What makes us creative?

notebook529999_81765483Chris Greene cropped
© Chris Greene, http://www.sxc.hu

We value creativity very highly – in science and every other area of life – but what makes a person creative? Creativity is not correlated to the much-contested score of mathematical and linguistic ability, spatial awareness and memory that is IQ. It also seems that one does not inherit creativity, at least not biologically. What we do know is that creativity can be nurtured. Children who are encouraged to be creative are more likely to be creative as adults, adults are more likely to be creative in certain environments, and the people around us are a vital source of inspiration.[1]

Susan Hackwood was a department head in the famously creative Bell Laboratories, the US telecommunications industry research lab that produced seven Nobel Prizes, and is now a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California. She has taken a professional interest in the cultivation of creativity, and has contributed to the recent book, Exceptional Creativity. Her research has revealed two personality traits and two abilities that must be encouraged in order for creativity to flourish.

The first creative trait is generating ideas – not just having ideas, which is something everyone does to some extent, but being uninhibited in voicing them. The second trait is ‘autonomous personal vision’. Truth, goodness and beauty: everyone’s definition may vary a bit, but the values are there and they drive what we do. The abilities that contribute to creativity are a readiness to master new knowledge and skills, and being able to sustain intense focused effort towards a goal. So how can one nurture these gifts?  The opportunity to learn and develop self-discipline is important, but one also needs a good dose of freedom. Creativity grows in environments where conformism is not valued too highly. There is a balance to be found between behaving in a moral way and being a pleasant person to be with, and conforming rigidly to existing ways of doing things. I have found Hackwood’s analysis of creativity very helpful in all sorts of ways – particularly when it comes to thinking about one’s own creativity – or lack of it – in certain areas.

Technology can help creativity to flourish: one only need think of a kid with a digital camera, a designer with a wide screen computer, or an academic with a laptop full of notes and journal articles. But time away from gadgets – or ‘that pokey flashy thing’, as a scientific friend’s husband calls her tablet – can also help creativity. My friend told me how she was recently stranded all day in an unfamiliar clinic with no internet connection, hoping (in vain) to meet patients who were eligible for a clinical study. At first she was intensely frustrated because she couldn’t answer emails or do something ‘constructive’, but boredom soon turned to creativity. She spent some time thinking about her research, and by the end of the day had come up with a good idea for a new project.

Being free from distractions does seem to be important in creativity, and never being bored is not always a good thing. I am a firm believer in mobile technology and the paper free office, but a movement is growing in the world of technology, education and creative thinkers to encourage us to switch our gadgets off every now and again.[2] There is evidence[3] that if we let our minds wander in the queue at the supermarket instead of answering emails we are more likely to come up with good ideas later. If we allow our thoughts to drift on the morning commute or while we fold laundry instead of listening to a podcast, we might well come up with more creative solutions to problems at work. The comedian John Cleese describes this approach as making ‘a tortoise enclosure for your mind’. It might involve sacrifices like switching off the phone for a couple of hours, shutting down your email, or turning off the car radio, but it’s worth it. Creativity is a shy animal that takes its time to come out of its shell and get to work, so every now and then we need to make ourselves a calm oasis for uninterrupted thinking.

I know that a certain environment and schedule can help me to be creative, but I’m not sure how the process actually comes about. I like to work by a window overlooking a green space (who wouldn’t?), but does what I see outside directly feed into my work? I can write a blog post, plant my garden in a certain way, or come up with an idea for a new project, but I could never give a precise explanation of where any of my ideas came from. Did they arise in my brain? Were they triggered by outside stimuli? Was it important that I was encouraged to do certain things as a child? ‘Come up with’ is particularly vague. All our words that describe the activity of generating ideas and making new things suggest a kind of conjuring up from nowhere. The word ‘create’ stems from the idea of God creating ‘ex nihilo’ (out of nothing), which is a paradox when applied to humans because we are completely incapable of making anything out of nothing. So when we talk about where our ideas come from, we tend to use world like ‘intuition’ or ‘inspiration’[4], as if originality can only come from outside ourselves. I think it does, and I think there’s also a spiritual component to it. I’ll explore that in later posts, but it would be interesting to hear whether you agree with this analysis of creativity so far.


[1] Susan Hackwood, “Technically Creative Environments”, in Exceptional Creativity in Science and Technology: Individuals, Institutions and Innovations, Ed. Andrew Robinson (Philadelphia: Templeton Press, 2013), 145-161
[2] http://readwrite.com/2013/03/29/the-iphone-killed-my-creativity;http://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/is-your-smart-phone-killing-your-creativity.html;http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/24/technology/silicon-valley-worries-about-addiction-to-devices.html?;http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/01/your-money/why-its-not-all-bad-to-be-bored.html?;

http://www.fastcompany.com/1829462/want-be-more-creative-get-bored

[3] http://www.scienceomega.com/article/763/the-benefits-of-boredom; http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-21895704;Teresa Belton & Esther Priyadharshini, “Boredom and schooling: a crossdisciplinary exploration” in Cambridge Journal of Education 37 (2007), 579–595; Benjamin Baird et al., “Inspired by distraction: mind wandering facilitates creative incubation” in Psychological Science 23 (2012),1117-22
[4] Margaret Boden, “Précis of The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms”, in Behavioural and Brain Sciences 17 (1994), 519-570

9 thoughts on “What makes us creative?

  1. scskillman July 11, 2013 / 10:18 am

    I do agree with your idea of creativity so far; in particular what you say about the value of “switching off” from daily life/technology now and again. Many creative minds have borne this out. And this serves as a validation, too, of day-dreaming. Ideas for great novels are conceived on long train journeys where there is nothing to do but gaze out of the window; or breakthrough moments may come in other word-free activities, like a solitary walk, or listening to instrumental music. The idea of the spiritual “retreat” also encompasses what you say. It may seem self-indulgence to turn off from all the reponsibilities of your life, and go away for a few days to a retreat centre, but in fact it is immensely valuable – for mental and spiritual health and for creativity. SC Skillman, Author, Mystical Circles

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  2. Greg Greene July 11, 2013 / 4:32 pm

    Dr. Bancewicz, thank you for this excellent and thought-provoking post. I’m an avocational playwright and theatre producer in the States and have practiced writing and story generation since I was a young child. One of the most fruitful activities I found to generate stories, lines of dialogue, and discover with the emotional state of a character is… mowing the lawn. Away from devices, away even from books, it’s a sweaty churn of ideas and emotions, at once mulling and free-flowing. It usually starts with the rearing up of an unresolved emotion and a riff from a Led Zeppelin tune and becomes a moment in a scene of a musical or a play. As much as I hate “wasting time” on the lawn, it’s good for idea generation and has been for many years. And the physical exertion probably delivers some benefit by pumping more blood through my body and brain.

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    • Ruth Bancewicz July 12, 2013 / 12:00 pm

      Thanks – and there is evidence that doing something mundane is good for creativity – maybe the exercise element of it is indeed helpful!

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  3. mygoatybeard July 13, 2013 / 7:36 am

    Your last paragraph is the most stimulating for me. The very concept of creativity is meaningless in a materialistic, deterministic worldview. How can we describe creativity without some suggestion of free will? Yet human creativity is one of the most highly valued human attributes in science, industry, politics, school…

    Looking forward to more thoughts.

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  4. Graeme Ritchie July 15, 2013 / 6:44 am

    I love the sentence “Creativity grows in environments where conformism is not valued too highly.”. What an important message for those involved in education, including science education.

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  5. michala July 16, 2013 / 12:50 am

    All forms of expression have a spiritual element.humans have the ability to create as well as destroy- free will? I believe something can be truly original – we have the power of imagination- where does this come from exactly and how did it evolve? Its the nature/ nurture argument.

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  6. Richard Hosking July 22, 2013 / 9:35 am

    Hi Ruth,

    Einstein would appreciate your analysis of the inverse relationship between distraction and mental creativity! In a speech at the Royal Albert Hall in 1933, he described how he “lived in solitude in the country and noticed how the monotony of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind.”*

    The broader context of his talk was Nazi Germany and its threat to intellectual and individual freedom, without which he said “there would have been no Shakespeare, no Goethe, no Newton, no Faraday, no Pasteur, and no Lister.”

    In a recent interview, Gustav Born – emeritus professor of pharmacology and son of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max (who fled Germany on Einstein’s advice) – attributed Hitler’s rise to unrestrained nationalism and militarism.* In contrast, Einstein spoke of the British people remaining “faithful to the traditions of tolerance and justice which for centuries you have upheld with pride.” (Interestingly, British broadcaster Melvyn Bragg ascribes the strength of liberal democracy in Britain and America to the enduring influence of the King James Bible.*)

    Gustav depicted academics of the 1930’s as highly-cultured internationalists, with their “ideas and research moving across national and political boundaries.”

    Steven Johnson has written that such ‘interconnectedness’ is central to creativity: particular environmental spaces – ranging from 17th-century coffee houses to weekly lab meetings – nurture good ideas, and these external, open, innovative systems reflect the internal neural networks of the human brain.* Furthermore, rather than ‘Eureka’ moments (and in agreement with Einstein), he believes slow hunches may need years to develop and come together (think of a conference for tortoises!). The tag-line of his TED talk is “Chance favours the connected mind.”

    Finally, Sir Ken Robinson feels that outmoded educational systems (based on the needs of 19th-century industrialism) significantly inhibit creativity. He reports that the capacity for divergent thinking (an essential component of creativity), actually falls with the number of years spent in education, and is probably exacerbated by the rise in standardised testing.

    His solution for overcoming such obstacles and developing creativity is to find one’s ‘Element’, which he defines as “the meeting point between natural aptitude and personal passion.” His book provides great examples of people who have done just that.*

    Some of these ideas are summarised in RSA Animate ‘video-scribes’, which are themselves fantastically creative.

    Steven Johnson – Where Good Ideas Come From
    (Replete with tortoises!)

    RSA Animate – Changing Education Paradigms

    References (in order)
    http://www.academic-refugees.org/downloads/Science%20and%20Civilisation%20transcript.pdf
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-23261289
    Melvyn Bragg ‘The Book of Books’ (Sceptre 2011) p.335-344

    Ken Robinson ‘The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything’ (Penguin 2010) Chapter 3. ‘Beyond Imagining’

    Great mind map of how to manage digital distractions:

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    • Ruth Bancewicz July 22, 2013 / 3:03 pm

      Wow, thank you for all that – I look forward to watching some of the videos!

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      • Richard Hosking July 24, 2013 / 1:42 pm

        No problem. Hope they help!

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