Wired explores why constraints aid poets:

One of the many paradoxes of human creativity is that it seems to benefit from constraints. Although we imagine the imagination as requiring total freedom, the reality of the creative process is that it’s often entangled with strict conventions and formal requirements. Pop songs have choruses and refrains; symphonies have four movements; plays have five acts; painters still rely on the tropes of portraiture.

Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is poetry. At first glance, the art seems to be defined by its liberation from ordinary language – poets don’t have to obey the rules of syntax and punctuation. And yet, most poetry still depends on literary forms with exacting requirements, such as haikus, sestets and sonnets. This writing method seems to make little sense, since it makes the creative act much more difficult. Instead of composing free verse, poets frustrate themselves with structural constraints. Why?

A new study led by Janina Marguc at the University of Amersterdam, and published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, provides an interesting answer. It turns out that the obstacles of form come with an unexpected psychological perk, allowing people to think in a more all-encompassing fashion. The introduction of the paper sets up the mystery:

Daily life is full of obstacles: A construction site blocking the usual road to work, a colleague’s background chatter interfering with one’s ability to concentrate, a newborn child hindering parents in completing their daily routines, or a lack of resources standing in the way of realizing an ambitious plan. How do people cognitively respond to such obstacles? How do the ways in which they perceive and process information from their environment change when an obstacle interferes with what they want to accomplish? In the present research, we aim to shed light on these questions by investigating the impact of obstacles on global versus local processing. We propose that unless people are inclined to disengage prematurely from ongoing activities, obstacles will prompt them to step back and adopt a more global, Gestalt-like processing style that allows them to look at the “big picture” and conceptually integrate seemingly unrelated pieces of information.

After running a few experiments to test their hypothesis, which you will read about if you go to there, the article concludes:

The larger lesson is that the brain is a neural tangle of near infinite possibility, which means that it spends a lot of time and energy choosing what not to notice. As a result, creativity is traded away for efficiency; we think in literal prose, not symbolist poetry. And this is why constraints are so important: It’s not until we encounter an unexpected hindrance – a challenge we can’t easily resolve – that the chains of cognition are loosened, giving us newfound access to the weird connections simmering in the unconscious. Here are the scientists:

Consistently, these studies show that encountering an obstacle in one task can elicit a more global, Gestalt-like processing style that automatically carries over to unrelated tasks, leading people to broaden their perception, open up mental categories, and improve at integrating seemingly unrelated concepts.

And this returns us to poetic form. The artificial requirements of the sonnet are just another cognitive obstacle, a hurdle that compels the mind to think in a more holistic fashion. Unless poets are stumped by their art, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they’ll never invent an original line. They’ll be stuck with clichés and banalities, with predictable adjectives and boring verbs. And this helps explain the stubborn endurance of poetic forms: because poets need to find a rhyming word with exactly three syllables, or an adjective that fits the iambic scheme, they end up uncovering all sorts of unexpected associations.

We break out of the box by stepping into shackles.

Originally Published: November 14th, 2011
  1. November 14, 2011
     Poets Totally Get Cognitive Obstacles | The Write Stuff

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