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Art-Creativity-& The Suspension Of Disbelief- Nancy Hillis MD and Bruce Sawhill PhD

Art, Creativity & The Suspension Of Disbelief- Nancy Hillis MD and Bruce Sawhill PhD. The following blog post is constructed from conversations between myself and Dr. Bruce Sawhill, Stanford educated theoretical physicist and mathematician.

Art, Creativity & The Suspension of Disbelief


Have you ever watched a hokey science fiction film produced in the years before computer-generated imagery (CGI) and vast budgets?

Forbidden Planet poster

Forbidden Planet poster


More often than not, an eye-rolling moment occurs when you see the wires the rocket ships are hanging from and the flames curling upwards on the screen giving off smoke, something that shouldn’t happen in zero gravity.

Perhaps the shadow of a spaceship gets cast by the studio lights onto the cardboard cutout of a planet, ruining all sense of scale and distance. Indeed, causing one to scrutinize the model and the planet for further evidence of inauthenticity now that the balloon of believability has been unceremoniously punctured.

What tends to happen after this visual faux pas is that the film loses all credibility, even if some of the main points have nothing to do with the details of the not-so-special effects.

Perhaps there was an interesting plot, a poignant human drama, or some other feature. Those innocent aspects of the movie tend to get thrown out with the guilty parts in one’s mind.

It’s as if one crack in the illusion spreads to disrupt the entire artistic piece or story.

Art & The Suspension Of Disbelief

For art to be compelling to us, there has to be a suspension of disbelief, a part of us that at least temporarily pardons the artifice present in art.

In the example of science fiction movies above, a revolution occurred in the 1960s.

Star Trek


The television series Star Trek came along and made serious efforts using the primitive technology of the time to create special effects.

For the most part, they hinted at, rather than explicitly showed special effects, borrowing a technique from the theatrical and operatic stages.

Discretion was definitely the better part of valor in this case.

An interesting aspect of the suspension of disbelief is the “softness” of it.

A work of art does not have to create an entire virtual world unto itself, it only has to create enough for the audience to create the rest in their own minds. In fact, creating too much of an artificial world leaves too little for the observer.

In the Star Trek series, spaceships made sounds as they flew by, something that should not happen in the vacuum of space which does not transmit sound.

For some reason, most viewers were able to overlook this failing, perhaps because they knew that jets made noise and rockets were akin to jets.

This tradition of loud spaceships was continued in all of the Star Wars movies, almost as a signature to show that one could believe the premise of the story even if all of the details weren’t correct.

It’s as if there is a threshold of believability, and some aspects have much higher weight than others.

Furthermore, for art to be absorbing and compelling, it can’t be too obviously false or too obviously true.

Art has to involve sense-making, the participation of our minds in the process of experiencing it.

A low-budget science fiction movie is rapidly dismissed because it is too obviously bogus.

An engineering diagram rarely qualifies as art because it is too explicit- the viewer rapidly assesses it as a representation of fact and may then lose interest in it because there is no mystery.


Engineering diagram

Engineering diagram


Indeed, mystery is a large part of what makes art compelling.

Life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved.

Soren Kierkegaard

Three blog posts ago, we explored the idea of truth tables and boolean logic, then went on vacation to stare blissfully at the ever-changing lake, the one Mark Twain called:

The fairest picture the whole Earth affords.

Mark Twain


Lake Tahoe- Art, Creativity & The Suspension Of Disbelief- Nancy Hillis, MD and Bruce Sawhill, PhD

Lake Tahoe- Art, Creativity & The Suspension Of Disbelief- Nancy Hillis, MD and Bruce Sawhill, PhD


Creativity, Constraint & Boolean Logic


The connection of boolean logic with creativity is that creativity requires constraint, and constraint has a definite interpretation in the world of truth tables.

Things that can be true or false are called ‘boolean literals’ and things that connect them are called ‘logical operators.’ (It’s a hallmark of extreme permanent fame if your name, George Boole, becomes a non-capitalized adjective like boolean)

In the boolean blog post, we used a simple example of breakfast requiring ham and eggs to be successful, or B = H AND E.  B (for breakfast) is not ‘True’ unless both H (ham) and E (eggs) are ‘True.’

The ‘AND’ operator has connected H and E as far as B is concerned and therefore collectively constrained them as seen from the point of view of breakfast.

This is an awfully simple equation, and there won’t be any more complicated ones than this and there won’t be a test, so don’t worry.


Graphical Example Of Boolean Logic

Graphical Example Of Boolean Logic


The Myriad Worlds Of Constraint


The world of constraint manifests itself in interesting ways.

An example: In much of recent rap music, electronic sounds are often used. Technology has made it possible to either sample or create pretty much any audible sound.

Yet there are certain sounds, like a kind of drum ‘stutter’, that show up in the majority of songs.

Why this convergence onto one sound when so many are possible?

Perhaps a work of art has to have one foot in the familiar and the known and one foot in the unknown and surprising, the adjacent possible, to be relatable.


Certain sounds, effects, brushstrokes and expressions serve as anchors for points of departure.

But we introduced truth tables for a reason, though it will take some explaining and several blog posts to arrive at the destination.

Truth tables have remarkable properties connected with transformative phase transitions and the suspension of disbelief.


There is a sweet spot where constraint balances possibility in such a way that it invites an extended amount of pondering to make sense of it.

In the world of physics and theoretical computer science, this place has a name: It is called a “satisfiability phase transition.”


Satisfiability Phase Transition


Though we have talked about phase transitions in the past, this is a new kind of one.

Most phase transitions that we have discussed separate undesirable configurations from desirable configurations (such as disconnected to connected, fragile to robust, frozen to fluid) Therefore we want to pass through them and emerge on the “good side”.

In a satisfiability phase transition, the transition separates the world of the obviously true (the engineering diagram) from the obviously false (the hokey science fiction movie).

As creative artists, we don’t want the polarities of either obviously true or false. We want to be poised in the space in-between, in the world of unrealized possibility.


There are deep logical and theoretical reasons to believe that such a place exists and is general in nature, extending far beyond the practice of humans making art into the very structure of living nature itself. 

Stay tuned!

With gratitude from my studio to yours,



P.S. Leave us a comment below and share with friends. If you love this, you’ll love my best-selling book: The Artist’s Journey: Bold Strokes To Spark Creativity.


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