Janusian and Synergistic Thinking

Creative people are famously unstable, both emotionally and in their thinking; the artistic temperament is moody, and creators openly tolerate polarities in ideas and viewpoints that others reject, and then try to bury. Oscillations between two distinctly different modes of thinking may account for a lot of this instability and openness. Creators are more skilled in the combined use of two kinds of thought processes: linear thinking, which is verbal, logical, sequential, and analytic; and non-linear thinking, which is associative, more image oriented, non-sequential, and non-logical (but not irrational).

The two-faced Roman god Janus

Janusian thinking is the combined use of logical and associative thinking. It can make a creative person appear unstable.

In addition, both logical and associative thinking have a gut-reaction aspect in that certain thoughts, ideas, images, situations, or events may resonate with some of the emotionally important ideas that form the authentic self. Resonance manifests as “spiritual” feelings such as joy, bliss, delight, or enchantment. An enhanced ability to experience resonance and a greater willingness to respond to it in a concrete way (e.g. via art or science) is another characteristic of the highly creative individual. Creators revel in the uplifting effect of resonance and pay special attention to the immediacy and specific relevance of its workings. In art especially, the process is uniquely personal and often generates intimate, complex, and sometimes frustrating emotional relationships between creators and the works they create.

The practice of creativity requires a constant shuffling between logical and associative thinking. Nietzsche touched on this when he discussed the two opposing artistic impulses known as Apollonian (form, order, and reason) and Dionysian (surging vitality, intuition, and emotion). The German philosopher believed the pair battled one another for supremacy, a position that is understandable when you consider how the creator may appear emotionally and intellectually unstable. Yet he also believed the fusion of Dionysian and Apollonian artistic impulses forms the basis for the dramatic arts, specifically tragedies. Recent creativity research suggests the impulses complement one another in a remarkably powerful way. Interestingly, the ancient Greeks did not consider Apollo and Dionysus to be opposites or rivals. They placed them both on Mt. Parnassus, the mythical home of poetry and all art.

Janusian thinking is a term used to describe a creative person’s deliberate use of opposites when thinking about a project. The term might also serve well to describe the process of blending, or alternating between, logical and associative thinking. (Janus was the two-faced Roman god of gates, doors, and beginnings.) With logical thinking housed in the conscious mind and associative thinking at home in the unconscious, simultaneously using the two thought modes involves looking in two directions at the same time!

Synergistic thinking is a more modern term that suggests the enhanced power of the combined thought modes. Those with the capacity to engage in substantial amounts of synergistic thinking will, because they are functioning in two distinct, nearly contradictory, cognitive modes appear the most unstable. That is to say, the greatest creators are likely to seem the most mad. This is largely an illusion, but one that has spawned many a theory linking madness with creativity and genius. We live in a romantic age, so the idea that great creators are somehow crazy has broad appeal.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

16 thoughts on “Janusian and Synergistic Thinking”

  1. “…the greatest creators are likely to seem the most mad.” That’s a stereotype that has been pretty well disproven. And I’m afraid the romantic age is long over. I do agree (up to a point) that the brains of creators are less stable, but in a purely physiological sense that may or may not have drastic effects on psychological states. It’s really more likely to show up as the ability to confuse people with changing, even contradictory, viewpoints, and with a mindset that ignores accepted norms for thought and behavior, though not necessarily deliberately flaunting those differences.

  2. Interesting analogy of logic and assoc. thinking: looking in two different directions at the same time. I never thought of it like that. Maybe it’s a contributing factor as to why we only use a small fraction of our brains?

  3. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Catana.

    I share your view that the link between madness and creativity has been largely debunked. In fact, I have already posted about this in “Are Creative People less Sane?” and “The Wound and the Bow Revisited.” The latter post argues against the famous book by Edmund Wilson that did so much to solidify and popularize the notion that mental torment is a prerequisite for great creative achievement. The reality is that most creative people are reasonably normal and mentally sound, but they can sometimes *appear* otherwise.

    However, the old ideas remain in place, even among those who work with the mentally ill. For example, the noted psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison (who is bipolar) links manic-depressive illness with creativity in her book, *Touched with Fire*. The Wikipedia article, “Creativity and Mental Illness” presents similar ideas along with references to modern research that claims manic-depression and schizophrenia can enhance creativity.

    My position in this post is that the intellectual instability of artists is an illusion caused by the remarkably more dynamic and flexible thinking of creators when compared with that of people with a more rigid mindset. Your point that creators routinely step outside the bounds of conventional thinking and behaving is an excellent one.

    The infamous moodiness of artists has less to do with brain instability than with those “sometimes frustrating emotional relationships between creators and the works that they create.” Creators get crabby as hell when things are not going well. Gestation periods can make them seem distant. For those so inclined, elation accompanies success.

    The Romantic Age is indeed long over, but the romanticism it spawned is alive and well. (I refer to the modern definition that includes impractical romantic ideals and attitudes, and an emphasis on intuition and emotion at the expense of reason.) No age goes entirely one way, but there are prominent signs that Western societies are awash with romantic notions. Much of the political left’s ideology has its origins in the intellectual side of the original Romantic Movement.

    One example: A noteworthy characteristic of romantics is their taste for ruins. The European Union’s parliament building, symbol of the entire modern European enterprise, mimics the ruined Roman Colosseum and other derelict Roman amphitheatres (although the wags and the religious paranoids have noted its similarity to Pieter Breughel’s painting, “The Tower of Babel”!). That same Roman ruin also inspired Vancouver’s huge and splendid library, a centrepiece to that city’s downtown and a source of immense civic pride. Only strongly romantic societies spend millions erecting public buildings that resemble ruins from the onset.

  4. I’m glad you brought up the idea that we use only a small fraction of our brains, Adam. That idea, like the link between madness and creativity, has been taking it on the chin in recent times. Cognitive research is revealing that we have a greater number of specialized skills or intelligences than was previously believed and that each of these has its place in the brain. The brain’s heretofore-unsuspected ability to “rewire” itself gives a false impression of redundancy.

  5. I read something once, during my meltdown period, that anxiety and excitement are the same physiological responses. Is that what you mean by redundancy? Elaborate on that. Now I’m curious.

  6. Adam. I’m using redundancy in the sense of “not needed” rather than “duplicated.” Long ago, neurosurgeons noted that perforation injuries to certain areas of the brain often left little detectable damage in the person’s ability to function. This prompted speculation that we seldom used some parts of the brain. Researchers also advanced the idea that the brain seemed capable of much more computational and storage power than we actually see. Therefore, they argued, we were not using what we had. The two ideas seemed to mesh well. There were vague suggestions that, as a species, we had somehow evolved a large brain that we were still – like a child in oversized clothing – growing into. (Quite rightly, the scientific community largely ignored this extremely shoddy application of Darwinian principles.)

    Along with the above theories, there was the assumption, bedrock for decades, that the brain could neither make nor repair its own cells. You probably know the old story about every beer destroying brain cells by the million.

    The discovery that the brain can indeed replace damaged cells changed everything. We now know that the harm caused by a few alcoholic drinks can actually trigger brain renewal. (You knew there was a reason why you were downing all those brewskies, right?) Further research revealed that the brain could actually rewire itself, up to a point, to work around areas too badly damaged to repair. Together, these findings provide the real explanation for the lack of damage from some perforation injuries. Obviously, brain content (memories, motor skills, etc.) cannot be replaced if it is eradicated by injury. Such cases require the long relearning process we see after a serious stroke or massive brain trauma.

  7. Thomas……..is brain the only flexible entity which has the ability to cognate all the inanimate in the known universe ?

  8. Thanks for taking an interest in the post, raghu. By “cognate,” I assume you are referring to thought and cognition. It is clear that human beings are the only species on our planet with sufficient mental resources to conceptualize a cosmos of some kind. Whether our perceptions are accurate and complete is another matter altogether. I don’t think we can ever know the ultimate truth about the universe for the simple reason that we are inside it, and therefore have no genuinely objective perspective. We cannot see the universe from outside and place it in some kind of greater context. For humans, no such illuminating context and perspective will ever be possible. We are like conscious stomach bacteria becoming aware of the warm nourishing body in which it lives, learning about how the digestion process works, yet having no concept whatsoever of what it means to be a human being with a family, a job, political views, possessions, hobbies, and so on.

    Our ignorance of what the cosmos is, or what purpose it serves is frustrating. We “discover” things piecemeal, with each revelation prompting more thought, and then leading to further “discoveries.” Our isolation on planet Earth makes mind our only link with the greater whole. This situation can lead to the temptation of assuming that humans, by way of our brains, are somehow involved in creating and maintaining the universe. Stomach bacteria can legitimately claim a role in keeping their “cosmos” alive and well, but humans, with no physical link to the greater whole, cannot say the same!

  9. Check out “The Janusian Impulse” as applies to history. Much has recently been made of “Janusian Thinking” recently in terms of its creative thought potential. The best example of such is in the historical record and the article published by Perry M. Ward in 2004 demonstrates it. It can be found in the 2nd edition of the Madison Historical Review.

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