Bad artists copy. Great artists steal. ~Picasso
You know you’ve done something creative when you’ve produced something novel, meaningful, and useful. But when have I produced something truly novel?! meaningful?! or useful?! While it might be somewhat helpful, this common definition for creativity is still rather fuzzy.
Can we agree about whether or not something is novel? Well, what if you have an idea at the same time as someone else? Certainly, the idea is new for each of the creators but not for everyone else. After all, the one who tells the world about their idea first is generally considered the originator. As it turns out, having a creative thought that someone else shares is probably the norm rather than the exception. Ideas happen in people connected to a common world – having similar thoughts to someone else exposed to a similar environment shouldn’t seem all that surprising.
If we put the words ‘meaningful’ and ‘useful’ under the same microscope, many similar issues arise. What is useful to me is not necessarily useful to you. What is useful tomorrow is not necessarily useful today. Does that mean you weren’t creative when you thought up your great idea, but you were when it became widely recognized and started making money?
With all this fuzziness, how can we ever get a better handle on what creativity involves? For starters, many studies in psychology have already helped to point out some of the more important insights about creativity, such as having a solid knowledge base and being open to new experiences. In addition, recent studies in neuroscience, particularly those involving brain imaging, are helping us understand the underlying neurobiology of creative thinking – after all, the brain is the organ central to our shared experiences.
For instance, we know that the medial (midline) frontal cortex of the brain seems to be involved in cognitive control and divergent thinking. We know that the areas involved heavily in processing language are not necessary for visual arts, and that even being able to see or think in colour is not necessary for being an excellent painter. Amazingly, some people with advancing Alzheimer’s or dementia can actually become more drawn to visual arts – though it isn’t clear why. Following Harvard Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor’s stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain, she described a heightened sense of colour and visual creativity.
Some neuroscientists are even attempting to investigate the cellular and neurochemical underpinnings of creativity. For instance, a study by Manzano and colleagues used PET imaging to investigate the link between D2 dopamine receptor levels and creative thinking. They showed that psychological tests of divergent thinking (i.e. the ability to produce many novel and meaningful responses to open-ended questions, like coming up with as many different uses for a paper clip as possible) were negatively correlated to D2 receptors in the thalamus – an area in the center of the brain known to be a relay station for sensory information, but also believed to be involved in many other functions such as consciousness. Because D2 receptor activation inhibits cells, lower D2 receptors (less ability to inhibit cell signalling) may result in increased information flow and thus, an increased ability for divergent thinking.
While these findings in neuroscience are tremendously important, it’s important to remember that they are only the beginning of the picture. The importance of knowledge, openness to experiences, and learning to emotionally regulate (i.e. to control our inwardly felt and outwardly expressed emotional responses), for instance, still make up a better approach to being creative. For instance, individuals with more emotional control are often considered ‘wiser’ – contrary to our popular notion of the erratic artist – and may be considered more creative, in that they may have more insights, are less impulsive, and are generally better decision makers.
While dopamine is very likely involved in all of these aspects, it is probably premature to map this single neurotransmitter directly onto the psychological level. D2 receptors may be related to divergent thinking but there are many open questions. D2 receptor levels change over time, so am I more creative when they are low? Are thalamic D2 receptors key players in creativity as a whole? Many neurotransmitters/neurohormones, like serotonin, norepinephrine, oxytocin, and others are also likely involved. Instead of attempting to alter levels of a single brain chemical, it currently makes the most sense in our everyday lives to approach the issue of creativity from the neuropsychological level – using known practices and wisdom to broadly affect your brain and the world around you.
The brain sciences are providing insights every day to challenge and clarify the way we think about fuzzy concepts like creativity. In the end, the best overall approach to creativity is likely still expressed by Pasteur’s dictum – “Chance favours the prepared mind”.
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de Manzano O, Cervenka S, Karabanov A, Farde L, & Ullén F (2010). Thinking outside a less intact box: thalamic dopamine D2 receptor densities are negatively related to psychometric creativity in healthy individuals. PloS one, 5 (5) PMID: 20498850
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Miller BL, & Hou CE (2004). Portraits of artists: emergence of visual creativity in dementia. Archives of neurology, 61 (6), 842-4 PMID: 15210520