Art & Culture

Wild About Creativity

Creativity is intelligence having fun. – Albert Einstein

We often think of creativity as something that belongs to the arts, whether it be painting or writing or music. In reality, of course, creativity and creative thinking can be part of all aspects of our lives, from often mundane chores such as cooking to the work world. 

So what is creativity and how do we measure it? While the official definition is “the ability to produce or develop original work, theories, techniques, or thoughts,” our understanding of the neuroscience behind creativity continues to be slippery. Current research suggests that creativity emerges when the areas of the brain that handle executive functioning collaborate with those responsible for daydreaming. A true opposites attract situation, if you will. 

Creativity is closely associated with divergent thinking, a way of thinking that encourages your brain to explore outside-the-box ideas. At its core, divergent thinking lets us develop multiple pathways for problem-solving, resulting in increased creativity and adaptability. One of the simplest ways to enhance your divergent thinking abilities is to brainstorm ideas around a certain problem or activity. Letting your brain explore different approaches to a problem enhances creativity and results in new solutions.

A person rearrangings stick notes in a brainstorming exercise.
Brainstorming is an easy way to encourage divergent thinking. Steveonmz, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Divergent thinking can lead to one of the best parts of creativity, the aha moment. Aha moments are those sparks of insight when concepts or ideas come together in new and interesting ways—think of Newton and his apple, for example. Interestingly, not all aha moments have staying power. Some aha moments may seem brilliant in the moment but may fade when it comes time to refine and develop them. At their best, aha moments are the synthesis of information and ideas that allows us to level up to something new.

At the core of both divergent thinking and aha moments is an openness to new ideas. Creativity cannot emerge without a desire to seek out and explore unfamiliar concepts. Which doesn’t mean that creativity only exists if someone is doing something that no one else has done before. If you’re struck by the idea of adding a new ingredient to your soup, if it’s new to you, it’s still a creative idea, even if others have already discovered it.

Despite the fizzy feeling that comes from aha moments, many people are afraid of creativity, likely because being creative involves taking risks and embracing the uncertainty that comes from new ideas. In order to be creative, we have to be willing to make mistakes and we have to be willing to fail. Often, this is a problem that puts us at odds with a culture that views failure as a personal deficiency rather than an opportunity to learn. 

Creativity is messy. Whether it’s an artist exploring a new medium or a business trying out a new strategy, creativity brings the potential for failure. When we see perfection as our primary goal, we shy away from creativity and its possibility of failure. 

A collection of paint brushes, rags, and other artist's supplies are cluttered on top of a paint-covered workbench.
Creative is messy. Khara Woods, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

It feels impossible right now to talk about creativity without discussing the rise of “artificial intelligence” models. (I’m using quotation marks, because these models are not truly intelligent, they are algorithms that use math to look for patterns and recombine data.) The promoters of these models would like us to believe that AI is the future of creativity, leading to easily generated books and art, along with, presumably, novel ideas for business conundrums. 

And yet.

If creativity requires an honest expression of new ideas, an algorithm can never replace human creative thought by simply running a mathematical calculation through pre-existing ideas. AI can never have an aha moment because AI doesn’t know anything. It lacks basic understanding of concepts that people learn as small children—what is a cat, for example. AI is also baffled by bigger concepts that we take for granted such as time and emotions and memories, all of which feed directly or indirectly into our creative thoughts. AI cannot replace creativity because AI cannot contribute anything new to the conversation.  

There is a certain irony in the idea that the proponents of AI are seeking to replace artists and authors, when most creative professionals are more likely to be “starving” rather than “successful.” Beyond the illusion of financial success, creativity brings several benefits: it can lower your stress, improve your focus, and help process emotions. Being creative can also help remove internal barriers, such as the little voice that insists “you can’t” when you definitely can. Creativity can also help us believe in a more hopeful future. 

The good news about creativity is that, with practice, you can train yourself to be more creative. Two of the best ways to improve your creativity are daydreaming, especially in nature, because nature always makes things better, and through play. Give yourself permission to explore and you never know what you might discover. That’s the power of creativity.