Monday, August 29, 2011

The Science of Creativity

Creativity is definitely an interesting phenomenon, one that all writers must tap into in order to create compelling, new, and interesting content.

But do we really know where it comes from?

Some people blame the muses; others say that inspiration strikes like lightening. Scientists have tried to measure creativity and explain the processes that the brain goes through to be creative.

What is your perspective? Can creativity really be made into a science?

What is Creativity?

Creativity, according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, is this:

Creativity refers to the phenomenon whereby a person creates something new (a product, a solution, a work of art, a novel, a joke, etc.) that has some kind of value.

In order to be creative, we have to come up with some new that has value or solves a problem. This can definitely be applied to writing.

Where Does Creativity Come From?

So that’s the definition of the act of being creative, but where does this trait originate? Perhaps at one time or another in your life you’ve noted that “my neighbor, Frank, is so creative. I wish I could be like him”, or another such statement. What makes your neighbor Frank so creative? Is it true that different people are born more creative than others? Is it a skill that can be developed?

The Psychology of Creativity

Graham Wallas in his work, Art of Thought, presented one of the first ever models of the creative process, saying that the behavior of the creative process can be explained in five steps:

1) Preparation: Initial work on the problem

2) Incubation: Problem is internalized in the individual’s mind

3) Intimation: Individual has a feeling that a solution is coming

4) Illumination: Idea bursts forth from preconscious into conscious awareness

5) Verification: Idea is elaborated and applied

It may be that creativity is simply a process, that it comes from initiating and undergoing these fives steps. What happens if you get stuck on a step? No clue.

Here’s another model idea, proposed by Finke et al., called the “Geneplore” model. In this idea, creativity takes place in two phases:

1) Generative Phase: Individual constructs mental representations called pre-inventive structures

2) Exploratory Phase: Those structures are used to come up with creative ideas

So those are a few ideas for how people go about thinking creatively. They are psychological models of thinking, the process or behavior we undergo to be creative. Is there a biological science to it, though?

The Biology of Creativity

Is creativity genetic? The truth of it is, scientists still aren’t sure. There have been attempts made to measure a creativity quotient (like an IQ – intelligence quotient), but they’ve all failed.

There are still some ideas out there, though. Scientists have devised “creativity tests”, trying to measure the amount of creativity an individual has. They’ve come up with a few:

· Plot Titles: Participants are asked to make up titles for a plot of a story

· Quick Responses: Word association test, scored higher for uncommon responses

· Figure Concepts: Participants are given drawings of objects and asked to find features that are similar between the two, also scored high for uncommon responses

· Remote Associations: Participants are asked to find a word linking two others such as hand _____ call

· Remote Consequences: Participants are asked to make a list of consequences of a strange act, such as gravity failing

Hmmm… these are some strange tests, and a few seem like they might be kind of fun to try out! Using these, scientists have tried to come up with a universal standard of measurement for creativity, but there are just too many unknowns.

The authors of another set of creativity tests, called the Torrance tests of Creative Thinking, wrote this:

Creative innovation might require co-activation and communication between regions of the brain that ordinarily are not strongly connected.

In order to be creative, we’ve got to think in unusual ways and put unique concepts together.

These test creators also made a model of creative individuals’ minds. They say that creative people:

· Have a high level of specialized knowledge

· Are capable of divergent thinking mediated by the frontal lobe

· Are able to modulate neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine in their frontal lobe

So biologists have pinned down the hormone and area of the brain largely responsible for creativity! Perhaps creativity can be inherited through DNA. Through different functions that our brains naturally take on, we may be more creative, and these brain functions are inherited from our parents.

The first point is especially interesting. In order to be creative, you’ve already got to have a solid academic background in place.

What If I Don’t Have Creative Genes?

So, maybe you don’t think you’re naturally creative, or some days you sit at the screen for hours and nothing pops out. Here are a few slightly unusual ways from our scientists to kick your thinking into gear, creativity genes or no:

· REM Sleep: It’s a proven scientific fact that sleep will help you be more creative! Sound strange? Yeah, I thought so, too. But a full eight hours has been shown to get your brain going! REM sleep, rather than NREM sleep, appears to be responsible. During REM sleep, high levels of acetylcholine in the hippocampus region of the brain suppress feedback from the hippocampus to the neocortex region. Lower levels of these hormones in the neocortex encourage the spread of associational activity within neocortical areas. It is proposed that REM sleep would add to creativity by allowing neocortical structures to reorganize associative hierarchies, making new connections in the brain. That’s cool!

· Positive Effect: It has also been shown scientifically that positive emotions such as joy and love will make additional cognitive elements available for association and increase cognitive flexibility to boost the probability that these diverse elements will become associated. Being happy will help you be creative! No wonder I can’t get any work done when I’m stressed…

· Follow these Steps: Here’s a summary provided in a scientific paper on the various creativity techniques that have been proposed:

o Establish purpose and intention

o Build basic skills

o Rewarding curiosity and exploration

o Build internal motivation

o Encourage confidence and willingness to take risks

o Focus on mastery and self-competition

o Promote supportable beliefs about creativity

o Provide opportunities for choice and discovery

o Develop self-management skills

o Provide balance

There you have it! Those are some great, new things you can do to feed your creativity and create your most compelling content ever. Have you ever wished for a time when you could be more creative? Try these above steps and get back to me! I’m going to try them, too.

Let’s hear about your experiences in the comments! Have any of these steps ever worked for you or made a difference in your creativity? Do you think that you inherited your creative side from a certain parent in your family? What are your best moments of inspiration?

Can creativity be measured or made into a science, or is this just all bologna?

Let’s hear your thoughts!


  1. I hate it when people try to analyze and label and categorize something as elusive and delightful as "creativity". Save it for people who like mathematics. Can't figure that one out at all ;)

  2. @jan - Creativity is definitely elusive and delightful; I completely agree with you there. As to the science behind it, who knows? I think that attempts to figure it out are interesting, though.