what is creativity?

November 14, 2008

What is creativity?

Yesterday I listened to a programme on BBC Radio Four (Material World –  only available for a week as a Listen Again link?) part of which was devoted to ‘creative brains’. This was a discussion about the differences/overlaps between artistic creativity and scientific creativity. The two speakers, neuroscientist Prof. Colin Blakemore and artist Daria Martin, were the first lecturers in a series on the subject of creative brains to be held at Bristol University.

When asked to comment on whether or not artists and scientists used their brains differently Prof. Blakemore said creativity was a complex process but that in the end (my emphasis) scientists’ and artists’ use of creativity came to different things. Scientists, through experimentation, come to truths about the world independent of themselves: the truths don’t belong to the scientist. Artists, he maintained, are experimenting on the emotional reactions of their audience. In this he said the identity of the artist is central. Ms Martin said that there was some overlap but the two ‘types’ work in different modes. Artists are, she says, intuitive, scientists are methodical.

Well, I am no neuroscientist (and I may not be considered an artist either) but this seemed to me to be plain wrong. First, Prof. Blakemore is talking about the products of creativity not the processes. Of course the outcomes are different, but research carried out by many experts in this field (and evidence from scientists in the past) indicates that there are common approaches to creative problem-solving in all aspects of our culture. From my own research and my work with illustration and graphic design students over the past twenty years I know that while creativity is a complex set of processes, there are basically two methods for the induction of  creativity. One is generic and can be taught, and the other is a personal process that one has to observe in oneself and learn to manage. Secondly, Ms Martin’s distinction is not only simplistic and clichéd, it is wrong.

There is so much rubbish and mystification talked about creativity that I would like to set out some clear and fairly simple statements. Our pre-historic ancestors, using pieces of shattered flint, sharpened twigs, animal gut and bits of bone to solve the problems they faced in order to survive are surely all the evidence we need to prove that we are a naturally creative species.

At this point it becomes necessary to define what creativity is. My own definition is the generation of anything new.  This may seem far too simplistic and short a definition to be of any use and indeed Teresa Amabile, (Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration and Co-Head of the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at Harvard Business School) a leading expert on creativity and its methodologies adds “and useful” to the end of that sentence in her definition.

You will find many more lengthy, dense and diverting definitions elsewhere, but I believe while they often add heat to the debate, they rarely add light. The ‘lone wolves’ who populate the world of creativity like the mystification and the enigmatic power it gives them. It is true that the methodologies by which creativity can be taught to and developed by individuals and groups need to be expanded upon; but it is this simple definition that is the kernel of the activity.

And while I tip my hat to Ms Amabile’s expertise in many things regarding creativity and the processes that generate it, I must disagree about that “and useful”. The ‘use’ may not exist yet: the solution generated may be for a problem that has still to occur. It would be unwise to discard it for reason of its lack of immediate application, or to deny its creative potency. It is untapped potential, but that does not stop it being creative.

When we practice creativity we play. Einstein defined creativity as “combinatorial play.” We play with notions, images, shapes, scenarios, words. The infant child learning to speak mimics its parents as they try to teach it the basics of communication: ‘mama’, ‘dada’. Then at a point in the journey to fluency a small child will say something like “Daddy threwed my toy away.” When did the child hear its parents say ‘threwed’? What is happening is that the child is beginning to expand its vocabulary and its understanding of grammar by playing with the rules it feels it has already stored away in its brain. It knows that a word that refers to a past event often ends in ‘-ed’ and it is intuiting that this form can be applied to all words regarding past events. It is playing with words: it is creating.

Whenever any one of us speaks to another (without reading directly from a printed text) we are being creative. From where do the sentences come that you speak to me? From where does my response come? Before we uttered them, they did not exist. We created them. The nature of language is such that most of what we say or hear is produced for the first time, rather than remembered. We have a storehouse for language in our brains, full of speech sounds, word patterns, rules for creating words and putting them together in sentences. This ability to make and comprehend language has become so automatic that it has perhaps become the most unobvious creative act we all regularly engage in.

It is perhaps this ubiquity of our ability to be creative that has blinded us to its existence and made us think, falsely,  that only ‘special’ people (artists, musicians) can be truly creative. This is simply not so and to continue to think in this manner institutes a divisiveness in society that benefits no one.

Next: Understanding creativity

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3 Responses to “what is creativity?”

  1. Oscar Grillo Says:

    Too many words. I won’t read this. Sorry.

  2. sharrock Says:

    Oscar, as ever, you are right! I have re-posted it. In smaller chunks 😉

  3. Oscar Grillo Says:

    It has improved no end.


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