Perception • June 2016
Attention and creation



The creative process calls upon a function of attention that includes movements that go beyond acts of attention usually predominant in daily life activities. This text develops the idea that creation involves a fluctuation of attention. By analyzing this fluctuation, one can see that creation is not a spontaneous process, and that it is intrinsically a process of self-creation. A study on the attention of blind and visually impaired participants in a ceramics workshop shows that the creation of objects activates a simultaneous self-creation process.

Article's keywords

Attention, aesthetics, process, idea, visually impaired, effort.

Table of Contents

Creative processes are many and varied. They are not restricted to the fields of artistic, scientific, technological or philosophical creation, but are constantly part of our daily lives. Large and small creations make up part of our understanding of the world, and span across subjectivity and cognitive areas, lifestyles and existential landscapes. Art practices are often used in community work, social movements, psychiatric reforms, and what is called the reeducation of disabled people. Today they arise as a path and perspective for transformation of subjectivity and the constituted world. When we try to analyze their effects, often we do not get beyond vague thoughts like, “Workshops stimulate creativity and increase self-esteem,” which is far from satisfactory, from a conceptual point of view. In the field of cognitive studies, creation and invention are considered as synonyms. According to the concept of inventive cognition (Kastrup, 2007), invention is not a specific psychological process, but a way of posing the problem of cognition. From this perspective, we speak of inventive perception, inventive memory, inventive language, and inventive learning. In short, invention is cognition’s capacity of to differ from itself. However, studying invention through scientific parameters is not a simple undertaking, as there is no established theory of invention. As Isabelle Stengers asserts (1993), the idea of ​​a theory of invention is a contradiction of terms, because invention neither submits to general laws, nor is subject to predictions.

Creation has often been confused with creativity. The concept of creativity was formulated the fifties, within the framework of North American psychology, based on research by J.P. Guilford (1979). Creativity is defined as the ability to produce an original answer to a given problem. What is interesting in this conception, is that it emphasizes the existence of a creative faculty, shared by all people. In this sense, it contributes to the rejection of the concept of genius, which would designate an individual as having particular, rare, superior faculties. However, what makes creativity a notion of limited scope is the concept that it is a feature of intelligence, like the ability to generate creative solutions to pre-existing problems. In this sense, creativity is only one part of the creative process, which itself is much broader. While creativity is only the creation of original solutions to given problems, creation includes the status of the problems themselves. Some psychologists explain creation by affirming that the piece is created by the creator’s personal characteristics and experience. Yet, to explain creation through the creator does not seem relevant. Instead of being a foundation, the subject him or herself must be perceived as a result of the creative process. The challenge is to explain creation, without calling upon a creative example. It is the creative act that, through a co-engendering process, generates the self and the world, the creator and the creature, the artist and the artwork. Both are the result of concrete creative practices. There is neither a causal relationship, nor a starting point.

Attention became a main focus in late twentieth century cognitive studies. This research revisited psychology and philosophy studies developed in the late nineteenth century, which had already shown that attention is not limited to the act of paying attention. The distinction between nucleus and fringe consciousness, presented by W. James (1950) shows both the selective and flowing natures of attention. James identified the fluctuation of consciousness and attention, suggesting the concept of stream of consciousness. He compared stream of consciousness to the continuous movement of the flight of a bird, with rests, from time to time, here and there. Flights and breaks differ, relative to the pace of the transformation that they bring about. Breaks should be understood, not as stopping movement, but rather as stops within movement. Flights and breaks provide a rhythm to thought. Attention plays an essential role in this. James also shows that deliberate attention functions by jerks and jolts, that aim to repeatedly re-focus attention, that always tends to slip away. In other words, willful selection encounters resistance, and calls for repeated effort.

Cognitive sciences provide elements of response to understanding this approach to attention. Many artists describe their creative processes. These processes comprise a function of attention that includes movements of the act of paying attention, that are different from those usually predominant in ordinary daily activities. As a starting point, I will take ​​P.Vermersch’s (2002a; 2002b) concept that attention is the basis of fluctuation of cognition. For Vermersch, fluctuation is not only a special kind of attention, as S. Freud (2005) described, in speaking of floating attention. For Vermersch, fluctuation is the very nature of attention. This makes it a sort of shifting ground and gives it a leading role in inventive cognition. Here I will analyze the fluctuations of the function of attention, showing that creation is not a spontaneous process. I also suggest the notion that creation is always a process of self-creation, meaning that the creation of a work or a new object is also a process of creation of oneself.

The Act of Having an Idea

The creative process does not occur spontaneously. It does not happen on its own, to a relaxed, passive subject. Spontaneous action is distinguishable from deliberate action. Deliberate action is distinct in that it involves intention or an actively pursued goal. Voluntary attention is accompanied by a sense of effort, in order to carry out the action. Spontaneous action, however, like automatic or mechanical action, does not involve a particular investment of attention. Neither spontaneous, nor deliberate, the creative process seems not to be found in such a dichotomy.

Consider the act of having an idea, which is an important moment in the creative process. During a lecture for film students, G. Deleuze (2004) said that to have an idea is rare and uncommon, a sort of a celebration. For that matter, we do not have a general idea. An idea is already destined to this or that field – film, painting, literature, philosophy or science. This means that ideas are already engaged in their mode of expression. They emerge as if predestined to a certain field. Deleuze also asserted that philosophy, science and art are forms of thought and are creative activities. Philosophy is for creating concepts, not for thinking “about”. He emphasized that we do not create concepts in the blink of an eye. It requires time. Nor are they created through decisions, deliberate choices or will. He then added that the creator does not work for pleasure. He or she must be driven by a need. The creator only does what is required by an extreme need, as if forced to think, create. Something can perhaps be created from an idea, but there is no guarantee.

In describing his class preparation process, Deleuze affirmed that takes it hard work and repetition to get a few minutes of inspiration. Since inspiration is the moment when one has an idea, an effort precedes it. One has to read texts carefully and attentively, looking out for problems that may arise. One sometimes has to read between the lines, through the pores, where the text breathes, capture its ideas, its breaths of fresh air, read again and await the reverberations. This kind of reading can give rise to inspiration that the teacher so wishes for, allowing to give a class based on a new idea. This is the celebration that Deleuze is referring to.

The act of having an idea does not come from a decision. It is a pilotless experience, independent of the will of the self. When asked about their creative processes, many artists say they are inundated with inspirational ideas. They are assailed, as if engulfed. They do not choose ideas. It is rather as if they were chosen by them. To have an idea is not the result of an active search. It more ressembles an encounter. Yet it’s not for this reason that the idea arises spontaneously. In fact, the notions of passivity and activity are not compatible with this process. This is not targeted research, nor simple waiting. One works for a possibility to receive it. It can be defined as an attentive attitude of active receptivity.

In the same veine, N. Depraz, F. Varela and Vermersch P. (2003) put forth the notion of concentrated and open attention, like that of Buddhist meditation. Note that the processes of concentration and focalization do not necessarily go together, as there can be focalization without concentration, and also concentration without central focus point.

 As concerns invention, it is very important to distinguish concentration, which is attention with a temporal depth, from focus, which can be flat and without fluctuating movements. As concerns invention, focalization without concentration is sterile. Concentration, by contrast, indispensable. 

The idea activates a creative process. The function of attention goes beyond the focused attention that can be metaphorically represented as a bright focal point [ 1 ] . Focused attention lights up one stimulus or object, amongst an infinite number of others, concurrently inhibiting attention to others. But in the creative process, there are fluctuations of attention, and much of it takes place outside of focus. In the creative process, distraction is a function within which attention wanders, fleeing from task at hand and going towards a broader sphere, populated with thoughts out of context, aimless perceptions, vague reminiscences, blurry objects and flowing ideas, coming from the outer and inner world. A distracted person is not just inattentive, but is extremely focused. His or her attention is elsewhere. We must thus distinguish between distraction and dispersion. Dispersion is the repeated displacement of attentional focus, making impossible concentration, duration and consistency of experience, as in the case or a person who constantly changes TV channels. Successive changing of focal points impairs the development of temporal depth of experience. At the end of the nineteenth century, T. Ribot (1931) noted this difference, and proposed to distinguish between dissipated distraction (which I call dispersion) and absorbed distraction.

The Creative Effort

There is a within the idea, but there is also a beyond the idea. The creative process is not consumed by the act of having an idea. The new idea is a necessary, but insufficient, condition for the creative process to occur. It is not easy to create something new. This creating involves the task of composing and experimenting with matter. Once the idea has emerged, a voluntary movement must follow, giving substance to the idea, making it into something that holds up and stands alone.

H. Bergson (1990) shows that effort, even if it is a feeling, is not to be confused with that which is purely emotional or sensitive. In this vein, he speaks of an intellectual effort, comprised of resistance, inner struggles, cross-interferences and cross-formulations, that accompanies cognitive function. Invention is not solely effort, but there is effort in invention. There is effort when we deviate from previous habits. According to Bergson, in invention, things do not happen by themselves. There is a sense of difficulty, uneasiness and obstacles. There is effort when there is a delay in finding a solution. The idea can be transformed during the creative process. It is marked with comings and goings, with back and forth movements, between the idea and its expression in a concrete work created.

In a stance of welcoming and active receptivity to ideas, we perceive an attention open to encounters. Through pragmatic phenomenology, Depraz Varela & Vermersch (2003) described how attention can, in certain conditions, go through a change in quality, through the process of phenomenological reduction. This change specifically corresponds to the transition from the attitude of seeking to the attitude of encounter, of letting go. Seeking to avoid the opposition between attention with effort and without effort, between tension and relaxation, the authors propose a paradoxical expression for this sort of attention, called “effortless effort”.

Creation and Self-Creation

The creative process is not subjective projection. The creation of a work is simultaneously a process of creation of the creator him or herself: self-creation. In keeping with ​​Francisco Varela’s idea, one can say that subject and object, creator and creature are linked by a co-generative process (Varela, Thompson and Rosch, 1993). Subjects and objects are the result of these practices. To take this further, the creative process breaks down previously formed patterns of subject and object.

In a study led in a ceramics workshop for blind people at the Institut Benjamin Constant in Rio, our goal was to understand how the attention of blind people functions during the ceramic creation process. We confirmed that during the creative process, attention was focused in two directions: either turned outwards, towards the clay; or turned inwards, towards oneself.

Clay is a strange and distinctive material. It is malleable and has a slow, unpredictable temporality. It is very flexible, but impossible to dominate. One has to get into sync with it. During an interview, one visually impaired subject said, “It seems as if clay has its own life. That’s how it is. I take your hand and, at the same time, you take mine; you squeezing mine, and me squeezing yours, to see who is stronger. Clay is like that. You press the dough on one side, but it wants to expand to the other side. You have to get along with it, otherwise you can’t work with it.” Clay is a flexible and dynamic material, of no definite shape. Potentially and dynamically, it has several forms. The hylomorphic Aristotelian model does not account for working with clay, which is not about imposing a form onto soft amorphous material. Doing ceramics is not bringing together an active subject and passive material.

A slow temporality is the second feature of clay. There are different steps to take, when creating ceramic objects: kneading the clay, shaping it, leaving the object to dry and putting it in the kiln. Its third feature is unpredictability. Ceramists realize that their craft is not completely under their control. The clay can crack, lean to one side, break, etc. The challenge is to learn how to incorporate this unpredictability into the creative process. One of the participants described how this feature was apparent, during a particular moment in her creative work. She had modelled a complex object – an interlacing dancing couple. Then she left the piece to dry and left the studio. When she came back the next day, she saw that the clay had fallen over. It looked as if the woman was sitting on the man’s thigh. She said she had found this unexpected effect very interesting. The sculpture had a certain erotic aspect. She concluded, “When I perceived it, I laughed. I laughed and I loved it. ” She also said that, through this situation, she learned to let the clay act on its own.

However, claywork not only calls for attention focused outward, but also for attention focused inward. It is from inside that experience digs in alters subjectivity. In a ceramics workshop, the production of objects is inseparable from the production of the subjectivity of its participants. During the creative practice of ceramics, we observed that attention was turned towards making the pieces, and also directed towards oneself. In keeping with the thought of Varela, Thompson and Rosch (2003), we can say that this attention comes into contact with the virtuality of self. The self is not limited to the identity of the ego, and is connected to the network of processes it emerges from. In the case of a workshop, clay work develops the participants’ attentional connection with their inventive powers.

The issue of attention variation is analyzed by Depraz Varela & Vermersch (2003). Inspiration is the approach of epoché or phenomenological reduction, put forth by Husserl. The authors point out that we generally have trouble achieving reduction, which requires suspension of the natural attitude, meaning putting judgments about the world in brackets. It is not easy to put judgements aside. In aim to develop a practical method of doing so, the authors suggest the creation of a basic cycle, accomplished by three gestures or actions: suspension, redirection, and letting go. Suspending one’s natural attitude of judgment is the first step, and can be triggered by a particular event that interrupts the usual cognitive flow, such as in the case of aesthetic surprise. The aesthetic experience surprises with beauty or strangeness, and always by its enigmatic nature, attracting attention and inhibiting the natural attitude, which is recognition. It establishes an exceptional state. Suspension can thus be perceived as an interruption of cognitive stream or as suspension of time. The other two actions of the basic cycle deal with the issue of attention more directly. The second action, based on the act of suspension, is redirection. Attention, which is ordinarily directed outwards, is turned inwards. Thus, attention to self is the second action in the basic cycle. In the case of aesthetic experience, the encounter with the artwork establishes a relationship with self, already marked by suspension of recognitive tendency. When attention retreats from outward to inward, it does not activate a process of reflection nor self-awareness. If we consider that the action is already occurring in suspension, the relationship with self leaves no space for personal memories, thoughts or concerns. On the contrary, this contemplation can be considered as a movement of coming out of oneself. It is a time of emotional reverberations, of responses to energies tapped during the aesthetic experience. The energies and emotions the work brings function as external, objective data. The third cognitive action consists of a shift in quality of attention: letting go. Attention that seeks is transmuted into attention that finds; welcoming activated emotional elements. Pre-egoic and pre-reflexive elements and agents connect and resonate with the objective elements and agents of the piece, creating blueprint for otherness. Alterity within subjectivity is mainly percieved through attention to oneself, made possible by engaging with the work. And that’s the heart of the issue of the connection between inventive cognition and production of subjectivity.

This second quality of attention – attention that finds – is described as open concentration, devoid of intentionality or focal center. To explain this little-studied form of attention – which is both concentrated and without a central focal point – Varela gives the example of stereoscopic vision, when we make an effort to see a 3D figure emerge from a background of indefinite forms. One has to look without seeing, for the figure to emerge.

One of the women spoke of this movement of attention, “When I made my first sculpture of a face, I was unable to see the face. I was there with the hunk of clay in my hand, making the nose, eyes, mouth and… face. I was extremely distressed at not being able to see my hand.” Note that the participant had been blind since the age of seven. So this was not a simple problem of recognition. It is interesting to remark that she was unable to perceive what she had just made. In the interview, she said that the workshop leader came up to her and said, “Relax. Let the face come. It’s going to come.” So she took a deep breath and tried to relax. Then she put her face into her hand, and finally she was able to perceive it. This case shows that the creative process is produced, to some extent, out of focus, and without total self-control. The relationship with the created object can thus “strangely” be made from worry.

One could also hear without listening, and still let something that is not targeted by intentional consciousness happen. Finally the intuitive and explicit emergence of form occurs. Note that the three actions described above do not occur in linear or sequential order. Every action goes beyond and simultaneously preserves the preceding action. Therefore, they must be seen as part of a cycle, interlacing and producing a circular motion.

We want to emphasize that there is a significant shift of attention when cognition is in suspension. Redirected inwards, attention has no access to representations, and does not work on the level of the self: I think, I know, etc. No longer filled up, attention goes through a void, a time interval, which is revealed to be expectation. This expectation is considered the main obstacle to the occurrence of reduction, as reduction requires that open attention be sustained, in order to welcome that which, coming from self or from the work, shows the extent of virtuality of self and the world. Furthermore, if we penetrate inner experience, attention puts us in touch with an intimate distance, something within us, that is neither knowledge, nor self-control (Kastrup, 2008 ). In this case, practices of suspension, as in the case of the clay experiment in the ceramics workshop, are practices of being present to oneself, during which attention has access to the inventive and processual basis of cognition. It is not a natural or spontaneous process. It must be cultivated. In this case, one has to learn attention.

Attention is like a muscle that is exercised. As per its status as fluctuation of cognition, it is flexible and malleable. It is always possible to apply it, either in a deliberate and goal-oriented way (such as when someone decides to learn to play an instrument), or by the power of an event that strikes in an unusual and unexpected way (like when someone loses sight). We can address both cases with the conceptual tools just presented. What sort of learning about attention is involved in these two cases? If we answer quickly, we think of the redirection of attention. In both cases above, one has to develop hearing. In the case of vision loss, one also particularly has to cultivate touch, because it best replaces vision, in the perception of forms. Haptic perception, meaning active exploratory touch, associated with auditory and verbal elements, builds understanding of objects, mental images, cognitive maps, and a whole Umwelt. Redirection is an act of practical attention necessary for daily life. But there is also, in both cases, the action of cultivating attention that goes beyond the practical, and refers to inventive cognition. This attention, as we have noted, is a quality of attention that is concentrated and open to encounter. It is not limited to vision. This is a possibility for all the senses.

As with aesthetic perception, artistic practices can rally this added attention. To have access to the degree of mobility that lies at the heart of things, is to, through inner experience, get in touch with duration and spheres of shifting energies within subjectivity, beyond the apparently closed forms of identity and self. In this sense, in art workshops, the creation of works is inseparable from the creation of the participants themselves. In the case of blind people, the disability experience, produced in a world whose paradigm is clearly eye-centric, confronts the experience of power and invention. In the case of people who have lost vision, the experience of a ceramics workshop starts a long and laborious job of reinventing of self and the world, whose boundaries must be surpassed day after day.

Notes de bas de page   [ + ]

1. Translator’s note: In the original French version of this text, the expression foyer lumineux is used. Foyer lumineux could be translated as either “bright focal point” or “bright and cheerful home”.


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, Attention and creation, published 09 June 2016


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