Mind Melds: Conceptual Blends

A very simple but suggestive notion of creativity (one among many, naturally, but one that focusses primarily on one but also, to a degree, on two other of the four aspects of creativity: the process [creating] and, to a certain extent, the person [the creator] and, less so, the product [the created object] — but not the place): the blend . . .

Conceptual blending or integration: the subconscious blending of objects and relations from diverse situations that is the basis of innovation, including what we call “creativity” — unconscious or generative (but potentially inventive, i.e. heuristic, or exploratoryanalogy.

  • Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner developed this theory as early as 1993, in their paper from the UCB/UCSD 1993 Cognitive Linguistics Workshop, “Conceptual Projection and Middle Spaces” (see The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities [New York: Basic Books, 2002]).
  • Finke, Ward and Smith’s “Geneplore” model splits creativity into two phases: the generative or pre-inventive phase (“inspiration”) and the exploratory or inventive phase (production) (R. Finke, T. B. Ward and S. M. Smith, Creative Cognition: Theory, Research and Applications [Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992]).

This process enables us “to invent new concepts and to assemble new and dynamic mental patterns” — see Turner’s Blending and Conceptual Integration:

A mental space is a small conceptual packet assembled for purposes of thought and action [an idealized cognitive model — like a personal possible world]. A mental space network connects an array of mental spaces. A conceptual integration network is a mental space network that contains one or more “blended mental spaces.” A blended mental space is an integrated space that receives input . . . from other mental spaces in the network and develops emergent structure not available from the inputs.

For Stephen Mithin, it is this cognitive fluidity, this capacity to use metaphor and analogy, that distinguishes modern from archaic humans (The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science [New York: Thames & Hudson, 1996]).

Where the archaic mind was domain-specific (or strictly modular) — like a Swiss Army knife, the modern mind is more fluid (or interconnected in its modules): each person has a different combination of tools on their knife and can better apply them in combination(s). (See Andy Gorman’s review for a useful summary.)

The degree to which conceptual blending, as a cognitive capacity or activity that is in large part unconscious but nonetheless generative, can be consciously cultivated as an inventive process — as exploration — is moot.


  • Arthur Koestler on “bisociative matrices”: the creative act is a “bisociation” (not a mere association) which happens when two (or more) apparently incompatible frames of thought or “matrices” — or “mental spaces” in Turner’s terms — are brought together as in a dream or trance state (The Act of Creation [New York: Macmillan, 1964]).

From Terrence Deacon, "The Aesthetic Faculty," The Artful Mind: Cognitive Science and the Riddle of Human Creativity, ed. Mark Turner (New York: Oxford UP, 2006).

  • George Lakoff and Mark Johnson on conceptual/cognitive metaphors: the understanding of one idea or conceptual domain in terms of another, for example, understanding quantity in terms of directionality, e.g. “prices are rising” — or love as a journey, life as a journey, love as war, etc. — or, as below, understanding deep time as a progression (the growth of a tree or rhizome) or succession (the change in a landscape), a wave, or a regression (Lakoff, Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind [Chicago: UCP, 1987] and Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By [Chicago: UCP, 1980]).

Metaphors for deep time, from Renee M. Clary, Robert F. Brzuszek and James H. Wandersee, "Students' Geocognition of Deep Time, Conceptualized in an Informal Educational Setting"

N.B. The etymology of the word “blend” suggests mixture, a blinding flash, luminosity — or clouding: the word stems from the Old English blondan or Old Norse blanda, “to mix”; interestingly, further back it is perhaps from the Proto-Germanic blandjan, “to blind,” via the connecting idea of “to make cloudy,” from the Proto-Indo-European base bhel- “to shine, flash, burn” (like our word “bleach”).