Starting around 70,000 years ago, Homo sapiens, humans, started doing very special things. From this period to about 30,000 years ago the invention of boats, bows and arrows and needles for sewing clothes began to emerge. Scholars agree that this was the result of a Cognitive Revolution, but still debate what actually caused it. What this highlights is the development of human creativity. The ivory figurine to the right is known as ‘lion-man’ (head of a lion and body of a man), which is around 32,000 years old, and is one of the first indisputable examples of art and the ability of the human mind to imagine things that do not exist.
Going Back in Time
Imagine for a moment stepping back in time 32,000 years. There were no airplanes, cars, or cell phones, as a matter of fact, your ‘home’ was probably a natural crevice on the side of a mountain, known as cave. We can definitively say that people back then weren’t preoccupying their time trying to create the next million dollar company or trying to live a more ‘meaningful’ life by discovering their life’s passion.
When we hear of stories about pre-agricultural people (think cavemen) the following ideas probably pop into your head: (1) primitive, (2) animal like and (3) minimal. Yet, despite having such a brute nature, we know that their lives were not ruled by instinctual drives or defense mechanisms like animals. Cavemen were able to think of things that didn’t exist by using their imagination (the lion-man).
As far as we know only humans can think and speak about things that don’t exist (i.e., dragons, unicorns, the boogyman). It seems rather odd to imagine a caveman sitting by his fire looking up into the sky and daydreaming about unicorns. In fact, it almost seems like it would be detrimental. For instance, occupying your time by searching the forest floor for fairies seems like you would have less of a chance of survival than people who go about their day hunting for actual food. Why then would such primitive people be endowed with a mind that can think ‘creatively’?
The Use of Creativity
The Oxford dictionary defines ‘creativity‘ as: the use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness. Creativity in the pre-agricultural period would almost certainly have been used to plan for hunting expeditions. This would have meant creating a game plan by visualizing the herd of wildabeasts out in an open field and funneling them into a designated area where other hunters where waiting to attack maximizing the chance for success.
This hunting foresight also coincided with imagining more efficient ways to take down large animals, i.e., putting a flint spear point at the tip of a stick. What this means is that cavemen did more than simply search for food. They where in search of knowledge as well! In order to sustain and preserve life meant that you had to have an accurate mental map of the terrain where you lived, the type of animals that lived nearby, and what plants were edible and the types that were poisonous. Weather patterns were probably also studied to help aid in predicting thunderstorms or dry spells.
Understanding cavemen in this way brings to light an important aspect of their life that often gets overlooked. By virtue of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, each person had to have a deep understanding of how to make hunting tools (stone spear head), sew clothes and treat illnesses. Mastery of such skills meant years of practice under the guidance of ‘expert’ hunters (what we now call apprenticeship). Anyone who’s watch the t.v. show Naked and Afraid knows that modern humans can only last a few days (at best) in nature before breaking down both mentally and physically. It’s no surprise that the average caveman had a far wider and deeper knowledge of the natural world than us moderns. Creativity then was a means of mastering your environment which was essential to your survival. If you didn’t perform, you did’t survive.
Today, in order to thrive in our modern societies does’t require intimate knowledge of the natural world. What does it take to be a successful computer programmer, research scientist or surgeon? In short, you need to only know about your tiny area of expertise and attend a few conferences each year to hear about the latest developments in your chosen area. Yuval Harari sums up our current situation perfectly:
The human collective knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skillful people in history.
Over the course of our life, in a modern affluent society, we will come to possess thousands of material possessions – from clothes, electronic devices, and cars. Items that we see as essential to sustaining life. The recent explosion of mobile apps that help track our emotions to where we should travel means that there isn’t a single human activity that can’t be mediated by objects of our own creation. We often fail to realize how much stuff we have until we have to move to a new house and realize how useless most, if not all of it is anyway. The caveman on the other hand, moved every week and more often than not, every day, which meant that whatever they owned was carried by hand. There were no college students who came by with a rented U-haul to pack everything up. What the caveman brought was, in essence, the most essential to sustaining life.
Cavemen were what we would call ‘experts’ of the natural world. They knew everything about plants, animals and objects, and, what often gets overlooked, is that they were also masters of their mind and bodies. They looked at the bend of tree branches in a forest to tell whether an animal had recently been there. They were able to hike over mountains with little effort and creep through forests undetected to stalk what they were hunting for. This constant use of their bodies made them the modern day Ironman with the nimbleness of a ninja warrior.
The hunter-gatherer lifestyle appears to have enabled people to live a far more rewarding lifestyle than what we currently live in the 21st century. In fact, we live in a time with more people suffering from depression and mental health issues despite living in the wealthiest and most prosperous time in human history. Perhaps it’s precisely this wealth and richness of life that creates this meaninglessness?
Object vs. Subject
Does this world of technology and material wealth cause us to become objects of the world, rather than subjects. A person who is an ‘object’ in life is pushed and driven by emotions, always acting by command or intimidation thus lacking in creativity. They are always looking for reasons for why things can’t work or why something is a bad idea. In a way they are lifeless. Does this not resemble animal nature? On the other end of the spectrum is the person who is a ‘subject’ in life. Such people are open-minded, tackle obstacles as they come and are always looking for ways to make things work and get things done. They are creative.
Rather than recognizing our place in the world, we have turned the world into something that exists for and because of us. This arrogance has turned the world into a ‘resource’, which means that everything that exists in the world is for us to consume. At its core, this is the same as the animal whose life depends on consuming resources in the world.
This way of existing, looking at the world in terms of things to consume, according to Martin Heidegger, is called Technology. Heidegger defines Technology as a specific way of seeing the world, an ‘attitude’ that reveals things in the world to us in a certain way. Everything that is in the world, the things around us, are seen as something there for us to consume. As a result, the entire world becomes ‘stuff’ that exists exclusively for us.
Since we push for technological advances in every facet of our life, it should come as no surprise then that more and more people suffer from depression and claim that life is meaningless. It must just be that we’ve been looking at life from the wrong perspective. By looking at life through the lens of technology the possibility of recognizing splendor of the world becomes distorted. I want to push this idea even further by claiming that it is precisely this technological view on life that also turns us into objects. We no longer have to master our environment because the latest trends (fashion, food, careers) dictate what we do.
Why we find it difficult to be creative now-a-days is because, unlike cavemen, we no longer have to confront a reality that pushes back at us. This push back once forced us to confront the problem head on or cease to exist. Although we still face challenges today, we more often take the path of least resistance by walking away from it or relying on someone else to fix it for us.
- The first and easiest step is learning to be positive. When you look at the behaviors of creative geniuses like Thomas Edison, Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein they were alway positive. They looked at ‘what is’ and ‘what can be’ instead of ‘what is not’. Rather than excluding possibilities, creators include all possibilities, both real and imagined. But most importantly, they choose to interpret their own world and do not rely upon the interpretations of others.
- Learn to master your own mind. Matthew Crawford in The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction writes about the current attention crisis and that we must learn to recognize how attention sculpts the self.