Congestion of the brain or creative constraint?

I recently read an account of the infamous Victorian murder of three-year-old Saville Ken, investigated by Jack Whicher. At one point Detective Whicher is widely pilloried for his conclusion (later proven to be correct), and he resigns from the police, with “congestion of the brain” cited as the reason. The Victorians were big on congestion (at least three people die of congestion of the bowels in the book), with its hints of ethers and natural flows. Congestion of the brain could mean literal blood clotting, and a cause of strokes, or dementia, to a more symbolic, metaphorical congestion. It was cited as the cause of Poe’s death, probably as a euphemism for alcoholism. It is also one of those vague, all encompassing maladies that was used to put women into asylums if they were deemed a bit unruly.

In the case of Whicher it was probably intended to infer an obsession about the Saville case, or anxiety over his treatment. Matthew Arnold used the term metaphorically to propose a malaise in English society and its general “unpoetryness”. I’ve also seen it used in a loose wellness sense, and I guess that is how I’m thinking of it here.

After encountering the term I was in the middle of conducting an annual quality review, and also completing one of three monthly reports I contribute to. I was thinking ahead to June, when I leave the Open University. Part of the reasoning behind that decision was to explore creative options. I am hoping for an “open the floodgates” moment, and this may hint at a ‘brain congestion’ type metaphor I have implicitly. All those reports, meetings, priorities, strategies, emails and systems – it feels like they clog up the creative process, creating this congestion waiting to be relieved.

The counter to this, is that of creative constraints. Maybe I’ll find in June that now I can do anything, I don’t know what to do. There is a saying that “creativity loves constraints” and you often see this in education, for example writing prompts such as write a story in 6 words, or retell a classic story in an epistolary novel style, etc. It forces people to come up with new ways of approaching a problem. In this review, the authors found that creativity in organisations does often benefit from constraints, but the right type and level, concluding that “our framework also suggests that constraining the creative process too much backfires after a threshold. As such, the formula to unlocking the creative and innovation potential of employees, teams, and firms is applying the right amount of constraints.”

It’s entirely possible then that the constraints one is placed under at work foster creativity – it’s why I started this blog after all. So, the question I’ll face in July is – was it congestion of the brain stopping me being a creative wunderkind, or was that a creative high point under those constraints? We shall see…

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