Many people have tried to explain the source of creativity. In the past few years, there has been a lot of research on the topic. But just as much remains a mystery, and many questions remain unanswered. Knowing the state of play can significantly boost your own creativity and creative processes.
This article explores some of the recent research, and combine it with creative experiences, in order to get a deeper understanding of just how creativity originates within us.
Creativity and Ideas: the Chicken and the Egg
So, which comes first – creativity or ideas?
Creative ideas are born out of experiences. These experiences are far from perfectly formed or aligned.
Tolkein stated this wonderfully when he wrote about the process underlying his creation of ‘The Lord of the Rings’:
One does not write such a story from the leaves of trees yet to be observed, nor by the means of botany and soil science; but it grows like a seed in the dark from the foliage of the mind: from all that has been seen or thought or read, long forgotten, down into the depths. Doubtless there is much to choose from, as with a gardener: what one throws on one’s personal compost heap.J. R. R. Tolkien
Ideas inspire creativity (and it’s better to have too many than too few!)
On the other hand, without creativity, ideas cannot exist. Making your ideas into reality means giving them wings and transporting them into the real world.
That’s why it seems impossible for me to separate ideas and creativity or put one above the other.
It is an absolutely symbiotic relationship!
The World Around Us
The study of creativity can be traced back to Aristotle, who saw creativity as the product of natural laws. Plato, on the other hand, regarded it as a kind of inspiration and madness. Since then, scientists and academics have studied creativity, and many theories have been proposed to explain it.
The discussion goes far beyond academia: there are the experiences and accounts of creative people themselves to consider!
Despite hundreds of books being written on the subject, there is no consensus on where creativity originates. But it’s well worth asking the question from the perspective of art and science – not least because it serves as a creative prompt in its own right!
When we look at the world around us and see countless examples of creativity at work and at play, it’s natural to ask where that creativity comes from.
We are rarely satisfied when things just happen – we usually want to know how they happen. And why!
How did the Wright Brothers invent and build their airplane? What is the basis of Nina Simone’s appeal to millions of people around the world? How did Picasso come up with cubism?
Where does this creative spark that underlies creative works – be it innovations, art, or ideas that have changed our world, originate?
Creativity Comes From a Variety of Sources
There is no one “source” of creativity. Creativity is complex and ultimately may withhold from us some of its greatest secrets.
However, I think it is fair to say that we are creative beings. Our relationship to creativity has a lot to do with the world of ideas in which we have grown and our own life experiences.
Scientific studies have shown no specific part of the brain that is solely associated with creativity. It seems that creativity comes from a combination of many parts and factors of the brain working together.
70 percent of intelligence is genetic, but only 30 percent of creativity is hereditary, which means that creativity is primarily learned and therefore comes from many different sources – external and internal.
Creativity Breeds Creativity
Just as success breeds success, so too does creativity generate creativity.
By observing the products of creativity – in art, music, architecture, programming, theater, writing, business, and an infinite variety of other forms – we tap into a bottomless well of inspiration.
This is especially true now that we have an incredible range of creative techniques and tools at our disposal. Almost every expression of creativity is at our fingertips.
This has advantages and disadvantages. Filtering out quality from junk is a huge problem.
The Root of Creativity
The people and places we watch are essential sources of creativity. Provided we take the time and care to observe and learn from them!
The fact is, creativity is all around us! All the time!
It can be found in the most unusual places. It is certainly not limited to the artists or musicians typically associated with creativity. It’s a mistake to look only at the outliers.
Another misconception I sometimes encounter is that creativity is limited to simply recombining facts or knowledge into something else.
If it were, this would be a short article! And quick to write!
Creativity is about synthesizing knowledge and experience and the wisdom gained from it as we go through life.
The experiences of daily life, the ebb and flow of our thoughts and feelings, our own imagination, our dreams, and the world around us are all sources of creativity.
Creativity Is a Skill
The bottom line is that creativity is a skill that anyone can learn and develop. Not something divinely gifted to a precious few.
Not to mention the fact that we cannot avoid our creative destiny! We are born with creativity deeply embedded in us.
Albert Einstein (1879-1955), famous for developing the theory of relativity, believed that every child is born a genius.
Sir Ken Robinson, famous for his TED Talk about why schools kill creativity, put it eloquently when he said:
…like many human abilities, our creative powers can be cultivated and refined. This involves an increasing mastery of skills, knowledge, and ideas. Creativity is about fresh thinking. It doesn’t have to be new to all of humanity – through that’s always a bonus – but certainly to the person whose work it is.”Sir Ken Robinson
We are all born creative, but it seems that some of us allow ourselves greater latitude of imagination than others.
Imagination is more than just a sense of whimsy and fantasy: it’s more about looking at the world in novel ways. Exercising our imagination is the key to creativity.
We need to let our imaginations soar.
In the business and technology world, people have tried to define the essential “skills of creativity” – among them:
Clarify – The ability to identify a problem or challenge worth addressing.
Replicate – The ability to put existing things into a new context.
Elaborate – The ability to connect seemingly disparate things together to create something new.
Associate – The ability to use analogical thinking to solve problems.
Translate – The ability to communicate your vision to others.
Evaluate – The ability to choose the best idea.
Thinking is also a critical, creative skill – especially ‘divergent thinking’.
This means taking a need or challenge as a starting point and making connections between ideas to generate new possibilities.
Getting Out of Our Own Way
Creativity and art come from life. It’s everywhere. It’s ubiquitous.
Our job is not to look for it but to harness our creativity and use it in our work. Or rather, to let it flow through us, via our senses, into whatever means we choose to express it.
It’s about getting out of our own way!
Do Creative People Have Different Brains?
White matter makes the connections between different brain structures. The better the areas of the brain are connected, the better and faster the brain can process information.
In the creative process, a well-connected brain can allow you to bring more ideas together faster.
Your brain forms connections and changes throughout your life.
Creative activity can stimulate communication between different parts of the brain. Artists and creative people use the right side of the brain, which is associated with creativity, more than others.
But does that mean creative people literally have differently wired brains?
Researchers at the University of Utah dispelled the myth that there were “right-brained” and “left-brained” people when they studied more than a thousand people with MRI brain scans in 2013.
They concluded, “Our data are not consistent with a whole-brain phenotype of greater ‘left-brained or greater ‘right-brained network strength in individuals.”
In other words: We all use both sides of our brains, and none of us have a stronger side!
How we use our brains is another matter entirely!
Creativity Can Pop Up Unexpectedly
One of the great things about creativity is that it resists all attempts to show up on demand!
It tends to show up when you least expect it. Or when you need it the most! This is why creativity is so powerful and why it is so important to harness your creative capacity.
All kinds of activities can build that capacity.
It’s imperative to have a way to capture our creative impulses, our crazy and brilliant ideas, or our sparks of creative inspiration as they arise.
Before they melt into oblivion!
Remember the story of the poet Coleridge who, while writing the famous poem Kubla Khan, which appeared to him in a dream, was interrupted by a workman from the English village of Porlock.
When Coleridge returned to his chair, he found that the grand and inspired version of Kubla Khan, which had been supplied to him by his muse, had slipped away. He left us a shorter and less perfect version!
At least that’s how the story goes!
Hacking Our Brains to Increase Our Creativity
We can take advantage of recent developments in neuroscience to better produce the creative ideas we need to do our jobs.
Neuroscience is constantly evolving. As are methods and techniques for improving mental activity (including creativity) by using the brain – an approach is known as ‘Brain Hacking’.
We might call what follows below ‘Creativity Hacking’:
Distraction Can Lead to Creativity
Distraction is good for you! It’s official!
Distraction can be productive. It’s now proven that our brains release chemicals that lead to increased creativity when we’re distracted by something else.
In one study, participants were asked to brainstorm about a particular topic. For one group, creativity was increased by being distracted while they worked.
This is not the same as multitasking, which can seriously harm your creative output and the quality of your work. Because it involves doing several things at once – and it takes you away from focusing on one of those things.
Being Tired Can Lead to Creativity
Creativity can come from being tired.
I experienced this when I was narrating fiction audiobooks because I was recording several hours a day. When I got tired, my creative output increased. I could feel it!
There’s also a counterintuitive thing to consider: being tired and not having time to rest can actually make us more creative!
I have found that creative activity serves as energy fuel for me. It’s like a turbo boost to my energy level – I can work further and longer!
This is very much related to the fact that when we find joy in our work, we do it better and feel motivated and refreshed. We feel more alive.
New Experiences Can Lead to Creativity
I find over and over again that new experiences – themes, images, sounds – can trigger ideas for creative writing and other creative expressions.
These new experiences can be seemingly insignificant or life-changing.
Therefore, striving to live a rich and varied life helps stimulate our creative capacity.
I will consciously choose a new route for a regular drive or try a new restaurant or café.
We live in a world where we can connect to almost anyone or anything within seconds.
This is not always beneficial because it takes away the element of surprise and risk. It can lead to a “cocoon effect”, whereby we become dullened to new experiences.
Inversion as a Creative Technique
This will sound familiar to the professional photographers among us:
Try walking around your room intentionally, misnaming everything in the room. The table becomes ‘computer.’ The curtains are renamed ‘carpet.’
Keep going for 5 minutes, calling out these new labels out loud while pointing at things. However ridiculous it may seem.
Then stop. And look. Chances are, everything will come into sharper focus. You’ll be more aware of things around you as your brain tries to rewire its understanding of your surroundings.
There is a variation of the exercise where you walk slowly towards something, intentionally looking to one side. Then you stop and look directly at the object you have been avoiding.
It comes back into sharper focus.
This fun and playful exercise take place in the physical realm. But you can do the same with your imagination.
For example, imagine that a clock is fluid. That elephants walk on stilts. Sound familiar?!
We could call this approach ‘Imagination Hacking’.
Are Creative People More Intelligent?
Sometimes people think that creativity is inseparable from intelligence. That you have to be intelligent to be creative.
This does not seem to be the case.
Creative people seem to be characterized more by their attitudes, drives, and interests than by their intellectual ability – provided they have an IQ score of more than 120.
This does not mean that there is a connection between academic achievement and creative ability and expression.
I prefer to think of creativity as a fundamental aspect of intelligence.
What Happens in the Brain During Creative Thinking?
Let’s just assume that creativity resides in the human brain.
The reason I make this assumption in the first place is that I don’t think science has fully solved the mysteries of life and how life energy – what a doctor once told me is “life force” – works!
This is not to say that I devalue science in any way. Far from it!
Another caveat: It’s hard to keep up with neuroscience in this area (I’m not a neuroscientist myself!), and there are always debates and disagreements among specialists!
That said, some things strike me as noteworthy:
Brain Regions – the Left and Right Hemispheres
The brain hemispheres and the functions of the hemispheres are still an active topic for neuroscience and psychology.
In the last decade, the left hemisphere has been associated with logical thinking and the right hemisphere with creativity.
But research at Harvard University shows that creativity can be found in both hemispheres.
In other words, creative thinking is a ‘team effort’ in the brain.
The study shows that the more creative a person is, the more activity there is in both the right and left sides of the brain. The research also shows that those who are more creative have more connections between the two sides of the brain.
This is a significant finding as it reflects the idea that creative people have a more “integrated brain.” In other words, more creative people are more capable of processing information from both sides of the brain.
It also means that creative people can more easily draw on both sides of their brain to help them solve problems. An important skill when it comes to being innovative.
Beaty and colleagues at Harvard University recruited 163 volunteers and used functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan their brains. The team then trained “raters” to review the responses from participants and evaluate how creative their ideas were.
They found three networks that appear to play critical roles in creative thought. The default mode network is involved in memory and mental simulation.
The salience network detects essential information, both in the environment and internally. It’s looking for things that stand out.
“People who think more flexibly and come up with more creative ideas are better able to engage these networks that don’t typically work together and bring these systems online.” “This is a whole-brain endeavor.”
Creativity and the Temporal Lobe
The temporal lobe is one of the four major lobes of the brain, sitting near the spine. It’s associated with sensuality, creativity, and transcendent experiences.
In 2005, Flaherty argued that creativity depends on the same neuro-anatomically based drive manifested in mania.
She concluded that creativity involves the frontal lobes and the temporal lobes and, most important for the creative drive, the limbic system (the nerves and network in the brain, which control our emotions and drives).
When our temporal lobes are relaxed or damaged, it seems to expand our creative horizons, reduce inhibitions, and foster creative associations.
Though mental illness would not, of course, be wished on anyone – it does appear to be a beneficial side effect that creativity is enhanced.
Which does not mean to say that you need to be mentally ill to be creative!
In conclusion, creativity is a skill that you can nurture. It may seem like creativity comes from some mystical place. Still, it’s an ability that anyone can develop with practice and work. We’ve talked about how getting out of your own way and generating ideas where they might not be expected, are just two ways to tap into this powerful resource. Join our newsletter for more information on creative thinking and creative processes.