(R)Evolution in the Head?

According to Ian Macdonald’s Revolution in the Head – his brilliant account of every Beatles recording – the band’s most creative period is conveniently bookended by their two most famous chords; the (contested) G eleventh suspended fourth that begins A Hard Day’s Night (and the album of the same name), and the multi-keyboard E major that concludes A Day in the Life and the Sgt. Pepper album. There are similar creative peaks in popular music – such as those represented by Frank Sinatra’s Capital recordings and Stevie Wonder’s ‘classic period’ albums in the early 70’s – and many equivalent examples in other genres and art forms.

Scholarship is generally recognised by its contribution to knowledge, which is seen as being more evolutionary than revolutionary – ‘shoulders of giants’ and all that. But do academics have distinguishable periods of peak creativity, and if so how might academic ‘creativity’ be conceptualised? At what stage of an academic career is the capacity for creative output and innovation best enabled and legitimised? Are our best ideas formulated early in careers when key epistemological positions and academic identities in the research field are still being negotiated? Or does the nature of academic enquiry lend itself to experience and longevity?

Though it still has strong aesthetic and spiritual connotations within artistic domains, modern definitions of creativity discount popular misconceptions based on the romanticism of divine inspiration, which celebrated the originality and imagination of a select few. Freudian and Marxist critique helped reconceptualise creativity as a cultural process, relocating the creative practice from the individual to the social. Therefore, contemporary pedagogy generally views creativity not as a skill related to talent or artistic sensibility, but as a strategy or technique that can be learnt and developed in situated social and cultural contexts.

At a psychological level, creativity is a function of intelligence that exists as a form of self-expression. It satisfies our expansive tendency: our instincts for exploring and risk taking (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996). Most contemporary interpretations of creativity also acknowledge an act of novelty or originality, which in a world increasingly dictated by the knowledge economy, has to have an effectiveness or value. Therefore, creativity does not occur in a vacuum, but is “defined and assessed in relation to the context in which it is achieved” (Seltzer & Bentley, 1999: 13).

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s (1996) systems model for creativity consists of three elements:

  • The Domain: a culture that contains symbolic systems and rules.
  • The Field: consisting of ‘gatekeepers’ to the domain; experts that can recognise, appreciate and validate a creative product. They assert a type of control and can act as filters to a wider social and cultural audience.
  • The Individual: whose creative product significantly adds to or changes the domain at the consent of the field, and who must learn the domain and field to ‘internalise’ the system.

If we have insufficient domain knowledge, Csikszentmihalyi suggests we are incapable of discerning creative ideas from other forms of personal expression and are therefore merely engaging in play and experimentation. So called ‘everyday’ or ‘low range creativity’ may account for spontaneity or expressiveness – at least on cognitive developmental terms – though these may be considered peripheral in their contribution to domain knowledge.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: Harper Collins.

Seltzer, K., & Bentley, T. (1999). The creative age: Knowledge and skills for the new economy. London: Demos.

Related post: The Elusiveness of Flow


3 Responses to “(R)Evolution in the Head?”

  1. virginia Yonkers Says:

    So here are two additional factors to think about. What about the person that reinvents his or her self at age 50? They are new in their 2nd career but will they be influenced by the domain knowledge of their former career thus limiting ‘everyday’ or ‘low range creativity’ that accounts for spontaneity or expressiveness – at least on cognitive developmental terms – though these may be considered peripheral in their contribution to domain knowledge.

    The second thing I have observed is that older workers know when to fight the fight for a new idea and how to create change in increments as they know most organizations and people are resistant to change. Are they less creative or more politically savvy in order to get their creative ideas implemented?

  2. Andy Coverdale Says:

    Thanks Virginia. Some interesting points.

    I wonder how much we are ‘allowed’ to draw on previous domain knowledge and practices as we became socialised into a new learning / working environment. Perhaps creative insights from the previous discipline / career are manifest as ‘thinking out of the box’ in the new environment. But do these remain frivolous or inappropriate until they are translated into the ‘language’ of the new domain, which can only be achieved when we have become socialised into the norms and values that give meaning to them?

    Which partly backs up your second point. If the effectiveness or value of the creativity can only be realised through ‘political savvy’ then yes, it is integral to the creative process, even if an incremental approach might seem contradictory to common perceptions of innovation.

    How useful is ‘being creative’ if we are not empowered to enact it?

  3. virginia Yonkers Says:

    I bring this up because I have come up against this wall as I have moved from Business to ESL to International business to Education and finally, into Communication (which actually has had the least amount of barriers to enter into the domain). You are correct: my ideas were accepted once I learned the “language” of the domain.

    However, the barrier I’m coming up against currently is my age. There is a perception that older people are not creative nor do they have innovative or creative ideas because they draw on experience. Yet, I integrate a new technology or topic into my current classes each semester. I have developed and taught 20 new syllabi or courses in the last 21 years. I’m the go-to person when they need someone new to teach a course.

Leave a Reply