I recently ran across a newsletter article on creativity and wanted to share some interesting aspects of it with you. Though the main source seems to be the Monitor of Psychology and its author, Kirsten Weir (see footnote below), there are numerous additional sources cited to supplement the creativity aspect.
Creativity means different things to different people. Seemingly, creativity is mostly aligned with marketing, design and the arts. But, what about science and engineering? Literature? Man’s simple ability to think? Let’s explore this to get a better feel for where creativity comes from and how best to enhance our own experience.
Creativity in the brain
What, exactly, is creativity? The standard definition used by researchers characterizes creative ideas as those that are original and effective, as described by psychologist Mark A. Runco, PhD, director of creativity research and programming at Southern Oregon University (Creativity Research Journal, Vol. 24, No. 1, 2012). But effectiveness, also called utility, is a slippery concept. Is a poem useful? What makes a sculpture effective?
Runco is working on an updated definition and has considered at least a dozen suggestions from colleagues. One frequently suggested feature is authenticity. “Creativity involves an honest expression,” he said.
Meanwhile, scientists are also struggling with the best way to measure the concept. As a marker of creativity, researchers often measure divergent thinking—the ability to generate a lot of possible solutions to a problem or question. But measures of divergent thinking haven’t been found to correlate well with real-world creativity.
Does coming up with new uses for a brick imply a person will be good at abstract art or composing music or devising new methods for studying the brain?
Maybe we move away from defining creativity based on a person’s creative output and focus instead on what’s going on in the brain, ponders Adam Green, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist at Georgetown University and founder of the Society for the Neuroscience of Creativity. “The standard definition, that creativity is novel and useful, is a description of a product,” he noted. “By looking inward, we can see the process in action and start to identify the characteristics of creative thought. Neuroimaging is helping to shift the focus from creative product to creative process.”
Creativity often involves coordination between the cognitive control network (of the brain), which is involved in executive functions such as planning and problem-solving, and the default mode network, which is most active during mind-wandering or daydreaming. The cooperation of those networks may be a unique feature of creativity, Green said.
Green’s work suggests that targeting specific areas in the brain could enhance creativity. Yet no one is suggesting that a single brain region, or even a single neural network, is responsible for creative thought.
In search of the eureka moment
Creativity looks different from person to person. And even within one brain, there are different routes to a creative spark, explained John Kounios, PhD, an experimental psychologist who studies creativity and insight at Drexel University in Philadelphia. One involves what cognitive scientists call “System 1” (also called “Type 1”) processes: quick, unconscious thoughts—aha moments—that burst into consciousness. A second route involves “System 2” processes: thinking that is slow, deliberate, and conscious. “Creativity can use one or the other or a combination of the two,” he said. “You might use Type 1 thinking to generate ideas and Type 2 to critique and refine them.”
Which pathway a person uses might depend, in part, on their expertise. “It seems there are at least two pathways to get from where you are to a creative idea,” he said.
Coming up with an idea is only one part of the creative process. A painter needs to translate their vision to canvas. An inventor has to tinker with their concept to make a prototype that actually works. Still, the aha moment is an undeniably important component of the creative process. And science is beginning to illuminate those “lightbulb moments.”
The rush you get from an aha moment might also signal that you’re onto something good, said Jonathan Schooler, PhD, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Creativity is at the core of innovation. We rely on innovation for advancing humanity, as well as for pleasure and entertainment,” he said. “Creativity underlies so much of what humans value.”
He and his colleagues studied these flashes of insight among creative writers and physicists. They surveyed the participants daily for two weeks, asking them to note their creative ideas and when they occurred. Participants reported that about a fifth of the most important ideas of the day happened when they were mind-wandering and not working on a task at hand. “These solutions were more likely to be associated with an aha moment and often overcoming an impasse of some sort,” Schooler said.
Six months later, the participants revisited those ideas and rated them for creative importance. This time, they rated their previous ideas as creative, but less important than they’d initially thought. That suggests that the spark of a eureka moment may not be a reliable clue that an idea has legs. “It seems like the aha experience may be a visceral marker of an important idea. But the aha experience can also inflate the meaningfulness of an idea that doesn’t have merit,” Schooler said. “We have to be careful of false ahas.”
Boosting your creativity
Much of the research in this realm has focused on creativity as a trait. Indeed, some people are naturally more creative than others. Creative individuals are more likely than others to possess the personality trait of openness. “Across different age groups, the best predictor of creativity is openness to new experiences,” said Anna Abraham, PhD, the E. Paul Torrance Professor and director of the Torrance Center for Creativity and Talent Development at the University of Georgia. “Creative people have the kind of curiosity that draws them toward learning new things and experiencing the world in new ways,” she said.
We can’t all be Thomas Edison or Maya Angelou. But creativity is also a state, and anyone can push themselves to be more creative. “Creativity is human capacity, and there’s always room for growth,” Runco said. A tolerant environment is often a necessary ingredient, he added. “Tolerant societies allow individuals to express themselves and explore new things. And as a parent or a teacher, you can model that creativity is valued and be open-minded when your child gives an answer you didn’t expect.”
One way to let your own creativity flow may be by tapping into your untethered mind. Mind-wandering can let the ideas flow. “Letting yourself daydream with a purpose, on a regular basis, might allow brain networks that don’t usually cooperate to literally form stronger connections,” Green said.
However, not all types of daydreams will get you there. Schooler found that people who engage in more personally meaningful daydreams (such as fantasizing about a future vacation or career change) report greater artistic achievement and more daily inspiration. People who are prone to fantastical daydreaming (such as inventing alternate realities or imaginary worlds) produced higher-quality creative writing in the lab and reported more daily creative behavior. But daydreams devoted to planning or problem-solving were not associated with creative behaviors (Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, Vol. 15, No. 4, 2021).
It’s not just what you think about when you daydream, but where you are when you do it. Some research suggests spending time in nature can enhance creativity. That may be because of the natural world’s ability to restore attention, or perhaps it’s due to the tendency to let your mind wander when you’re in the great outdoors. “A lot of creative figures go on walks in big, expansive environments. In a large space, your perceptual attention expands and your scope of thought also expands,” Kounios said. “That’s why working in a cubicle is bad for creativity. But working near a window can help.”
Wherever you choose to do it, fostering creativity requires time and effort. “People want the booster shot for creativity. But creativity isn’t something that comes magically. It’s a skill, and as with any new skill, the more you practice, the better you get,” said Anna Abraham, PhD, the E. Paul Torrance Professor and director of the Torrance Center for Creativity and Talent Development at the University of Georgia.
In a not-yet-published study, she found three factors predicted peak originality in teenagers: openness to experience, intelligence, and, importantly, time spent engaged in creative hobbies. That is, taking the time to work on creative pursuits makes a difference. And the same is true for adults, she said. “Carve out time for yourself, figure out the conditions that are conducive to your creativity, and recognize that you need to keep pushing yourself. You won’t get to where you want to go if you don’t try.”
Those efforts can benefit your own sense of creative fulfillment and perhaps lead to rewards on an even grander scale. “I think everyday creativity is the most important kind,” Runco said. “If we can support the creativity of each and every individual, we’ll change the world.”
How to become more creative
1. Put in the work: People often think of creativity as a bolt of inspiration, like a lightbulb clicking on. But being creative in a particular domain—whether in the arts, in your work, or in your day-to-day life—is a skill. Carve out time to learn and practice.
2. Let your mind wander: Experts recommend “daydreaming with purpose.” Make opportunities to let your daydreams flow, while gently nudging them toward the creative challenge at hand. Some research suggests meditation may help people develop the habit of purposeful daydreaming.
3. Practice remote associations: Brainstorm ideas, jotting down whatever thoughts or notions come to you, no matter how wild. You can always edit later.
4. Go outside: Spending time in nature and wide-open spaces can expand your attention, enhance beneficial mind-wandering, and boost creativity.
5. Revisit your creative ideas: Aha moments can give you a high—but that rush might make you overestimate the merit of a creative idea. Don’t be afraid to revisit ideas to critique and tweak them later.
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Hopefully making a ruckus, one blog post at a time!
Be sure to check out my other blog, Joe’s Journey, for a different kind of playground for creativity, innovation and inspiring stuff.