What I Learned From The Act of Creation By Arthur Koestler

Date Read: 05/31/2018

How strongly I recommend it: 9/10

Basically as I go through any book that I read, I underline interesting ideas/quotes/paragraphs and then later come back through the book to get the lessons gleaned from these underpinnings and try to figure out what they mean to me and apply them to my own life.

Here were the most interesting lessons in the book for me:


Everybody can ride a bicycle, but nobody knows how it is done. Not even engineers or bicycle manufacturers know the formula for the correct method of counteracting the tendency to fall by turning the handlebars.


The controls of a skilled activity generally function below the level of consciousness on which the activity takes place. The code is a hidden persuader.


This applies not only to our visceral activities and muscular skills but also to the skill of perceiving the world around us in a coherent and meaningful manner.


There are two ways of escaping our more or less automatized routines of thinking and behaving. First is the dream and dream-like states.


The second is also an escape and is signaled by the spontaneous flash of insight which shows a familiar situation or event in a new light and elicits a new response to it. The bisociative act connects previously unconnected matrices of experience.

*Tip: brainstorm 10 new uses for an old thing.


In the eyes of the Philistine all experimental art is ludicrous, because the Philistine’s attitude is aggressive-defensive. When Picasso shuffles round the eyes and the limbs of his figures in a manner which is biologically impossible and yet has a visual logic of it’s own, he juxtaposes the seen and the known—he is walking, precariously balanced, on the borderline between two universes, each governed by a different code.


Piaget, among others, has strikingly shown how late the child accords to its fellow beings a conscious ego like it’s own. The more a person deviates from the familiar norm of the child’s surroundings, the more difficult it is for the child to project into him life and feelings, to grant him the faculty of having experiences like his own. The same applies to the attitude shown by tribal or parochial societies to foreigners, slaves, members of the ‘Lower class’. The creature who does not ‘belong’ to the tribe, clan, or parish is not really human; he only aspires or pretends to be ‘like us’.


One should not carry moderation to extremes.


Tickling a child will call out a wriggling and squirming response. But the child will laugh on;y and this is the crux of the matter—-if an additional condition is filled: it must perceive the tickling as a mock attack, a careless in a mildly aggressive disguise. This explains why people laugh only when tickled by others but not when they tickle themselves. It’s the little fear, and the pleasure juxtaposed.


Thus the mechanism is essentially the same as in comic impersonation: the tickler impersonates an aggressor, but is simultaneously known not to be one. It is probably the first situation encountered in life which makes the infant live on two planes at once, the first delectable experience in bisociation.


The Eureka cry is the explosion of energies which must find an outlet since the purpose for which they have been mobilized no longer exists; the cathartic reaction is an inward unfolding of a kind of ‘oceanic feeling’, and its slow ebbing away. The first is due to the fact that ‘I’ made a discovery, the second to the fact that a discovery has been made, a fraction of the infinite revealed.


The creative act by connecting previously unrelated dimensions of experience, enables him to attain to a higher level of mental evolution. It is an act of liberation—-the defeat of habit by originality.


Nueva, a young female chimpanzee, was tested 3 days after her arrival. She had not yet made the acquaintance of the other animals but remained isolated in a cage. A little stick is introduced into her cage, she scrapes the ground with it, pushed the banana skins together in a heap, and then carelessly drops the stick at about three-quarters of a meter from the bars. Ten minutes later, fruit is placed outside the car beyond her reach.


She grasps—-vainly of course—-then begins the characteristic complaint of the chimpanzee (thrusts both lips forward, especially lower lip and gazes imploringly at the observer, utters whimpering sounds, and finally flings herself onto her back a gesture most eloquent of despair. Thus some time passes, 7 minutes or so she suddenly casts a look at the stick, ceases her moaning, seizes the stick, stretches it out of the cage, and succeeds in drawing the banana within arm’s length.

This is exactly how humans invent things and have Eureka! Moments as well.



The process which led to her discovery can be described as a synthesis of two previously unconnected skills, acquired in earlier life. She learned to get at banasas out her cage by squeexing an arm or leg through the bars. She had also acquired the habit—of scraping the earth with a stick and of pushing objects about with it. But in this playful activity the stick was never used for any utilitarian purpose; to throw, push, or roll things about is a habit common to a variety of young animals. Her discovery consisted in applying this playful habit as a auxiliary matrix to get at the banana. The moment of truth occurred when her glance fell on the stick while her attention was set on the banana.


The act of discovery has a disruptive and constructive aspect. It must disrupt rigid patterns of mental organization to achieve the new synthesis. Sultan’s habitual way of looking at the tree as a coherent, visual whole had to be shattered. Once he had discovered that branches can be made into tools he never again forgot it, and we may assume that a tree never again looked the same to him as before.


He had lost the innocence of his vision, but from his loss he derived an immense gain; the perception of ‘branches’ and ‘manipulation of tools’ were now combined into a single, sensory-motor skill; and when two matrices have become integrated they cannot again be torn asunder. This is why the discoveries of yesterday are the commonplaces of today, and why we always marvel how stupid we were not to see what post factum appears to be so obvious.


The more original a discovery the more obvious it seems afterwards.




The creative act is not an act of creation in the sense of the Old Testament. It does not create something out of nothing; it uncovers, selects, re-shuffles, combines, synthesizes already existing facts, ideas, faculties, skills. The more familiar the parts, the more striking the new whole.


It is obvious says Hadamard that invention or discovery be it in mathematics or anywhere else takes place by combining ideas.


The mere knowledge that a problem is soluble means that half the game is already won.


Charles Darwin is the perhaps the most outstanding illustration of the thesis that ‘creative originality’ does not mean creating or originating a system of ideas out of nothing but rather out of the combination of well-established patterns of thought—by a process of cross-fertilization as it were. With a pinch of salt it could be said that Darwin’s essential achievement was to combine the evolutionary philosophy of Anaximander, who taught that man’s ancestor was an aquatic animal and that the earth and its inhabitants were descended from the same Prime Material, with the philosophy of Empedocles who taught the survival of the fittest among the random aggregations of organic forms.



Ernest Jones once remarked in an essay about Freud that creative genius seems to be a mixture of of skepticism and naiveté: skepticism regarding the dogmas implied in traditional modes of thought, combined with the willingness of a wide-open mind to consider far-fetched theories.


It was with the sharp eyes of the primitive, the open mind of the innocent that Darwin looked at his subject, daring to ask questions that his more learned and sophisticated colleagues could not have thought to ask.


Saturate yourself through and through with your subject. –Lloyd Mor


Chance only favors invention for minds which are prepared for discoveries by patient study and persevering efforts. –Louis Pasteur


One sometimes finds what one is not looking for. –Fleming

For instance, the technician who set out to find a way to synchronize the rate of fire of a machine-gun with the revolutions of an air-screw discovered an excellent way of imitating the lowing of a cow.


The history of discovery is full of such arrivals at unexpected destinations, and arrivals at the right destination by the wrong boat.


A thought that sometimes makes me hazy:

Am I—or are the others crazy?


We may have ideas of which we are not conscious….There are infinitely more ideas impressed on our minds than we can possibly attend to or perceive….There may be an impression of ideas without any actual perception of them.


One would think there was nothing easier for us, than to know our own minds…. But our thoughts have generally such an obscure implicit language, that is is the hardest thing in the world to make them speak out distinctly.

-Earl of Shaftesbury, 1690


Awareness is a matter of degrees. Conscious and unconscious experiences do not belong to different compartments of the mind; they form a continuous scale of gradation, of degrees of awareness.


The unconsciousness of a falling stone is something different from the unconsciousness of a growing cabbage.


Often we have to get away from speech in order to think clearly. –Woodworth


And we heard one testimony after another from great scientists, which show that in order to create they had to regress at times from the word to the picture-strip, from verbal symbolism to visual symbolism—some like Einstein, even to the kinesthetic sensation of muscle motions.


The fact that as vehicles of thought, pictorial and other non-verbal representations are indeed earlier both phylogenetically and ontogenetically older forms of ideation, than verbal thinking.


The necessity for this retreat from language derives from the fact that words are a blessing which can turn into a curse. They crystallize thought, they give articulation & precision to vague images and hazy intuitions. But a crystal is no longer a fluid. ‘Language is not only the foundation for the whole faculty of thinking, but the central point also from which proceed the misunderstandings of reason herself.

**I try to mix between writing my ideas, and just letting them move around in my ahead—in between the crystal and fluid forms.


Verbal Crystallization can be described like this: How can I know what I think till I see what I say?


Fluid Pictorial Thought can be described like this: I see what I mean, but I don’t know how to say it.



Language can become a screen which stands between the thinker and reality. This is the reason why true creativity often starts where language ends.


Discovery consists in discovering what had always been there. Knowledge can get buried underneath the rigid crust of a conventional matrix which makes your conscious thoughts turn in a vicious circle.


Carl Duncker, a psychologist, set up an experiment to have people make a pendulum. The subject was led to a table on which had been placed, among some miscellaneous objects, a cord with a pendulum-weight attached to it’s end and a nail. All he had to do was drive the nail into the wall and hang the cord with the pendulum weight on the nail. But there was no hammer. Only 50% of the subjects found the solution: to use the pendulum-weight as a hammer.


In the first series the weight on the table was attached to the cord, and was expressly described to the students as a ‘pendulum-weight’.


In the second series, weight and cord were lying separately on the table and the word ‘pendulum-weight’ was not used. Result: all students in the group found the solution without difficulty.


They took in the situation with an unprejudiced mind, saw a nail and a weight, and hammered the nail in, then tied the cord to the nail and the weight to the cord. But in the minds of the first group the weight was firmly ‘embedded’ into its role as a ‘pendulum-weight’ and nothing else.


What we label things matters, because then we get stuck in that matrix.


A water bottle is for drinking, a book is read in this way, here’s how people live…and to invent, to create we have to break out of these models sometimes.


To undo wrong connections, faulty integrations, is half the game. To acquire a new habit is easy, because one main function of the nervous system is to act as a habit-forming machine; to break out of a habit is an almost heroic feat of mind or character. The prerequisite of originality is the art of forgetting, at the proper moment, what we know.


As Lenin has said: If you think of Revolution, dream of Revolution, sleep with Revolution for thirty years, you are bound to achieve Revolution one day.


Thus the real achievement in discoveries is ‘seeing an analogy where no one saw one before.’


The essence of discovery is that unlikely marriage of cabbages and kings—of previously unrelated frames of reference or universes of discourse—whose union will solve the previously unsoluble problem. The search for the improbable partner involves long and arduous striving—but the ultimate matchmaker is the unconscious.


The story of discovery also shows us that an idea may sleep for decades in the unconscious mind and then suddenly return. Further it indicates that we should sometimes trust a sudden intuition without too much skepticism. If carefully considered in the daytime, I would undoubtedly have rejected the kind of experiment I performed.


The most fertile region seems to be the marshy shore, the borderland between sleep and full awakening—where the matrices of disciplined thought are already operating but have not yet sufficiently hardened to obstruct the dreamlike fluidity of imagination.



The mind likes a strange idea as little as the body likes a strange protein and resists it with similar energy. It would not perhaps be too fanciful to say that a new idea is the most quickly acting antigen known to science.


If we watch ourselves honestly we shall often find that we have begun to argue against a new idea even before it has been completely stated.


It has often happened that critical stages for advance are reached when what has been called one body of knowledge can be brought into close and effective relationship with what has been treated as a different, and a largely or wholly independent scientific discipline.


The alert experimenter is always on the lookout for points and areas of overlap, between things and processes which natural and unaided observations has tended to treat merely, or chiefly as different…


If I’m looking for a solution in my technology business, I may find the answer in how farmers solve one of their problems.


If I’m looking for a way to help my kid with her dance, I may find the answer in how navy seals train…


Look across the board.


The collection of new empirical data is of essential importance, but both the collection and interpretation of the data are selective processes guided by different theoretical considerations.


We can do tons of new experiments and basically not come across the idea what we’re looking for, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the experiment we need to change, often in history it’s been the way that new data is interpreted.


So not only should we try new experiments, we should look at our old experiments in new ways, interpret them in various different ways.


Rearrange the mosaic of hard facts into a different pattern.


The serious research scholar in our generally materialistic age is the only deeply religious human being.


Think of Newton, a lonely man who devoted his entire life to his work even amidst many failures and no tangible progress at specific points.


It is not central heating which makes man’s existence ‘unnatural’ but his refusal to take an interest the principles behind it. By being entirely dependent on science, yet closing his mind to it, he leads the life of an urban barbarian.


The most productive form of learning is problem-solving.


For man cannot inherit the past, he has to re-create it.


The experience of truth, however subjective, must be present for the experience of beauty to arise.


And vice versa, the solution of any of ‘natures riddles’ however abstract makes one exclaim ‘how beautiful.’

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