The creativity equation

Creativity is Freedom

Ironically, the dominant definition of creativity is both constrained and unimaginative, neglecting myriad theories about the origins of novel ideas.

Humans have long held creativity as being a sort of metaphysical ideal. Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle considered creativity to be a gift from the gods bestowed in the absence of one’s senses. Yet despite its universal appeal and apparent homogeneity, the essence of creativity remains hotly debated. The Oxford Dictionary defines creativity as ‘The use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness.’ But even imagination means different things in different contexts. Neuroscientists, social psychologists, philosophers and those deemed prodigiously creative each impart a different perspective on what makes someone creative – a cognitive or other kind of sequential process. A chemical reaction. A personality trait. A novel outcome. Artistic flair. We go in search of a recipe.


Psychologist Dean Keith Simonton, PhD, from the University of California, says creativity bifurcates into little-c creativity and big-C creativity. While the former includes everyday problem solving and the ability to adapt to change – both markers of good mental health – the less common big-C creativity occurs when a person solves a problem or creates an object that has a major impact on how other people think, feel and live.

“At the little-c level, creativity implies basic functionality,” Simonton wrote in a paper titled ‘The Psychology of Creativity’. “And at the big-C level, it’s something that we give Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes for.”

Personality differences lead creative individuals to varied manifestations of creativity – from creating artworks to developing new theories on the origin of the universe.

“The major criterion is how much restraint there is in the creative process,” Simonton says. “Science has to be constrained to scientific process, but there’s a lot less constraint on artists. Many artists are accustomed to chaotic environments, which may enable them to eschew structure and create freely.” Artists tend to show higher than average rates of mental illness, Simonton says. “If you look just within the arts, there are styles that are very realistic and more expressionistic – the more expressionistic the art form, the more likely the artist is to have a mental illness.”


Contrary to beliefs that prevailed early last century, intelligence as defined by IQ tests and other gauges of cognitive acumen does not determine creativity. Nor is the reverse true.
In the 1920s, psychologist Louis Terman, PhD, explored the relationship between intelligence and creativity using a sample of intelligent children. There appeared to be no predictable path from intelligence to development of creative abilities, he found. While successful creative endeavours may demand intelligence, they are neither synonymous with or necessary predictors of them, Simonton says.

“You need an IQ of around 140 to learn enough physics to be truly creative in it,” Simonton says. “But once you have that minimal IQ, there’s still something else that must be there for a person to be truly creative.”


Emotion may be a kind of enabling factor for neural circuits associated with creativity according to a study published in Scientific Reports. Neural networks are significantly altered when artists are actively attempting to express emotions, a brain-scanning study of jazz pianists showed. When creative acts engage brain areas involved in emotional expression, activity in these regions strongly influences which parts of the brain’s creativity network are activated, and to what extent.

“The bottom line is that emotion matters,” said senior author Charles Limb, MD. “It can’t just be a binary situation in which your brain is one way when you’re being creative and another way when you’re not. Instead, there are greater and lesser degrees of creative states, and different versions. And emotion plays a crucially important role in these differences.”

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” - ALBERT EINSTEIN

In line with Aristotle’s theory that creativity emerges after the senses have been abandoned, Limb has used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study spontaneous creative pursuits such as musical improvisation, freestyle rapping, and the rendering of caricatures and found that they deactivate a brain region known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), which is involved in planning and monitoring
behaviour. This DLPFC deactivation has been taken to be a neural signature of the ‘flow state’. Moreover, the happier the improvisations, the greater the deactivation of more structured thought.

That’s not to say creativity can be reduced to synaptic factors. “The notion that we can study complex creativity in artists and musicians from a neuroscientific perspective is an audacious one, but it’s one that we’re increasingly comfortable with,” Limb said.


Amid ongoing debate about whether or not there is a relationship between greater creativity and mental illness, research has found that the dopamine system in healthy, highly creative people share properties with that seen in schizophrenia.

High creative skills have been shown to be somewhat more common in people who have mental illness in the family. Creativity is also linked to a slightly higher risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Certain psychological traits, such as the ability to make unusual or bizarre associations are also shared by schizophrenics and healthy, highly creative people.

“We have studied the brain and the dopamine D2 receptors, and have shown that the dopamine system of healthy, highly creative people is similar to that found in people with schizophrenia,” said associate professor Fredrik Ullén from Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet.

Just which brain mechanisms are responsible for this correlation remain unknown, but Dr Ullén suggests that the function of systems in the brain that use dopamine is significant. Previous studies have shown that dopamine receptor genes are linked to ability for divergent thought, which is thought to be key to lateral solutions.

“The study shows that highly creative people who did well on the divergent tests had a lower density of D2 receptors in the thalamus than less creative people,” says Dr Ullén. “Schizophrenics are also known to have low D2 density in this part of the brain, suggesting a cause of the link between mental illness and creativity.

“Thinking outside the box might be facilitated by having a somewhat less intact box,” said Dr Ullén.

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