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Chains that Set Us Free

The writer G.K. Chesterton once declared, “Art consists in limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.”

Pop songs have choruses and refrains. Symphonies have four movements. Painters obey the traditions of portraiture.

Chesterton was referring to the importance of constraints in the creative process. Although we tend to think of the imagination as benefiting from total freedom, artists and designers often rely on strict conventions and formal requirements. Pop songs have choruses and refrains; symphonies have four movements; painters obey the traditions of portraiture.

Perhaps the best example of the role of creative constraints is poetry. At first glance, the art seems to be defined by liberation—poets needn’t follow rules of syntax and punctuation. And yet, most poetry depends on forms with exacting specifications, such as haikus and sonnets. Instead of composing free verse, poets torture themselves with constraints. Why?

A new study led by Janina Marguc at the University of Amsterdam provides an interesting and unexpected answer: The frustrations of form come with a mental benefit—letting people think in a more holistic and creative fashion. The researchers began by having subjects work on anagram puzzles while a distracting voice played the role of obstacle. They then gave the subjects sensory tests to measure their ability to reason without becoming enmeshed in detail—in terms of the old adage, being able to see the forest and the trees. Those exposed first to the obstacle showed increased “perceptual scope”; those who hadn’t dealt with the hindrance lagged behind. When searching for creative solutions, we often find the answer in the forest. The trees hold us back…

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