Throughout the majority of humanity’s existence, creativity has been regarded as a mystical enigma. Architect and architecture critic Robert Furneaux Jordan asserted that “to comprehend [creativity] fully would be to be God. We can never comprehend God.” Thanks to this prevailing opinion, it wasn’t until the late 1940s that the study of creativity even started down the path toward legitimacy. In the seven decades since, the psychological and neurological basis of creativity has been fully extracted from the occult and shown to be ingrained in our species. So much so that related research has percolated into pop culture, leading to countless listicles and trite inspirational quotes. Hallmarks of the creative type have been described ad nauseam and then subsequently exploited. There are Creatives, who are people from the mid-2000’s that purchased Mac’s instead of PC’s. Then there are Creators, who are present-day builders of their own gatekeeper-free economy. Admission to the creative club has been commodified in every possible way.
Whether or not we are creative has become inextricable from our sense of individual identity. People are said to possess or wield creativity, suggesting that being creative might be like wearing Iron Man’s suit. Or, as the ancient Greeks thought, as though creativity is a force that operates outside of our volition but also intersects with our sense of self. According to the Greeks, a “genius” was a divine entity that lived in the walls of an artist’s studio and would occasionally come out for a visit to inspire the inhabitant’s work – commingling authorship between artist and deity.
Elizabeth Gilbert references this lore in her hugely popular 2009 TED talk, “Your elusive creative genius,” emphasizing the distinction between a person having a genius and being a genius. Gilbert makes a compelling argument that this stance alleviates the constant pressure to realize ever greater creative accomplishments. By placing the responsibility of superlative excellence on divine intervention, artists are freed to control only what is within their control (showing up and working hard). The rest is left to the magic.
The qualification between Big-C and little-c creativity runs along the same vein. Big-C creativity is reserved for eminences who achieve celebrity through works of historical importance, while little-c creativity is pedestrian. According to this framework, creativity is in the eye of the beholder. To be sure, prestigious breakthroughs are a boon for humankind, and we could certainly use more of them. At the same time, major achievements arise from a foundation of unsung, little-c work. The difference between Big-C and little-c boils down to marketing more than merit.
Both the Greek/Gilbert and Big-C models rely on external forces rather than inherent human capacity to explain creativity. These models assign power to entities outside of the person doing the creating, depriving us of agency in our creative processes and outcomes. Further, relegating creativity to the mystical shirks our responsibility to understand the human condition.
A second problem with these positions is that neither is supported by scientific evidence. Creativity is a vast construct comprised of an astonishingly wide aggregate of mental processes which are broadly termed creative cognition. Research into neural activation patterns during creative tasks has called into question whether “creative cognition” can be meaningfully distinguished from typical cognition, much less Big-C creative cognition.
As such, most laboratory research settles on investigating little-c, and it is common to find a definition of creativity within the first few introductory paragraphs of a scientific article. Creativity is usually defined as the ability to produce work that is original and contextually appropriate; however, there are almost as many variations on the definition as there are researchers. Neurologist Anna Abraham writes at length about the lack of consensus in her book, The Nueroscience of Creativity.
Abraham notes that there is broad agreement regarding originality and appropriateness as being two defining factors across the many domains of human enterprise, but there is less unanimity about whether this definition is complete. Creativity is sometimes proposed as the ability to produce work that is novel, meaningful, relevant, and/or useful, as opposed to work that is trivial or bizarre. More eloquently, creativity is said to denote the generation of original ideas that flexibly yet meaningfully diverge from established mental habits. Some maintain that surprise is an essential component, others hold that surprise overly expands the criteria, thereby weakening the definition rather than strengthening it.
Everyone agrees that creativity is more than one type of cognitive process. Creativity is a messy concept serving as a catch-all term for at least a dozen types of cognition and adjacent states. This catalogue includes inspiration, insight, innovation, imagination, and divergent thinking. More than synonyms, these are separate generative thought patterns subsumed under the umbrella of creativity. These generative processes are complemented by evaluative operations such as problem framing, problem restructuring, iteration, and critique – all of which overlap each other, often imperceptibly. Contrary to popular mythos around the subject, being creative is difficult to avoid.
The illusion of division between creatives and non-creatives was further advanced by the theory that “right-brained” people are more creative than their “left-brained” counterparts. This idea emerged in the 1970s, prior to which the left hemisphere was considered the dominant, intelligent neural portion, while the right hemisphere’s function was somewhat of a mystery. A key progenitor for this shift was the publication of serial studies performed by Roger Sperry and then graduate student Michael Gazzaniga from the late 1950s through the 1960s on split-brained patients.
Sperry and Gazzaniga’s infamous patients underwent commissures, a surgical bisection of the brain, which separated the right and left hemispheres to provide relief from intractable seizures. The duo’s work sought to understand the neural byproducts of the intervention and demonstrated that the left and right hemispheres will function independently from one another if their connection is severed. Sperry’s contributions were enormously impactful on the field of neuroscience, earning him numerous awards, including the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physiology.
The “right-brained” creative myth stems from Sperry and Gazzaniga’s discovery that the functionality of each hemisphere is markedly unique. As news of these studies spread, the right hemisphere was rebranded as the artistic, bohemian seat of creativity, while the “left brain” became known as analytical, mathematical, verbal, and rational. No doubt you’ve seen the illustration of a brain with rainbows streaming rightward while the left half is presented as a staid, colorless abyss. The theory eventually mutated into the categorization of people themselves as either left-brained or right-brained, implying that humans are either artistic or rational, but never both.
Indeed, the split-brained studies have since been verified by decades of behavioral and neuroimaging research. There is demonstrably greater right hemisphere activity during creative tasks, and especially in those with visuospatial aspects. Some research also reveals a right-hemisphere advantage in figurative or metaphoric thinking. From this narrow viewpoint, it seems reasonable to infer that a more dominant right brain would lead to improved creative outcomes.
A more complete accounting shows that balance trumps dominance, meaning that inter-hemispheric contributions are more vital to the creative process than the strength of either hemisphere on its own. Even Sperry and Gazzaniga could have predicted this: although the commissure surgery solved for the seizures, split-brained patients were found to lack the capacity for integrated thought and suffered an impoverished fantasy life. This deprivation is likely due to the split-brain’s inability to recruit regions across both sides, meaning that key cognitive abilities cannot combine to join forces. Creativity is made possible by contributions from neural regions on both sides of the divide.
The proliferation of imaging technology over the past twenty years has made it standard practice for brain scanning to be performed during neural functioning experiments. Roger Beaty, who leads the Cognitive Neuroscience of Creativity Laboratory at Penn State, has performed extensive research into the dynamic interaction between the neural networks associated with creativity. Beaty and his colleagues’ research consistently exhibits distributed neural activity across almost every instance of creative cognition, including divergent thinking and critique. Far from right-brain dominance, creative cognition relies on an interhemispheric dance between entire neural networks coupling and uncoupling in various activation arrangements, the choreography varying based on process phase and the type of cognition involved.
Still, the notion of the right hemisphere-as-locus-of-art and its correlative iconic rainbow brain graphic remain synonymous with creativity. As recently as 2018, this symbol was featured on the cover of Time Magazine’s Special Edition issue, “The Science of Creativity,” despite the inclusion of a rebuttal to brained-ness within the very first article, on page fourteen.
Modern conceptions of creativity are analogous to intelligence in that both are high-level cognitive constructs that have slippery, tricky definitions entailing multiple complex neural processes. Recent research highlights the importance of cognitive control alongside dynamic interaction between neural networks in creativity and intelligence alike. In comparison with intelligence, creativity is related to the faculty to consciously drive the brain into difficult to reach states, for example shifting at will from focused to defocused attention.
Focused attention is self-explanatory (you’re using your focused attention right now to read this essay). But when attention is defocused, a broad search perimeter is employed, casting a wider net through memory in order to return a larger array of potentially relevant responses. Defocused attention is critical to generative processes, such as brainstorming and imagination. Meanwhile, focused attention is central to evaluative processes, such as prototyping and critique. Creative aptitude is determined in part by the ability to situationally dilate and contract attention, which is a function of dexterity over cognitive control (again, it has nothing to do with hemispheric superiority).
At minimum, the distinction between creatives and noncreatives is exaggerated. Plenty of evidence suggests that these categories are a fabrication representing yet another false binary. Within humans, creativity varies as a matter of degrees, not presence. Analogously, there are people who are shorter and those who are taller, but we all have a height. As a construct, creativity is ours to define, and there is now an abundance of research demonstrating that creativity results from a set of mental functions found in all typical humans. Creativity can produce something original, appropriate, and private; outside recognition is unnecessary. It is not something bestowed upon us by the gods or anointed by a corporation. Creativity is a multidimensional system by which humans go about invention and implementation, inherent to our humanity.
 Robert Furneaux Jordan, “Design and the Creative Process,” The Architect’s Yearbook (1957): 171.
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