The increased outsourcing and automation of production and technical support jobs is of necessity shifting America’s vocational focus. An earlier column (The Community Roots of the Arts) discussed urban theorist Richard Florida’s belief (2004) that enhanced support for the creative vocations now provides a major hope for maintaining a vibrant culture and economy during the 21st century.
The creative vocations develop intellectual property: new ideas, technologies, and content. These are often turned into products that enhance employment and add economic value to the community. Florida reports a significant increase in our society’s creative workforce during the past several decades. Creativity can occur in any enterprise but it’s central to some fields, such as science, technology, and the arts.
Our society historically produced many creative advances related to processing and transporting our vast natural resources. Further, our country’s size encouraged creative advances in rapid communication technologies. Creative people with similar interests tend to congregate, and this helps explain why Detroit and Los Angeles became the hubs of the automotive and film industries.
Manufacturing binds workers to an assigned location and schedule. Creativity can occur anywhere and anytime, and much current creative activity is electronically transportable.
But what is creativity? How does it emerge in our brain? How is it best nurtured in an individual brain, and in a society of brains? It’s thus important to understand creativity, given the increasingly important cultural and economic roles it will play.
Nancy Andreasen’s new book, The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius (2005) is an excellent non-technical analysis of what she and other scientists have learned about creativity and how to enhance it. Andreasen’s distinguished research career in creativity underscores the book’s authority. Her PhD in English Literature sparked her initial interest in creativity, and her MD and subsequent studies of cognitive abnormalities led her to the neurobiology of creativity.
Much of our earlier understanding of creativity came from biographical and autobiographical accounts of people who were widely viewed as creative. Although Andreasen’s book explores the ordinary to extraordinary range of creativity, her research focused principally on the highly creative. Further, she has recently been able to supplement autobiographical accounts and observation data with neuroimaging studies.
Creativity involves the development of an original useful product (given broad definitions of the three concepts). Original thus doesn’t require the product to be entirely new. A creative person can create a new example of an existing form (a symphony or a novel), or a new combination of existing phenomena (putting an engine on a wagon to create a car). Similarly, a useful product could be the scientific creation of a new medication, but also the strong emotional arousal and extended attention that artistic and literary artifacts prompt.
Ordinary creativity is ubiquitous in that even something as normal as a conversation is incredibly creative. We create conversational comments on the fly, shifting thought and syntax at the millisecond level in response to conversational flow and body language. Conversational comments are original in that they’ve typically not been said before, and the informational product is typically useful.
Studies of highly creative people discovered that they are intelligent, typically in the 120-130 IQ range. They are oriented towards divergent thinking, in that they can and prefer to imagine a variety of appropriate responses to a challenge. Convergent thinking involves the search for a single correct answer to a problem.
A highly creative personality seeks new experiences, is tolerant of ambiguity, and approaches life and the world relatively free of preconceptions. This flexibility sparks unconventional perceptions that others often don’t understand or accept. The highly creative are persistent in expressing their beliefs, however, and so they develop the skills that will allow them to create superior artifacts and explanations that communicate their beliefs.
Andreasen reports that creative thinking often moves swiftly and at multiple levels. Solutions often emerge in a flash after a period in which our mind had wandered across the mental landscape that defined the challenge—mentally tagging initially unrelated bits of information.
Highly creative people suffer more from periods of mood disorder than normal people. Experiencing the world as more complex and ambiguous than others do, combined with a reluctance to accept the judgments of presumed authorities, takes its toll. Feelings of social alienation and depression can easily follow. Too much openness means living on the edge.
The incidence of both creativity and mood disorders are elevated within the families of highly creative people, but it’s difficult to separate the relative effects of genetics and the family environment as causative factors.
The neuroimaging study of creativity is in its early stages but some direction is emerging. Perhaps most important is that creative processing doesn’t occur within a single brain area, but rather is distributed across many systems. The prefrontal cortex, thalamus, cingulate, and association areas seem to play important roles. The Internet is another example of a distributed system. No one person or system controls it. Rather the interactions of many people and systems continually reshape the Internet’s current state.
Our brain is thus a dynamic, distributed, self-organizing system, capable of frequent unpredictable shifts in thinking—and often without any external input. Creativity emerges out of wandering subconscious thoughts that enhance the editing and free association of existing concepts. Such activity inhibits the normal restrictions of reality—our knowledge of what’s possible and appropriate. In some respects, this is also what occurs during dreams, when the improbable seems probable.
Andreasen thus suggests that creative thinking probably begins with the free exploration of previously unlinked phenomena. New organizations eventually emerge out of such initial exploration, and this eventually creates original useful cognitive products—a poem, a sculpture, a scientific discovery.
Extraordinarily creative people seem to shift easily from the normal to an abnormal perspective of a phenomenon. Andreasen speculates that this may be because the connections among their brain’s association networks are enriched or differently organized. Whatever the arrangement, the extraordinarily creative perceive and think differently than normal people do. This is probably both a blessing and a curse. It makes them creative but also vulnerable.
The highly creative are probably innately predisposed to their condition, but creativity must be nurtured to realize the potential. Recent research in brain plasticity suggests that creative capabilities can be enhanced in everyone, and at any age. Andreasen devotes the last section of her book to general suggestions on how this might occur.
Her suggestions are similar to an exercise regime that seeks to enhance motor functions: Identify the functions you want to enhance, and then involve yourself in activities that will accomplish that goal.
Recall that the research suggests that highly creative people seek new experiences, are tolerant of ambiguity, and approach life and the world relatively free of preconceptions.
Andreasen thus suggests that we broaden our life and knowledge base by explicitly exploring intriguing new areas. Further, since creativity seems to emerge out of free-association thought, we should spend some time each day meditating or just thinking for the sake of thinking. We should also imagine non-present objects and events, and mentally argue the other sides of important issues. We should carefully observe things that we normally ignore, and seek connections to our life. We should write or sketch what we observe, and note how our ability to make new connections improves over time through such recorded observations. In effect, we should slow down and smell the daisies.
Nothing fancy about any of these suggestions, just as there’s nothing fancy about a conversation. Such simple activities can become very creative however. For example, folks spend a lot of time observing televised activity. Shift from the electronic to the natural world, slow things down to human scale for yourself and/or for your students, and see what happens.
Mark off a ground surface space the size of your TV screen and spend 15 minutes a day over a couple weeks carefully observing and recording what occurs within it. At first you’ll observe and record the obvious, but you’ll note subtler plant, animal, and other changes over time—and you’ll begin to make connections you didn’t make when you just glanced at the area when you formerly passed it. Consider variations: observe a pet or an aquarium; observe traffic or pedestrian activity from a single spot; observe a shrub; observe the weather; listen to the same song or read the same poem every day (Sylwester, 2003).
You’ll discover that slowing down and contemplating your observations enhances creative thinking. The current external pressures to meet and assess state school standards can thus diminish the development of student creativity.
Creativity is both an ordinary and extraordinary brain property that must be understood—and wisely and gently nurtured. Nancy Andreasen is an excellent guide.