Life events and difficulties research: An analogy that illuminates an idea of creativity distributed across intersecting strands of a person-in-context

Reframing how we think about helping people to think that everyone can think creatively:

An analogy that illuminates a conceptualization of creativity as distributed across intersecting strands of a person-in-context


There are many sets of tools that are offered to help people be creative in the sense of coming up with novel and useable ideas, whether those tools and ideas are meant for a specific domain only or more generally (see, e.g., Plsek 1997 for an entry point).  This contribution seeks to shift the emphasis in two ways: 1) from the tools to how tools get applied or self-applied into a more integrated picture of people in their contexts; and 2) from distinct products—the novel and useable ideas—to an orientation to work and life that it is impossible to simply continue along previous lines.

These shifts of emphasis require us—as practitioners and/or researchers—to address complexity.  Suppose we picture people as intersecting strands: a person’s body, unconscious and thinking, the context they are working/living/growing in, the specific kinds of products (which may include ideas as well as tangible objects) they are focused on, and the tools and processes they are employing or involved in.  How would we engage in those intersecting strands so as to enhance what could conventionally be described as creative?  How would researchers study that complexity in ways that inform our engagements?

The case to be presented below is intended, by analogy, to indicate a) that such research would be possible, and b) even if there were some identifiable creativity trait at the core of a person, it would not necessarily be the primary place or basis for engagement.  For clinical depression in the description that follows, the analogy would be to some product that others would describe as creative.  (The text is drawn from Taylor 1995, 2009.)

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A line of research from England, initiated by the sociologists Brown and Harris in the late 1960s, has investigated how severe events and difficulties during people’s life course influence the onset of mental and physical illnesses (Harris 2000).  Brown and Harris use wide-ranging interviews, ratings of transcripts for the significance of past events in their context (with the rating done blind, that is, without knowledge of whether the person became ill), and statistical analyses.  Because what might be recorded as the same event, e.g, death of a spouse, might have very different meanings and significance for different subjects according to the context, Brown and Harris’s methods accommodate events with diverse meanings.  At the same time, apparently heterogeneous events can be subsumed under one factor, such as, in explanation of depression, a severe, adverse event in the year prior to onset.  In sum, the Life Events and Difficulties methodology integrates ‘the quantitative analyses of epidemiology and the [in] depth understanding of the case history approach’ (Brown and Harris 1989a, x).

The most sustained research in this tradition involves explaining depression in working-class women.  For a district of London in the early 1970s, Brown and Harris identified four factors as disproportionately the case for women with severe depression: a severe, adverse event in the year prior to the onset of depression; the lack of a supportive partner; persistently difficult living conditions; and the loss of, or prolonged separation from, the mother when the woman was a child under the age of eleven (Brown and Harris 1978; 1989b).  (Subsequent work has added to this picture, but that will not be taken up here; see Harris 2000.)  A reconstruction of Brown and Harris’s work as it stood in the 1980s by the developmental psychologist (Bowlby 1988) suggests how the different aspects of class, family, and psychology can build on each other in the life course of the individual (Figure 1; see also Taylor 1995).


Figure 1.  Life development pathways to severe depression identified in Brown and Harris’s study of working class women and reconstructed by Bowlby (1988).  The dashed lines indicate that each strand tends to build on what has happened earlier in the different strands.  See text for discussion and sources.

Let me give some simplified and over-generalized examples of such cross-connections: In a society in which women are expected to be the primary caregivers for children, the loss of a mother increases the chances of, or is linked to, the child lacking consistent, reliable support for at least some period.  (Bowlby added his own speculation about early childhood attachment problems.)  An adolescent girl in such a disrupted family or sent from such a family to a custodial institution is likely to see a marriage or partnership with a man as a positive alternative, yet such early marriages tend to break up more easily.  Working-class origins tend to lead to working-class adulthood, in which living conditions are more difficult, especially if a woman has children to look after and provide for on her own.  And, in these circumstances, accidents and other severe events are more likely.  The consequence of a severe event is often, unless there is a supportive partner, the onset of depression (see also Brown and Moran 1997).   Notice, however, that each connection in Figure 1 should be interpreted as one contributing causal link in the construction of the behavior.  The lines are dashed to moderate any determinism implied in presenting a smoothed out or averaged schema; the links, while common, do not apply to all women at all times, and are contingent on background conditions not shown in the diagram.

In sum, longituidinal environmental or social exposures are brought into the picture, and the picture helps us think about multiple pathways to the focal endpoint of clinical depression.

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The three strands of figure 1 (psychology, family, class) integrate the observations made by Brown and Harris to explain the onset of serious depression.  The factors are not separate contributing causes, like spokes on a wheel, but take their place in the multistranded life course of the individual.  In many ways family, class, and psychological strands of the woman’s life build on each other.  Let us note also that, as an unavoidable side effect, the pathways to an individual’s depression intersect with and influence other phenomena, such as the state’s changing role in providing welfare and custodial institutions, and these other phenomena continue even after the end point, namely, depression, has been arrived at.

Suppose now, quite hypothetically, that certain genes, expressed in the body’s chemistry, increase a child’s susceptibility to anxiousness in attachment compared to other children, even those within the same family.  Suppose also that this inborn biochemistry, or the subsequent biochemical changes corresponding to the anxiety, rendered the child more susceptible to the biochemical shifts that are associated with depression.  It is conceivable that early genetic or biochemical diagnosis followed by lifelong treatment with prophylactic antidepressants could reduce the chances of onset of severe depression. This might be true without any other action to ameliorate the effects of loss of mother, working-class living conditions, and so on.  There are, however, many other readily conceivable engagements to reduce the chances of onset of depression, for example, counseling adolescent girls with low self-esteem, quickly acting to ensure a reliable caregiver when a mother dies or is hospitalized, making custodial institutions or foster care arrangements more humane, increasing the availability of contraceptives for adolescents, increasing state support for single mothers, and so on.  If the goal is reduction in depression for working-class women, the unchangeability of the hypothetical inherited genes says nothing about the most effective, economical, or otherwise socially desirable engagement—or combinations of engagements—to pursue.  Notice also that many of these engagements would have their downstream effect on depression via pathways that cross between the different strands.  For example, if self-esteem counseling were somewhat effective then fewer unwanted pregnancies and unsupportive partnerships might be initiated; both effects could, in turn, reduce the incidence of single parenthood and difficult living conditions.

The Brown and Harris account of the origins of acute depression in working-class women illustrates the idea of heterogeneous construction or intersecting processes (Taylor 1995; 2005):  Without any superintending constructor or outcome-directed agent, many heterogeneous components are linked together, which implies that the outcome has multiple contributing causes, and thus there are multiple points of engagement that could modify the course of development. In short, causality and agency are distributed, not localized.  Moreover, the components are linked over time, building on what has already been constructed, so that it is the components in linkage that constitute the causes and it is difficult to partition relative importance or responsibility for an outcome among the different types of cause (e.g., ‘80% genetic vs. 20% environmental,’ or ‘partly scientific and partly social’).  Generally, there are alternative routes to the same end, and things involved in the construction of one outcome are implicated in many others, so engaging in a construction process, even through very focused interventions, will have side effects. Finally, construction never stops; completed outcomes are less end points than snapshots taken of the ongoing, intersecting processes.

In discussing depression among working class women, rather than in other groups, I could be seen as perpetuating a male, professional-class perspective.  However, the politics of the case can be viewed quite differently.  Although depressed working class women are the focus, the intersecting processes account brings a range of other agents into the picture.  While the account does not identify ways to cure the women studied, other girls and women that follow them might seek support from, or find themselves supported by counsellors, hospital social workers, people reforming custodial institutions, family planning workers, social policy makers, and so on.  Moreover, these agents can view their engagement as linked with others, not as a solution on its own.  For example, when women’s movement activists create women’s refuges as a step away from living in unsupportive households, this makes it possible for therapists who specialize in the psychological dynamics of the woman in her family to consider referring women to refuges as a critical disruption to the family’s dynamic.  The politics of highlighting different kinds of causes and their interlinkages can be seen as promoting exchange among a distributed set of agents and contributing to the potential re-formation of the social worlds intersecting around the development of any given focal individual or outcome (Hutchins 1995).   The intersecting processes picture supports diverse engagements with the sciences of changing life.

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Yes, it might help to have a set of tools to stimulate “attention, escape, and movement” (Plsek 1997).  But an intersecting processes picture might support diverse other kinds of engagements with studies and practices around enhancing and sustaining creativity.  Creativity becomes less a quality of a person—whether a “creative” or anyone—and more something tied to the combination of factors distributed across the intersecting strands.  We may still find ourselves pointing to a novel and useable product emerging from the intersecting strands to show that there is creativity in these strands.  But, note that each strand continues even as a product emerges from them.  If someone affected by our engagement in the intersecting processes says that now “it is impossible to simply continue along previous lines,” we might feel that we have made a contribution to helping another person to see that everyone can think creatively.

Thoughts to continue to explore:
1. Particularity. Not only is each person a particular intersection of processes, but the local community they interact with, that forms their context, is a combination of many such particular intersections of processes—some starting earlier, some later, depending on the person’s age; some more influential on the person, others less on.
2. Agent-oriented emphasis in research as well as engagement (people are resilient and reorganize their live, and communities in response to social changes), replacing traditional idea of subjects/objects for research (with exposures or influences impinging on subjects).

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Bowlby, J. (1988). A Secure Base. (New York: Basic Books).

Brown, G. W. and T. Harris (1978). Social Origins of Depression. (New York: The Free Press).

Brown, G. W. and T. O. Harris (1989a).  Depression in Life Events and Illness. (New York: Guilford Press).

Brown, G. W. and T. O. Harris, Eds. (1989b). Life Events and Illness. (New York: Guilford Press).

Brown, G. W. and P. M. Moran (1997). Single mothers, poverty and depression. Psychological Medicine 27: 21-33.

Harris, T., Ed. (2000). Where Inner and Outer Worlds Meet. (London: Routledge).

Hutchins, E. (1995). Cognition in the Wild. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).

Plsek, P. (1997).  The Three Basic Principles Behind All Tools for Creative Thinking: Attention, Escape, and Movement. (viewed 16 Sep. 2013)

Taylor, P. J. (1995). Building on construction: An exploration of heterogeneous constructionism, using an analogy from psychology and a sketch from socio-economic modeling. Perspectives on Science 3(1): 66-98.

Taylor, P. J. (2005). Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Taylor, P. J. (2009). Infrastructure and Scaffolding:  Interpretation and Change of Research Involving Human Genetic Information. Science as Culture 18: 435-459.


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012,

5 Responses to Life events and difficulties research: An analogy that illuminates an idea of creativity distributed across intersecting strands of a person-in-context

  1. Pingback: Connecting the study of creative thinking to an exploration of scaffolding and story-telling | Probe—Create Change—Reflect

  2. Teryl says:

    I am not sure which intersecting processes reflection to write to, but I guess I am asking in response to someone ‘not being able to continue along previous lines’–is this (not being able to continue) like someone finally having to open the box for Schrodinger’s cat?
    I mean the fact is that the longer the box stays closed (one inactivity) the more likely the cat is dead while paradoxically the longer the radioactive particle stays inactive the more likely the cat is alive–both external cause and effect realities (and both ignoring the debate over reality based on our perception and on the question of whether the cat can be both things).
    So, even if I don’t understand Sussakind or why someone wouldn’t get the cat out of the box and then debate, how do we choose the action or inaction?
    (It would be different if both opening the box and not opening the box would lead to the same conclusion or if there was an ethics choice of opening the box saves one cat but loses something in return.)
    I’m debated the question not just about continuing along a new line because that is the given in your reflection, but when to recognize and choose (before chosen for us) the direction (action/inaction) when there is the intersecting ripple effect unseen down the line and actually causing some directionity in the current? How can the cat decide what to do to get out of the box?

  3. I like to say “impossible to simply continue along previous lines.” It is always possible to continue along previous lines and, I guess, on average but not as a rule, the longer one has the harder it gets to have experiences that make it “impossible to simply continue along previous lines.”
    About the cat: I always worry about thought experiments on a system that don’t include in the system the viewer that would be involved to ascertain whether there’s a cat, a stegosaurus, or whatever in the box. Once you add that person, the actions of that person, not only the uncertainty of a quantum state, have to be factored in. Recently, I learned that my view has been formalized in something called quantum Bayesianism of QBism. This said, I’m not sure if QBism has anything to do with it being “impossible to simply continue along previous lines.”

    • Teryl says:

      How cool, thank you for sharing! Of course there needs to be an observer of the observer, that’ clever. It’s not just the expertise of whether the person knows what he put in the box is a cat, but also whether he knows it is the acid and the radioactive particle he put in there and whether it is really a box and really closed. And whether the person doing the action and telling about it is truthful or in the thought experiment just saying so as part of a different variable he is thinking and testing. Then, you have the question of whether there should be one viewer or more than one to ascertain realities of each thing and how to evaluate this knowledge and truthfulness and such.
      I really look forward to checking out your quantum Bayesianism of QBism. So, is it layers of complexity that we keep adding instead of going toward the simple instead? It reminds me of the third field of dialogue with the practice of seeing yourself by being in a sense outside yourself to take stock. Your ideas took me into all kinds of directions from where I was; thank you for the mental shift. I was trying to deal with a paradox in the challenge to string theory (as if I could), but fun just to try and maybe I’ll share more later of that puzzle if not too bothersome to you. Another thing I thought was funny today was pairing up Schrodinger’s cat with Pavlov’s dog…one teaches us to think without acting while the other teaches us to act without thinking.

  4. Pingback: Design change for individuals in/and society | Probe—Create Change—Reflect

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