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The role of creativity in expertise and skilled action

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Perhaps a part of what makes expertise so inspiring to the curious researcher is the possibility of appropriating the structural components of skilled action to draw a roadmap towards their achievement that anyone might be able to follow. Accordingly, the purpose of this essay is to shed light upon the role that creativity plays in the production and environment of skilled action to that foregoing end. In doing so, I suggest that the lessons to be learned from recent empirical research on creativity has much to offer to the cognitive science of skill and expertise. Experts are able to bring their intelligence to bear in controlling fast and seemingly automatic actions by utilizing a form of control often called ‘intelligent automaticity.’ In this spirit, I argue that the environment of intelligently automatic action control curates a similarly ideal environment for the processes of creativity. Moreover, insofar as creativity is ideally operative within the environment of expert action control, I argue further that creativity functions as one representative form of ‘intelligence’ embedded within otherwise fluid, and automatic expert actions. Creativity is able to do so even without conscious representation through the powers of incubated cognition.

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  1. It’s worth noting here that experts can be lucky in their own right just as well as beginners. The case of beginners’ luck is proffered to be more illustrative of a mistake in modelling expertise than the alternative case in which an expert gets lucky. However, a model of expertise should be able to reliably distinguish between any kind of chance and true skillful action. The upshot here is that this distinction is made by focusing on how a series of actions fit together rather than an analysis of any single action in particular. Skill is found in flexibility and accordingly, flexibility is found in a relation of actions together rather than in isolation from one another.

  2. i.e., Davidsonian belief desire pairs, Anscombean why question/answers, and all of the derivative accounts which surround them in the supporting literature on intention.

  3. There is some discussion of what sort of ‘newness’ creativity requires. Boden (1990), for example, distinguishes between historical and psychological novelty in creative acts. Though it could be possible for someone to discover the Pythagorean theorem without ever having been taught it, this discovery would only be new to its discoverer, as the rest of the world has been up to date on triangles since Ancient Greece. If novelty is a condition for creativity, we can still call the individual discovery of the Pythagorean theorem psychologically creative, though with a limited historical scope (See Stokes 2007 for further discussion on this point). The target of the present discussion is creativity in general, so either form of novelty will suffice.

  4. It has even been argued that spontaneity is a necessary condition of creative originality insofar as all novel acts are likewise spontaneous ones (Kronfeldner, 2009, 2018). For the purposes of this argument, I remain neutral with respect to whether creative originality necessarily entails spontaneity, and limit the focus of my analysis to those original acts that are spontaneous or otherwise automatic – whether it be all of them or just some.

  5. And it is for this reason that Carruthers argues that the true intelligence from such acts occurs after their ad hoc generation in the action-first schema: action first, cognition second.

  6. I do not mean to say that Carruthers is misguided in his stochastic, action-first model of creativity; just that such an account will be incomplete if it does not also include intelligence-fixing cognitions that are also (unconsciously) operative through automatic and creative performances. This is what I introduce in §III and §IV below.

  7. That said, the feeling of having an original insight is likely strongly correlated with the insight’s being actually novel – whether psychologically or historically (to use Boden’s terms).

  8. With Boden’s distinction in mind, it is important to avoid equivocation between A-originality of the psychological and the historical varieties. An insight’s being A-original is neutral with respect to its psychological or historical context, although the context will limit the scope of the insight’s originality. For example, an insight may remain A-original psychologically, yet be only P-original historically. In contrast, historical A-originality should always also be psychologically A-original as well (at least with respect to its original generation).

  9. The length of the incubation period sometimes shows greater success in problem solving, though does not always (Sio and Omerod 2009; Djiksterhuis and Strick 2016). It is supposed that manipulating the length of incubation to correlate success with unconscious cognitive processing is a matter of task/problem-type. Whether this is true, or to what extent it is true is an avenue for future research, however.

  10. Studies with longer incubation periods (> 15 min of distraction) may provide enough time, as in the case of Ritter’s (2020) longitudinal study, for conscious thinking to do some problem solving on its own. However, where incubation periods remain within the limit of one’s attention span (3–20 min), the distraction tasks are sufficient for ensuring that conscious problem solving does not occur on an original problem set. To avoid controversy, I rely on these latter studies rather than the longitudinal ones to draw conclusions about the effects of incubation on creativity.


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Ivy, S. The role of creativity in expertise and skilled action. Synthese 200, 456 (2022).

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