What is Creativity?

Creativity is one of those concepts that seem to stimulate endless debates and discussion as to what it is or isn’t. Often the focus is on results while missing that creativity is better considered as a process than a result. This works best because it is, in fact, a process and as such can allow for everyone to be in a different place as they travel along this journey into their creative life.  What might be more important than specifically defining what creativity is would be to consider some of the characteristics that seem to point to its presence.

While I was on a trip last fall, I had the fortune of catching a NPR Ted Hour discussion on creativity. The presentation didn’t actually include anyone who was creating images but rather explored the creative process from several very creative people who have thought about the process and some who have deliberately studied it.  Whether the exact comments are directly relevant to where we find ourselves or to what we are doing, the ideas are universal and, I believe, fundamental to the process.  The link to the program is down below but I first want to consider some points that I think are worth noting before listening to the show.

Not directly covered in the show is one important aspect of creativity and that it is not something that springs up out of nothing. It comes from the accumulation of knowledge and experiences that are within us but might be viewed as the moment of revelation where things that we might never “think” would work together somehow come together in our heads as possibilities and then we allow ourselves to pursue that thought, for better or worse.

One of the key elements of creativity, then, is the idea that there is the allowance for risk, the risk of being wrong, of being ridiculed or made fun of or maybe just that others won’t “like” what we did–maybe we won’t like what we did either!  I purposely avoid the word “failure” as such endeavors rarely, even when they don’t “work”, end up with nothing having been learned or not generating even more ideas that can be pursued if we just “listen” to them. It is often just allowing ourselves to follow that “wild hair” that can open up even more creative possibilities that might never be discovered if we didn’t allow that first step towards that other crazy idea.

In fact, one of the segments in the show involved a scientist who used an MRI to scan the brain of jazz musicians as they jammed with others. A portion of the frontal cortex of the brain is considered the area that judges and filters our behavior. It is not uncommon for those with frontal cortex injuries to show less inhibition and often more objectionable or even unacceptable behavior. They are more apt to respond to their urges as the filters that keep us within socially accepted bounds have been diminished.

In the process of scanning the brains of these jazz musicians while they were jamming, there was a noticeable suppression in the activity of that part of the frontal cortex associated with that self monitoring while there was increased activity in the portion associated with self-expression.  The filters and judgements that keep us within limits of the norm were suppressed.

The unfortunate fact, as one of the other segments points out, is that for most of our lives we have had that self monitoring/judgmental part of our brain reinforced such that we do things that conform or which are most likely to succeed–we have a tendency to do what is safe and “acceptable”. How many times have we seen someone who tried something different in our profession, something that didn’t succeed, get rewarded for trying it rather than shown how to pack up their desk and have the door hit them in the ass on the way out! How many of us don’t take into consideration how people might respond to our image when we are creating it–or maybe our own (over)thinking that it won’t work, and ignore our interest in creating it in the first place? If you haven’t read my own thoughts on this in a couple of different posts here, then I might suggest those as supplementary reading to this. Link 1  and Link 2 .

I will present some follow-up threads to this one, where I explore my process of creativity, but for now I hope you enjoy the presentation in the link below:



(If the link doesn’t work for some reason, It can also be found on iTunes under a search for NPR Ted Hour podcasts. Look for the date of October 2, 2014 or so and the title “The Source of Creativity”)