Wonder, beyond curiosity: Vlad Glăveanu interviewed by Gil Dekel

14 February 2024 – Vol 2, Issue 2.

Gil Dekel: What is ‘creativity’?…

Vlad Glăveanu: Creativity is an act involving a lot of processes of thinking, feeling, and making. For me, thinking is a form of doing – it is internalised, but still very much an active act of a dialogue with the body, objects, places, spaces, and culture. From a sociocultural perspective, we can look at the beginning and the end of the creative process and notice that, in the beginning, the artist gathers inspiration or talks to people, and at the end, the artist validates their work, and society embraces or rejects it. But in between the beginning and end, there is another way in which the social is involved – being in an emergent dialogue with other perspectives which, very often, are the perspectives of others. Creativity is thus a sociocultural process through and through.

Gil: How does thinking operate as part of creativity?

Vlad: You need knowledge for the creative process. However, this knowledge needs to be flexibly organised, not rigid, so you can continue work and be able to make new association based on what you already know. Here is where wonder plays a part. Wonder is a state of ‘not knowing’. It is a generative state where you do not fully know something. It is not, however, about giving up and saying: ‘I do not know; I do not understand’. It is not scepticism, rather it is a kind of ongoing, long-duration project in which we come back to things that we don’t fully grasp. We don’t fully understand them, and we may never fully get them, but we keep trying to explore them deeper and deeper. This is the act of wonder, based on inquiry, a wonder-driven engagement with the world. It is about questioning, doubting, and returning to deeper themes.

‘In the Hands of Imagination’, by Gil Dekel with use of image-generating AI (meditation transcript used as prompt), 2024.

‘In the Hands of Imagination’, by Gil Dekel with use of image-generating AI (meditation transcript used as prompt), 2024.


Gil: Are wonder and curiosity the same?

Vlad: No, wonder is not curiosity. Curiosity is about trying to find out something by doing a search. Once you find the information, you have satisfied your curiosity. Wonder, on the other hand, is never fully and completely satisfied. Experiences of wonder are special because of this. It is like dwelling in the unknown. It is an active process of deconstructing what we know, in order to try and find deeper meanings.

Normally, we can look at things from different perspectives. For example, I can hold a pen and I can consider it as a writing tool, or I can see it as a sharp tool to defend myself. When we wonder, we start deconstructing it. If we look at a pen with wonder, we will start thinking about what else it can be – something that we may have not seen before. This puts you in a state of mind where there is no fixed essence to reality anymore. You constantly trying to defamiliarize yourself from what you think you know… This is what Socrates did which led, ultimately, to his death, because he pushed people to the limit of what they knew. This may be the darker side of wonder where there is frustration and indecision. On the other hand, the power of wonder is the active search for what else could something be. It doesn’t get satisfied and done with, but it feeds new discoveries, new excitement.

Gil: But is wonder a voluntary force? Is it not something within you, non-voluntary, like breathing?

Vlad: Wonder is midway between curiosity and awe. Awe is a contemplative state of being overwhelmed by surprise, almost involuntarily. Curiosity is more of an active exploratory state and it is often intentional.

Gil: Does the experience of wonder vary between children and adults?

Vlad: When Vygotsky wrote about creativity and imagination, he surprised many of his readers by saying that the imagination of young children is actually poorer than the imagination of a teenager or an adult. Today, we may argue differently, and say that a child is actually the prototype of creativity. Picasso said that it took him years to learn to paint but a lifetime to learn to paint like a child…

I personally think it is problematic to compare children to adults. There is that concept that you become a ‘full person’ – a complete person and a full citizen – only when you reach adulthood. I believe we are not doing justice to children with that approach. We ought to permit children to unfold and interact on their own terms.

I would not like to define and say that one state of development is “better” than the other. I would say that they are different. During the pre-verbal stage, you do wonder differently. Your wonder is infused by emotion. Then as you learn language, this does allow you to take some distance, which transforms the experience of wonder. Maybe the awe quality of wonder is more prominent in young children than in adults. Children are not afraid to step outside of conventional thought. Young kids would challenge you and ask deep questions until they learn the cultural, conventional norms, and then they need to be supported in questioning further and wondering about these conventions themselves.

Gil: Did you find surprising findings in your research which would challenge common assumptions?

Vlad: I normally go against the grain of traditional research. Traditionally, we find several oppositions when it comes to creativity. Artists are seen as creative people, and they hold this socially promoted identity of being “creative”. Then you have a denied creative identities. For example, math teachers would tell you that they are not creative, and don’t do creativity… This is such a shame because mathematics is really a key domain of creative work.

I also studied craft extensively. In craft, we actually find what can be called problematic creative identities. Craftspeople work within an established body of tradition. When they create craft, they build on a tradition. So, they take pride in the things that they add to a work, but they also say that it does not come from them, that they did not invent something new. It is both enabling and constraining. Craft enables you to explore a whole universe and look at the continuity between what you do and the past, which can be very fulfilling and inspiring. Yet, it can also prevent you from making a bigger jump into claiming creative ownership.

Connected to craft, I also looked at the actions of artists at work using small cameras that are placed near the eye level (what we called ‘subjective cameras’). This was way before we had advanced cameras like GoPro. Back in the day, we had to craft those cameras in a lab. I gave these cameras to artists and also to craft people, and analysed how they moved and interacted as they created. That helped to shift the focus from products of creativity to the process of creativity. The product definition that is commonly used in psychology, is useful for experimenting and quantifying. Creative outcomes need to be novel, original, and useful. But how do you get there, that is an interesting area of research.

If I create a pen that is identical to a pen I already have, then this will not be a creative act. The pen will be a copy, completely unoriginal and not useful. Why would I waste time to do so, when I can just buy a new pen? But if I cannot buy a pen and if I do not have the manufacturing industry behind me and I then make an exact identical plan, then I must be a creative genius. How did I manage to do that? So, the process is important. If we do not look at the creative process, we lose a lot and can even reach wrong conclusions.

Gil: How does creativity operate in that process, considering there are seemingly different domains, one is the emotional, the other is the intellectual. How does creativity bridge the two?

Vlad: I would even throw more into that dichotomy and ask about the connection between mind and body, and between self and other. To escape these oppositions, we can look at pragmatism. Pragmatism is a philosophy that considers things holistically. You don’t want to separate pure effect and pure cognition. Cognition is active from early on in life. It is always impregnated with emotion.

I think there is a deeper question about understanding the subjective experience of emotion. Purely cognitive models of emotion do not give us a full answer. If we see emotion as information then this is simply a cognitive process like any other, but is it really? There is a drive behind creativity; it goes beyond just thinking about stuff. Wonder is an impulse, an orientation towards the world. It is experienced subjectively. There is an emotional drive that sustains exploration. Without this, there would be no continuous loop between awareness and exploration of possibilities. There is much more research that needs to be done to understand the affective dimension of creativity and wonder.

Gil: What did René Descartes say about wonder?

Vlad: In the 18th century, you had literature about what was referred to as the sublime. For many people today, the concept of the sublime is the grandparent of what we understand today as awe. Descartes, earlier on, did talk about wonder, but the term he used is admiration, l’admiration. For him, admiration was an intellectual passion. He thought that wonder and awe are very much the first contact with something unfamiliar. He reduced them a little bit to surprise, an emotional reaction. He believed that one needs reason to go beyond this first emotion. In itself, that passion is just an emotional awakening. And then what do you do with that? Descartes explained you need reason to navigate and organise one’s passions. On the other hand, what would reason be without the emotional experience that fuels it?

Gil: How can wonder and creativity benefit society?

Vlad: Wonder can help you acknowledge the other person. It helps you have intellectual humility as you realise that you may never fully understand or grasp the other. So, there is an element of appreciation for the other and for otherness, for things that are different, strange, bizarre. An appreciation of the unknown.

With creativity, there is a traditional view of the ‘genius’ which is rather elitist and essentialist. And there is a more democratic perspective, one that says that each person has at least creative potential. Yet another view of creativity foregrounds collaboration and says that everything we do, creatively, is in fact co-created. Even if the artist is an individual, he, she or they must work in a cultural context. Culture is what is shared with everyone, and creativity is unique but this is the reason why they need each other and benefit from each other. You can use collective cultural elements and transform them in unique ways. That means that the individual creator is not an individual per se until they are placed in a social context. Creativity always starts in society, and the creator’s uniqueness can only be truly realized when placed within the broader context of culture.



© Journal of Creativity and Inspiration.
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About the authors

Vlad Glăveanu, PhD, is a full professor of psychology in the School of Psychology, Dublin City University, and an adjunct professor at the Centre for the Science of Learning and Technology, University of Bergen. He is the founder and president of the Possibility Studies Network (PSN). His work focuses on creativity, imagination, culture, collaboration, wonder, possibility, and societal challenges.

Gil Dekel earned his PhD in Art, Design and Media from The University of Portsmouth. His speciality is in processes of creativity and inspiration in artmaking. Dr. Dekel is an Associate Lecturer at the Open University, Reiki Master/Teacher, and a visionary artist. He was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Platinum Jubilee Coin, in recognition of his dedication and commitment to pastoral work at Hampshire Constabulary. Dr. Dekel co-wrote ‘The Energy Book’, available on Amazon.