Creativity Defined

Creativity is an elusive muse, difficult to define, and even harder to capture. What exactly, though, is so mythical about creativity?

Creativity Defined

An unsuspecting mouse dives for cheese, only to crash through the painting façade and land on a hot stove; he jumps onto a cube of ice to cool off while ascending a tiny escalator; he drops off at the top, lands on a boxing glove, only to bounce off, naturally, landing in a mouse-sized basket thereby setting off a miniature rocket which sends him to the moon. This approach to catching mice pictured above, designated “the best mouse trap” by cartoonist Rube Goldberg, can be described as: clever, complicated, absurd; but is it creative?

Creativity is an elusive muse, difficult to define, and even harder to capture. Google has over 1.8 billion pages on creativity; Amazon has greater than 100,000 books on the topic. And perhaps, creativity is a bit like United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said in 1964 of pornography, “I know it when I see it”.

What exactly, though, is so mythical about creativity? The modern-day notion of creativity can be traced back to the European Renaissance, coincident with an emerging appreciation for the abilities of ‘man’, not God, to make new things — a period which brought about the quintessential creative Leonardo DaVinci. In the time since post-Renaissance/early-Enlightenment, thinkers, philosophers, and eventually psychologists have pondered ‘what is it?’ about creative people that make them creative? What did DaVinci have or do differently from everyone else? Part of this mythology could be explained by our inability to find a ‘creativity gene’. If no physical location on the human genome encodes for creativity, then where is it? What is it? The mythology of creativity remains.

Complicating matters further, creativity is hard to define. A generally agreed-upon definition for creativity involves the production of novel and useful ‘products’. Including novelty and usefulness is what made the remote associates tests (RAT) an effective measure of creativity.  Recall a previous example of a word that can be added to: cottage, Swiss, cake; ‘cheese’ is the novel and useful word that links them. However, several other novel, but perhaps not-as-useful words could be envisioned. Take the absurd example of “in the woods”: cottage in-the-woods, Swiss in-the-woods; cake in-the-woods. While novel could be argued for in this example, usefulness rapidly declines by the time we consider cake.

Determining if a creative product is novel is easier than ever before in history. Digital storage and the search-ability of the internet allows humanity to catalog nearly all creative endeavors, ranging from new products, to literature, to art, and beyond. Determining if a created product is useful, however, is inherently subjective, which explains the ambiguity and uncertainty surrounding creativity. We can all agree that Goldberg’s mousetrap is novel, and unlike any mousetrap, we’ve seen before. However, we could also agree that this mousetrap is decidedly un-useful in practice, and sadly, would not fulfill the criteria of creativity.

Innovation, on the other hand, is often sloppily used as a synonym for creativity but describes a distinctly different idea. In contrast to creativity, innovation is easier to define; and typically describes making changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products. Implementation is a key element of innovation. Again, consider the mousetrap. An innovative mousetrap would be one that brings about a change to something established (simple spring trap) by introducing and developing a ‘better mouse trap’. In fact, the phrase “build a better mousetrap” is a metaphor for modern innovation. Allegedly, the US Patent & Trade Office has over 4000 patents for innovative mousetraps, making it one of the most frequently invented devices in US history [1]; reader be warned: ‘making a better mouse trap’ can be a dark journey into the minds of innovators [2].

Josh Wolfe, co-founder and Managing Partner at the venture capital firm Lux Capital, recently described the directional trend in technology as an undeniable ‘arrow of progress’ [3]. Citing examples ranging from light (flame -> filament -> LED) to computation (mechanical -> solid state semi-conductors), innovative applications of new technology continue to build off each other and never go backward. When considering innovation, Wolfe goes on to say, a simple question to ask is “what sucks?” Identifying the pain points of any given product is a sure-fire way to begin innovating — to begin making changes to an established thing.

Echoing this idea, Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the Wharton Business school and NewYork Times best-selling author, describes in his book “Originals”, that while Deja Vu is the sensation you feel when you’re in a new place feel as if you’ve been there before, Vu Jade is the opposite feeling: when you’re in a situation that is very familiar and you suddenly feel as if you’re experiencing it as completely new. This new, fresh perspective on a place or problem, flash or eureka moment, provides insight with a new perspective. Vu jade is especially important for innovators, says Tom Kelley of the innovation firm IDEO,  to be able to look at familiar situations and see them anew—because fresh perspectives help them become aware of opportunities and possibilities that no one else is noticing [4].

How then can we envision the relationship between creativity and innovation? Each has unique aspects of process and outcome. An un-exhaustive list of creative processes includes activities such as: incubation, divergent and convergent thinking, creative cognitive approaches, explicit-implicit interactions, conceptual blending, honing, and counterfactual thinking. The overall creative outcome, again, is something new and useful. In contrast, innovative processes introduce new methods, ideas, or products, with the overall innovative outcome being a change to something established. Thus, it seems that creativity generates something new from nothing taking a myriad of approaches to get there; whereas innovation generates something new from something established, taking iterative approaches to do so.

Studies on the biological basis of creativity support the idea that creativity creates new ideas that didn’t exist previously. Recent developments in brain imaging allow neuroscientists to monitor the operation of the brain during creative behavior. Asking participants to complete creative tasks, such as the remote association tests, while imaged in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, reveals an interaction between the frontal lobes, temporal lobes, and dopamine from the limbic system. Frontal lobes are considered the site of idea generation, while the temporal lobes could edit and evaluate those ideas. Abnormalities in the frontal lobe (such as depression or anxiety) can decrease creativity, while abnormalities in the temporal lobe can increase creativity. High activity in the temporal lobe typically inhibits activity in the frontal lobe and vice versa. Elevated dopamine levels increase arousal and goal-directed behaviors and reduce latent inhibition, working together to increase drive and positive feedback to generate ideas.

Another recent study echoed this key concept of new interconnections [5]. “The creative brain is wired differently”, says Roger Beaty, a Post-Doctoral Fellow in Psychology at Harvard University and the first author of the study. "People who are more creative can simultaneously engage brain networks that don't typically work together”.  While several regions across the brain are involved in creative thought, Beaty identified three subnetworks interconnected between brain regions that emerged as key players in creative thought; specifically, the default mode network, the salience network, and the executive control network.

The default mode network, Beaty said, is involved in memory and mental stimulation, and is thought to play an important role in processes like mind-wandering, imagination, and spontaneous thinking; perhaps this could fulfill the ‘new’ requirement of creativity. The salience network detects important information, both in the environment and internally. Beaty believes it may be responsible for sorting through the ideas that emerge from the default mode network; conversely, this could fulfill the ‘useful’ requirement of creativity. Lastly, the executive control network helps people keep focus on useful ideas while discarding those that aren't working, perhaps providing resilience to keep at it; after all, creativity is hard.

"It's the synchrony between these systems that seems to be important for creativity," Beaty said. "People who think more flexibly and come up with more creative ideas are better able to engage these networks that don't typically work together and bring these systems online." Beaty concludes, "One thing I hope this study does is to dispel the myth of left versus right brain in creative thinking," he said. "This is a whole-brain endeavor." [6]

In 'Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman', a biography of one of the most dazzling and flamboyant scientists of the 20th century, James Gleick recounts a story Richard’s father told that illustrated the difference between knowing the name of something and actually knowing the thing itself.

“See that bird? It’s a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it’s called a halzenfugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird, absolutely nothing about the bird. You only know something about people — what they call the bird.”

So what then is the utility in defining creativity, and giving it a name? By defining the outcome of creativity as something new and useful, the framework is set to explore processes of creativity and the elements that contribute to generating creative ideas.

With this fresh perspective, again consider Rube Goldberg’s mousetrap. After completing an engineering degree at UC-Berkeley, Goldberg lasted only six months as a San Francisco City engineer, before leaving the job to devote himself entirely to cartoon sketching. In the context of a cartoonist, his art and style were both new (nothing was similar at the time) and useful (he was and remains a famous American cartoonist). His creativity inspired generations of engineers and inventors, artists and musicians.

Further Reading

1. Dark mousetraps

2. “Build a better mousetrap”

3. Wolfe interview on Farnam Street

4. More on the history of Vu Jade

5. Robust prediction of individual creative ability from brain functional connectivity

6. Science Press Release