It appears many of us want a formula for creativity. There are 11, 386 books on creativity for sale on Amazon, most of them promising to unlock the secrets of being creative. Scientists studying how the brain works are mapping the brain’s responses to creativity – music, color, art – as well as trying to measure neural activity when we are creative.
There’s a long way to go to understand how our brains are wired, but Scott Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire report on what we know so far in their book Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind. It’s a survey of the latest learning in neurology and psychology.
John Paul Titlow helpfully summarizes some of the findings in an article in Fast Company:
- 72% OF PEOPLE HAVE CREATIVE INSIGHTS IN THE SHOWER
- THE INTROVERTS ARE ONTO SOMETHING: SOLITUDE IS WHERE CREATIVITY THRIVES
- TRYING NEW THINGS MAKES YOU MORE CREATIVE
- TRUST YOUR INTUITION, THAT’S HOW LSD WAS DISCOVERED
- TRAUMA HAS HIDDEN CREATIVE PROPERTIES
- DAYDREAMING IS SURPRISINGLY GOOD FOR YOUR BRAIN
- SOME OF THE BEST IDEAS ARE WIDELY RIDICULED BEFORE THEY’RE REVERED
See any patterns? Creativity seems to be an inherently disruptive activity – we seem wired to be creative when we’re not focused on a directed path. Creativity happens when we’re released from routine. We create when we experience new things and respond, when we’re daydreaming, play hunches, or are jolted by trauma.
As it turns out, there’s a major neuroscientific basis for the link between openness to new experience and creative thinking. Exploration is tied to the neurotransmitter dopamine, which also plays a role in motivation and learning (among other things) and “facilitates psychological plasticity, a tendency to explore and engage flexibly with new things,” the authors write.
Wouldn’t it be disappointing to learn that creativity – art – is the product merely of a series of neural chemical or electrical switches thrown in the right order? Or worse, that they could be systematized and replicated at will? That there’s a definitive path to peak creativity?
Elite athletes have improved their performances generation after generation as we’ve unlocked secrets to how the body performs. That there are so many books on creativity suggests that we’re looking for a similar edge for being more creative.
But research so far seems to suggest that rather than the product of a systematic process, creativity flourishes best when it’s the result of or in response to disruptive action that throws us into uncertainty.
UPDATE: This story in today’s Guardian looks at Finland’s school system, for 16 years ranked as tops in Europe. Their secret, asks the article? A deliberate emphasis at an early age on creative play:
In Finland, whose comprehensive school system has sat at the top of Europe’s rankings for the past 16 years, the narrow, heated debates on school governance and structure that obsess the UK – free schools,academies, grammars – do not exist. Schools ultimately deliver academic success, the Finns would agree – and there has been intense worldwide interest in how they manage it (see below) – but they would also argue that groundwork for good school performance begins earlier, long before children enter formal school, and arguably while their future pupils are still in nappies.
Central to early years education in Finland is a “late” start to schooling. At Franzenia, as in all Finnish daycare centres, the emphasis is not on maths, reading or writing (children receive no formal instruction in these until they are seven and in primary school) but creative play.