Where does creativity come from?

Creativity is a tricky concept. Some would suggest its spontaneous nature sits outside traditional learning and that it can be nurtured through flexible forms of education. Others insist that in order to be creative we need to already have knowledge and facts stored in long-term memory. Both are legitimate proposals, yet as a predominately cognitive psychologist I’m more likely to opt for the latter. That said, creativity is in no way confined to our semantic memories (the facts; the general knowledge) but also to our episodic memory, our being in the world and experience of the ebb and flow of everyday life and social encounters. As I’ve explained before, facts can even get in the way of creativity. As regular visitors will be aware (and if you’ve read my books) you’ll know that I’m a stickler of definitions, so I suppose this is where I should start.

What is creativity?

The Oxford English dictionary defines creativity as the use of skill and imagination to produce something new or to produce art. The aim of creativity is to do something purposeful and create something that exists in the real world and has real world purpose, such as the light bulb, telephone or smartphone. Creativity has taken place when something new and valuable has been formed. Creating a painting or writing a novel culminates in a product, a thing that serves a purpose – painters, artists, metalworkers, inventors, carpenters are all creative people because what they produce can be both new and useful. However, not everyone is an eminent inventor or revered artist, even though they may be inventors and artists. Most people will have heard of Alexander Graham Bell, Nicola Tesla and Mark Zuckerberg. Hopefully, many people will also be familiar with Ada Lovelace, the Victorian pioneer of what would become computer programming. Few may be as familiar with Simone Giertz, the Swedish inventor, roboticist and YouTuber, famous for her ‘shitty robots’ (her phrase, not mine). Giertz is certainly creative, yet it’s unlikely she will be elevated to the heights of Thomas Edison. Psychologist James Kaufman would suggest that Giertz displays Pro-C creativity, she displays creativity but is not an eminent creator, while Edison could be said to display Big-C creativity, that is, creative and eminent. Kaufman has proposed a ‘Four C’ model of creativity that begins with the manifestation of personally meaningful interpretations of experience (mini-c) and extends towards everyday problem solving and creative expression (little-c) and upwards to Pro-C and Big-C creativity. In general, it’s only Big-C and little-c that are used more widely.

Simone Giertz demonstrating some of her shitty robots

Do creative people have different brains?

We can all be creative to some extent, but are some people simply born more creative than others? If they are, then it becomes increasingly difficult to view creativity as something that can be nurtured or taught and it’s likely that creativity is associated with measurable forms of intelligence (that is, IQ). So, are the brains of highly creative people different? This is what Roger Beaty, a cognitive neuroscientist at Harvard University, wanted to find out. Beaty and his colleagues asked volunteers to complete a divergent thinking task where they were asked to think of creative uses for everyday objects, including a gum wrapper and a sock. This task was carried out while volunteers were having their brains scanned using fMRI. Those who did better on the task, that is, came up with the most creative uses (such as using the sock as a filtration device) also reported having more creative hobbies and achievements. This finding wasn’t exactly new, as previous studies concur. The team then used a recently developed method, known as connectome-based prediction modelling (CPM), to correlate the creativity scores with all possible (about 35,000) brain connections. CPM can predict aspects of human behaviour, such as cognitive abilities, from the patterns of the whole brain functional connectivity (the extent to which different brain regions are communicating with each other). After correlating creativity scores with brain connections, the researchers removed those connections that didn’t correlate with them from the model. This left only those brain connections that appeared directly related to creativity. 

So the researches now had a model of the creative areas of the human brain, called the high creative network, that looked to be very relevant to the ability to generate original ideas. But will a person with stronger connections in the high creative network score well on divergent thinking tasks?  When researchers measured the strength of a person’s connections in this network and then carried out predictive modelling to estimate their creativity score, the predicted and observed scores showed a correlation, so creative ideas appear to be linked to the strength of the connection in the high creative network. What this means is that researchers had managed to isolate the specific areas of the brain that seemed to make people more creative and they could use this information to see if the strength of the connections between these areas actually made people more creative than those with weaker connections. Further examination confirmed this notion, but only modestly,  so it does appear that people with stronger connections do come up with more creative ideas (but only just).

Breaking all this down, the high creative network belongs to three specific brain systems: the default mode network, the salience network and the executive control network. The default mode network (or DMN) is a set of brain regions that are active when people are engaged in spontaneous thinking and when the brain has little else to attend to. This thinking would include mind wandering, daydreaming and imagining.

The second network, the executive control network, is a set of brain regions that activate when people need to focus or control thought processes. It might have a role to play in evaluating brainstormed ideas and determining if they will actually work, as well as modifying them to fit a creative goal.

The final network is the salience network, which acts as a switching mechanism between the default and executive networks.

These brain regions may play a role in alternating between idea generation and idea evaluation (whether the idea will actually work and how it can be adapted if necessary). The important thing to note here is that these three networks don’t usually activate at the same time, but creative people appear better at getting them to co-activate. Does this mean that creative people are somehow wired differently? The answer is, possibly. The results certainly indicate that creative people are better able to engage specific brain systems that don’t typically work together and these results are consistent with other recent fMRI studies of professional artists. 

Our ability to be creative might, therefore, be biological rather than learned, although we don’t know how or why these brain regions are operating in this way in more creative people. Divergent thinking tasks are also rather artificial, while creativity is often spontaneous and often the result of other stimuli in the environment. Imagination is not creativity, although creative people are often imaginative. An imagined object is not one that has purpose in the real world, it is merely that, an imagined object (an idea). It may well become a real world object but there is no reason why it should and may exist simply for the entertainment of the person in whose mind it resides. There is, therefore, no practical intent, the imagination just drifts, playing with ideas and images and skirting boundaries, often discovering connections between things along the way. This type of imagination is described as free play imagination, it often has little to do with what we know or the things we know how to do. Free play imagination is unfettered by boundaries, it’s intuitive and entirely content with not knowing why it sees what it does. This is imagination for the fun of it, rather than as a tool to solve problems or consider alternative possibilities.

However, sometimes our imaginings might be responding to a question, such as what would my life have been like if I had done this instead of that? Or, as Einstein asked himself, what would it be like to travel so fast that you caught up with a light beam? Both questions trigger experimental imagination rather than the free play variety. The question acts as centre of gravity and we are motivated to consider the question; we are more focused and confined within the boundaries of the question.

Are creative people more intelligent?

Traditionally, intelligence and creativity have been kept separate and it’s still unusual to find researchers looking at both together. Nevertheless, they do at times converge and the findings can be both enlightening and frustrating. During the late 1960s, pioneering psychologist J. P. Guilford developed what he called the Structure of Intellect Model of intelligence. By this time, intelligence was already a very fertile area of research, but Guilford was perhaps the first to combine it with creativity. He proposed that mental processes were either convergent or divergent. Convergent processes are those we think of as intelligence, those that narrow thought and lead to correct answers. Divergent processes, on the other hand, widen thought and lead to many responses. Intelligence (convergent thinking) is measured using standard IQ tests, of which several exist. Divergent thinking, on the other hand is measured using a divergent thinking task where volunteers are asked to offer up imaginative and unique uses for everyday items; if an individual can think of  uses that haven’t been offered by other participants, they are thought to be more creative.

In one study from 1965 conducted by long-time collaborators Michael Wallach and Nathan Kogan, different intelligence tasks correlated with each other, but not divergent thinking tasks. This led to the general view that intelligence and creativity are not related. Studies conducted over the following years appeared to support this view. However, more recently, researchers, including Paul Silvia at the University of North Carolina Greensboro have challenged this notion. When data from previous studies have been re-examined using up-to-date statistical techniques, relationships between creativity and intelligence appear to be much higher than the original findings. Specifically, a particular type of intelligence called fluid intelligence appears to correlate highly with creativity.

Intelligence refers to the structure of human abilities and the way they differ between individuals. Intelligence is linked to memory of all flavours and there is certainly a relationship between the capacity of working memory and how well people do on an intelligence test. Just like other aspects of psychology, models have been developed that attempt to describe the differences between people in terms of their cognitive abilities. The most influential and rigorously tested in these models in the Cattell-Horn-Carrol theory (or CHC), an amalgamation of two previous models, one developed by Raymond Cattell and John Horn, the other (known as three-stratum theory) developed by John Carroll. Cattell and Horn proposed that general intelligence (often referred to as g) consists of fluid intelligence (Gf) and crystallised intelligence (Gc). We can think of Gf as the processing power, so how well we reason and how well we adapt to new environments or solve novel problems – it’s the nuts and bolts of intelligence. Gc, on the other hand, is our accumulation of knowledge, including general knowledge and procedural knowledge (such as riding a bike). The two are related, with Gf being an important factor in the speed at which Gc knowledge is accumulated. So, if a person is high in fluid intelligence, they learn quicker and adapt better to novel situations. Not surprisingly, Gc increases with age, whereas Gf peaks in late adolescence and then declines steadily, which might explain why it takes longer to learn new things as we age.

John Carrol proposed that intelligence is composed of three strata that take into account a large number of individual differences in cognitive ability. People, for example, might be particularly skilled as recognising faces, dealing with complex calculations or writing fiction. Some people might simply be better at learning things and be able to pick up new skills or consolidate novel information faster and more efficiently than others. Carrol, therefore, separated intelligence into general (strata one) which represents general intelligence, or g; broad (strata two) which represented crystallised and fluid intelligence, as well as memory and processing speed, and narrow (strata thee) which are highly specific to the task in hand, such a spelling or mathematical ability. 

Fluid intelligence, therefore, appears to predict creativity. More specifically, the ability to store and retrieve verbal information in long-term memory is a skill more commonly found in creative people. In one study, Paul Silvia and Roger Beaty found that fluid intelligence predicted people’s ability to create metaphors in response to questions such as ‘what is it like to eat disgusting food?’ Humour is considered to be a creative skill and I, for one, often wish I was creative enough to produce those hilarious and often cutting responses we see on social media. Unfortunately, it often takes me a few days of contemplation before I can come up with a suitably humorous reply, by which time people have moved on, had babies, emigrated to Canada…

Indeed, people who are able to write funny captions for cartoons score higher on measures of fluid and crystallised intelligence. There is also some evidence emerging from neuroscience that links certain types of intelligence to creativity, but so far it’s too early to tell if this line of enquiry will bear fruit. 

What does all this tell us?

Creativity is certainly related to memory and intelligence, at least the fluid variety. This means that knowledge does matter, we just don’t really know just how vital it is. There’s been a recent trend in looking more at episodic memory in the emergence of creativity and, in particular divergent thinking. This study for example, looked at how mental time travel can help us come up with creative solutions.

However, this and many other studies are restricted to controlled laboratory conditions that take a snapshot rather than a longer-term view. There are a couple of longitudinal studies, but these are in the early stages and conclusions won’t be known for some time. Another question relates to the role of spontaneous creativity, that a-ha moment or eureka effect reportedly experienced by Archimedes, Newton and Crick and Watson. The latter phenomenon is obviously more difficult to study, although the University of Melbourne launched its Aha Challenge in 2019 in an attempt to plug this gap.   

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