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What neuroscience teaches us about creativity

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What is creativity?

How would you define it if someone asked you to?

Steve Jobs once said: “Creativity is just connecting things.” The great French chef Jacques Maximin is quoted as having proclaimed: “Creativity means not copying.” The English Dictionary echoes Maximin’s quote by describing creativity as: “The ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.;” Esteemed creative author Robert E. Franken once wrote that creativity “is defined as the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems”

Yet, for all of the various explanations of what creativity is, it’s still really difficult to explain in one concise, all-encompassing definition.

When I first began researching the concept of creative thought (nearly six years ago) I had no idea what creativity was. Apart from the generalized and often ambiguous or dreamy definitions given by innovators, writers, philosophers, and artists, it seemed to me that creativity was just too complex a thing to elegantly define.

Which, as I’ve learned over the years, actually makes sense.

Why exactly? What is it about the creative process that makes it so complicated and so difficult to explain?

Some weeks ago I asked that question to the very people who – more than anyone else – should be able to give us the most accurate answer: neuroscientists.

Creativity is a neurological process, so scientists should have answers, right?


While the typical response I got from the scientists I surveyed were very much along the ambiguous and not-entirely-similar quotes from the likes of Steve Jobs and Picasso, one answer from a four-year PhD student of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, gave me exactly the answer I was hoping to get.

That cognitive scientist is named Joel Chan. Today I’m excited to share some insights gleaned from Joel’s answer to my question: what is creativity, from a neurological perspective?

Joel first starts with this disclaimer:

“The science of creativity is arguably still in its infancy, despite there being volumes of research on it since the 1950’s, in part due to the strong presence of folk psychology, and the difficulty in wrangling it scientifically.”

I’ve found this to be absolutely true in my own research over the last few years as well.

We’re only just beginning to understand the human mind itself, and even the research we do have about the brain from the last several decades is minimal and occasionally disproven by newer research.

This presents the first major dilemma for understanding creativity: because it takes place in the mind, and because we still have such a basic understanding of the brain, we’re fairly far from understanding the science of creativity.

For all intents and purposes, then: creativity is still very much a mystical/magical subject.

So much so that, in early 2013, the U.S. President Barack Obama launched a $100,000,000 project to map the human brain. Called the BRAIN Initiative, it’s aim is to advance scientific research of exactly how the brain functions.

To quote the President: “As humans, we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom. But we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears.”

Despite setbacks, we have some pretty good ideas


Even though our understanding of the brain is limited today, scientists do have a few fairly good ideas about how creativity works, thanks to continued research like that of the BRAIN Initiative, neurological studies, and even additional exposure in mainstream media.

Joel’s research is part of that recent revolution to fully understand the brain and how creativity works. Joel continues:

“I think creativity, from a neurological standpoint, is a collection of cognitive abilities and tendencies, that, when applied to a problem or pursuit, result in the creation of something that is appropriate to the problem/pursuit, and also new/original in some sense.”

Ah! Some clarification now, creativity is difficult to understand primarily because it’s not one process that takes place. It’s actually several, all variously working for either a singular goal (e.g. brainstorming), or which happen to produce a tangible concept related to a problem or pursuit (e.g. eureka moments).

What are the processes exactly behind creativity?


Joel explains that they are:

1. Attention “Both for focusing in deep work and sustaining oneself through thick and thin to finish the creative work, and for flexibly searching in memory and one’s environment for crucial clues to the puzzle.”

2. Analogy/metaphorical thinking “For connecting knowledge bits that might seem unrelated.”

3. Network organization of memory “With spreading activation and susceptibility of these activation patterns to be altered by external input, e.g., Priming can overcome Functional fixedness.”

4. Forgetting “Natural tendency of memories to decay over time (this might be why Incubation helps when you are stuck on a problem, forgetting allows for unproductive thought patterns to decay and stop hogging memory space)”

5. Imagination “Capacity to construct multiple construals of stimuli, and to flexibly combine bits of memory into novel representations”

I know it’s a little dense, but did you catch the drift of all that?

Joel tells us that there are multiple tendencies and abilities in our thinking and behavior that drive creativity.

Our attention to details (not only in the real world and in our experiences, but in the thoughts and feelings we have as well), combined with the ability to connect related ideas (i.e. through metaphors), the intent to prime ideas for creative output, the ability to forget unimportant or uncreative concepts, and a bit of imagination are what drive creativity.

Not so elegant to describe, is it? Turns out there’s more.

Joel tells us: “Of course, I’m leaving out the ways in which the environment and past experience interact with these neurological structures and abilities…”

Environmental factors, moods, energy levels, and more, all affect these various aspects to creative thought.

It’s so vastly complex that describing creativity with just a sentence may suffice for the average questioner, but if you’re truly interested in how you come up with those great (and not so great) ideas, this is all stuff to think about.

So the next time someone asks you what you think creativity is, either give them one of the canned quotes or responses that are so popular these days, or direct them to this article for a little education.

Learn more about Joel Chan and his work or research by visiting his personal home on the web at PITT.edu.

Brain illustration via J E Theriot. Neurologists at work photo via Gettysburg College.