What It Actually Means to Be Creative

Alina Cohen
May 3, 2019 9:47PM
Shang Chengxiang 商成祥
Magritte's Cloud, ca. 2017

The ancient Greeks were so mystified by creativity that they attributed it to a series of goddesses: the muses. Calliope inspired poetry, while Melpomene and Thalia were responsible for tragedy and comedy. These days, a “muse” is considered to be a living person—often a woman—who spurs an artist to create great work. Yet the concept is entirely insufficient when it comes to explaining how humans have produced great paintings, sculptures, literature, music, and scientific breakthroughs for thousands of years. These days, psychologists and neuroscientists take a data-driven approach to understanding creativity.

While we often associate creativity with artists, some version of it is necessary to a wide range of disciplines. Myriad jobs involve the problem-solving and idea-generation that we refer to as “creativity.” The term itself, however, is surprisingly difficult to define, and academics have only recently begun to measure it. But even as scientists track what occurs in our brains when we arrive at a creative breakthrough, the concept remains mysterious. The frustratingly fickle force can easily leave you wondering what exactly we mean when we talk about creativity.

Creativity studies began in the middle of the 20th century. At the time, researchers agreed on a standard definition: A person, idea, or product is creative if it is both original and effective (or as some prefer to say, novel and appropriate). Originality indicates that a person or thing does something unique, explained Mark Runco, director of creativity research and programming at Southern Oregon University. Yet, he added, “many original things are worthless.” Essentially, being original doesn’t necessarily make someone or something creative. In addition to being original, the person or idea must be effective—it must have a sense of purpose. In other words, it can sell, communicate, or capture a feeling.

Some contemporary researchers believe that all creativity also necessitates a dialogue between the creator and someone who understands her. “Creativity does not happen inside people’s heads, but in the interaction between a person’s thoughts and a sociocultural context,” affirmed Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his 1996 book Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention. “It is systemic rather than an individual phenomenon.” In practice, this means that if an artist makes an incoherent work that they believe to be brilliant, it might indeed be wholly original—yet the fact that others can’t understand it means it has no cultural value. In Csikszentmihalyi’s estimation, the artwork wouldn’t count as being creative.

Runco disagrees, believing that an individual can be creative without the affirmation of an audience. He has developed his own theory, which assesses creativity from what he calls a “process perspective.” “I believe creativity occurs when an individual creates a new understanding,” he told me. “They invent new meaning.” This originates with a single creator—what Runco terms “primary creativity.” When a person shares their idea, artwork, or other creative product with a receptive audience, they create new meaning and produce “secondary creativity.”

When I spoke to Dr. Jonathan Fineberg, who directs the program for a Ph.D. in creativity at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, he offered a broad definition of creativity that could apply to anyone from a sculptor to a pair of roommates arguing over household chores. “It’s an ability to look at a problem with a kind of freshness,” he said. Similarly, Runco believes that creative acts can be anything from cooking or getting dressed to using language and adjusting to day-to-day struggles.

Fineberg noted that there’s a biological basis for his definition. Humans take in so much information from the world around us—sights, smells, sounds, and more. Creativity is about being able to put those pieces together in a new way. This phenomenon transcends occupation, or “domain” of intelligence, and can apply to anyone from a doctor attempting to arrive at a diagnosis, to a salesperson attempting to persuade a stubborn potential buyer. “The commonality is the ability to be elastic in our response to the information that we have, the experiences we have, and the perceptions that we have no matter what the field is,” Fineberg said.

In his 2012 book Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer wrote that “creativity is a catchall term for a variety of distinct thought processes.” He traced a number of studies that have examined creative breakthroughs, or epiphanies.

Psychologists Mark Beeman and John Kounios, for example, have conducted experiments while participants solve a variety of puzzles. They measured brain activity with fMRI (a brain scanner) and EEG (electroencephalography, which measures brain waves). Beeman and Kounios determined that “breakthroughs,” or moments of creative insight, are hardly spontaneous strokes of genius.

As one subject attempted to solve a problem, the left hemisphere of her brain (associated with logic, reason, and language) began to activate. When she was stumped for an answer, her brain began to shift its activity to the right side (responsible for imagination and self-expression). “Thirty milliseconds before the answer erupts into consciousness, there’s a spike of gamma-wave rhythm, which is the highest electrical frequency generated by the brain,” wrote Lehrer. Gamma rhythm may occur when neurons (nerve cells) bind together and form new networks. A small fold of tissue called the anterior superior temporal gyrus (aSTG), located in the right hemisphere, may be responsible for this biological change—fMRIs showed that it becomes active just before a breakthrough.

Why devote so much academic and scientific resources to studying creativity? After all, creativity is neither life-saving nor necessary for basic human functioning. Csikszentmihalyi argues, however, that creativity is a core element of humanity.

First, creativity distinguishes us from other animals—we’re the only beings that make art, develop inventions, and solve crosswords. Second, it adds meaning to our lives. “The excitement of the artist at the easel or the scientist in the lab comes close to the ideal fulfillment we all hope to get from life, and so rarely do,” Csikszentmihalyi wrote. “Perhaps only sex, sports, music, and religious ecstasy…provide as profound a sense of being part of an entire entity greater than ourselves. But creativity also leaves an outcome that adds to the richness and complexity of the future.”

Alina Cohen