Creativity Outside of the Brain
Ján Ballx, Boris Ondreička, 2014-06-14,Imagination, Identity, Creativity - international KIP congress Bratislava

Creativity as a subject without clearly defined boundaries and as the eponymous subject of the conference “Imagination, Identity and Creativity” is the common interest of a psychiatrist/psychotherapist and a curator/poet/art practitioner. Importantly, both authors are close friends and practicing artists.

Partly through compiler and poetic approach they interchange their thinking about creativity as phenomenon outside of the brain.

This results, among other things, in an interdisciplinary text on the arts, the exemplary product of this collaboration. Creativity is what we share together, and the shared intersubjective experience is crucial. The creativity is outside of the brain: both in the body containing the brain, and in complex intersubjective interconnectedness. Creativity is a phenomenon which can be felt, understood and nourished by collaborative multidisciplinary efforts. 


Creativity is a word. The word Creativity is very new. It is unexplainable by any explicit definition. It appeared as an important psychological term only after WWII and has gained significance since then. (http//
For some, Creativity gained a kind of magical importance only recently, during the ongoing world economical crisis. Despite lack of clarity as to what it means, it became a most valued commodity. We are seeing a transformation of the meaning of the word Creativity in the direction of mystery, a remedy for current global problems, and hope for the sustainable future of humanity itself. (http//
As a psychiatrist, I have noticed frequent popular claims about the neurobiological origins of Creativity - for example that the brain of an artist is different; or that Creativity is a brain function; or that Creativity and mental illness are biological variations.
I find that this to be incomplete information, and it is penetrating into professional discourse, medical treatment and the practice of psychotherapy. The fact that Creativity is the subject of this conference is an acknowledgement of Creativity’s importance in psychotherapy.
Boris Ondreička and I are going to look at Creativity from another perspective, from the field of arts, and we are going to try to merge the exploration of Creativity as a complex phenomenon. Our focus will be on Creativity outside the brain.

But let’s begin with the brain itself. The brain is a biological organ, and as such it requires a constant physical environment. The brain needs a stable environment to survive, and it maintains this by isolating itself from the outside.
Outside of the brain exists the rest of our body, and even further outside of the body there is a physical space with other living organisms.
Inside of the physical body there is homeostasis – a stable temperature, a balanced concentration of molecules, oxygenation, chemical acidity, etc.
The brain is also insulated within the body, by meninges and by the hematoencephalic barrier. The necessary mutual brain-body communication occurs at various specific sites (tissues, veins, nerves) and means of contact (dedicated chemical molecules and electrosynaptic transfer).
The brain is strictly insulated from the physical exterior by the body’s mechanical protection, consisting of skin, skull, and meninges. It is hydraulically cushioned by cerebrospinal liquid, and flexibly suspended to protect itself from unexpected accelerations by the spine and muscles. Direct connection between the brain and the outer space of the body is almost impossible. For the body, the brain is a tightly sealed container.
The brain is connected to the outside only through designated parts of the body. It is indirectly connected by organs of perception.
Medically, we assume that the brain regulates the body as a whole. This regulation means reacting to changes in the body itself and to changes outside of the body – in the environment. Interaction is how the brain survives. The main goal of such an interaction is maintaining a stable physical environment in its immediate surroundings. This condition needs to be protected from any physical change, within very narrow limits. As mentioned before, the isolation of the brain is thus the result of its sophisticated and subtle connection to the body, and an indirect connection through the body to the space out of the body. Isolation can be seen as a mutual modality of contact between the brain and its outside.
Indeed, isolation is even an important contact function of the brain as an organ. This isolation affects what occurs outside of the brain. That which is outside the brain, and isolated from it, significantly impacts the brain, despite the indirect nature of its influence. What occurs between the brain and what is outside the brain is a relationship. This relationship mainly consists of electrochemical information.

The brain has succeeded in keeping a stable environment “inside of the skull” throughout the history of mankind and the life-span of every individual. The human brain has survived in a variety of extreme physical conditions. For example, think about man on the moon. Was it not the brain that, in all situations, had the responsibility for keeping man alive?
We tend to think of the brain as a magically omnipotent organ. But on its own, it is an extremely vulnerable part of the body.
You can see the brain as a psychological phenomenon, as a personified creative organ. In my opinion, Creativity must mainly come from somewhere else. Creativity seems to be a by-product of a challenging environment outside the brain. And here, we are going to deal with what can happen outside the brain.
The scientific model of neuroscience has narrowed the concept of Creativity into one person’s psychology and into the physiology of an isolated organ. Thus the neurobiological concept of creativity operates with the brain in isolation from what is outside. This simplification creates a dichotomy as a source of what are posited as polar opposites: scientism and esotericism. A methodical and exact approach creates a paradox. I suspect that neurobiological findings about Creativity are often just methodological artifacts.

There were immense developments in neurobiology and evidenced effects of psychiatric treatment, and especially pharmacological treatments, at the end of the last century. The present medical discourse is that the brain’s functioning is widely believed to be a synonym of human life itself.
E. R. Kandel in his seminal article from 1999 - Biology and the Future of the Psychoanalysis… - on the relationship of the brain and psychotherapy, quotes Sigmund Freud: “We must recollect that all of our provisional ideas in psychology will presumably one day be based on an organic substructure.” (Sigmund Freud, 1914, On narcissism). Psychoanalysis started as a working hypotheses of neurophysiologist.

Looking back in history, many were tempted to reduce psychology to physiology. Most of us, more or less, still believe in the 2000-year-old theory of the 4 humours by Hippocrates.
In modern biological psychiatry, we believe that we are treating the brain, and truly enough that is what we do. Often we only aim to increase or decrease levels of neurotransmitters. (R. Mojtabai, M. Olfson, 2008); (Ch. U. Correl, 2014)
Our life is reducible to brain functions and the processes of subtle electrochemical changes in the brain. We have to remember that this is not a whole picture. Creativity is a good example of where we cannot explain everything only in terms of brain-functioning; otherwise we create an oxymoronic scientific mystery.
For Creativity, it is what is outside of the brain that is important. And that is where we are aiming. I find that this is a step towards the uncertain, without the clear coordinates of a single discipline. One discipline is not broad enough. This uncertainty is resisted by many, in often unfortunately isolated battles in science, the arts and life as such.
I have been fortunate enough to meet people who helped me reshape who I am. My best friend, the curator, poet and artist Boris Ondreička, is one of those people. He, as part of the infinite majority in my life, belongs to what is outside of my brain. I work as a psychiatrist and psychotherapist in private practice. I also worked as a specialist for neurodegenerative illnesses of the brain. I am a painter too, and I try to combine the two domains of these disciplinary affiliations for the benefit of others.
The research on heredity of Creativity points to strong influences of the environment. “Empiric data show that the development of Creativity, unlike that of intelligence measured by classic tests, to a large extent is enhanced by the environment. … In developing Creativity there is great room for accidental influences as well as influences of stimulating programs.” (V. Dočkal, 1996)

Life itself goes on outside of an individual brain. Subjectivity is not identical with the whole of an organism in a biological sense or with an environment in a physical sense. Where the organism ends and the environment begins, or vice-versa, and how it overlaps with the subject, is uncertain. “It is like a delta of a river that has no banks.” (B. Ondreička, 2013)


Social contacts of meaning-understanding (in this case semantic-lexical, but it can also be psycho-linguistic) are frequently left to the process of mutual agreement-making, of consensus between participants in the dialogue. It is also a problem of the semantic frame of so-called Creativity (as discussed right here / right now), which is a subject of such extended disciplinary interest that I will get back to it later. That’s why I prefer (being an artist and a curator) to speak rather about “what Creativity is not” than to define “what Creativity is” – to unlearn rather than to learn, to unlearn all those prejudices which Creativity (speaking just about the secular continuum of the primal Creatio ex nihilo dedicated to “divinity“ exclusively) has historically suffered.

Creativity is not reserved to human-beings, it is not just a cultural construct, but it is an issue of the entire fauna, the natural, spontaneous activity of every living “creature”. Micro-biologists define even microbes as creative, in terms of their ability for accommodation, adaptation, mutation – and here is where I find radical sources of Creativity = Creativity starts as primordially impulsive, reactive, as basis for performance, a service-infrastructure of instincts: makeshift intuition, improvisation, extemporization. So the brain, at this point, works as some kind of operational handler.

Creativity does not necessarily lead to any intellectual, conceptual or material production.

Creativity is simply a specific synonym to “I CAN.” = looking for, and finding, methods as to HOW things CAN be done, HOW problems CAN be solved, out of restriction-systems of rational cogitation and a consequent judgement, decision-making, proceeding further, to bring about a solution.

Creativity is not rooted in or framed by reason. Beyond the territory of reason, which is a normative-economical construction, Creativity fluidly transitions into fantasy or even phantasmagoria. Creativity has its (both qualitative & quantitative) volumes, degrees, and it reaches to full spectra = from infra to ultra. It embraces everything: the productive / contra-productive, constructive / destructive, positive / negative, high & low, materialistic / idealistic, real & unreal, fictitious, utopian, automatic or stupid and even (obviously) obsessive-compulsive.

Creativity is not “WHAT” but “HOW”. Creativity is not a SUBJECTIVE or an ARTICLE, but a methodological, processual, performative ATTRIBUTE, an EPITHET.

3 JAN:

In the neurobiological field, there is an abundance of research about HOW Creativity happens in the isolated compartment of the brain, “inside the skull”, in a brain which is limited to the physiological laws of life. Knowledge of neuroscience is growing vastly, especially in the last two decades of concentrated, ongoing scientific efforts. Unfortunately this may lessen the understanding of other corresponding fields.
For instance, one of the creative brain processes being studied is insight. As observed (by fMRI), there is a phase where the visual cortex shuts down (Kounios, Beeman, 2009). The hypothesis is that the brain disconnects our visual perception from the outside world. Our experiencing is isolated from what we see. You can see this happening at times. People, before they come up with some novel idea, often look away for a moment.
Without perceived visual stimuli from the outside, we might sense our bodies more through other senses. Maybe we are lost for a moment, but we may also reach somewhere we have not been before – somewhere where an insight may come from.
We can try to enter into a similar state of sensory deprivation here, by this experiment – by turning the light off for, let’s say, 6 seconds. …
That would be a short perceptual shift, a subtle type of isolation. Neuroscience is good at measuring our experiencing, but an objectified observation itself, or any biological study design, is NOW less informative than the short experiment with darkness we made HERE.
We believe in scientific facts. We believe in science, and its sound methodology, but we have forbidden the totality of such explanation (Merleau-Ponty, 2004). For us, evidence is not everything.

We are keen on knowing more, on understanding what is outside of the artificially isolated medical model. Thus we want to explore differently together, via our collaboration. We are immensely keen on exploring what is outside of a subject’s brain. This brain in phenomenological aspect is the physical environment of our consciousness. Consciousness is outside of the brain as a scientifically studied organ. We want to look around the brain – to look metaphorically at the expression of insight as an internal sight. We can be playful with words - the aim here is to reach “outsight”, to look at what is outside of the brain.


Standing in front of a stone weighing 300 kgs, out of the purpose of rational cogitation, I can only say “I CAN’T elevate it myself”. But looking for alternatives or notions of “HOW”, through ideation, I CAN create a machine, and then simply by pressing the right button I can take that gorgeous river-stone with me, anywhere I want. Creativity is a faculty of making things which do not even exist, which are helplessly missing... making things possible. The machine I am talking about is a sensual substitute, a sensual prosthesis . . . Creativity is truly prosthetic. Only because of Creativity can we fly higher than birds and swim deeper than fishes, be stronger than elephants. A simple pencil, spoon, fork or knife, are archaic prostheses.

5 JAN:

“It is said that after Einstein’s death, his brain was preserved for autopsy and later study. The assumption was at some point we would discover the secrets of his creativity by looking at some structural aspects of his brain. It is now clear to many who study creativity, and to Gestalt theoreticians, that creativity is a field phenomenon. Neuroscience has brought us full circle. The brain, its experiential awareness at the moment and over time, in the field with its rich abundance of stimulation as well as personal and impersonal relationships, are all needed to account for creativity.” (Burley, 2003).
In Gestalt therapy the concept of self could be described as a contact boundary between organism and environment (Kepner, 1997). Self is a felt, conscious psychological entity, it is who we are, how we feel, and what we think – in this conception we are not the biological brain in a psychological sense. The brain is an environment for our being. For example if I drink a bottle of wine, it is only an environment of my state of mind – to explain it plainly, I might be drunk, but I am not the bottle of wine in front of me nor the wine in my blood. It is not me, it is just an outer influence on me. The same applies to everything, including the body, genes and brain itself. OUR SELF – subjective experiencing – is outside the brain as well.

What are we doing when we create, feel, empathize or judge, apart from using our brain as a processor of stimuli? We dwell in the perception of our senses or in our synaesthetic imagination. Outside of the brain there has to be some kind of structure for our experience; it cannot be isolated, it has to be always related to something else, it is not intra or extra, thus it is left to rest in between. Everything alive is relational, intersubjective. It is felt and rational or believed. The brain needs to be connected to the outside as well, otherwise the outside is unnoticed by it.
In the phenomenological sense we always co-create by being in a relationship. Our experiencing is outside of the brain. Usually one would intuitively think that the brain is inside our consciousness, but if you think about it, from a subjective perspective, as already mentioned, the brain of a subject is its environment. The subject is influenced by the physical, somatic and relational situation, and only a relatively small – even minuscule – fragment of that situation is the brain inside of the body.


Creativity is neither good nor bad. Creativity is beyond ethics or so-called morals. The strategy of Blitzkrieg, the typology of concentration camps, the logistics of deportations, were certainly not just a creative process, but creative-productive (in the sense of material production). The planning of a mass-murderer is often a case of very complex conceptual creativity. We CAN create mirages, illusions, idola, false images, false positives, apophenias, paralogies, etc. By the way, speaking of mass-murderers, it is important that in “making things possible”, secession from the ethical and aesthetical, positive-negative antonomies – Creativity CAN make things IMPOSSIBLE too (in the sense of building barriers, blocks, or even self-traumatisation) = NEGATION, DESTRUCTION belong to the area of Creativity as well.

In his book Passages of Proteus, written in 2011, the Colombian mathematician and Transmodernist philosopher Fernando Zalamea identifies the process of decay as an expression of a profound continuity in nature through which "Creativity expands without brake."

Yes: “HOW” has both positive and negative charges. Yes: “CAN” has both positive and negative charges.

And Creativity is neither pretty, nor ugly. Surely I can make a great, beautiful painting, or a grotty, ugly one, and regardless: both are legitimate results of a creative endeavour. In the same way, aesthetics does not concern itself with only beautiful things. To polarize Creativity, per se = essentially, is absurd.

7 JAN:

In my opinion, what is important to contemporary psychotherapy is developing concepts of empathy, aesthetics and ethics in and for psychotherapy. I believe that the same is useful to conceptualize Creativity.
Looking back, it may sound surprising, but it is only lately that we have shifted our concepts of empathy. The relatively new definition of empathy in psychotherapy as a mutual process has strongly influenced our understanding of Creativity here. Empathy is a bi-directional mutual interaction between bodies. The reciprocity of empathizing is also neurobiological. “We cannot perceive what another person is expressing with their body without synchronising our own movements with his, while at the same time actively reconstructing them, in one form or another, in ourselves” (Staemmler, 2011) To the extent to which we live in intertwined and complex social interactions, we can say without exaggeration that there are billions of brains in the environment outside of any one brain. We should speak about empathy in the plural of many different forms of empathy, which together enable a vast interconnectedness between all people. (Virtual primordial sea)

Aesthetics is often considered to be a quality of Creativity. By aesthetics we do not mean evaluating whether something is beautiful or ugly. By aesthetics we mean synaesthetically experiencing, which is a universal experience. We can be open to perceptive aesthetics. It is always possible. The aesthetic qualities are not just perceptive; they can also be seen as productive and creative.

Ethical experience of life is co-experiencing on contact-boundary shaped by something more basic. It is shaped by the human quality to see one another “ethically” (Bloom, 2013). Ethics precedes our perception, imagination, cogitation. In our understanding, ethics is the ordering of relationships, of what is the nature of relationships and how they are even before the subject enters into relationships. Ethics is outside of the brain, and inevitably it shapes the neurobiological make-up and functioning just as everything important outside the brain does. Ethics is a basic influence from outside the brain. It exists outside of a subject’s brain. Ethics is also many brains functioning together. It is not only inside the brain, most importantly, ethics is outside of the brain.


Creativity is not necessarily productive in the sense of any material result.

(At this point we have to mention that the sense of material and immaterial is changing according to every technological development: the Austrian-American economist Fritz Machlup was already speaking about Information- and Knowledge societies at the end of the 1950s, and the Italian autonomist Antonio Negri takes this idea even further – linking it to the death of the proletariat, 20 years later.)

Creativity can be just an influence, a pressure, the way HOW I take some trivial tool, the prosthesis (like a hammer, for example), in my hand, for practical use, or a symbolical gesture (singing with a hammer, like with a microphone, Heavy Metal, metaphor, replacement, correlation...).

*Creativity can be automatic, as already mentioned, in the significance of just being a function of instincts, improvisation, of the makeshift, emergency, crisis, or psychedelic, etc.: there is a friend of mine, a hopeless drunkard; having a chat with him is always pure pleasure to me, for a moment, because he is such a brilliant joker, but he never did anything at all that was productive in his life.

Creativity for Creativity, which is not obsessive-compulsive necessarily – just simple Creativity only for the ephemeral fun of it, for momentary joy, transitory pleasure, like word-games, yes, like playing games... just for its own sake, for no higher purpose...

...and yes, similarly to the Arts, Creativity plays a semantic-substitute, semantic-prosthesis role, in a wide scale of disciplines like Creative Agencies and Creative Industries, Creative Economies, Creative Labs and Creative Departments, Creative Writing, Creative Thinking, or even Creative Accounting, just like Art and The Art of Cooking. And, yes – not to be forgotten: “Re-creation”, which fundamentally begins at the cellular level, with the ability of cells in reproducing and maintaining themselves; and then it grows to those huge fractalic nets of “Recreation Industries”: Hotels, wellness resorts, gardens, and traffic... Let’s also mention Creationism, which has even been called Creation Science, the theological pseudoscience movement established at the end of the 18th century.

These semantic-additives try vulgarly to express a false or even fraudulent salient aspect of Creativity, associated with something new, novel, useful, original, worthwhile, valuable, or even exclusive, above-average, supernormal, original, genius. These attributes of Creativity I have taken from standard encyclopedic descriptions of Creativity. These salient attributes of Creativity are culturally received prejudices, a cultural construct, which, as with other prejudices, I find dangerously misleading.

9 JAN:

Outside of the brain, among infinite numbers of other objects, there is also subjectivity. It is itself a contact boundary. Subjectivity exists in relationships. It is always co-created. We are bodies with brains, connected mutually to keep a stably maintained Self. In our imagination, metaphorically, this subjective environment might be similar to a physiological solution of salt and water in the primordial sea. Our subjectivity needs the brain to be in homeostatic isolation from the outside. This isolation of the brain from the environment stimulates the brain to behave creatively. In the world outside of the brain, there is a substrate of the Creativity which we have endeavoured to highlight here.

Creativity as a word aspires to name something very old. It precedes humankind and has accompanied life itself from the very beginning. In past culturally and economically established societies, Creativity was not recognized or highly valued. Nowadays it seems overrated, and often even faked. Maybe it is idealized and mystified because of commercial interests, which for some might be a primary reason to conceptualize it as neuroscientific or computational, as a commodity. But it is far from being only that. The two of us here, Boris and I, enjoy being creative. There is a generic creativity in our relationship. It is what we like. Hopefully it offers something to give to others as well, without necessarily having value and outside of any moral judgment. Empathy, aesthetics and ethics are a very interesting framework when thinking about Creativity.

Creativity is all around an individual’s skin, skull, brain, neuron or molecule. It is what we share together. In our presentation, as we shared it in an experiment, the crucial part is a shared intersubjective experience. It is the joy and excitement of Creating together. We believe that creativity is outside of the brain: in the body containing the brain, and in complex intersubjective interconnectedness. Creativity is for us a phenomenon which can be felt, understood and nourished by collaborative multidisciplinary efforts.

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