We’ve been mislead about creativity

It’s not as though we’ve been directly lied to, but when it comes to being creative we’ve certainly been mislead.

Let’s look at our understanding of creativity by first talking about ideas themselves. Ideas are biochemical and electrical signals between neurons in our bodies, centralizing in our brain.

And we really have no idea exactly how they work.

That doesn’t stop us – and by “us” I really mean scientists and researchers who talk at us – from theorizing how our they work within our brain. As a result, we like to theorize how creativity as a process (or processes) works too.

We do have some concept of how different parts of the brain seem to work. We can see that different areas respond to different stimuli and that certain sections, when stimulated with an electrical spark or chemical injection, tend to do certain things. But for the most part we aren’t really sure exactly how neurons interpret signals or what those signals really reflect.

We believe that knowledge, in the form of ideas, is “stored” in the areas of our brain that deal with their input. So when we see something, that knowledge is stored in the visual parts of our brain. When we hear something, that information is stored in the auditory parts of the brain.

Then there’s things like memories and more complex ideas, such as events that have occurred in our life or the idea of a person (what they look like, sound like, smell like, or how they move, things they’ve said, etc.). Those types of ideas aren’t nearly as straight-forward as a straightforward sense, like the taste of salt or what the color black looks like. So this more complex knowledge tends to be stored in more memory associative places of the brain, like the amygdala.

Our brains then utilize their vast network of memories and ideas and structures to formalize something that we refer to as a thought.

How does this all relate to creativity exactly?

Well, when we think “I’d like to paint a masterpiece” our brain goes off racing into the various knowledge we have about painting. What is the meaning of painting? What paintings have we seen in the past, and where we’ve seen those paintings? What are the colors we commonly associate with the idea of a painting? What are the techniques we are familiar with to construct a painting? And on and on.

Creativity is that process elaborated or, as often is the case, broken to include other ideas.

So, for example, when we’re thinking about making a painting and we’re reminded of all the normal painting-related thoughts, we have to break our thinking to include other, non-painting related ideas as well. That’s where originality stems from. That is the broadest scientific explanation for creativity occurring.

The problem with all of this is that it’s just theory! We don’t actually know where creative ideas come from (apart from knowing they take place in the brain), or why. We don’t understand ideas, or how our brain really stores them or what it prefers to store them as.

It’s not as though we can cut open a brain and look at it to know what ideas or memories are stored within it. All we see is a bunch of pinkish-gray goop with wrinkles. Even if we zoom really far into the brain we’ll see networks of neurons, which themselves are just physical items…they don’t represent ideas!

Most notably: we aren’t entirely sure of what fuels creative thinking and what doesn’t.

Maybe coffee helps, but maybe it doesn’t. Perhaps blasting Beethoven helps spur original thinking, but it may not. It seems that new scientific studies are coming out almost every year that say if we do a certain something or don’t do a certain something, we’ll be more creative.

Then, after we learn of all of these things that seemingly invoke creativity, another study comes out that refutes it just a year later.

With all of this back and forth and misunderstanding (as fun as it is to study and explore), the absolute best thing you can do as a creative is find what works for you, personally.

We’ve been mislead into believing that creativity is a defined process, one which we can control or “boost” but the reality is that we have no idea what works and what doesn’t.

The best thing we can do as creatives and artists is experiment, find what works for us, and to not take the things we read (even from scientific studies) as creative truth.

Photo via Flickr.