Ed Catmull on the Hidden (Creativity Inc)

According to the neuroscientist that Director Peter Docter consulted during development of Inside Out, only about 40% of what we ‘see’ comes through our eyes. The remaining 60% is created from memory or patterns that we recognise from past experience. Essentially, our brain ‘fills in’ the details we miss. I came across this idea for the first time when I was presented with text in which the first and final letter of the word are correct but the rest is scrambled or replaced with random letters. Surprisingly, I was able to read this with no problem because this mirrors how our brain operates – we need only to see a few crucial letters and our brain fills in the rest.

Considering the incompleteness of our visual models it shouldn’t come as a surprise that our personal perceptions and experiences are similarly flawed. We’ve all experienced a moment when we have drawn very different conclusions to another person despite having experienced exactly the same interaction. Our perceptions and experiences of others are laden with personal baggage and vary from person to person.

It seems hindsight doesn’t even provide a clearer or objective reality.

“We are usually not aware that when we look back in time, our penchant for pattern-making leads us to be selective about which memories have meaning. And we do not always make the right selections. We build a story – our model of the past – as best we can.” (177-8)

Ed uses a beautiful quote by Mark Twain to illustrate how hindsight can distort a view:

“We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it – and stop there lest we be the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again – and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.” (177)

If we acknowledge that our models are mere approximations of reality, how should we then navigate life with this understanding?

Ed states plainly that the conclusions we draw from experience and vision cannot help but be prone to error. Indeed, if the neuroscience is right we are essentially drawing a conclusion based on only 40% of the necessary facts. Acknowledging the limits of perception and the subsequent propensity for error is important. As well as that many of the factors that run our lives are hidden.

Ed also suggests that divergent viewpoints can enrich creative work as long as we acknowledge and honour them.

“When faced with complexity, it is reassuring to tell ourselves that we can uncover and understand every facet of every problem if we just try hard enough. But that’s a fallacy. The better approach, I believe, is to accept that we can’t understand every facet of a complex environment and to focus, instead, on techniques to deal with combining different viewpoints. If we start with the attitude that different viewpoints are additive rather than competitive, we become more effective because out ideas or decisions are honed and tempered by that discourse.” (173-4)

As artists, we need to be willing to work with uncertainty (the hidden). Ed uses a beautiful metaphor of a door to talk about the unknown and the artist’s desired relationship to it. On one side of this door is the known world and on the other side is everything that can’t be seen and is unknown. This is vast, full with unexpressed ideas, innumerable possibilities and the unsolved. Ed says that the artist’s goal is keep one foot on either side.

“No matter how intensely we desire certainty, we should understand that whether because of our limits or randomness or future unknowable confluences of events, something will inevitably come, unbidden, through that door...The Hidden – and our acknowledgment of it – is an absolutely essential part of rooting out what impedes our progress: clinging to what works, fearing change, and deluding ourselves about our roles in our own success.”

Creativity Inc is an inspiring and honest account of Pixar's journey and a valuable read in its entirety.