How Creativity in Humor, Art, and Science Works: Arthur Koestler’s Theory of Bisociation


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Jul 09, 2023

3 min read


How Creativity in Humor, Art, and Science Works: Arthur Koestler’s Theory of Bisociation

Creativity is a fascinating aspect of human existence that manifests itself in various forms such as humor, art, and science. Arthur Koestler, a renowned writer and philosopher, proposed a theory called bisociation that sheds light on how creativity operates in these different domains.

Koestler suggests that when two frames of reference merge into one, it becomes difficult to imagine that they ever existed separately. This integration of ideas and perspectives is what fuels the creative process. In the realm of science, explanations are like streams joining rivers, all converging towards an unifying ocean of knowledge. On the other hand, art can be likened to tracing back a ripple in a stream to its source in a distant mountain-spring. Both science and art contribute to our understanding of the world, but they do so in distinct ways.

According to Koestler, the key to creativity lies in perceiving a situation or idea in two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference. This is what he refers to as bisociation. One example of bisociation is the use of puns, where a single phonetic form is tied together with two different meanings. This creates a unique and unexpected connection between two seemingly unrelated thoughts.

The term 'bisociation' emphasizes the independent and autonomous nature of the matrices that are brought into contact during the creative act. In contrast, associative thought operates within a single pre-existing matrix. The fact that these components were previously independent is a measure of achievement in a 'good combination'. This suggests that true creativity occurs when subjective originality operates on the highest level of existing knowledge hierarchies.

While both art and humor rely on the transitory juxtaposition of matrices, science aims to achieve their permanent integration into a cumulative and hierarchic order. In other words, art and humor thrive on the momentary collision of ideas, while science seeks to build a structured framework of knowledge. This distinction highlights the different approaches and outcomes of creativity in these fields.

It is important to note that the restructuring of mental organization brought about by a new discovery can have both revolutionary and destructive implications. Creativity has the power to challenge established norms and beliefs, leading to paradigm shifts and advancements. However, it can also disrupt existing systems and ways of thinking. This dual nature of creativity underscores its profound impact on society and human progress.

Incorporating Koestler's theory of bisociation into our understanding of creativity can provide valuable insights and ideas for fostering innovation in various fields. Here are three actionable pieces of advice that can be derived from this theory:

  • 1. Embrace diverse perspectives: To encourage bisociation and creative thinking, it is essential to expose ourselves to a wide range of ideas and perspectives. Engaging with different disciplines, cultures, and viewpoints can expand our mental matrices and facilitate the emergence of novel connections.
  • 2. Cultivate an open mind: Creativity flourishes in an environment that values experimentation and embraces ambiguity. By being open to new possibilities and challenging conventional thinking, we can create the conditions necessary for bisociation to occur.
  • 3. Foster interdisciplinary collaboration: Bringing together individuals from different fields can lead to fruitful exchanges and the cross-pollination of ideas. Collaborating with people who possess diverse expertise and backgrounds can spark bisociative thinking and result in innovative solutions to complex problems.

In conclusion, Arthur Koestler's theory of bisociation offers a valuable framework for understanding the workings of creativity in humor, art, and science. By perceiving situations or ideas from multiple frames of reference, we can unlock new connections and insights that lead to innovative outcomes. Embracing diverse perspectives, cultivating an open mind, and fostering interdisciplinary collaboration are key steps toward nurturing creativity and driving progress in our ever-evolving world.

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