What is Creativity?

By Wil Forbis
May 1, 2011

The Our Wacky Brain collection:

I've phrased several of the titles in this Wacky Brain series in the form of questions. For example, my maiden voyage --- in which I attempted to catalogue some of the brain functions and properties that lead to our emotional state --- was titled, "What Is Emotion?"

As is obvious, I'm taking the same tact here. But before one can attempt to answer the question "what is creativity?" from a brain perspective, one must ask another question: what is creativity? By this I mean: do we even have a general purpose working definition for the term, from which we can start to explore brain related aspects?

what is the mysterious force of human creativity?Clearly creativity is involved in creating, or making, things. But we apply the term somewhat indiscriminately. If an auto worker helps make a car, we don't think of him as particularly creative. When your mom makes dinner, you don't compliment her genius.

We tend to think of creativity as belonging mostly to the domain of the arts (much to the chagrin of scientists, politicians, manufacturers and business people who would correctly argue that they must be creative to succeed in their fields.) If we see a child painting several pictures of a cat, we say, "aren't you creative!?" If we see a child playing with a microscope, we simply think he's going to grow up to be a nerd.

We also recognize that creativity is a measure of quality not quantity. If someone pens several derivative horror romances about vampires (the Twilight series, for example) we do not consider them as creative as someone who envisions an entirely new type of monster and then puts this monster at the center of a novel which leads the reader down a series of twists and turns that completely challenges the narrative form. The newness of what is being created is relevant to how deserving it is of the term creativity.

But what does "newness" mean? Does a creative art product need to dispense entirely with elements or materials used to make art in the past? Would a creative musician have to completely eliminate instruments and melodies, for example? Would a creative visual artist do away with paints, sculpting clay or recognizable shapes and colors?* Usually not. Creative art connects existing elements and materials in new and interesting ways. Paintings of guitars and faces been around for a long time before Picasso linked them to his Cubist ideas. The instruments of the symphony had been in existence for centuries before Stravinsky used them to play fresh rhythms and harmonies. Most successful creative ventures contain familiar elements that the audience can hook onto while simultaneously offering new and challenging ideas.

* There are, of course, musicians and visual artists who have done exactly that, but they are a rarity.

So, we can think about creativity in terms of making connections. Professor of neuroscience Robert Sapolsky has used the term "novel associations" to describe the new connections that intrigue people about creative art.

Thinking about creativity in terms of connections or associations may provide a clue as to how exactly the human brain creates. The human brain is a physiological network of connections. You have 100 billion neurons (brain cells) and each of them has thousands of connections to other neurons, leading scientists to theorize that the human brain could have 1000 trillion connections. (These numbers are debated, but no one disputes the fact that they are staggeringly huge.)

How does the fact that the brain is a network of connections apply to creativity? Let's consider Stravinsky again. Let's presume he had a neuron that represented a particular rhythm. And let's say he had another neuron that represented violins playing an A# note. These neurons exist completely independent of each other. Stravinsky was sitting at his keyboard, fiddling around with musical ideas in his head, and he generated a connection (a "synapse" in neuroscience terms) between those two neurons, resulting in the "idea" of violins playing to this particular rhythm. He engaged in the act of creativity.

Unfortunately, the above paragraph has tons of misinformation. There's no such thing as a violin neuron nor is there a neuron for a particular rhythm. It's more correct to say that each of those "objects" is represented by a neural network e.g. many neurons. When you hear a violin, its various properties are interpreted by different parts of brain dedicated to hearing. Some parts of the brain focus on volume, others tone, others the frequency of the note the violin is playing etc. (For more detail, see "Making Sense of the Senses Part I.") It's only after the brain combines these properties (or should we say, connects them?) that we have the experience of hearing a violin. For Stravinsky to generate his idea, he needed to connect more than single neurons, but neural networks.

So is being creative simply about making novel associations? Not really. To illustrate, let me offer some ideas for potential fiction narratives.

a) A man wearing a chicken outfit is somehow protected from a radioactive meteor that kills everyone on earth. Trapped in his costume, he must roam a desolate planet.

b) A talking fish becomes president of the United States and declares war with Ireland.

c) A family of werewolves develops a device that allows them to shrink down to a molecular level. They then enter the bloodstream of humans and feast on their cellular structures.

If any of these ideas struck you, would you be compelled to dedicate the long hours necessary to write a novel about them? Probably not, because these ideas (these novel associations between existing premises --- chicken outfits, talking fish and werewolves have been around), despite being completely new (to my knowledge), seem stupid; they generate no excitement. A creative idea needs be more than just a novelty, it needs to have an emotional component -- a zing! The "eureka moment" often associated with the birth of creative ideas provides a crackle of emotional electricity to race through the creator's body at the moment of inception. Emotions are key to denoting "good" new ideas from "bad" ones. It's worth noting that people with the condition of alexithymia --- a feeling of emotional muteness --- seem to lack creative abilities. Artistic people, on the other hand, are often said to be in touch with their emotions.

Related to the emotional component of creativity is what might be called "drive." Successful artists* tend to have a relentless desire to chase their artistic muse, especially during their younger years. Some might argue that this is a sublimation of their sexual or aggressive urges. Some might say that artistic tendencies simply thrive in the constant flux of emotional and hormonal changes that is the youthful brain. Whatever the cause, it's often argued that the most creative period of an artist's life occurs before middle age. (There are plenty of exceptions to the rule. I'd hold out Picasso and Woody Allen (though I think Allen's work in recent years is mostly garbage.)

* I realize the term "successful artist" is contentious. Are we talking about artists who made a lot of money, or artists who on some level achieved a form of artistic success that is difficult to define --- van Gogh being an excellent example? We're going to have to leave the term in its vague form for now.

No matter how driven an artist is, it's difficult to be creative 24 hours a day. There is a "creative state" that artists often attempt to enter, using drugs, relaxation, meditation and numerous other means. They seek that special process of effortless composition where ideas seem to flow freely and of their own accord.

We've all had experiences such as the following: someone asks a question like, "who was the bounty hunter who captured Han Solo in the Star Wars trilogy?" We struggle a bit, and then give up. Then, at two in the morning, we jolt upright in our bed and scream "Boba Fett." The interesting thing about such experiences is that it implies that our subconscious mind is working on the problem even when we are not aware of it. Artists will often report a similar process for the inception of their ideas. The concept just kind of leaps out at them --- it's the "eureka" moment again. Of course, bringing the idea to fruition is then a matter of diligent work.

The dream state --- that period where the human subconscious is less inhibited by the "logical" frontal cortex --- is often a fertile time for mining creative ideas. The classical composer Brahms --- no slouch in the creativity department --- once noted:

The dreamlike state is like entering a trancelike condition - hovering between being asleep and awake, you are still conscious but right on the border of losing consciousness, and it is at such moments that inspired ideas come.
Brahms also practiced a kind of Christian meditation to seek out new ideas. In his view, he was communicating directly with God but one could theorize that by focusing his consciousness on religious thoughts he was freeing up his subconscious to create.

Of course, if we are presuming much of creativity to be novel associations between existing ideas, then it's helpful to have lots and lots of ideas in your head that can be connected. Thus, being educated in the theories, techniques and disciplines of a particular art form will give you plenty of creative fodder to draw from.

Creativity seems to involve a more direct connection as well. The left and right hemispheres of the brain are connected via a band of neurons called the corpus callosum. In extreme cases of epilepsy, the corpus callosum will be cut in an attempt to prevent epileptic seizures from passing from one hemisphere to the other. At first glance, split brain patients seem remarkably normal. But, as Richard Restak notes in "The Modular Brain":

"... they show a little creativity as measured by tests of language, thinking, and emotional expression. They lack the ability to transform the imagery and symbols generated by the right hemisphere into creative verbalizations."
Part of the ability to create seems to involve a delicate dance between the more artistic, free-flowing right brain and the more verbal, logical left brain*. The left brain sometimes inhibits the right brain and there are interesting instances where left brain damage seems to cause a release of creativity in the right. In "The Modular Brain" (pages 168-169) Restak describes a patient who, after experiencing epileptic seizures on the left brain, began drawing impulsively even though he had no interest in the art form previously. The doctors who tended to the patient presumed that "the impulses toward artistic expression resulted from the release, as a result of damage to the left hemisphere, of the complex visual and spatial skills of the right hemisphere." In "The Tell-Tale Brain" neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran notes the case of an autistic child who, at the age of seven, is an exceptional illustrator. He theorizes that "poor functioning in many of Nadia's brain areas results in freeing her spared right parietal [a lobe of the brain] to get the lion's share of her additional resources." (Page 223)

* The notion of the right brain being artistic and the left brain being logical has come under attack in recent years, and is clearly simplistic, but I think it holds enough truth to be used here.

Certain degrees of anxiety also seem to bring on the creative state. In the book "Fear Itself" author Rush W. Dozier, Jr. recounts the experience of physicist Abraham Pais. Pais was a Jew who hid from the Nazis during World War II in much the same manner as Anne Frank did. At any given moment, Pais knew that Nazi soldiers could burst through the door and haul him away to a concentration camp. (Ultimately, that did happen, though he survived.) This period of hiding lasted months, but, though it was nerve-racking, Pais enjoyed a creative surge, reporting, "I would get up, exercise, have breakfast, then sit down at my little worktable and, presto, thoughts emerged totally unforced, by themselves."

This experience resonates with me personally. As I noted in the article "What Is Emotion?", several years ago I developed strange symptoms of dizziness and fatigue while simultaneously dealing with symptoms of pain and denervation in my arms. The dizziness and fatigue was ultimately diagnosed as a disease of my vestibular (inner ear/balance) system and the arm pain is attributed to repetitive strain. However, the symptoms mimicked the onset of multiple sclerosis enough so that my orthopedist at the time ordered an MRI to look for the telltale brain lesions. I got the MRI, and they did find one lesion (still unexplained) which led me on to a three or four month journey of visiting neurologists attempting to rule out the MS and figure out exactly what the problem was. As you might expect, this period of contemplating the horrors of multiple sclerosis symptoms was very anxious for me. But it was also possibly the most creative period of my life. I wrote several songs that seem to appear, as Pais said, totally unforced. It was if I had an antenna to God. And these were not just any songs, but songs of a harmonic sophistication that seemed to be on the edge of my ability. (The only recorded example I have currently available is the song "Nightflowers" which can be heard on my MySpace profile.) And my regular writing (e.g. articles such as this) also seemed to jump up a notch. It became easier to connect disparate subjects and really explore themes and ideas in depth. (Perhaps the best example from this period is here.)

Since that period, MS has been largely ruled out, and my dizziness/fatigue symptoms have disappeared almost entirely. But I'm not nearly as creative as I was in that period; I haven't completed a song in over a year.

I think most people have experienced a creative boost in times of anxiety. The classic behavior of college students is to wait until the last moment to write a term paper. And while such behavior does seem foolish there may be a method to madness. With the added stress of impending deadline, your brain does seem to get sharper. And we can even theorize an evolutionary impetus for this. Nowadays our creativity is mostly used for manufacturing art, or perhaps devising a clever business plan. Our predecessors needed creativity for much more vital interests --- escaping attacking animals, obtaining food, attracting a mate (well, we still do that one.) It stands to reason that brains that became creative during periods of stress stood a greater chance of passing their genes on that brains that didn't.

So, as you can see, being creative is quite simple. You simply need to develop epilepsy or autism, get hit by lightning, live in fear of Nazis or contemplate a horrible disease. However, if these techniques don't appeal to you, you can at least appreciate the following: creativity, long thought to be an ethereal, unknowable force, now seems to be offering up some of her mysteries. Techniques for creativity can be learned and applied.* (See the many tomes on the subjects at your local bookstore.) The day may come that being creative will be seen as a ability like any other, one that with practice can be learned and mastered.

* It's possible that in the future very interesting methods of inciting creativity may be applied. In "The Tell-Tale Brain" Ramachandran notes an interesting experiment in which --- via a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation --- "higher-level" sections of the brain which theoretically inhibit more "lower-level" artistic centers were temporarily shut down in the brains of volunteers. For a brief period, these volunteers could "effortlessly produce beautiful sketches." (Pages 225 to 227)

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