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Creativity, Chaos Theory And The Space Between The Notes- Nancy Hillis, MD and Bruce Sawhill, PhD

Creativity, Chaos Theory And The Space Between The Notes- Nancy Hillis, MD and Bruce Sawhill, PhD


Creativity, Chaos Theory & The Space Between The Notes

The following blog post is constructed from conversations between myself and my partner, Dr. Bruce Sawhill, Stanford educated theoretical physicist and mathematician.

Every day we fall asleep and wake up to a strange calm. A calm created by the absence of the familiar.

Even awake the world feels half asleep, a dreamlike flow of small and quiet motions- no appointments to go to, urgencies dulled, all interactions mediated by electronics.

It’s like being underwater, ambient sounds distorted and muffled by the ocean’s depths. Or perhaps waking after an overnight snowfall, sounds hushed by a deep blanket of white, all the edges of the world rounded and indistinct.


Creativity, Attractors & The Space Between The Notes= Nancy Hillis, MD & Bruce Sawhill, PhD

Winter Landscape


As a musician, Bruce lives much of his life through his ears, and the complex mix of sound has changed because of COVID-19.

He sniffs sound with twitching ears like a dog’s nose senses odors, and small changes reverberate through his psyche. His ears have been busy of late.

Lots of people listen for things, but it takes significant practice to listen for the absence of things.


In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of Silver Blaze, the following conversation takes place:

Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?

Holmes: To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.

Gregory: The dog did nothing in the night-time.

Holmes: That was the curious incident.

The real mystery is why the dog didn’t bark. The absence of things can be as powerful as the presence of them.



Mozart, Debussy and Miles Davis are all credited with the saying,


The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.


The pianist Alfred Brendel said,


‘Silent’ has the same letters as ‘listen’.


Creativity, Attractors & The Space Between The Notes= Nancy Hillis, MD & Bruce Sawhill, PhD

Listen and not play


COVID-19 makes one aware of the absence of things, obvious like parties, subtle like daily cursory interactions foregone.

Things you don’t miss or even think about until they’re absent, like chats in checkout lines at the grocery store, handshakes, and many other small and seemingly insignificant interactions.

But they add up.

With all of that, not only can you now hear yourself think, sometimes it’s deafening.


Creativity is about the spaces between the notes, where the Adjacent Possible resides. It is the pregnant pause, the indrawn breath, the vanishingly thin moment when the world could take a slightly different path, the knife-edge of otherness.


The sonic atmosphere around here is not silent, but it is quieter and different than it was before. We savor it like a delicate wine, not a meaty Zinfandel or Cabernet Sauvignon, but a light and shimmering Pinot Grigio.

We hear birdsong that we were unaware of before.

At night there is the baleful hoot of an owl, it might even be in our big tree in the front yard.

The enormous tulip tree that grew to such a size by having its feet in the water of an underground river flowing off of the 200 foot high ancient limestone marine terrace nearby, drinking deeply of ancient water that has spent thousands of years in darkness.

The terrace, camouflaged by greenery, reminds us that things were once quite different and will be again.

What is now 300 feet above sea level was once underwater. A very different world hides just under the surface, if one only cares to look.

Creativity, Attractors & The Space Between The Notes- Nancy Hillis , MD & Bruce Sawhill, PhD

Kelp forest


Coyotes are exploring the tangled wooded canyon that cuts through the terrace, a nighttime highway of furtive rustlings. Their nighttime choruses are both spooky and thrilling, a wildness that makes one grateful for walls and roofs,

Shifting Sands

Life in our part of the world had reached a fever pitch before the virus hit.

People rushing frantically about in the Bay Area like ants on amphetamines, lunging after what felt like the last chances of an economically comfortable life, addled by competition, all of that driving energy and just plain driving generating a kind of din of inequity.

We felt that the current trajectory was not sustainable.

As the economist Herbert Stein obviously but still quotably said,

If something can’t go on forever, it won’t.


The society felt like a toddler full of sugar and energy, growing louder and louder and more frantic until she runs into a piece of furniture full-tilt  and dissolves into a crying fit, resulting in a reset in the form of being carried to bed for a nap.

Recently, we explored history and hysteresis, the idea that if a system gets a big enough shove, it will not return to where it started from but instead will move to a new set point.

There is a great deal of current speculation about whether or not we will return to where we were before, and if it is desirable or not.

Complex systems science, as is often the case in these blog posts, has something to say about perturbed (nudged) systems.

Chaos Theory

The science of complex systems inherited a substantial intellectual bequest from chaos theory, the study of systems that display behavior that looks random even though they are governed by precise rules.

Like many scientific advances, chaos theory owes much to an original stroke of luck.

In 1961, a scientist named Edward Lorenz at MIT was studying very simplified models of the Earth’s atmosphere with a view towards understanding more about weather.

The equations Lorenz was using required a computer to solve, and the computer he was using was large and finicky, though it was advertised as being svelte and “smaller than a desk,” a real selling point at a time when computers might occupy entire multi-story buildings.

This humming pile of vacuum tubes and ironmongery had less computational power than a modern digital watch, so it took a while to work through Lorenz’s equations. It often had to be turned off to fix or adjust things.

Creativity, Attractors & The Space Between The Notes= Nancy Hillis, MD & Bruce Sawhill, PhD

Lorenz’ computer


One day, Lorenz had to stop the computer in the middle of a “run” for maintenance. The next day, he wanted to re-start his simulation.

He didn’t want to waste the days he’d already spent on it, but he, being a careful scientist, didn’t want to just start exactly where he left off, either. He wanted to confirm his previous work.

He looked at his data on reams of folded paper printouts and went back a day or so and figured he’d start the simulation there just to check that he set it up right and could reproduce a day’s worth of data.

The pertinent numbers he needed to enter in had many digits, and he figured that he didn’t need all of those digits because this experiment was about something as sloppy and squishy as weather, not something precise and inevitable like planetary orbits.

He was after general behavior, not precise predictions, because he knew his model was way too simple for useful predictive purposes.

And then a strange thing happened.

The results were the same for a little while, then a little bit different, then a lot different, then completely different!

Creativity, Attractors & The Space Between The Notes= Nancy Hillis, MD & Bruce Sawhill, PhD

Divergent Paths


Very different than something like a planetary orbit, where a little nudge produces a little difference that generally stays small or only slowly increases.

Chaos Theory, The Butterfly Effect & Sensitive Dependence On Initial Conditions

This phenomenon became known as the butterfly effect, the scientific folk tale that says a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil might produce a hurricane in Florida two months later.

Practitioners know it as sensitive dependence on initial conditions, one of the cornerstones of chaos theory.

Later researchers discovered additional features of complex systems that built on what Lorenz had found- they weren’t utterly random like TV snow (blog post), but rather they had structure.

After nudging a simulated system inside a computer, it might eventually settle down to a certain pattern.

Often these simulated complex systems had a multitude of patterns that they could settle in to, and the right kind of nudge could cause them to move from one pattern into a different pattern and stay there.

Subsequent studies showed that there was an underlying structure of initial conditions taking you to final conditions.

Imagine a drop of water placed on the landscape below- a small difference in where the drop is placed could result in a big difference as to where it ends up.

Creativity, Attractors & The Space Between The Notes= Nancy Hillis, MD & Bruce Sawhill, PhD

Mountain Landscape


Likewise, where you start has an effect on where you end up.

The poet Robert Frost captured this feeling with these words:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost


In painting, how you begin the work has implications for how the painting evolves. Each move you make opens up the next possibility, the adjacent possible.

Sometimes, a very small move on your painting makes a big difference.


Attractors & The Spaces Between

Patterns of initial conditions having an effect on final conditions, which are also known as attractors of the dynamics. In simple systems, there is usually just one attractor.

Complex systems can have many attractors.

An example of a simple attractor is the spiral wishing well seen in science museums where a little steel ball or a coin spirals down and down a conical structure and disappears through the hole in the bottom, which is the attractor of the dynamics.


Creativity, Attractors & The Space Between The Notes= Nancy Hillis, MD & Bruce Sawhill, PhD

Spiral wishing well


This hole is called an attractor of the dynamics because wherever you start the ball or coin, it still ends up there.

It’s as if it’s magnetic. Initial conditions don’t matter much at all. It has the kind of inevitability usually associated with death and taxes.

More complicated systems can have more than one attractor.

The idea of attractors of the dynamics found resonance across many fields, from economics to ecology and became one of the intellectual pillars of the Santa Fe Institute, Bruce’s alma mater.

People built mathematical models to describe systems in those fields, which turned out to draw from the same lexicon of behavior as Lorenz’s mathematical model.

Is COVID-19 the kind of nudge that will cause our civilization to land in a different attractor?

A growing chorus of voices says yes.

Whether or not that is true, this calm in the storm may be the nudge that causes you to land in a different attractor in terms of your creativity.

What will that attractor look like? What will its properties be? How will it affect your life and art?

Will you create differently? Try new mediums? Finally develop a robust studio practice?

What are your deepest desires for your art, creativity and life?

Are you finally saying yes to your dreams? Or are you refusing the siren call of your soul’s longings?


As Winston Churchill said and we often quote,

Most people, when they stumble over the truth, pick themselves and hurry off as if nothing had happened.

Winston Churchill


Since we’re all more or less housebound, that makes hurrying off less likely, both physically and metaphorically, and increases the chance that we might surprise ourself with what we find, listening to the sounds and voices that are usually drowned out.

And especially the silences.

Creativity, Attractors & The Space Between The Notes= Nancy Hillis, MD & Bruce Sawhill, PhD

Quiet forest


With gratitude from my studio to yours,




If you like this, you’ll love the books. Get your copy at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Bookshop Santa Cruz or Book Depository.


Book Review-Patricia Schwimmer-The Artists Journey





The Artist's Journey books-Nancy Hillis MD

The Artist’s Journey books-Nancy Hillis MD


P.S. We have a few days left for the COVID Scholarship which ends on Tuesday, May 20, 2020 at 11:59 PM PST.

The Artists Journey Creators Challenge and COVID Scholarship

The Artists Journey Creators Challenge and COVID Scholarship


Jump into our Creator’s Challenge and access the COVID Scholarship.

You might be thinking…I’m just too blocked, too down, too scared or frozen….or even just shy….

You may be feeling that you can’t create now….

But I say to you that you’re a creator…you’re an artist and artists create.

And there are many ways to create and be creative….

So, I invite you to join us in this Creators Challenge….

Here’s what you’ll do:

  1. Create something whether it’s a painting, a sculpture, a musical note or anything.
  2. Take a picture of your creation and post it on your FB page with #creatorschallenge @NancyHillisStudio
  3. Join the FB group (Studio Den) and then share your post there.If you’re not on FB, post your creation on Pinterest or Instagram with the tag #creatorschallenge then email us a link to your post at support@nancyhillis.com

And that’s it.

For Anyone who completes this challenge, I’m awarding COVID scholarships valued at $200 off for our foundational courses (The Artist’s Journey® and Studio Journey) and 20% off any other courses which will end on May 20. Find out more by joining the challenge.



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