Creativity isn’t a trait that some people have and others don’t. Before I explain why that’s true, let me first define what I mean by creativity. If one hundred people looked at the same abstract painting by Jackson Pollock, many of them might say, “Oh, that artist is really creative,” but not everyone. If one hundred people watched the TV series So You Think You Can Dance, many of them might say, “The dancers are creative,” or “The choreographers are creative.” If one hundred people listened to music by Philip Glass, some might say, “That composer is creative.”
What if one hundred people went to a fashion show? Would everyone say that the clothing designers are creative? Or what if they saw a graffiti artist’s work on a wall—would they say that the artist is creative? What about people who design technology? Are they creative?
There are many possible definitions of creativity. We probably won’t agree entirely on the definition or on the results. However, here’s a definition I’ve put together that I find descriptive and useful:
Creativity is the process of generating new ideas, possibilities, or alternatives that result in outcomes that are original and of value.
Here’s why I like this definition:
- Process—The word “process” is in the definition. So, creativity isn’t a trait that some people have and other people don’t. There’s actually a creative process that you can follow.
- Outcomes—Just doing the process isn’t necessarily being creative. If you follow a creative process, and by doing so you end up with something, that’s an outcome. Being creative means that you have something when you’re done.
- Original—The definition includes the word “original.” Being creative isn’t just copying what somebody else did. When you’re creative, you end up with something unique.
- Value—When you’re creative, the outcome is of value to someone. It doesn’t have to be of value to everyone, but it has to be of value to someone.
Even with this definition, we may not necessarily agree on who’s creative and who’s not. But the definition gives us a place to start talking about creativity, and a way to evaluate whether or not a particular activity is creative.
Myths about creativity
Let’s clear up some myths about creativity:
- Some people are “naturally” creative and other people aren’t. It’s true that some people spend more time in creative activity than others. But brain science is clear about the fact that there are creative brain states that can be turned on by some fairly simple actions. This means that everyone can learn how to be more creative.
- Creativity means creating “works of art.” Being creativity doesn’t equate only with creating fine art, such as painting a landscape or writing a symphony. There are many ways to be creative, and creating works of art is just one way. Creativity includes many things, for example, cooking, programming, interface design, and problem solving.
- Some people are left-brained (analytical) and others are right-brained (creative). My PhD research was on the right and left halves of the brain, so I can get pretty involved in a conversation about the subject. The human brain has two hemispheres: the left and the right. It’s a common misconception that the left side of the brain is all about being logical and analytical and rational, and the right side of the brain is all about being intuitive and creative. That description is not accurate.
There definitely are two sides to the brain—the left and the right—and it’s true that there are some brain structures on one side that aren’t on the other. For instance, the ability to speak and to understand language is on the left, and some spatial awareness is on the right. However, it’s simplistic to say that when you listen to music, you’re listening to it only with the right side of your brain. Even people who don’t play an instrument show activity on both sides of the brain when listening to music. (Although those who play an instrument show more activity in more areas of the brain than those who don’t.) It’s simplistic to say that the right side is the creative side.
The corpus callosum is a bundle of nerve fibers that connects the left and right halves of the brain. Information (nerve impulses) passes through the corpus callosum very quickly. So even if something started on one side of the brain, it doesn’t stay there very long.
When people say “I’m a left-brained person” or “I’m a right-brained person,” they’re actually not referring to sides of the brain. They’re referring to styles of thinking, learning, or processing information. There are different ways to process information, but they don’t correspond to specific halves of the brain.
Hopefully this debunks some of the myths about creativity.
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