This basic idea originated in my book Psychiatry and the Human Condition - see excerpt below - but I think I can now formulate it more clearly and precisely.
In a nutshell:
1. Creative thinking is made possible by structured emotions. But creativity applies to objective fields of interest (e.g. a branch of science, technology, music, literature)
2. Emotions become structured to an objective field of interest during the creative Quest stage. That is, emotions are brought-into-line with the structure of the subject matter.
3. Then, in the moment of Illumination, the 'creative 'breakthrough', the structure of the subject matter is brought into line with the structured emotions - to make a more positive and rewarding structure of emotions.
4. If the emotions have been properly structured to the field of interest during the Quest - then the subjective illumination will (plausibly) correspond to a breakthrough in understanding of objective reality.
(Of course, this illumination will need to be tested by further observations - and by consistency with other knowledge.)
Note - Successful creativity requires both a natural ability to structure emotions, and an ability (and motivation) to re-structure emotions, in line with the creative Quest. Either alone will not suffice. Structured emotions in unchangeable, autonomous detachment = a psychosis. But a person unable to structure emotions can be objective, but will not be able to be creative - since they cannot re-conceptualize the subject matter. Therefore the personality trait of Psychotic-ism is creative - since it describes the ability to structure emotions; but actual psychosis is not creative.
From Bruce Charlton, Psychiatry and the Human Condition, 2000.
Consciousness as a storyteller
Human consciousness operates as a storytelling device. The somatic marker mechanism associates perceptions with emotions in working memory, so that thought is accompanied by a flow of emotions. These emotions in turn generate a flow of expectations or predictions, which the story may either confirm, or else contradict in interesting ways that - after they have happened - can retrospectively be seen to flow from what went before by less obvious paths hence are not contradictory after all. What makes a story is essentially this flow of linked emotions, a bodily enactment of physical states that have been associated with those propositions that we use in internal modelling.
Consciousness seems always to ascribe causality - it is not content with recording detached representations, but works by synthesizing events into a linked linear stream which is then projected into the future as a predictive model to guide behaviour. As bodily emotions fluctuate, feedback to the brain will monitor and interpret this flux in terms of the meaning of perceptions - the emotions interpret the perceptions. Since the somatic marker mechanism is a device for using emotions to infer intentions and other states of mind, then sequences of emotions will automatically create inferred narratives of quasi-social relationships - in other words stories.
Consciousness is so compulsive a storyteller as to be a master confabulator - consciousness will always invent a story in terms of cause and effect relations, even when it has no idea what is going on, and available data are inadequate or contradictory. Young children will interpret abstract computer images that ‘pursue’ and ‘flee’ and ‘hit’ one another in terms of exactly these social behaviours - they will give the abstract shapes personalities and intentions even though they are merely shapes moving on a screen. Seeing faces in the fire, or animals in the clouds, is another instance of the same kind of nearly automatic meaning-generation.
Theoretical science works largely by analogy, by modelling. Perhaps nobody can reason in utter abstraction. Scientists build simplified working models of reality, and map these models onto reality to make predictions - seeking a one to one correspondence between the model and the world. Some scientific models are mathematical - where real world entities are mapped onto mathematical symbols and real world causes are summarized in mathematical operations - such as Einstein’s theory of special relativity: e = mc2 where e stands for energy, m stands for mass and c is a very large number. Mathematics predictions can then be tested against observation to see whether the model corresponds to reality.
Other models are much simpler - the ‘ball-and-spring’ models to show atoms and chemical bonds and valencies, and a host of idiosyncratic mental models which are used to make breakthroughs and then discarded, often unacknowledged. The molecular shapes used by Crick and Watson to construct their model of the double helix of DNA are a well known example, the models represented the shape of molecules and some of their ways of bonding to each other - and physically manipulating the shapes was a vital element in solving the structure of DNA. Indeed the ‘eureka moment’ was probably when Watson put together cardboard shapes of the bases and saw that they formed specific complementary pairings. The great physicist Clark Maxwell’s notebook musings about how electro-magnetism works strike modern observers as extraordinarily ‘childish’ - with their peculiar shapes and swirls of how magnetism and electricity might operate - yet they nonetheless led this first-rate genius to the insights that enabled several major breakthroughs in theoretical physics.
The social nature of scientific models
Stories are perhaps the commonest mode of analogical thought. The link between story-telling and scientific theorizing is instructive. A scientific hypothesis is like a story in the sense that entities and causal processes are analogous to characters and their motivations. I would guess that - at a deep level - the science and the storytelling processes of the conscious mind are identical; what differs are the ingredients. It has even been suggested that theoretical physicists and chemists endow their musings with human like qualities, just as chess masters constantly deploy ‘battle’ metaphors to describe their strategies in what would otherwise appear to be the most objective and mathematical of games.
Certainly, I find that I develop emotions about all aspects of science. For example I must admit to an idiotic preference for adrenergic over cholinergic neurotransmitters, since the adrenergic system was associated with physical action (eg. the ‘adrenalin rush’, while cholinergic activity had connotations of lying around feeling bloated after a meal (acetylcholinergic fibres innervate the gut). Silly, of course, but I couldn’t help anthropomorphizing about entities which were important to me.
I would go so far as to suggest that creative science is constrained anthropomorphism. Learning to do a science involves learning how to tell a particular kind of story: who are the important characters and what are their typical causal motivations - that is the anthropomorphism. Each scientific discipline has a distinctive set of personalities and behaviours - in physics there might be fundamental particles acted on by gravitational, electromagnetic and nuclear forces; in biology there might be cells and organisms acted on by macromolecules such as DNA and proteins under the influence of natural selection.
The constraint comes in because the range of possible stories one is permitted to tell about particular entities is strictly limited by previous relevant science. So that whether the entities in the story are attracted or repelled, counterbalanced or exaggerated, add or multiply their effects… these aspects are controlled strictly by scientific criteria.
But having established a proper set of ‘dispositions, motivations and intentions’ for the entities, we predict what they will do by exactly the kind of ‘story generating’ social intelligence that we have been exploring in the earlier parts of this book. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that most people can only be creative in this quasi-narrative fashion, and scientific creativity involves storytelling of a highly specialized kind - the exception is mathematics, where the outcome of interacting entities is determined not by quasi-social factors but by mathematical functions.
The role of narrative is both to generate theories and to make them useable - because science is a human product it needs to be shaped to the human mind. If a scientific theory cannot be put into a quasi-social shape, then we find it very difficult to think about. Our mind, after all, is bubbling with social meaning even when the world is chaotic: we see pictures random dots, monsters in the shadows. We confabulate causal pathways to explain our emotions and behaviours. Inanimate objects - such as stones, rivers and trees - are imbued with personality and powers of malevolence or benignity. For humans, the world is full of relevance and purpose. Reality comes to us already imprinted with labels of preference. Theories that cannot be subsumed to this world do not have much chance of being remembered or used, they will be forced aside by more ‘interesting’ ideas.
So it is a fusion of constrained reality, trained aesthetic appreciation and emotional preference that makes possible the scientific peak experience. The peak experience is that moment when analogy strikes us - we see underlying unity, similarity in difference, meaning emerging from chaos - a bunch of disconnected facts coalescing into a story.*