Building better ideas

photo by erin e booth

Creativity: something everyone wants to achieve and be recognized for, regardless of profession, yet few can agree on exactly what it is.

Posing the question “What is creativity?” to others is like asking “What is art?” The variety of answers you’ll end up with, and the disagreements around all of the details in between those definitions, will likely overwhelm. As a neuroscientist and amateur drummer, I’ve sometimes wondered if I’ve ever been truly creative – especially since the standard definition for something that is creative – “a novel, meaningful, and useful creation” – is somewhat ambiguous. We’ve all had minor moments of creativity, but have you ever created something that was obviously new and meaningful? The chasm between me and, say, an Einstein or a Buddy Rich seems impossibly untraversable. But is it?

When psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi interviewed people well known for their creative achievements for his book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, many of them said that their creativity couldn’t be naturally explained while others outright refused to be interviewed on such a ridiculous topic. Those who did try to explain the source of their creativity often provided fuzzy analogies or head-scratching anecdotes. While it might be difficult to pin down the precise origin of a creative thought, there are many points to be gleamed from the brain sciences.

Some of these insights include:

  • Creative ideas are most likely to come to those who are open to new experiences, willing to take risks, and aren’t dissuaded and overly stressed by perceived failures.
  • If you want to vastly improve your chances of being highly creative, you should start by developing specialized knowledge – remember Louis Pasteur’s “chance favours the prepared mind”. You don’t need to go to any sort of school for this, but working or studying under someone who is considered creative gives you an extra advantage.
  • This openness and development of knowledge should be intrinsically motivated – so pursuing creative endeavours (e.g. painting, designing buildings, or doing scientific experiments) for external rewards (e.g. money or power) will likely not result in novel, meaningful, creations.
  • A creative person is not able to ‘tell’ you how they are creative, unless they have been trained to do so.
  • Get involved with others who are considered creative and who are working in creative environments that support their endeavours.
  • IQ, or measures of general intelligence, does not correlate well with creativity.
  • Maintaining a positive emotional state, which is helped by working in positive environments, improves the probability of creative thinking.
  • A certain level of stress, which seems to be specific for each person (e.g. having a deadline or engaging in group brain storming), also helps to foster creative thought – but spitting out ideas in groups where the members themselves are not overly creative will likely only lead to more mediocre ideas.

These points help to underscore why we should all be interested in understanding creativity. As opposed to being a mysterious process of the few, creativity is something that almost all of us can develop and utilize. While there are still many unknowns, it is clear that there are many aspects involved in defining creativity. Because of this complexity and a lack of conceptual clarity, however, even contemporary neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers have often disagreed about many of the details. The good news is that this leaves plenty of room for cross-disciplinary discussion and future exploration.

Some of the challenges of truly understanding the fuzzy concept ‘creativity’, particularly in neuroscience, are becoming more commonly discussed in the media (for instance, recently in the Globe & Mail). It might well be that this broader coverage is just what’s needed to get more people thinking about some creative solutions of their own.

Csikszentmihalyi M. 1996. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial.
Hennessey BA, Amabile TM. 2010. Creativity. Ann Rev Psychol 61: 569-98.
Mumford MD. 2003. Where have we been, where are we going? Taking stock in creativity research. Creativity Research Journal 15: 107–120.


About davejhayes
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4 Responses to Building better ideas

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  3. J says:

    Hi Dave! Thank you for writing this article – it was enjoyable to read. In my projects for my courses, there is always a need to come up with a “creative” presentation idea or an “original” essay thesis. While the “divergent” thinking process is important, I wonder what role convergent thinking plays, and if it would be possible to somehow observe it in a controlled setting – to find out how people rearrange ideas, juxtapose them, or see commonalities emerge amongst disparate or related things? I guess what I am wondering about is the role of intuition in creativity? Thanks again, and I look forward to reading your future posts!

  4. davejhayes says:

    Thank you J,
    I agree that a better understanding of creativity and intuition (particularly from the brain sciences) in the years to come will be very exciting. While there are definitely some interesting studies being done on creativity and intuition independently, the two are not really studied explicitly together – at least not yet in neuroscience. One reason for this, I suspect, is that we need to first further develop the concepts of each. Here’s an interesting read on the powers and perils of intuition that I think allude to this.

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