How Creativity in Humor, Art, and Science Works: Arthur Koestler’s Theory of Bisociation
By Maria Popova
At a recent TED salon, New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff presented his theory of humor as “a conflict of synergies,” which reminded me of a wonderful concept from Arthur Koestler’s seminal 1964 anatomy of creativity, The Act Of Creation (public library). Koestler coins the term bisociation to illustrate the combinatorial nature of creativity — the reason it operates like a slot machine, relies on the mind’s pattern-recognition machinery, and requires the synthesis of raw material into “new” ideas.
Koestler diagrams his theory and explains:
The pattern underlying [the creative act] is the perceiving of a situation or idea, L, in two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference, M1 and M2. The event L, in which the two intersect, is made to vibrate simultaneously on two different wavelengths, as it were. While this unusual situation lasts, L is not merely linked to one associative context, but bisociated with two.
I have coined the term ‘bisociation’ in order to make a distinction between the routine skills of thinking on a single ‘plane,’ as it were, and the creative act, which … always operates on more than one plane. The former can be called single-minded, the latter double-minded, transitory state of unstable equilibrium where the balance of both emotion and thought is disturbed.
Koestler goes on to discuss the forms this creative instability takes in humor, art, science. In a chapter on the varieties of humor, he explores how the bisociation theory of creativity can be applied to analyzing “any specimen of humor”:
The procedure to be followed is this: first, determine the nature of M1 and M2 . . . by discovering the type of logic, the rules of the game, which govern each matrix. Often these rules are implied, as hidden axioms, and taken for granted — the code must be de-coded. The rest is easy: find the ‘link’ — the focal concept, word, or situation which is bisociated with both mental planes; lastly, define the character of the emotive charge and make a guess regarding the unconscious elements that it may contain.
He then applies this technique to various types of humor. The pun is one example of bisociation in action:
The pun is the bisociation of a single phonetic form with two meanings — two strings of thought tied together by an acoustic knot. Its immense popularity with children, its prevalence in certain forms of mental disorder (‘punning mania’), and its frequent occurrence in the dream, indicate the profound unconscious appeal of association based on pure sound.
He then examines how bisociation manifests in science vs. art:
In the discoveries of science, the bisociated matrices merge in a new synthesis, which in turn merges with others on a higher level of the hierarchy; it is a process of successive confluences towards unitary, universal laws. . . . The progress of art does not display this overall ‘river-delta’ pattern. The matrices with which the artist operates are chosen for their sensory qualities and emotive potential; his bisociative act is a juxtaposition of these planes or aspects of experience, not their fusion in an intellectual synthesis — to which, by their very nature, they do not lend themselves. This difference is reflected in the quasi-linear progression of science, compared with the quasi-timeless character of art, its continual re-statement of basic patterns of experience in changing idioms. If the explanations of science are like streams joining rivers, rivers moving towards the unifying ocean, the explanations of art may be compared to the tracing back of a ripple in the stream to its source in a distant mountain-spring.
A pillar of Koestler’s theory is the difference between bisociation and mere association, and the criteria for true creativity inhabit that very difference:
The term ‘bisociation’ is meant to point to the independent, autonomous character of the matrices which are brought into contact in the creative act, whereas associative thought operates among members of a single pre-existing matrix.
In examining “the criteria which distinguish bisociative originality from associative routine,” Koestler singles out the most important litmus test:
The previous independence of the components that went into a ‘good combination’ [is] a measure of achievement. Historically speaking, the frames of reference of magnetism and electricity, of physics and chemistry, of corpuscles and waves, developed separately and independently, both in the individual and the collective mind, until the frontiers broke down. And this breakdown was not caused by establishing gradual, tentative connections between individual members of the separate matrices, but by the amalgamation of two realms as wholes, and the integration of the laws of both realms into a unified code of greater universality. Multiple discoveries and priority disputes do not diminish the objective, historical novelty produced by these bisociative events — they merely prove that the time was ripe for that particular synthesis.
Koestler, as we know, was an enormous advocate of the importance of ripeness in the creative process. He then maps bisociation onto the infrastructure and hierarchies of knowledge:
Minor, subjective bisociative processes do occur on all levels, and are the main vehicle of untutored learning. But objective novelty comes into being only when subjective originality operates on the highest level of the hierarchies of existing knowledge.
He then turns to the psychology underpinning phenomena like “generational amnesia” — our tendency to take for granted ideas once they are in place, and to forget what the world was like before they existed:
The discoveries of yesterday are the truisms of tomorrow, because we can add to our knowledge but cannot subtract from it. When two frames of reference have both become integrated into one it becomes difficult to imagine that previously they existed separately. The synthesis looks deceptively self-evident, and does not betray the imaginative effort needed to put its component parts together.
But this, he argues, is where art and science once again diverge:
In this respect the artist gets a better deal than the scientist. The changes of style in the representative arts, the discoveries which altered our frames of perception, stand out as great landmarks for all to see. The true creativity of the innovator in the arts is more dramatically evident and more easily distinguished from the routine of the mere practitioner than in the sciences, because art (and humor) operate primarily through the transitory juxtaposition of matrices, whereas science achieves their permanent integration into a a cumulative and hierarchic order.
There is, however, another important criterion that distinguishes true creativity, a sort of unconscious processing similar to what T. S. Eliot famously observed. Koestler writes:
[The creative act] involves several levels of consciousness. In problem-solving pre- and extra-conscious guidance makes itself increasingly felt as the difficulty increases; but in the truly creative act both in science and art, underground levels of the hierarchy which are normally inhibited in the waking state play a decisive part.
One of the inevitable byproducts of bisociation, he argues, is the demolition of existing dogma:
The re-structuring of mental organization effected by the new discovery implies that the creative act has a revolutionary or destructive side. The path of history is strewn with its victims: the discarded isms of art, the epicycles and phlogistons of science.
Koestler admonishes against over-reliance on habit, which, even though William James may have framed it as the key to happiness, is the tool of association rather than bisociation and thus the enemy of the creative act:
The skills of reasoning rely on habit, governed by well-established rules of the game; the ‘reasonable person’ — used as a standard norm in English common law — is level-headed instead of multi-level-headed; adaptive and not destructive; an enlightened conservative, not a revolutionary; willing to learn under proper guidance, but unable to be guided by his dreams.
He concludes the chapter by summing up the distinguishing features of associative and bisociative thought, or habit and originality, “somewhat brutally” in a tally of contrasts:
The Act Of Creation is absolutely fantastic — necessary, even — in its entirety. It will change the way you think about everything, including thinking itself.
River delta image: “The Lagoon” by Jamie Meunier
Published May 20, 2013