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Creativity, Exaptation, & The Light In Plato's Cave-Nancy Hillis

Creativity, Exaptation, & The Light In Plato’s Cave- Nancy Hillis


In previous blog posts, we delved into the processes underlying creativity, pulling in stories from diverse sources including fairy tales and astrophysics, evolutionary biology, mathematics and physics and the cycle of the seasons.

In our daily conversations at home, we realized we had an illustrative story that combined two of these concepts from our very own lives and simultaneously addressed the subject of art.

A Surprise Happening At The Art Show

In January of 2015, I had a solo art exhibition at the Marjorie Evans Gallery, which is part of the Sunset Center in Carmel, California.

After days of preparation, twenty-five paintings were hung, hors d’oeuvres were prepared, and a friend served margaritas from his own spectacular recipe.

Gradually guests filtered in as the golden light of late afternoon painted the über-cute town of Carmel, with its picturesquely gnarled trees framing fairy-tale cottages. A town that the aura of artistic creativity had built and that in turn had rendered so desirable as to make it unaffordable to artists.

Unforeseen consequences of collectively exploring the adjacent possible without consciousness.

The murmur of conversation filled the room and became increasingly animated as the margaritas flowed. The blender was working overtime. Clusters of people gathered to view paintings.

Just when the evening was in full swing, a full-on proper art opening, the lights went out. In a split second darkness descended.

Everyone gasped.

What do you do when the lights go out at your art show?

I was first shocked and then exhilarated.

The exhilaration is that you couldn’t create this kind of excitement if you tried.

What would we do?

I remember laughing and pretty soon, my guests were laughing too.

We soon realized the entire town had gone dark.

There was no storm or wind, nothing to cause the power outage. It seemed odd.

We later learned that a tree had fallen in the Carmel forest and had taken out a power line in the process. Perhaps the ground was saturated from rain, perhaps the tree just decided it was time to let go of its moorings to the earth.

In any case, it answered the age-old question, “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody’s there to hear it, did it make a sound?”

We didn’t hear it, but it had an effect.

It might not have made a sound, but it killed the lights and probably resulted in lots of swearing.


And then something astonishing happened.

Fifty or more people in the gallery spontaneously pulled out their cell phones and used the light from their screens in an improvisational manner to illuminate each other and the paintings.

It was exciting and energizing to be part of this improvisational dance of peering at paintings as if we were discovering marks on the walls of a darkened prehistoric cave.

This surprising course of events was an exaptation in that people were employing the devices created for one purpose (communication and information access) for another purpose (lighting paintings in a gallery).

Because the light from the cell phones was relatively weak, it brought people closer together around the paintings and catalyzed excited conversation.

It was paradoxically a magical moment rather than a ruined event.

Art patrons were nudged into the adjacent possible by a tree falling in a forest, and they took full advantage of it.

People approached the artwork and used their phone screens to examine brushstrokes and parts of paintings in sequence, skimming over the surface like a Ouija board, experiencing those paintings in a new and deconstructed way.

Plato’s Cave

Seeing this display of inventiveness brought up another story, the allegory of Plato’s cave from the Republic.

In Plato’s cave, people have lived chained to a wall of a cave their entire lives, facing a blank wall. They are held in such a way that they cannot see each other.

A flickering fire behind them projects shadows of unseen objects onto the wall before them, and the prisoners give names to the shadows and form a philosophy built around them and attribute characteristics to them. This becomes their reality.

For a long while, the people do not desire to leave their prison because it’s the only life they know. They are a prisoner of their senses.

But one day the prisoners break free and discover that their reality is insubstantial and second-hand, and that a much vaster realm lies outside in the sunlight.

This is an allegory of the limits of human cognition imposed by the constraints of human senses and the hard-fought ability to break free that comes from contemplation and imagination.

From Shadows To Nuances

This experience in the darkened gallery, seeing patrons poring over paintings, brought back to me my own artistic journey, one that started in my medical residency in radiology. 

Radiology involves a great deal of time spent in darkened basements, inspecting X-ray images of patients while machines click and hum in the background.

Shadows on walls, flickering lights illuminating paintings, thoughts of Plato’s cave. I was transported back to my residency, trying to divine meaning from those X-ray shadows, dead pictures of living people.

Then as now, I was limited by my senses and needed the guidance of reason and imagination to explore the adjacent possible, the realm of implications generated by what I was seeing.

Full Circle

My life had come full circle in three decades, from X-ray images on light boxes on hospital walls to abstract paintings on a gallery wall, illuminated by the imperfect light we bring to each situation.

But Plato asserted that we could be far more than just assemblages of senses and their outputs.

We have imagination, intuition, and reason. Using these, we can extend our knowledge and experience beyond the purely sensate. Abstract painting might not even be in existence unless this were possible.

The astronomers of the last blog post have not seen or touched planets circling other stars, but they have been able to infer them by cascades of reason.

Like the tree falling in the Carmel forest, nobody heard or saw those planets move, but some curious and imaginative souls inferred that something was happening, trillions of miles away.

I assert that the exploration of the adjacent possible is often enabled by exaptation – a new event in a new context reconciled with one’s previous state of knowledge generates a new worldview.

This is how one is freed from the cave.

With gratitude from my studio to yours,



P.S. Want to activate creativity in your life? Access the adjacent possible? Get your copy of my new book The Artist’s Journey Creativity Reflection Journey and get started!

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