On Scientific Creativity

A friend recently asked if I could recommend any popular books on creativity. This is not the first time someone has asked me this question, and while I'm eager to point people in the right direction, my list is pretty short (see below). In part this is because the creativity research is not really very exciting -- full of statistics and, unfortunately, a number of findings which are not very compelling. But, on further reflection, I realized that it also might reflect a deeper issue that warrants some description. What I've tried to do here is answer her question in my own words by describing this issue and also informally summarizing a few of the generalizable lessons I've learned over the last few years (citations excluded for the time being).

So, one of the thorny issues with the creativity research literature is that the general public has a clear definition of creativity that doesn't line up with the scientific findings -- that is to say it is overly romanticized. Creativity, in the minds of most Americans, is crazy and unencumbered and brilliant and risky and, above all, artistic. It's Van Gogh.

But this is not accurate. In truth, the vast majority of mentally-ill people are not creative at all, especially if they are highly anxious (a common feature of most mental illnesses). Anxiety inhibits novel thinking. Most unencumbered rule-breakers are marginalized. Brilliance writ large is not a pre-requisite as most every child fulfills the definitional requirements for creative output on a daily basis, just not in a way that is novel on a societal level. Most importantly -- and this one is just my opinion -- the only reason that “creative” has become synonymous with “artistic” is because artistry is almost universally attainable (allowing for vast ranges of quality, that is). No specialized training is required to paint, so there are many more examples of creative painting than creative uses of mathematics. An optimist would say that this is one of the reasons why STEM education (that's science, technology, engineering and math) has become a national priority, though I think it's mainly because we don't like the way our economic trajectory compares to those of other countries (read: China and India). I have come to believe that the romanticized paradigm does real harm, though I admit that even I was reluctant to give it up at first. Kids in our culture are routinely imbued with the seriously unproductive impression that creativity requires “crazy”, whether as a personality trait or a chemically induced state, and this detracts from the goal of getting adolescents and young adults to learn how to be themselves. This is a complicated point of course, but I'm just saying that I think a lot of people excuse irrational behavior because they think it is a necessary feature of creativity. If anything, the opposite is true.

One message about creativity that has been made well in the popular press is the theme of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (some of my academic colleagues might cringe at a reference to this work). In short, the path to exceptionalism has to go through effort. Unfortunately, Gladwell doesn't spend much time pointing out that most exceptional people are not just incredibly hard-working but also seem to be genetically well-suited for their field of expertise... presumably because that message is kind of a downer for the dreamer in all of us that yearns to believe that we're capable of anything if we only set our minds to it (have you seen me dance?). I don't mean to equate exceptionalism with creativity by the way. I just think it's a nice contribution to point out that truly novel creations are almost never divinely inspired. Research on this has identified very few corroborated cases where Really Big Ideas have come about spontaneously. Most creative output is produced by people who were born with one or more distinguishing qualities and who then sacrificed tremendously for the sake of their work.

On an individual level, an important realization relates to the simple fact that the mind is a dynamic place. People know that inhibition and tension block creative thinking but they often fail to take this into account in their day-to-day activities. For example, it makes sense to tackle creative tasks at times when you're feeling slightly less alert -- maybe even sleepy. Proofread or edit your output when you're body is attentive. Morning people may be productive from 8:00 to 10:00 am (especially if they've been drinking coffee since 6:00 am), but that's probably not their most creative time. I'm a night owl, by contrast, and I find that the words flow much more freely in the morning hours (but don't ask me to socialize then). By late afternoon, when I'm feeling most sharp, I trouble shoot and edit and meet with co-workers.

When going through the occasional periods in life where anxiety is consistently elevated, prioritize solutions to the underlying issues and acknowledge the fact that a significant portion of the anxiety that follows from crappy situations may stem from the coping behaviors rather than the underlying issues. When dealing with something that drains your physical and mental resources (in the most severe cases, we call this depression), try to spend less time hand-wringing and procrastinating and more time information-gathering and taking action. Easier said than done, of course. Taking action sometimes means accepting disappointing change. But even if the problem is such that it can't be tidied up and put away, you will still feel better about yourself if you are taking steps to address it and that recognition of self-worth is often enough to get things moving in the right direction.

The other idea that I have only recently come to appreciate is the fact that many creative contributions result from attempts to collaborate. This includes failed attempts, by the way. There is a general recognition that “insight” is a function of connectivity, both biologically and metaphorically. In other words, things click when a known relationship can be applied to a new context. Unfortunately, this process is inherently intractable. You can't force yourself to see things that you haven't seen before because... you don't know where to look. But you can explain your work to others, taking special care to describe the obstacles in a way that does not require expertise. This will lead to all sorts of analogous thinking that would not otherwise occur -- not only based on others' feedback but also from the experience of thinking hard about framing the important issues. I recently stumbled across a humorously titled article by a scientist who I really respect entitled “How to Win a Career Achievement Award” and it pleased me to read that this was one of his suggestions. In his case, this was achieved by making sure that the smartest people he knew were kept aware of the projects with which he was involved. He never hesitated to reach out when he hit an obstacle even though others often wouldn't respond. Just writing the issues out for them was helpful by itself, as were their occasional suggestions.

Finally, I would say it's key to be forgiving of yourself. Pressure is completely anti-thetical to creative output. This is why the best artists struggle to maintain their edge and most fail. Warhol said everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes, but it was the 15 minutes he meant to emphasize (not the “everyone”, which is clearly a silly interpretation). This point is not trivial. Things move too quickly for “creative” ideas to be viewed as such for very long. And that's ok because creativity should not be thought of as a goal or an end state. It is an experience that can lead to flow, self-awareness, and more insightful appreciation of the nuances around you. But it's not the only way to experience these things. If you're not feeling creative, go take a walk. It'll come to you later, maybe much later, likely when you're in the shower or doing the dishes. Unless something better comes along in the meantime, in which case you should follow that path for a while. After all, none of the most enviable creative geniuses actually set out to become an enviable creative genius. They mostly just followed their noses from one curious idea to the next, stealing other people's solutions for different problems along the way. Though completely unromantic, this seems to be the most effective method.

Here's a list of popular readings which I've enjoyed (and are at least somewhat related):
Where Good Ideas Come From
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life
Thinking, Fast and Slow
Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness"

Also, you might be interested to know that we are currently collecting data on creative achievements as part of the SAPA Project. If you'd like to participate, look for the link on the page that comes up right before your report. It's one of the green buttons on the left. We're looking to explore the relationships between various types of creative achievement and Temperament, Abilities and Interests.

This page last modified on May 24th, 2013.