Gabora, L. (2007). Perspectives on artistic creativity: A review of M. Turner (Ed.) ‘The Artful Mind’. Philosophical Psychology, 20(5), 669-674.



Perspectives on Artistic Creativity

A Review of ‘The Artful Mind’ (Mark Turner, Ed.)



Liane Gabora

University of British Columbia






Address for Correspondence:

L. Gabora < liane.gabora[at] >

University of British Columbia

Okanagan campus, 3333 University Way

Kelowna BC, V1V 1V7, CANADA

Phone: (250) 807-9849

Fax: (250) 470-6001





This book is not actually about the artful mind, i.e. the mind of one who uses devious means to achieve certain ends, but the artistic mind, i.e. the mind of one who creates art. It consists of fourteen chapters by prominent scholars from a variety of disciplines ranging from art history to cognitive science to modern languages and literature. The book is the result of these scholars meeting for periods ranging from a few months to a year at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in 2001-2002. It is a provocative and eclectic compilation of perspectives on what goes through the mind of the artist, how the creative process works, and how human creativity came about. This review will say a few words about each chapter, and end with a comment on some recurring themes.

The opening chapter by Merlin Donald explores some cognitive principles of art, and reviews his account (developed in detail elsewhere) of key transitions in the evolution of human cognition. He argues that approximately two million years ago the mind underwent a transition from an episodic mode of cognitive functioning, which is more or less stuck in the ‘here and now’ (Eckhart Tolle would be impressed), to a uniquely human mimetic mode, characterized by the capacity for mime, imitation, gesture, and the rehearsal of skill. A problem with this proposal is that imitation is commonplace in other species, and the others – mime, gesture, and rehearsal of skill – rely on what Karmiloff-Smith (1992) refers to as representational redescription (RR): the capacity to recursively operate on or manipulate the contents of thought and thereby refine an idea or motor act, or retrieve an event from the past through the linking of associations. Moreover, imitation, though possible without RR, would be enhanced by it; it would enable imitated skills to be reworked and perfected, perhaps one step at a time. Thus it seems more parsimonious to propose that the transition was due to the onset of RR, which enabled mime, gesture, and skill rehearsal, and merely enhanced imitation. This simultaneously alleviates another problem with Donald’s account: the idea that enhanced imitative capacity enabled us to become more firmly tethered in a cultural network, which was critical to the evolution of our exceptional creativity. In fact as a species we exhibit the opposite tendency, to go our own way and do our own thing, and creative individuals are the least tethered of all, with strong leanings toward isolation, nonconformity, rebelliousness, and unconventionality (Crutchfield, 1962; Griffin & McDermott, 1998; Sulloway, 1996 to name but a few). Thus the claim that imitative capacity is what makes us so creative is problematic. But all said, Donald presents a patchwork quilt of ideas drawn from different disciplines that together brilliantly tell a story of how the artistic mind came to be. There are inconsistencies – patches that don’t fit together  – but to construct such a quilt in the first place is a feat few would even consider attempting.

In a chapter titled ‘The Aesthetic Faculty’, Terrence Deacon proposes that the ability to use and understand symbols is critical to aesthetic experience, and argues that the juxtaposition of symbols brings about novel emotional experiences. To me it feels the other way around (I know ahead of time what the outcome will feel like, and I seek the juxtaposition that brings me closer to that feeling). Nevertheless Deacon’s taxonomy of emotions, and discussion of how art functions to generate emotions that are unprecedented or even “deviant”, is certainly interesting.

Francis Steen offers an intriguing chapter titled ‘A cognitive account of aesthetics’. He notes that evolutionary psychologists claim that we have evolved to recognize and seek beauty because it is indicative of health and fertility with respect to both habitat and mate choice, and thus possession of an aesthetic faculty helps us make adaptive decisions. His alternative proposal is that our aesthetic faculty is used for the purpose of self-construction, i.e. “new orders” perceived in art are “incorporated into [one’s] own perceptual system, in effect teaching [one] to perceive and sense the world in new ways” (p. 65). Steen claims that when we view a painting we enter the reality it depicts, perhaps taking on or entertaining the perspective(s) of portrayed individual(s). Thus the act of viewing art is an act of pretending, of exploring possibility, thus of learning and transforming. The other chapter in a section titled Art and Emotion is by David Freedberg. It concerns the relationship between how pictures look (and how music sounds) and the emotional responses they evoke. Freedberg argues convincingly that this relationship may be much more precise and consistent than is generally assumed.

Mark Turner’s chapter outlines his theory of how conceptual compression is achieved by mapping elements of one domain to elements of another in a ‘blended space’. In double-scope integration, the mapping involves different, potentially clashing, organizing frames. It should be duly noted that these ideas were already present in previous work under the name of structure mapping (Gentner, 1983), schema induction (Gick & Holyoak, 1983), and frame blending (Hofstadter & Gabora, 1989), and that they are taken up more rigorously in other contemporary work on analogy and concept combination[1]. But Turner excels at providing plentiful examples that make the basics of analogical transfer and its pervasiveness in human thought accessible and widely known to scholars in the arts and humanities. He has also gone to greater lengths than other analogy and concept combination scholars to posit that onset of these capacities may provide an explanation for rather sudden burst of culture observed in the archaeological record during the Middle-Upper Paleolithic. This is compatible with Mithen’s (1996) proposal that the transition was due to the onset of the ability to explore conceptual spaces. It is also compatible with my own thesis that it was due to onset of the capacity to subconsciously shift between focused and defocused attention, thereby shifting between analytic thought—conducive to logic and symbol manipulation—and associative thought—conducive to 'breaking out of a rut' (Gabora, 2003). This would confer upon the mind both hierarchical structure and associative richness conducive to language and other complex tasks. The capacity for associative thought would facilitate analogy and conceptual integration, but the capacity to return to a more analytical mode of thinking would ensure that one is not inclined to dwell on how ‘everything is connected to everything else” when it would interfere with survival tasks.

The notion of mapping conceptual spaces is explored in different ways in the next few chapters. Lawrence Zbikowski’s chapter titled ‘The cognitive tango’ gives examples of how cross-domain mapping and conceptual models are used to make sense of the sequences of patterned sound that constitute musical form. One of the most tantalizing chapters is that of Shirley Brice Heath. She points out that art presents gaps and disparities that invite us to a form of play that culminates in reconciliation and completion. It seems reasonable to posit that the evolution of the capacity to forge an internal, conceptually integrated model of the world, and the natural desire to regain a sense of completion with respect to this model of the world in the face of the challenges to it that art presents, played a role in the cultivation of our aesthetic faculty.

George Lakoff’s chapter presents a fresh take on his previous work on category and metaphor, inspired by insights from Arnhein, Talmy, and Narayanan[2]. Central to the chapter is what he refers to as the Cog Hypothesis. A cog, he claims, is a neural circuit that computes complex patterns relating to the action, simulation, or observation of a particular movement, but that can operate when the connections to the appropriate motor effectors are inhibited. It is thereby exploited for more abstract cognitive processing. Thus, for example, the same cog is active when you knock a lamp off the table, or watch someone else do it, or read the sentence “The election knocked global warming off the legislative agenda.” It is tempting to write “this chapter will knock you off your feet”; at any rate it is compelling, with broad implications, and Lakoff offers us a glimpse of them by showing how cogs may structure what we see as form in art.

                  In a similar vein, Stephen Murray writes of how metaphor is sometimes overextended in the attempt to explain how something came to be, resulting in a slippage of meaning. He uses as an example Gothic architecture and its metaphorical relationship to the forest. Per Aage Brandt discusses how we split experienced situational meaning into content and expression, using as examples paintings by Monet and Magritte.

                  The next few chapters deal with the relationship between art and sacred belief. Robert A. Scott describes how in medieval times people believed they could be miraculously cured (whether they wanted it or not!) by touching, or even just coming near to, relics kept in sacred vessels closely guarded by priests. The relics were remnants of, or items closely associated with, a particular saint: things like threads from a veil, fragments of a sandal, or of bone or cartilage, fingernail or toenail clippings, or vials of blood. I was not convinced that these relics count as ‘art’ but Scott’s account of the power they held at the time is memorable. A chapter by Gloria Ferrari explores how ancient Greeks employed metaphor in architectural design “that casts sacred space as the palace of the God” (p. 235). Particularly insightful is her discussion of how metaphor reflects the historical conditions under which it arises.

The final section deals with ambiguity. An interesting chapter by Semir Zeki investigates how it is handled by the visual system. This chapter is informative, though it could perhaps have strayed a bit further from the neurophysiological details to speculate about the implications for creativity. De Rey’s chapter explores how works of art invite us to recognize and reconcile ambiguity, with a focus (so to speak) on the artistic depiction of light and shadow. He explains how, to many great painters, to gain insight into the workings of light was to gain insight the myriad ways in which God or some other divine force expresses itself, and writes “Instead of seeing light as a device that helps to reveal the structure of objects, we should see the structure of objects and the various ways light is reflected by their surfaces as a means of tracing light closer to its origin” (p. 284). This chapter was in my opinion a highlight (so to speak) of the book. It was particularly interesting after reading about Lakoff’s notion of cogs. Can an experience of divinity be conveyed by depicting the reflection, refraction, absorption, etc. of light in such a way as to reactivate the same cog(s) thereby recapturing the experience?

‘The Artful Mind’ is not comprehensive (for example, ‘inspiration’, ‘insight’, ‘intuition’, and ‘muse’ are not in the index) but it is full of provocative ideas that suggest avenues for future research. The perspectives of the various authors exhibit many instances of both convergence and divergence. As an example of convergence, the chapters by Steen, a professor of communication studies, and Zeki, a neurobiologist, both stress on the basis of very different kinds of arguments that the brain does not just passively register information but is an active participant in the construction of what we see. As an example of divergent perspectives, Donald claims that “Art is aimed at influencing the mind of an audience”, but elsewhere in the volume, such as in Steen’s chapter, one gets the impression that the artistic impulse is not outwardly aimed but striving irrepressibly to manifest a truth, a “hidden and generative order” (p. 64) gleaned from a realm of pure aesthetic sensibility or beauty. There are not many attempts to ‘cross-pollinate’ in this volume other than those of the ‘this or that constitutes a blended conceptual space’ genre, but this undoubtedly reflects the fact that the different facets of the topic are generally the domain of widely disparate academic disciplines.

A slight weakness is that much of the discussion revolves around particular pictures that are not available in the text; one is directed to a website to view them. Unless you are eager to, after ever few pages, get up and go to a computer and look up the website (which I never did myself), you are left with the recurring feeling that you’re missing something. It might have been better to spend the extra dime to print more of the pictures in the book itself.  But this is nitpicking. The book is a great read, and a “must have” for those interested in creativity, or anyone who has ever wondered what is going on in the mind of the artist or the beholder of an artistic work.



Brooks, V. (1987). The Neural Basis of Motor Control. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Crutchfield, R. S. (1962). Conformity and creative thinking. In H. G. Gruber, G. Terell, & M. Wertheimer (Eds.) Contemporary Approaches to Creative Thinking. New York: Atherton.

Gabora, L. (2003). Contextual focus: A cognitive explanation for the cultural transition of the Middle/Upper Paleolithic. In (R. Alterman & D. Hirsch, Eds.) Proceedings of the 25th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, Boston, July 31-August 2.  Hillsdale NJ:  Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Gentner, D. (1983). Structure-mapping: A theoretical framework for analogy. Cognitive Science, 7, 155-170.

Gick, M. & Holyoak, K. (1883). Schema induction and analogy transfer. Cognitive Psychology, 15, 1-38.

Griffin, M. & McDermott, M. R. (1998). Exploring a tripartite relationship between rebelliousness, openness to experience, and creativity. Social Behavior and Personality, 26, 347-356.

Hofstadter, D. & Gabora, L. (1989). Synopsis of a workshop on humor and cognition. Humor, 2(4), 417-440.

Mithen, S. (1996). The prehistory of the mind: A search for the origins of art, science, and religion. London: Thames & Hudson.

Sulloway, F. (1996). Born to Rebel. New York: Pantheon.

[1] Other approaches address issues such as what kind of structure must concepts have to function as strict categories in some situations yet forge remote correspondences with one another in other situations (e.g. in the writing poetry or drawing of an analogy)? And what kind of logic could account for the emergence (or loss) of properties when they combine? (For example, the properties ‘talks’ and lives in a cage’ are not considered true of the concept PET, nor of the concept BIRD, yet subjects rate them as true of the combined concept PET BIRD.) That concepts behave this way is self-evident; the big question is why?

[2] An error in this chapter is that it is not Narayanan (1997b) who discovered that the same phase structures for bodily actions recur in case after case, for this is thoroughly presented and argued in Brooks’ (1987) The Neural Basis of Motor Control.