Mini chaos as an engine of creativity

Mini chaos

mini chaos

Figure 1 : The “Big Bang” (NB. black is a colour sensation made by the eye/brain)

Usually the word “chaos” has the connotation of referring to something rather grand and all engulfing, as in the case of the chaos created by the Big Bang. However, in my books, great emphasis has been placed on a much less spectacular manifestation of it. Namely the mini chaos that occurs when anyone, including artists drawing from observation, makes a comparison. This is because the same/different judgments required can hardly avoid revealing unpredictable differences. Let me elaborate:

My dictionary defines chaos as “a state in which no order can be perceived”. Clearly, this phrase can be applied to any differences discovered by any same/difference judgments, since, at least for the time being, these have no property other than is that of being different. Logically this is equivalent of saying that they can have no order. The only way that they can be given a place in an ordered description is by relating them to something else. It follows that all comparisons, except the rare ones that finds no differences, will bring a mini-chaos in their train.

Figure 2 : You will experience a mini chaos if you catch your attention being drawn to a difference

Since, by definition, lack of order cannot constitute “sense”, the mini chaos produced by any comparison that reveals differences will confront the sense-seeking eye/brain systems with the problem of finding some form of coherence. In other words, something that can only be found by looking at it, either in a different way or in relation to something else. As explained in my book “What the Scientists can Learn from Artists”, the solution requires either the use of analytic looking systems or a transition to other levels or modes of description, where the meaningless difference no longer exists. Speaking extremely generally, this change of levels, which might also be described as a “transformation of context”, can be achieved in two ways, either by going up the system or by going down it.

Going up

Going up accesses higher and cruder levels of description, where details are ignored. Doing so provides a filtering out process that, if allowed to run its course, will ultimately lead to the same seemingly banal outcome, namely that all objects will be perceived by the eye/brain as being identical, undifferentiated lumps, devoid of transformational context. At first sight this might seem a pretty useless outcome but, as explained below, this is far from the case.

Going down

Going down means focusing attention on progressively lower levels of description, a procedure which must eventually lead to the rediscovery of the basic building-blocks of appearances (the visual primitives or their equivalents in other domains of description). Again, the tendency can only be for the system to move in the direction of discovering that all objects are made from a small number of similar components. Looked at in this way, the process is analogous to the physicist discovering that all matter is made up of the same bunch of sub atomic particles.

What we learn from the search for of sameness

As suggested above, it would be easy to suppose that a processes which leads to the discovery that everything is the same as everything is a bit pointless. But for two reasons this is very far from the case:

  • Firstly, the fact of everything being the same, means that everything will be familiar and, accordingly, capable of setting in motion the eye/brain’s analytic-looking systems that are used for dealing with familiarity.
  • Secondly, the eye/brain only arrives at its uninteresting conclusion by means of a sequence of steps that provide a priceless outcome, namely a hierarchy of connections that link a number of formerly disparate “sames”. It can be described as “priceless” because, taken together, the resulting assemblage of links can constitute a powerful characterization of the object concerned. As explained in “What the Scientists can Learn from Artists”, it is such information-containing assemblages that underpin the brain’s capacity for description-building in all the domains of its activity. It is the basis of skill acquisition, including the skills required for thought.

An analogy with mathematics

The value of having a mechanism for searching for that which is the same has something in common with the value of the equation in mathematics. This becomes apparent when we realise that the value of this most basic of mathematical tools is predicated upon its capacity for producing the essentially uninteresting conclusion that two things (the two sides of the equation) that, at first sight look different, are in fact identical. However, the tautological nature of this outcome is only discovered by a series of procedures which, over and over again, have proved their power for generating extremely useful information and highly significant insights.


In sum, the very fact that the eye/brain automatically filters out differences in the search for samenesses, locks its processing systems into activity that is capable of harnessing chaos, and it is the manner in which does so that enables it to become the engine of creative description-building.

Other extracts from “Having Fun with Creativity”, Chapter 10 of “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity”

Other chapters from from “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity”.

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5 thoughts on “Mini chaos as an engine of creativity”

  1. In terms of analysing how we approach life drawing, does this mean we start by searching for ‘sameness’ in our stored memory of human anatomy, then proceed to identify and introduce the ‘mini chaos’ of differences as we observe the particular model?

    1. It means many things, but looking for “sameness” in a world where it does not exist will always draw attention to differences and, thereby, focus attention on aspects of appearances that you would otherwise overlook. This is why checking the supposed symmetries of the human body can be such a useful tool in life drawing. For example, it is the reason why it can help to compare shoulders with respect to (a) relative length, (b) orientation and (c) how the shoulder contour fits into the neck contour. Likewise, it will help to compare the two halves of the mouth or look for differences between the two eyes, etc. etc. It is well worth keeping in mid that differences will automatically draw attention to themselves in ways that will help analysis.

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