Your capacity to think creatively is a matter of the patterns you’ve built for doing so

Research indicates that our innate intelligence plays a key part in being creative. Obviously we can’t be overly surprised by that notion. But we shouldn’t be fooled by it either: the impact of intelligence on creative ability is the same impact it has on everything else in our lives.

That is to say: high levels of intelligence are not required to think creatively. Being extraordinarily intelligent can certainly help in creative thinking, but even then only to a degree.

What matters most for our ability to think creatively is our patterns of thinking and whether or not we have built them to encourage thinking differently.

In a thoughtful and well-written essay in The Atlantic, Cody C. Delistraty looks at two separate studies on what attributes signal creative potential in individuals. The first study indicates that openness to new experiences is the critical component of creative thinking (this much we know).

In the second study, researchers instead looked at biological and physiological differences in study participants who were rated as highly creative or not. What researchers in this particular study found was those with more gray matter in the region of the brain associated with the ability to filter and combine complex bits of information (another component of creative capability) were often considered to be more creative.

On one end of this scientific spectrum is something we can control: our openness to experiences can be broadened by reading many and various types of books, trying new things, meeting new people, etc. We are directly responsible for how open we are to experiences.

On the other end of the spectrum is something almost entirely out of our control: the literal stuff our brains are made of.

So which of the findings are right? Is creativity something that can be learned and influenced by our simple willingness to be open and thoughtful, or is our ability to think creatively something we’re either born with or not?

Of course the answer isn’t black or white, but it’s been my experience that we often read the findings of these types of studies (or headlines about them) and conclude that they are a matter of fact. That if we find ourselves frightened of new experiences, we can’t be more creative. Or if we feel unintelligent or that our brains didn’t develop in the same manner as that of Steve Jobs or Johann Sebastian Bach, we cannot reach their level of creativity.

In reality, both findings are right and both findings are wrong. The reasons why are a matter of detail that both authors and researchers fail to draw attention to. The question of creative ability isn’t a matter of openness to experiences nor innate intelligence or biological structure.

What matters most is how we use what we have to think in unique ways.

Openness to experience does nothing if you aren’t willing to truly explore those experiences, ruminating on them and understanding how one experience (e.g. reading a new type of novel) relates to another (e.g. solving a social problem in your life).

To some degree you do need these things to think creatively, otherwise what you have is a very basic understanding of the world and the ideas within it, as well as the limited capability of not being able to utilize that understanding in new and valuable ways.

With this perspective we can then see what truly matters: Are we forming the right types of creative thinking patterns with what we have between our ears?

Do we recognize when we’ve fallen into not only a physical routine, but a mental one as well? It seems that all of the creative greats throughout history have had this singular ability in common, despite how often researchers and biographers fail to call attention to it.

The reason why we tend to gloss over this attribute is because it’s difficult to identify as well as to change in ourselves. Building new patterns for thinking is remarkably difficult, additional research has shown this to be true: even when we are consciously aware of a bias in our thinking, we still must struggle to counteract it.

Our brains are wired to do what they have always done, it’s difficult to shake up the biological clusters of neurons and their connections. It’s not impossible, it’s just difficult.

What matters then isn’t necessarily how big your brain is, or how capable your intelligence is, or how open to experiences you may be, what matters for creativity is how you train your thinking.

Are you training yourself to notice details, to connect even the smallest of seemingly unrelated parts of the world around you together?

Who you surround yourself with and how their methods of thinking influence your own.

What types of experiences you have and what types of methods you use for ruminating on them matter here as well.

As Delistraty mentions in his article:

“When experience, openness, and the right neurology come together, the final product is nothing short of incredible.”

To be creative is to train yourself to think creatively. While levels of intelligence and our ability to be open to experiences certainly influence our creative ability, what matters drastically more is whether or not we are practicing what it means to think creatively in the first place, and surrounding ourselves with symbols and subtle reminders of that as well.

This is why I’m so excited about my upcoming book, The Creativity Challenge (now available for pre-order). The book is filled with challenges you can use to think creatively in almost any situation. These subtle reminders are exactly what we need more of in our day-to-day life in order to fully think creatively.