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.”