Why Only Some People Are “Creative”

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On D-Day, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops pulled off the largest invasion in history, forcing their way into Nazi-occupied Europe.

Strategy was key. So was equipment.

But the real mettle of the moment came from the soldiers staging the invasion.

This included, naturally, pilots who had to navigate a sky thick with German anti-aircraft fire.

Long before the invasion, military strategists knew this would happen. They also knew they needed top-notch fliers.

At first, they tried using intelligence tests to pick candidates. But intelligence alone as an indicator turned out to be useless in determining which pilots would be inventive enough, in a tight situation, not just to save themselves but also to save their airplanes.

Creative cognitive ability, it turned out, was only partly connected with smarts. Around the same time, a psychologist from the University of Southern California identified the crucial difference between convergent and divergent thinking.

Convergent thinking is the kind we’re used to on I.Q. tests and in math and science textbooks. It’s a way to find the single, logical, and usually most orthodox solution to a problem.

Divergent thinking, on the other hand, is more widely cast. It searches many routes, finds many solutions, and then might settle on one or the other depending on what the situation dictates.

The best fighter pilots, not so surprisingly, were those more adept at divergent thinking. When the context required, creative survival tactics prevailed.

So if it’s not IQ that matters, what is it that makes one person a convergent thinker and another person a divergent or more creative thinker?

Another study reported in Scientific American relates the story of a 43-year old art teacher in San Francisco. For most of her life, she had been a painter. She even took a job teaching art later in life.

But suddenly, she could no longer do her job. Lesson plans confused her. She couldn’t grade projects. When she could no longer remember her student’s names, she retired and took her troubles to a neurologist.

He did a brain scan and found dementia damage to her frontal and temporal lobes, mostly on the left side of her brain.

The teacher gradually lost some speech abilities. She also lost some control of herself in social situations, both of which are common with this kind of neuron damage.

But something else happened.

As her inhibitions in public waned, her creative powers grew. Her art grew more prolific, emotional, and expressive.

The neurologist dug deep into research on the disorder and found others who also had new bursts of creativity after the damage had set in, even in some who had never before been artistic or considered themselves “creative” before.

What’s this mean? No, I’m not saying that a little brain damage is something to hope for if you want to up your creativity.

But I’m sure you heard, by now, you’ve heard that there are “right-brained” and “left-brained” people. The idea is that “left-brained” people are the type you’d expect to find at, say, your accounting firm’s Christmas party.

“Right-brained” people, on the other hand, tend to be more artistic and possibly a little eccentric or scattered. Like, say, the bulk of ex-poets and actors working the tables at your local coffee shop.

Like most generalizations, this isn’t quite right.

While many of us have a bias in either creative or rational powers, the fact is that most people have both halves of their brain kicking into gear most of the time.

On the left-side, we’re processing details and performing convergent thinking. On the right side, we’re applying abstract associations between details, the work of divergent thinking.

Stroke patients who lose power on the left side of their brains tend to lose logic and language but may suddenly become more creative. Patients who suffer right-side damage may seem creative but also might seem more uninhibited or scattered.

The good news is that both left and right brain can work together to produce a result that’s both logical AND creative.

Take Einstein. Certainly, he had incredible powers of logic and process. He did the math, just as it had been done before he came along. But he also made the leap to creativity, finding new mathematical associations nobody else had recognized before.

Here’s the better news…

While few of us want a touch of neuron damage… and almost none of us, surely, was born an Einstein…

There actually ARE ways you can increase your creative function. And many of them simply have to do with channeling the filtering function of your left-brain.

One very simple way is just to keep reminding yourself to approach most moments in your life with curiosity.

Another is to consistently reset your attitudes toward convention. That is, simply repeat to yourself that the way things have always been done is not necessarily the way the always have to be done.

There there’s what researchers call “detail fermentation.” That’s a fancy way of saying, “do your homework.” It’s also the explanation I typically give when I tell people I don’t believe in “writer’s block.”

That is, when you fill your mind with facts and data and details relevant to the ideas you’re trying to create, the more likely you are to succeed at creating them.

Somehow, satisfying the left brain’s hunger for logic and process first… allows it to relax and let the right brain step in to find the overall creative associations between those details.

Einstein did this while searching for “E=MC2.” For years, he studied not just physics and mathematics, but astronomy and philosophy and other fields too.

So the next time you’re feeling like a failure creatively,  try this: Stop, drop, and study.

Dig into the facts and materials you have to work with. Then, and only then, see if the bigger and better ideas come.

Last modified: August 25, 2017

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