Why we are creative and why we need to play : ideas from psychoanalysis

Date Posted: Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Some years ago I was in conversation with a student at Dartington College of Arts who was about to write a dissertation in order to complete her degree. Her subject was ‘The sources of human creativity’. She asked if I had any answers to this question and I hadn’t. I’m not very good at answering questions like these on the spot. I told her I’d think about it and get back to her. I was deep in my psychodynamic training then and so I sought my answers in psychodynamic theory but being a residential child care worker it was not long before I linked the relevance of what I was thinking about to the relationships we make in child care. What follows is a short essay wrought from the notes I gave the student as an answer to her question.



Why we are creative and why we need to play : ideas from psychoanalysis


Psychoanalysis, like other psychological disciplines has struggled to provide a compelling explanation of creativity. In this short essay  I have elected to consider the three theoretical stances of the psychoanalysts, Freud, Suttie and Winnicott concerning creativity. Their ideas have been those which have been most helpful to me in my work  with the children and young people. Their relevance is not limited to childhood.  I believe they have significance for us throughout our lives.

This is not an inclusive essay and there are other psychoanalytic theories that I would urge on readers who wish to pursue the study of creativity further. Amongst these is the notion that creativity is bound up in oedipal fantasy, and another is the idea  that creativity represents  an act of reparation as a consequence of our destructive actions and fantasies.
It is necessary in the reading of this essay to understand that psychoanalysis interprets   conscious behaviour as activity  influenced by  repressed unconscious feelings.

Sigmund Freud 
Sigmund Freud, the founding figure of the psychoanalytic movement proposed that we are driven to satisfying our most primitive needs. Freud’s view was that our over-riding primitive drive is to satisfy our sexual needs. For him even from infancy erotic desire is a principal element of our psychological make up. As we grow we become more socially aware and come to understand that we cannot satisfy our sexual desires at will. We would not survive for long if we tried to !  Freud postulated that this sexual energy  directed to the achievement of what is forbidden  must of necessity be converted to some form of acceptable action and he suggested that it was unconsciously ‘sublimated’ through creativity. In creativity these energies can be accepted.  According to Freud unconscious sublimation explains why most of us experience a need to be creative and for some this leads to great artistic endeavour.

Iain D. Suttie
In the 1930s the Scottish psychologist Ian D. Suttie while agreeing in principle with many of Freud’s theories argued that our creativity stems not from thwarted sexual desire but from separation from the mother and from our loss of the intense love a mother gives us when we are infants. For Suttie our creativity came from ‘play’.  According to him ‘necessity is not the mother of invention ; play is’  (Suttie, 1935, p14).

Suttie thought that play is a necessity not merely for the development of bodily and mental facilities, but also to give the individual reassuring contact with his peers as a replacement of that which is lost when the intense nurturing given to him by his mother when he was  an infant is no longer available to him. Suttie observes that conversation is mental play and that indeed it is so even before we outgrow the need for bodily contact with the mother. Even in adulthood we still retain a need to be reassured and caressed by others, but Suttie argues that in adulthood we cope with our awareness of being alone within ourselves and the sense of loss, emptiness and anxiety this stirs, through creative activity (Suttie,1835).


D.W. Winnicott
While Suttie thought of play as a creative necessity which substitutes our ‘whole social environment for the place once occupied by mother’ (Suttie, 1935, p 13), the paediatrician and psychoanalyst DW Winnicott  thought that ‘Play is universal’. He believed play to be essential for human beings throughout their lives and he saw play as the ‘work’ children had to do to become adults.  Winnicott saw the creativity of playing as a facilitation of mental growth and therefore  health. Play is used in all forms of communication by adults and by children. Indeed throughout our lives we play creatively even in our conversations.  Winnicott also recognised the potential of play as a therapeutic tool not only in classic psychotherapy but  can also through other forms of communication like art and  drama. Winnicott himself devised a drawing game called ‘The Squiggle’ which he used in his therapeutic work with children.

In Winnicott’s view creativity starts with the infant’s first moves to separate both psychologically and physically from his mother. The baby uses the physical and mental space between him and his mother to create a world of his own. The infant’s creation  of what Winnicott calls the ‘transitional object’,  which can be anything from a teddy bear to a tattered old blanket, is the child’s first creation and represents his first attempt to have some control in his own world. He can make the transitional object mean anything he likes and treat it as he likes. According to Winnicott this creative act is essential for the infant in the process of individuating from his mother and identifying himself  as different from her (Winnicott, 1971).

The next stage in the development of play is the one  where the child learns to play alone, but in the presence of someone. ‘Responsible adults must be available when children play; but this does not mean that the responsible person need enter into the child’s playing’ (Winnicott, 1971,p50). In reaching this stage of development the child  achieves something which is fundamental to human development : the capacity to be alone.

Winnicott proposed the last stage of play reached is when the child allows the mother to introduce her own ideas for play and in the interaction between child and mother they create another way of playing. This paves the way for the child and mother to play together in a relationship and this  leads to the child developing a capacity for group relations.

Play according to Winnicott can, in common with art and religious practice, unify and integrate the human personality. It is through play that the child is able to complete the picture of himself as a unified human being. It is only through playing that a child or indeed an adult is able to be creative and use the whole of his personality. Winnicott felt strongly that we should not lose the sense of the word  ‘creativity’ just as a representation of a successful or acclaimed creation, but that we should also keep for it the meaning that refers to the colouring of  an individual’s attitude to external reality. He described play as ‘the continuous evidence of creativity, which means aliveness’ (Winnicott, 1964, p ). It is as if he is suggesting that by being creative we remain alive and we are alive because we are creative.

Contentiously, Winnicott  seemed to argue that our creativity principally arises out of  the chaos of our unconscious and what he called ‘desultory formless functioning’ (1971, p64) and not through form and order. For Winnicott there must be a spontaneity about play.


Some concluding remarks

Freud, Suttie and Winnicott have made significant contributions to an understanding of creativity, of the  creation of art and towards the creativity of artists but Winnicott seems to have taken this understanding a step further than Freud and Suttie in that for him creativity is not merely a sublimation of the sexual drive, or of the loss of  a mother’s love. Neither is it merely a combination of on the one hand, our pleasure seeking and on the other our need to accept reality. He takes a step further when he suggests that creativity provides a potential space between creator and the receptor in which both can play a part.
Charles Sharpe, May, 2008



Freud, S. (1908)  ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’  Standard Edition Vol.9      London    Hogarth Press

Suttie, I.D.(1935) The Origins of Love and Hate       London    Pelican  Books

Winnicott,  D.W. (1964) The Child, the Family and the Outside World   London Penguin Books

Winnicott, D.W. (1971) Playing and Reality         Routledge      London

Winnicott, D.W. (1980) The Piggle : An account of the Psychoanalytic Treatment of a Little Girl      London   Penguin Books
©  goodenoughcaring.com and Charles Sharpe 2008