Not everyone is the creative type, right? Wrong. Peggy Orenstein uncovers the roots of imaginative thinking.
By Peggy Orenstein
My daughter, Daisy, was thrilled last fall when she was placed in a second-grade class with a special concentration on science and math. I pasted on my best Enthusiastic Mom smile as she chattered about baking-soda volcanoes and lemon-powered batteries, but inside I was roiling. Math? Science? What about her love of writing, drawing, composing music? That school was going to suck the creativity right out of her! They’d turn her into one of those people who talks in a monotone about things no one else can understand! Or worse: They’d somehow turn her into me.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been haunted by the conviction that I am not a creative person. True, I’m a writer, but not the kind who relies on her boundless imagination to make things up. I’m the knitter who’s lost without a pattern, the longtime piano student who was never able to improvise. I can’t even doodle without hyperventilating; I fear drawing the way other people fear heights. Creativity, like red hair, always seemed to be one of those things you either had or you didn’t. Clearly I didn’t.
Maybe you know what I mean. According to James C. Kaufman, an associate professor of psychology at California State University at San Bernardino and author of Creativity 101, a majority of Americans don’t consider themselves the creative “type.” This wouldn’t be a big deal if the self-assessment didn’t tend to become self-fulfilling, but it does: We think we’re not creative, so we don’t cultivate our creative potential and—voilà!—we’re not creative. In recent years, that cycle seems to have become a spiral: Americans’ scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, a 90-minute series of visual and verbal tasks administered by a psychologist, have plummeted since 1990.
No one can fully explain the decline; too much TV, texting, googling? Whatever the culprit, experts in the emerging field of creativity studies—a broad array of psychologists, educators, and neuroscientists—would like us to chuck the have-it-or-don’t mentality and start recognizing creativity as basic to human development, as elemental as reading or counting. Creativity can be squelched, these experts say, but if we take the time to better understand what it is and how it works, it can also be fostered and enhanced. Scholars define creativity as the production of something both novel and appropriate. (That latter condition is important from a research perspective: “If anything new qualifies as creative, then the term loses its meaning,” Kaufman says. “Suppose the person you hired to repave your driveway covered it with salami—that would be original, surely, but inappropriate.” Similarly, an innovative design for a bridge would not pass muster if, once constructed, it collapsed.)
By this definition, almost any human endeavor has the potential to be creative. Which brings us to step one in claiming our creativity: becoming more expansive in our own definition of the term.
So many people operate under the default assumption that creativity is the sole province of the arts. I, it appears, am one of those people. Intellectually, I know it’s wrong to think this way. I’m well aware of Einstein, Curie, Gates—not to mention Temple Grandin, James (Mr. vacuum cleaner) Dyson, and the creatively self-amputating guy James Franco played in 127 Hours. Heck, there’s even Daisy and her baking-soda volcanoes.
In my defense, it’s only recently—in the last century or so—that anyone acknowledged creativity extending beyond the arts. The Victorians applied the term primarily to painting; the ancient Greeks, to poetry. For all we know, future generations may consider our own parameters equally quaint. In the decade since advances in imaging technology have allowed researchers to precisely track the way our brains process creative tasks, it’s become clear, for example, that we were mistaken in thinking creativity resides in a single area of the brain. Brain scans of people engaged in different types of creative tasks—visual and verbal problem-solving, artistic performance involving music—reveal that many brain areas are involved. Moreover, domains such as the arts, science, and leadership appear to harness various types of creativity, each drawing on different sets of mental abilities. “It’s a very optimistic finding,” says Oshin Vartanian, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Toronto, “because we now see that creativity can be exhibited in many different ways.” Continue reading