Creative Something

Maybe it’s time to rethink the relationship between intelligence and creativity


What is intelligence, and how does it relate to creativity?

I’ve touched on the topic before, but new research on the subject has me wanting to explore it once again.

To dive into this research and the importance intelligence has on creativity (which, we’ll learn, isn’t an accurate way to even word the notion) let’s jump a few years back.

To 1974, to be precise. Back then, philosopher David Stenhouse gave us a concrete theory of what intelligence is, defining it as: “adaptively variable behavior within the lifetime of the individual.”

Intelligence, according to Stenhouse, is an individual’s ability to adapt to stimulation from our environment. (the places we work and live, the people we surround ourselves with, and so on). I wrote about this notion previously, echoing Stenhouse’s theory by explaining that intelligence is: “the ability to acquire and utilize knowledge.”

This perspective of what intelligence means is wildly debated, partially due to how theoretical explanations of intelligence and how it works are so complex themselves.

Which is why I wanted an expert’s help exploring the issue of intelligence and it’s link to creativity. A few days ago I reached-out to one of my favorite cognitive scientists for help: Joel Chan.

Joel is a graduate student at University of Pittsburgh and is an active debater slash commentator online for all things related to psychology, cognitive processes, and creativity. I look to him when I need help understanding the cognitive science behind creativity.

When I gave Joel the two definitions I had come up with for intelligence and creativity, Joel immediately started off by stating: “the two concepts (and the relationship between them) seem to me a fair bit more complex than that.”

And he’s right.

One reason the debate and discussion around how intelligence and creativity mingle has gone on for so long is because both concepts are still vastly misunderstood and so unfathomably complex.

Fortunately we do know a few things about both creativity and intelligence, and can look at recent research to uncover the relationship between the two. As Joel tells us:

“Intelligence is widely held to be a ‘trait’ (rather than a state) that varies fairly stably across individuals, whereas there is controversy over the extent to which creativity is a product of process, personality/individual differences, training, etc.”

If intelligence is a fluid trait and creativity is (debatably) a product of how, where, and why we utilize our intelligence, there is undoubtedly some link between them. What that link is can be difficult to explain, as has been stated, but we can certainly try.

“There is substantial overlap between the two… intelligence is adaptive goal-directed behavior, and creativity is one kind of intelligence.”

Here Joel points to the triarchic theory of intelligence from Robert J. Sternberg.

In the triarchic theory, Sternberg echoes Stenhouse’s definition of intelligence that I mentioned at the beginning of this article: it’s the ability of an individual to adapt to the changing environment throughout life.

What’s notable about Sternberg’s theory of intelligence (and why Joel would bring it to our attention) is that it entails multiple components that build information processing, or intelligence.

One of those components is creative thinking, which Sternberg states is a synthetic gift that doesn’t require a relatively high intelligence quotient (IQ).

The wikipedia page for the triarchic theory of intelligence states:

“People with synthetic giftedness are not often seen with the highest IQ’s because there are not currently any tests that can sufficiently measure these attributes.”

What does this mean exactly?

It can be interpreted to say that creativity is a type of intelligence. Which means asking what the link between intelligence and creativity is cannot be answered. It’s as though you were asking what’s the taste of yellow, or the color of nothingness. The question itself is flawed.

Creativity is one type of intelligence, a process utilized for adapting to a changing environment.

The link between creativity and intelligence could be completely semantical, a battle of word and definition.

Joel continues:

“If you are ‘intelligent,’ you aren’t necessarily creative in a given domain…although they are correlated. [For example] the threshold hypothesis about the relationship between intelligence and creativity states that slightly above average intelligence is necessary but not sufficient for eminent creative achievement.”

The Threshold Hypothesis is relatively new. In their research, published just last July (2013), Emanuel Jauk, Mathias Benedek, Beate Dunst, and Aljoscha C. Neubauer explored this hypothesis, which states that a certain level of intelligence is required to think creatively. What that threshold is (and why it matters) is the primary subject of the research, titled: “The relationship between intelligence and creativity: New support for the threshold hypothesis by means of empirical breakpoint detection”

It’s within their published findings that the researchers share what they discovered about the threshold of intelligence required for creative thought:

“We found thresholds only for measures of creative potential but not for creative achievement…an IQ of around 85 IQ points was found to form the threshold for a purely quantitative measure of creative potential.”

This finding resembles a theory I made public in January 2013 myself, when I wrote on Creative Something:

“Existing knowledge is something that anyone above a certain threshold on the IQ scale can amass. That intelligence number, it seems, is right around 100 (right in the middle of the average range for IQ test-takers in the United States). If you’re reading this, you have the creative potential of anyone with an IQ of 100 or above.”

Because creativity is a type of intelligence, it seems the only requirement to achieve it is a regular, overarching level of intelligence.

Knowing how to think (which, as I’ve written about countless times, is simply how our brains work naturally) is the sole requirement for creative potential.

The issue with this approach to viewing creative intelligence is that it’s not entirely accurate. Or, at least, we can’t say that it is. Why? Because both intelligence and creativity are extremely difficult to gauge.

Joel provides us with a way to move forward from this issue:

“Perhaps more interesting are recent arguments that we should view creativity as a kind of expertise, and not necessarily a generic capacity in the same sense as intelligence…rather than saying a person is ‘creative,’ we say a person is a ‘creative cook’ or ‘creative scientist,’ etc.”

Here we have the real kicker on the field of intelligence’s relationship to creativity.

To be creative intelligent isn’t a universal trait. Someone isn’t simply “creative,” no matter how intelligent (or unintelligent) they are. Just as you can’t say that someone is intelligent on a universal level.

Instead, since creativity is a type of intelligence, which is a fluid trait, we can determine the creative intelligence of an individual by looking at their ability to think of novel and valuable ideas in a specific realm.

Steve Jobs may have been a computer (or, arguably, marketing) genius, but if we were to put him in front of a piano would he be able to come up with a sonata on par with the likes of Mozart?

If you’re wondering whether you’re creative or not, and how your overarching level of intelligence impacts that, know that you have the same measurable level of creative aptitude as anyone else reading these words.

Even if you sucked at math in school, that doesn’t mean you can’t be the next Steve jobs or Albert Einstein.

If you believe that being creative means being able to develop new and valuable ideas in any field of interest effortlessly, it’s time to re-evaluate what you think creativity is and how it should be measured.

In the end: creativity is only one type of intelligence, it’s fluid and dependent only on your base level of thinking and adapting to changes in the environment and situations in your life.

Yes, you’re creative. Maybe not in every way, but certainly in some.

Read this next: The relationship between creativity and intelligence.

Photo by Evan Sharboneau.

“Don’t wait for anything. Don’t wait till some magical story idea drops into your lap. That’s not where ideas come from. Go looking for an idea and it’ll show up. Begin now.”

Ira Glass in his interview with Lifehacker

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Discover yourself by creating.


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To be more creative, question what you know you know


There’s a conundrum with knowledge in the pursuit of creativity.

It goes something like this: the more you know, the more information your brain has to access in order to generate new ideas. That’s good. But the more you know, the more likely you are to rely on that knowledge in order to do your work. Which can be bad.

It’s the classic scenario of an expert being unable to solve a problem, but a novice enters the scene and effortlessly finds a novel way to do it. Why?

When we become experts, we begin to frame our perspective on problems around what we know is possible. Where the novice, the beginner, the naive creative, doesn’t know any better: anything is possible (until it’s realized that it’s not).

We get so deep into our own experiences that it becomes difficult to see the world in any other way.

If you know a certain route to work or school or your favorite cafe is the most efficient or most beautiful, how likely are you to explore new routes? Not very likely.

Yet it’s by exploring new routes that you discover there’s an even better, or more beautiful, way.

We tend to prefer the safe route (both metaphorically and literally) when pursuing our work or the other activities of our day-to-day life. Why try something new if we already know what works? Why pursue new information if we know the answers that are already fact?

The answer, of course, is that leaving the well trodden path – exploring new routes, trying new foods, second-guessing what we’re doing, even if we know what we’re doing is right – is what leads to creative insights, innovation, new frames of mind.

Sure, sometimes the new paths aren’t worthwhile. Sometimes you decide to try the new path or question what you think you know and you end up right where you where before. But occasionally you discover something new. Either a new way to think or see the problem or a new place you’ve never been before, which in-turn inspires more creative insight.

It’s worthwhile for creativity to second-guess everything you know, to question it and ask “what if” and see where it leads you.

What do you know? What would happen if you questioned it?


Where I don’t know leads

Why it’s difficult to have creative ideas

What it means to have a creative mind

Photo by Ian Muttoo

Take your headphones off if you want creative inspiration


Sometime over the weekend I started discussing the creative importance of taking headphones off in the work place or studio.

Taking your headphones off allows you to be more in tune with the world around you, which is where the inspiration to do what we do comes from.

This belief, that you have to take your headphones off or turn the music down to do good work, understandably got a lot of backlash. What do you think?

If I told you that you should take headphones off, or turn off the music, where you do your best creative work, would you do it? Or would you think I was crazy?

It’s important to note that this notion of removing headphones to boost creativity is true, absolutely true, and we’ll get into the details of why in just a second. But first, you have to consider when this advice makes sense for us as creatives.

Imagine you’ve started a new project, you’re making good progress, then you start to feel stuck. You’re not sure which decision to make next or where to go with the work.

You know the feeling, right? You were motivated and moving fast one minute, then the very next you feel stuck, your inspiration dwindling.

In those moments of stuck-ness it’s not uncommon to try and force your way through the work. So you turn the music up and try to move the needle on your work, but nothing comes. You stay stuck. Your motivation starts to evaporate entirely.

It’s in these moments, when we need inspiration or motivation most, that we should take the headphones off, go for a walk, get away from the work for a moment and soak in everything else around us. And really the idea of “take your headphones off to have more ideas” is a metaphor. Though for some of us it’s not.

The point that some seem to be missing about this situation is that it’s more than ok to wear headphones, or blast music, if you’re not doing the ideation part of the work. That is to say: if you’re doing work that you don’t need to think creatively about, go ahead and plug yourself in, you don’t need inspiration to do that type of work.

However, if you’re starting a new project or finding yourself stuck (or producing less-than-stellar work) consider taking your headphones off, or getting away from your desk, or anything that can reconnect you to the world.

It’s that last point, of connecting to the world, that matters here.

This is important because our brains are powerful machines that are constantly taking in new information, filtering and sorting it, and combining it with everything we already know in order to overcome our creative slumps or to generate new ideas.

If you’re creatively stuck or limited, blocking out the world of inspiration around you is one sure-fire way to ensure you stay stuck and uninspired.

Your brain needs the fuel of conversations in the workplace, or the click-clack of keyboards at the cafe, the hum of a busy highway, the towering sky outside. It’s through those things that our brains do their best work, of connecting ideas and generating solutions, or finding new sources of inspiration to feed from.

Take your headphones off once-in-a-while. Get away from your desk. Connect with the world, because it’s from the world that your ideas stem.


Headphones are shortening your career

The creative processing your brain won’t tell you about

Where do the best ideas come from?

Photo via Flickr.

Download Brainbean FREE in the App Store, because there’s no app out there like it for iPad!

“A great way to exercise both sides of your brain.” – The Unofficial Apple Weblog

“Educational but not necessarily just for kids.” –

“Build creative confidence and energize your imagination.” – Mobile Entertainment


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