I felt within myself incomprehensible stirrings, the urge to paint a picture. And felt dimly that a picture can be something other than a beautiful landscape, an interesting and picturesque scene, or the portrayal of a person. Because I loved colours more than anything else, I thought even then, however confusedly, of colour composition, and sought that objective element which could justify the choice of colours.
2. The period after leaving school. It soon appeared to me that past ages, having no longer real existence could provide me with freer pretexts for the use of color, which I felt within myself. Thus, I chose first medieval Germany, with which I felt a spiritual affinity…I also created many things from within myself…freely from memory and according to my mental picture. I was far less in my treatment of the ‘laws of drawing’…Thus, objects began gradually to dissolve more and more in my pictures.
3. The period of conscious application of the materials of painting, the recognition of the superfluousness, for me, of real forms, and my painfully slow development of the capability to conjure from within myself not only content, but also its appropriate form – thus the period of transition to pure painting, which is also called absolute painting, and the attainment of the abstract form necessary for me.5
As you see from the words of both my interviews and the renowned artist Kandinsky, creativity and psychological development are tightly interconnected in a cyclical and dynamical relationship. Creativity is a self-organizing process that arises and is maintained by emotions such as interest, joy, surprise, curiosity, passion, love, and resourcefulness. Psychological development is a similarly self-organizing process: as young people mature, they are increasingly able to incorporate more and more elements from mental life—emotions, thoughts, imagination, and memories—and, ultimately to connect and integrate them into a unique perspective. An active and temporary experience of creativity gives rise to the conditions in which emotional, cognitive, and spiritual development take place. As young people develop psychologically toward openness, sensitivity, and receptivity, this in turn makes it possible for deeper creativity to emerge.
1 Laycraft, K.C. (2012).The Development of Creativity. A Study of Creative Adolescents and Young Adults. A Doctoral Dissertation, Graduate Division of Educaional Research, University of Calgary, http://theses.ucalgary.ca/handle/11023/166
2 Laycraft, K. (2011). Theory of Positive Disintegration as a Model of Adolescence Development. Nonlinear Dynamics, Psychology, and Life Sciences, Vol. 15, No. 1, pp. 29-52
3 Laycraft, K. (2011). Theory of Positive Disintegration as a Model of Adolescence Development. Nonlinear Dynamics, Psychology, and Life Sciences, Vol. 15, No. 1, pp. 39
4 Wu, Pai-lu, Chiou, Wen-Bin (2008). Postformal thinking and creativity among late adolescents: A post-piagetian approach. Adolescence, Vol. 43, No. 170.
5 Becks-Malorny, U. (1994). Wassily Kandinsky 1866-1944. The Journey To Abstraction. Benedikt Taschen, pp. 36-37.