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.