Illustration by Jorm Sangsorn on Shutterstock
To be perfectly honest, I never intended to be a writer. Really, I just wanted to understand if I could be a better Architect through improved brain management. At the time, I was a few years out of grad school and wondering what was next. I’d spent five and a half years attending classes at night to earn a master’s and then another year studying after work to pass the series of seven licensing exams that are required to call oneself an Architect with a capital A. After all that, it felt anticlimactic to merely work a full-time job — I wanted to up my game.
An exploration into creativity seemed like it might make my design practice easier, possibly even more fun. I thought I would read a few books and collect my thoughts into a white paper or two. I envisioned a lightly challenging project; something fulfilling, but relatively short in duration.
Serendipitously, 99 Percent Invisible aired an episode around that same time titled The Mind of an Architect. I was hoping this episode would be An Architect’s Guide to Owning A Brain (although I did suspect that this was asking a bit much from a thirty-minute piece of audio). In actuality, the podcast explored a book released that same summer, The Creative Architect by Pier Luigi Serraino, which chronicled the circumstances around a psychological study from the late 1950s.
The study took place at the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research (IPAR) at the University of California Berkeley. The intention was to reveal the essence of creativity by bringing forty of the nation’s leading architects together in order to undergo twenty-two personality assessments and creative aptitude tests, all of which were administered over the course of twenty working hours, stuffed into one grueling weekend. The architects were expressly forewarned that the retreat would not be relaxing. Regardless, they turned up. The research subjects formed a jaw-dropping list of the periods most influential starchitects (Neutra! Saarinen! Kahn!)
I like to imagine that many of the participants were motivated by the same questions that I kept asking myself: how does my brain work and how can I compel it to be maximally creative on demand? How can I make it easier to tap my creativity on a rainy Wednesday afternoon when inspiration is evading me?
Architectural design requires coordination across many sets of converging constraints, from form, to function, to gravity. Anticipating these constraints is crucial to solving design problems elegantly. I’ve become accustomed to enjoying a causal correlation between improved technical understanding and improved design dexterity. For example, the better I understand structures, the better I can anticipate the associated requirements, and the more easily I can optimize the design in response. I hypothesized that there might be similar correlation between a technical understanding of creativity and the capacity to solve design problems.
It was more or less this same line of inquiry that led to the formation of IPAR in the first place. Interest in the psychology of creativity was trending in the late 1940s, as the U.S. reeled in the wake of World War II. At the time, theories about creativity were anecdotal, romanticized, and subjective — at least according to IPAR’s founding psychologist, Donald McKinnon. Enthusiasm for an understanding of creativity dwarfed available empirical evidence, leading many to propose numerous (incorrect) theories on the subject. The IPAR study was buzzworthy because McKinnon attracted so many giants of postwar American architecture, but the work was seminal as a rigorous investigation into creativity.
Understanding this context, you may have guessed that the IPAR study did not fully reveal what makes people creative by examining a small group of identically employed, all white men for a few days. Still, all things considered, it was a truly impressive start. As an institute, IPAR continued to flourish, establishing a scientific legacy within a field of research that was considered for centuries to be untouchably divine. The Institute continues to thrive at UC Berkeley, living on as the Institute of Personality and Social Research.
Realizing that The Creative Architect chronicled the very beginning of meaningful research into creativity, I couldn’t help but wonder what happened next. I tried searching the internet for the study’s key questions. What makes a person creative? What are the environmental conditions and personality traits required to actualize creativity? True to form, the internet responded with a bunch of clickbait listicles enumerating the nine things that creative people do differently, the twelve indicators of a creative mind, and the like. The vast majority of the content was anecdotal, romanticized, and subjective.
Aside from wondering if anything had meaningfully changed in the intervening seven decades, I also noticed that the descriptions felt foreign to me. None of the ideas for tapping into one’s inner creativity matched the way I worked. I could barely recognize my brain in the accounts of what defines a creative mind. Most of the articles felt chintzy, loosely tethered to any science, and as though they were written about distant creatives in a faraway place that I had never come into contact with.
The internet is not to be trusted, so I took my curiosity to the local library and reframed my questions. What would it really mean to be “maximally creative”? Was it more frequent insight when problem solving? Inspiration on demand? I checked out the eleven most promising titles and quickly learned that many books about creativity follow the same general format. The chapters begin with anecdotes about famous creatives, such as John Lennon or August Kekulé (a chemist whom I had never heard of, but people who write books about creativity apparently herald this guy). The narrative interludes are followed by a more-dense scientific explanation.
This is a popular format because it works really well. The anecdotes humanize the science and provide relief from more challenging content. The rhythm makes the books approachable and engaging. At the same time, consistently using geniuses as narrative props reinforces the fable that creative people are uniformly prolific and famous. It gives the impression that the reader is on the outside looking in. Certainly, none of these books were tailored to designers trying to hack their day jobs. Sometimes I wondered if the authors, who were usually both scientists and writers, even considered themselves to be part of the creative cohort being discussed.
I was perplexed, annoyed, and feeling a little gaslit. I’d already done more research than I had planned on. I sensed that something truly fascinating was behind all the books I was reading, and that this thing had been abstracted and diluted for public consumption. Then, I dug into the most promising book of the bunch, got a glimpse into the unadulterated science, and was subsequently appalled to discover that the title had been redacted for plagiarism.
This is about where the slope got slippery. Exasperated but increasingly intrigued, I decided to cut out the middlemen and go straight to the primary references. I mined bibliographies for the informing research and acquainted myself with the anatomy of a scientific paper. I made friends with the relatively accessible Introduction and Discussion sections. I systematically followed trails of breadcrumbs leading through bibliographies, notes, and citations. I overwhelmed myself with piles of disorganized Post-its and pushed the legal limits of interlibrary loans.
Writing became a necessary maneuver to make sense of it all. Everything I was learning was swimming around in my mind—disorganized gloop. There was also a lot of diagramming: flow charts; locations and aliases of all the implicated brain regions; the researchers, their contributions and their perspectives. The writing, though, was where the ideas came together and assembled as through lines.
And that is why I am still entangled in this investigation over six years later. Since I have no formal training in either science or writing, both the research and the documentation require a considerable amount of time. On some days, I just want to get this over with so I can move on with my life. On others, I savor my coffee over research on the psychological and neurological accounting of creativity, and then write about what I learn to sort it all out. When I’m still confused, I draw about it. I’ve now read, reread, annotated, and diagrammed almost 200 articles plus a dozen or so books. And counting.
I was delighted to discover that my hunch was right: developing a sound understanding of creativity has made problem solving easier, and life more fun. The surprising part was how the study of creativity unfolded. IPAR’s early emphasis on personality gave way to several cognitive explanations. Some of these explanations rely on structural differences between individual brains, but others hinge on the capacity to control attention. Cognitive control processes can be improved, like building a muscle, and these improvements can potentially have robust impacts on creative outcomes and the efficacy of creative processes. Attentional control theories contrast these processes with terms like defocused versus focused attention, top-down versus bottom-up processing, or executive control versus mind wandering. Scientists love a dichotomy just as much as the next human struggling to make sense of it all.
The entire field of neurology has been another source of amazement. Brain scanning technology is revelatory, allowing researchers to trace insight from its precursors through activation. The timing, types of brain waves involved, and neural regions can all be teased apart and displayed. The neurology demonstrates what psychologists have suggested for decades: that insight occurs over a series of stages, beginning with confronting the problem. Psychological theories had long suggested that priming might increase the odds of insight, and the corresponding neurology demonstrates how this is possible. Priming can also apply to inspiration, increasing the probability of both invention and execution.
I remember drawing this map on the back of a bar menu in very early days: maybe ten choice words, circled and linked to indicate the relationships I thought I would find. Some of these words, like insight, have grown legs and become chapters, but most of the others didn’t pan out. Instead, my informal outline degenerated into a soupy mess of research notes, sentence fragments, and half-baked thoughts. Occasionally, a zygote of a new outline would emerge, then my understanding would evolve, or I’d find some new treasure trove of research and restructure everything again. At some point in the midst of this Sisyphean effort, I realized that I actually really enjoy writing.
Learning to write has been the most unexpected gift. I certainly wouldn’t have come this far, and wouldn’t be writing this now, if the challenge presented wasn’t also uniquely delightful and fulfilling. Almost as amazing is the community I’ve found around writing. Connecting with other writers has been an absolute joy, even when we’re commiserating about our struggles. Doors have opened to places I never knew existed, and I can’t wait to see where this journey takes me next.