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Creativity & The Journey Of Un-Forgetting- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Creativity & The Journey Of Un-Forgetting- This post is informed by conversations with Bruce Sawhill PhD, Stanford educated theoretical physicist and mathematician.

Creativity & The Journey Of Un-Forgetting


There seems to be a tacit assumption that learning goes one way.

You accumulate more and more knowledge until you pass away, and you transmit some of it to others in the process.

Everything you learn is safely stored away in the recesses of your brain, like amphorae of wine still drinkable even when recovered from a sunken Greek ship two thousand years after it sank.

But there is evidence that people unlearn what they once mastered.

Many people forget things they learned in high school, like the capitols of all fifty US states or the quadratic formula in Algebra.

But, more surprisingly, whole cultures can forget basic things.

How can this happen?


The River Of Forgetfulness


In Greek mythology, the River Lethe was one of five rivers in Hades. It is known as the River of Forgetfulness and Oblivion. Lethe was believed by ancient Greeks to erase the memories of previous lives from the souls of the dead.

In Plato’s Republic, before returning to earthly life, souls were required to drink from the River of Forgetfulness.

It was also referenced in Virgil’s Aeneid where it described “quenching man’s troubles” by drinking the waters of oblivion.

According to Ovid, the Lethe river flowed through the cave of Hypnos, the god of sleep. The dead were asked to drink from its waters, as it would cause them to forget their earthly lives.


River Lethe- Dante immersed into the river of forgetfulness

River Lethe


French illustrator Gustave Doré (1832–83) depicted Dante, the author of The Divine Comedy being immersed by Matilda, in the River Lethe in the Underworld.

Dante wrote of the River Lethe:


…whose waters bring oblivion of things evil.

Dante Alighieri



In the days of the Roman Republic, citizens were comfortable with water in its natural state and most were able to swim or at least not drown.

They bathed in the Tiber River, volcanic crater lakes or the Mediterranean Sea near Rome. Swim instruction was de rigeur in the education of young males, along with the alphabet.

Swimming was more than a pleasant pastime that cooled you off and cleansed you.

In Plutarch’s Life it was recorded that Julius Caesar had escaped an Egyptian ambush on Pharos by swimming.

Swimming was not new.

There is strong evidence that earlier civilizations in the Fertile Crescent were comfortable with swimming. Paleo-anthropologists claim that swimming goes back well over a million years and possibly up to 7 million years with our human forbears.

Even though we are born with the potential to eventually crawl, stand, walk, run and climb- we are not born with the inherent ability to swim.

Nevertheless, swimming emerged in human cultural evolution likely because it conferred an evolutionary advantage.

Like art, swimming is a persistent but seemingly “un-fundamental” accompaniment to the evolution of civilization. Neither of these pursuits are obviously and necessarily essential to survival; however, they keep showing up and are deeply meaningful and enriching to those who practice them.


Swimming in the ocean



In the Roman Empire, swimming took an interesting turn. Perhaps the thought was that if a certain amount of something is good, more is better.

But what happened is more eventually became different.

Industrious Roman engineers built amazing aqueducts to bring water from the wet central spine of Italy to the relatively dry city of Rome.

Vast amounts of pure water flowed from the green mountains into the marble city, into fountains and pools.

This kept Romans and their city clean by flushing away sewage, providing clean drinking water and enabling bathing. This enabled the enormous city to avoid becoming a cesspool of disease.

These same industrious engineers decided the best part of swimming was the getting wet part rather than the wildness part.

They decided to package the experience within the city to avoid the inconvenience and potential danger of swimming in wild water.

They built bathhouses with the abundant waters of Rome, first dozens and then hundreds.

“Bathing” became different from swimming, and swimming became a minority activity in the later days of the Roman Empire.


Roman Bath


After the abolition of pagan cults in the fourth century, the pantheons of aquatic deities were first demonized and then quickly forgotten, breaking the positive link with water and swimming. 

When the Roman Empire fell to Germanic tribes, a strange thing happened.


Lost Knowledge


Initially, the Romans were impressed with the Germans’ swimming ability. But the Romans got an unintentional revenge.

As the Germans became Latinized and urbanized, wild water slowly became the province of evil spirits and sea monsters, a rumored source of illness and disease. 

Without the plumbing acumen of the Romans, there was probably some truth to the threat of stagnant urban water and swimming was wisely discouraged.

At least in Europe, people forgot how to swim for over a thousand years. Only in the 19th century did it resurface as a widespread practice, complete with pools and competitions.


Modern Swimmer in Roman Ruins, Hierapolis


Benjamin Franklin, as was often the case, was far ahead of his time and was a fluent swimmer in the 18th century.

How is it possible to lose something so basic and so important?

What else have we lost that we have not yet rediscovered?


The Unknown & Unremembered


We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always —
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)

T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding, the last of the four quartets


Are there secrets lost in the burning of the library of Alexandria that we will not find for many hundreds of years more?

I assert this forgetting and losing happens all the time, at the societal scale as well as on a personal scale.

When we are children, we create with abandon. We are not particularly concerned about criticism, about style, about whether or not a painting is “finished.”

But later, life becomes complicated and we lose the thread that connected us to childhood.

Picasso famously said,


It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.

Pablo PIcasso


You never think consciously about “painting like a child” when you are a child.


Remembering what you didn’t know you lost can be one of the hardest things you ever do in your life.


Albert Camus said,


A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.

Albert Camus


Writ On Water/ Water & Memory


Someone once said that our planet should be called “Water,” not “Earth”, since 71% of its surface area is covered with water.


The Water Planet


One could argue that we are mostly water too. Indeed, we are “water carriers” like the sign of Aquarius.


Water is the solvent of our memories- it both carries them and carries them away.


We are like a river. We come into being and are held in the watery world of our mother’s womb.

We dance there for an eternal moment, suspended in time.


Ancient swimmer relief sculpture

Ancient swimmer relief sculpture


This aqueous subconscious state is beyond the cognizance of time and space.

Water reminds us we are eternal.

Perhaps water is a medium that carries our memories across time and generations and brings us into the present moment.


The Paradox Of Water


Being in water gives us both an experience of dreaminess and immediacy that blocks out everything else.

It is about being present.


Water gives us access to our primordial origins- to a state of possibility, infinite in all directions.


Perhaps creativity is similar to swimming in that it addresses the unconscious, a part of our psychological world that is like the underwater part of an iceberg, the vast majority of our inner world.


Creativity is like the un-forgetting of swimming, a liberation into a whole new reality, an ocean of possibility.



With gratitude from my studio to yours,



P.S. I’m thrilled to invite you to my FREE Transformational online workshop “3 Massive Mistakes Even Professional Artists Make That Cause Them To Not Like Their Art”.

3 Massive Mistakes Webinar

The workshop will be live online on November 27th where you’ll learn the three vital studio practices that are at the core of creating as an artist to overcome inhibitions, activate your creativity, fall in love with painting again and create paintings that wow you.

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