100 Things You Should Know About People: #57 — There Are 4 Types Of Creativity


Have you heard someone say, “Oh, John – he’s so creative! I wish I was creative like that.” It makes it sound as if creativity is a natural skill or talent, like the ability to sing or paint. Other times people say “I’m going to a seminar to learn how to be more creative.” That makes it sound as if creativity is a skill that anyone can learn. So, which is it? Well, kind of both and kind of neither.

Four Types of Creativity — Arne Dietrich (2004) identifies 4 different types of creativity with corresponding different brain activities. Think of it like a matrix:

Matrix of 4 types of creativity
The Creativity Matrix

Creativity can be either emotionally or cognitively based, and it can also be spontaneous or deliberate. That gives you the four quadrants.

#1: Thomas Edison — Deliberate and cognitive creativity is the kind of creativity that comes from sustained work in a discipline. For example, Thomas Edison, the inventor of the electric light bulb, was a deliberate and cognitive creator. He ran experiment after experiment before he would come up with an invention. In addition to the light bulb, Thomas Edison also invented the phonograph, and the motion picture camera. One of his famous quotes is:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Deliberate and cognitive creativity comes from the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) in your brain.  The PFC allows you to do 2 things: 1) pay focused attention and 2) make connections among information that you have stored in other parts of your brain. In order for deliberate, cognitive creativity to occur, you need to already have a body of knowledge about one or more particular topics. When you are being deliberatively and cognitively creative you are putting together existing information in new and novel ways.

#2: Personal breakthrough “a-ha” moments – If you’ve ever had a personal crisis (relationship break-up, got fired, gone through a bankruptcy), and then had a flash of insight about yourself and what chain of bad decisions you might have made that contributed to the crisis, then you may have experienced deliberate, emotional creativity. This type of creativity also involves the PFC. That is the deliberate part. But instead of focusing attention on a particular area of knowledge or expertise, people who are engaging in deliberate, emotional creativity have a-ha moments having to do with feelings and emotions. The cingulate cortex is the part of the brain that processes complex feelings that are related to how you interact with others, and your place in the world. And the cingulated cortex is connected to the PFC. These two brain areas are active with this type of creativity.

#3 Isaac Newton “Eureka” moments — Have you ever been working on a problem or idea that you can’t seem to solve. Maybe you have been trying to figure out how to staff a project at work, and you just don’t see how you can free up the right people to do the project. Then you go to lunch, and on your way back you get a flash of insight about how to staff the project. This is an example of spontaneous and cognitive creativity.

Spontaneous and cognitive creativity involves the basal ganglia of the brain. This is where dopamine is stored, and it is a part of the brain that operates outside of your conscious awareness. During spontaneous, cognitive creativity, the conscious brain stops working on the problem, and this gives the unconscious part of the brain a chance to work on it instead. If a problem requires “out of the box” thinking then you need to remove it temporarily from conscious awareness. By doing a different, unrelated activity, the PFC is able to connect information in new ways via your unconscious mental processing. The story about Isaac Newton thinking of gravity while watching a falling apple is an example of spontaneous and cognitive creativity. Notice that this type of creativity does need an existing body of knowledge. That is the cognitive part.

#4: “Epiphanies” — Spontaneous and emotional creativity comes from the amygdala. The amygdala is where basic emotions are processed. When the conscious brain and the PFC are resting, then it is possible for spontaneous ideas and creations to emerge. This is the kind of creativity that you think of when you think about great artists and musicians. Often these kind of spontaneous and emotional creative moments are quite powerful, such as an epiphany, or a religious experience. There is not specific knowledge necessary (it’s not cognitive) for this type of creativity, but there is often skill (writing, artistic, musical) needed to create something from the spontaneous and emotional creative idea.


  • Deliberate and cognitive creativity requires a high degree of knowledge and lots of time
  • Deliberate and emotional creativity requires quiet time
  • Spontaneous and cognitive creativity requires stopping work on the problem and getting away
  • Spontaneous and emotional creativity probably can’t be designed for

For more information see Arne Dietrich’s paper: The cognitive neuroscience of creativity.  Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 2004, 11 (6), 1011-1026.

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24 Replies to “100 Things You Should Know About People: #57 — There Are 4 Types Of Creativity”

  1. Very interesting, I will try to use this info in my day by day activities, No matter what you do, you always need to use your creativity, and knowing how to activate it is really useful. Thanks!

  2. I found that the best way of applied creativity is that it needs work on every of the four segments. Just the Aha-moment alone is isn’t sufficient and needs to be backed up by things in the other three quadrants.

  3. apple never falled on Newton’s head, so, you cannot name spontaneus to that kind of Creativity.
    You can read the beginnings of the Gravitational law in the Micrography, wrote by Robert Hooke 30 years earlier.

  4. Naps, Yes, I did know that the apple didn’t really fall on Newton’s head. I should have said that the legend is an example of Spontaneous/Creative. Thanks for the data!

    1. Another example of spontaneous cognitive thinking (also apocryphal/legendary) is the Original Eureka Moment of Archimedes in the bath.

  5. Well said, even though creativity is something gained by birth it is inside everyone. One has to be successful in exploring and utilizing them. As if Edison said we can also find 10,000 ways that won’t work, which can result in one way to succeed!

  6. I have a comment and a question rolled into one…

    There is a type of deliberate creativity which harnesses the spontaneous action in a methodical way. Edward de Bono talks about these kinds of intentional creativity in many of his books, one example is the ‘Random word technique’ amongst others. This technique involves selecting a random word, and applying it to your situation, then looking for any new ideas that come from the juxtaposition of concepts.

    Basically what is happening, is you are using the deliberate, cognitive modus operandi, but accessing unintentional and spontaneous outcomes. AND it can be done with limited knowledge and time.

    Would you agree or have any comment to add? Or am I off track here?

  7. Mike,

    Your example is interesting. I think it’s kind of a version of cognitive, deliberate creativity, but not exactly. Maybe you have identified a 5th type and we’ll have to come up with a different metaphor than a matrix to describe!

  8. I think there is a heavy cross over in the uses of emotional and cognitive in art and science . Some of the best artists will often try experiments with technical ways of painting and materials used, recording / analysing the results. This is very much cognitive.

    The best scientists use emotions too. Richard Feynman thought in pictures, which is far from a cognitive / logical way of doing things and closer to art. He also liked doing art and was rather good at it. Einstein too thought in pictures and was not actually that good at maths and most think, needing help from others on the highly cognitive parts.

    There has been talk in the Uk recently about how there is too much compartmentalization of art and science. We will all do better if we develop both our cognitive and emotional talents. And the best of us are mostly likely to have done just that! Leonardo Da Vinci!!

  9. Susan, you recommended a book by Jonah Lehrer called “How We Decide” which I puchased along with your own book “Neuro Web Design.”

    Jonah may, or may not be dissagreeing with you when he refers to the great activity in the prefrontal cortex (page 118) which clearly shows the cognitive part of the brain is leading the show.

    The prefrontal cortex can be very selective in what data it will allow to be considered as it consciously focus on solving a problem.

    But the neuron cells of the prefrontal cortex, he says, are very versatile and can work with any type of data it is given. This is not so with all other cerebral cortices that are designed for specific functions (visual, motor, etc).

    It is not the prefrontal cortex that provides all the data, but this is where the decisions take place. By using only relevant data the cognitive frontal lobes often lead us to new, never before types of discovery. Those aha! moments.

    In your chart above it puts those aha! moments with the emotional brain, but the emotional brain works largely with patterns of experience. Nothing really gets to that aha! moment until the cognitive brain banishes all but the most selective input to come up with something new.

    At any rate, it is all a complicated process that doesn’t seem to fit squarely in any one corner.

  10. Edward — Yes it is probably complicated. Remember, it’s Arne Dietrich who came up with the 4 types of creativity (i.e., not me). I think that Dietrich is referring to aha moments that involve emotions and relationships with others. The PFC is most likely running the show in the creative/spontaneous box. The cingulated cortex is connected to the PFC. My guess is that Dietrich was thinking of this combination of cingulated cortex and PFC when he talked about deliberate/emotional creativity.

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