On creativity


I do not believe that you’re either born creative or not–creativity is just as much a state as it is a trait–nor do i believe it is impossible to enhance creativity.  But a recent article in Scientific American discusses a research on “an easy way to increase creativity,” a research so preposterous that i couldn’t help but assume that its researchers are exactly the type to say something like the above.

The main argument put forth by the researchers is that psychological distance enhances creativity, and one can effect psychological distance by displacing an event into the future or a far-off place or imagining an event to be unlikely. This makes sense (as one commenter put it, “Ask an artist – these are no new ideas to us.   We do this naturally”), but the research seems over-simplified and i am highly skeptical of some its conclusions. For instance, the article ends with the suggestion that modern technology gives us ready access to faraway “people, sights, music, and food,” which might mean that we are getting more creative. I would think the exact opposite:  the web, whose communication transcends space and time, makes these faraway and exotic things seem near and familiar. Is anything even “faraway” anymore?

Psychological distance aside, let’s think about how creativity comes about. One of the commenters suggested the exact same thing i was going to contribute to the discussion:

“I suggest that creativity has much to do with economics… more simply neediness. If you need something and your neural functions can handle the process, then the solution to the problem (e.g. creativity) will arise.” –envme

I get my most creative ideas when forced to solve a problem, especially urgently. In fact, i find it difficult to be creative unless i’m faced with a problem head-on.

“Proximity creates pressure, as if there may be direct consequences for getting it wrong, so to speak. Distance creates a freedom and lack of inhibition since, after all, failure falls on the shoulders of another.” –jaqcp

This i disagree with. When i’m assigned a long-term creative project, i feel so pressured to come up with my best ideas that i end up coming up with nothing. But when i’m in the middle of a film shoot outside and it starts raining even though the forecast said partly cloudy, i’m suddenly overcome by new ideas that are even better than the original that bring the shoot indoors.

And here’s something that could really discredit this research:

“I believe a possible confound may be the added mental stimulus conferred by exposing a student to a word “California”, richly associated with interesting vehicles like wind schooners, yachts, and rollerblades. Students in California given this test may be at a loss challenged with a study presented from “Indiana”, adding ‘tractor’ perhaps to their list but not scoring any higher than other Californians…” –ThinkAfrica

I mean, California? Really? Could they have picked a state not only abounding with a wide variety of vehicles, but more richly laced with cultural connotations in general, and therefore more creativity-inducing?

sanfepea, the same commenter who wrote that artists naturally use psychological distance to their advantage, also wrote, “I don’t know why you scientists keep trying to left brain a right brain activity.”  I can’t support this hasty claim because creativity is as much a left brain activity as it is a right brain one, but i do understand the sentiment behind the comment.  I just don’t think creativity is as simple as what these researchers propose.  The problem is, they’re trying to turn a state into an activity.  Creativity is a state to be tapped into, not induced.  I don’t have the answer to how we could become more creative; in fact, i don’t even know if that’s possible, and the idea of increasing creativity sounds absurd to me.  Nor do i know just how one can tap into the state of creativity.  But Calvin and Hobbes brings me close to an answer (as it always does):

Maybe procrastination has its merits.  But this raises the question, ‘How do artists create of their own volition, i.e., when they’re not on commission or a deadline?’  What could be their “last-minute panic” in this case?  I smell a subject for another post…


Filed under communication, perception, technology

4 responses to “On creativity

  1. The whole left-brain/right-brain argument is bullshit.
    Example: Mathematics.

  2. ivan

    Whoa, I completely agree with all of your thoughts. I don’t think that the researchers actually mean “distance.” I think what they mean is the lack of expectation. Something that is unexpected is far away so I think that’s what they meant by distance.

    I don’t understand creativity and I am constantly confused by the way people use it. At every single interview I have been to, someone has asked me, what was a creative way that you were able to solve a problem? I could never answer it because in engineering, almost all paths have already been discovered and when you solve a problem, you try to narrow all the pathways to find the best one. That’s not creativity, it is reason. One can be creative in design work, but not in problem solving. I always wanted to say to the interviewer, “this question is preposterous and you’re an idiot for asking it.”

    I too am stimulated by the rain or a phrase or a picture. I think creativity is a stimulation, caused by something. It is evoked. I’ve never known anyone who could summon it. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could?

    If you are really interested in this, it looks like you are interested in electrical synapses. There are millions of electrical synapses in our brain…the way it works is sooo crazy.

    • n

      It’s been a while since i’ve read the article, but i think they did literally mean distance.

      I think that the question, “What was a creative way that you were able to solve a problem?” is badly phrased. That makes it sound like the problem solver summoned creativity, intended that creativity, whereas, like you said, creativity is stimulated by something. I wonder how many interviewers would like that answer.

      Electrical synapses… i don’t know if i’m up for the science, but perhaps someday. 😀

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