The one thing you learn as a neuroscientist is how awesomely creative every single human being is. It’s in our DNA.
Creativity is how we, as a species, have become so dominant. Our gigantic brains have evolved to solve almost any problem that is thrown at us, from how to hunt, to how to farm, to how to find free Wi-Fi. Our exceptional problem-solving skills are ubiquitous throughout the entire species.
That’s why it’s so disheartening that myths have developed telling us how uncreative we are. The truth is everyone has the capacity to be creative as it’s in our genes, but these five myths are the ones that continue to spread and to stop people from achieving their potential.
The second-best* way to drive a neuroscientist crazy is to ask them if they are left-brained or right-brained. One of the perennial myths of neuroscience and psychology is that some people are left-brained and some right-brained. If you are right-brained you are creative, artistic, and emotional. If you are left-brained you are thoughtful, analytical, and logical.
No. The brain is, to a certain extent, compartmentalized. There are specialized areas for vision, speech, hearing, and smell. It’s also true that some of these functions are lateralized. For instance, a lot of our basic processing of language happens on the left side of the brain, and visuospatial processing occurs on the right-hand side. However, the idea that one side dominates in individuals has been shown to be untrue. Neuroscientists have shown that in most people there is no difference between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Each is as interconnected and functional as the other.
So how did this myth get started? The father of modern neuroscience, Paul Broca, noticed that some parts of the brain were responsible for specific abilities. In particular, in 1861 Broca found an area in the left hemisphere that was important in speech production. From this point on, neuroscientists were on the hunt for specific areas of the brain that were responsible for our thinking, actions, and personality. But it wasn’t until the ‘split-brain’ experiments of the 1960’s that the idea really came to the fore.
A drastic treatment for epilepsy, only used in the most severe cases, is a procedure known as a corpus callosotomy. The corpus callosum is a bundle of fibres that connect the two hemispheres of the brain and allows each to communicate. However, this same bundle allows the electrical activity of seizures in epileptic patients to spread to the entire brain, causing convulsions and possible death. To mitigate this and to stop the seizures from spreading, the corpus callosum can be cut, keeping the seizure to just one half of the brain.
The consequences of this are obvious: the two halves of the brain can no longer communicate properly, and any lateralization is exaggerated. Two neuroscientists, Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga took to studying the effects of the callosotomies on the patients. What they found was that the left-hand side of the brain dealt with language and reasoning, whereas the right-hand side dealt with visual imagery and spatial processing. Over time, these findings in the damaged brains of epilepsy patients have been broadened to suggest that artistic, creative people must use their right brain, and more logical people their left.
However, once brain scanning technology came along and allowed us a real-time view into a normal brain, it was proven that visualizing and creative tasks use different areas on both sides of the brain. But the myth persists.
Particularly in the corporate environment, there is the mentality that getting everyone into a meeting and staring at a whiteboard is the best way to generate new ideas. This ‘wisdom of crowds’ belief has people bouncing ideas off one another until the group combines their intelligence and creativity into one super-creation.
That’s the theory, but in reality, the results of this practice can be significantly different. Nicholas Kohn and a group at Texas A&M looked into the real effects of brainstorming on creative thinking in 2012 and found that, rather than leading to a wealth of new ideas, brainstorming can narrow the focus of a group to just one, non-optimal idea. Kohn’s group found that in brainstorming sessions, it was common for members of the group to become fixated with the ideas of others unconsciously, and for the group to eventually coalesce and conform to a single idea in the group rather than exploring a range of ideas.
In fact, the problems with group brainstorming sessions have been known for over half a century. In 1958 a study at Yale University found that students came up with twice the number of solutions to specific problems when working alone compared to working in a group.
To anyone who has ever been in a brainstorming session, the reasons for these findings should be obvious.
The more extrovert and assured members of the group assert their ideas first and then those less confident agree, even if they might have equally sound ideas.
Another aspect that affects the success of brainstorming is ‘social loafing’ – it’s much easier to do nothing when you are in a group.
So how to combat this and make brainstorming sessions more creative? One idea is to make sure that there are breaks within any session for people to think. As we found out in the last blog, pressure is not conducive to creativity, so allowing people to go off on their own and think will mean that they are more likely to come up with their own ideas, and to spot the problems in others. This critique is also something that’s important. A modern tenet of the brainstorming session is that ‘there are no wrong answers’ and that people should not be critical of others. In reality, this has backfired as bad ideas are not critiqued and are adopted at the expense of possible good ideas. Instead, consider always asking questions about any idea from the group, so that the problems in group-generated ideas can be identified, assessed, and resolved.
The same corporate managers that think brainstorming sessions are a good idea are the ones that think punishing deadlines work as well. Unfortunately for them, this is another creativity myth that refuses to die, even in the face of research.
As we saw last time, a 2002 study at Harvard Business School looked into how people coped creatively under pressure. They asked 177 people how creative they felt in their work under different circumstances. What they found was that people were least creative when they were under severe time pressure, such as an approaching deadline, and that creativity is independent of time pressure and relies heavily on the working environment.
If the worker was under a lot of pressure, then they could still think creatively as long as they felt that the pressure was worth it, and the project a good one. The researchers called this their ‘on a mission’ scenario. As long as the worker thought their job was meaningful, it didn’t matter how much pressure they were under, they still maintained high levels of creativity and did what was needed to get the job done. But they were also capable of high levels of creativity when they were not under pressure, just as long as they still thought the job was important and they were given the right working environment. This was their ‘on an expedition’ scenario which allowed the workers to explore lots of creative ideas before settling on one solution. Conversely, if the environment wasn’t right, it didn’t matter how much pressure was exerted; the workers were unable to think to their true capacity.
So what is the right working environment for creativity? Focus is vital and ties into one of the problems of brainstorming.
When people found themselves tied up in meetings and sessions designed to explore their creativity, they were less creative.
When given space and allowed to collaborate in smaller groups of two or three, they were much more creative. If you want your employees to be more creative, make sure they feel that their work is valuable, and allow them the time to explore ideas independently before bringing them to the wider group.
Fill as applicable. Only artists are truly creative. Only children are truly creative. Only geniuses are truly creative. Only crazy people are truly creative. The stereotype of a creative person is one who is a mad genius, an artist unappreciated in their own time, whose tortured soul drives them on to greater and greater artistic brilliance, before they burn out and destroy themselves. But all these ideas are myths. You can be creative and live a happy, healthy life. You can be creative in whatever your chosen endeavour. Most importantly, you needn’t be a genius, or young, to unleash your creativity.
When we think of a creative, we often think of an artist. We associate creativity with painting, writing, film and other arts. But creativity can be found in any area of human enterprise – science, business, accounting – and every area needs creative people to drive progress.
One of the most common areas to find exceptionally creative people is science. Barry Marshall is one such example. Marshall, an Australian doctor, discovered that, contrary to all scientific wisdom at the time, peptic ulcers weren’t caused by stress or spicy foods, but by bacteria. Marshall went against the grain in developing his bacteria theory, and at significant personal risk. When he couldn’t get anyone to believe him that H. Pylori bacteria caused ulcers, he downed a petri dish full of them. Three days later he had crippling stomach aches and proof of his theory. By coming up with a creative theory and solution to a problem, Marshall saved lives.
They may not hand out Nobel Prizes in your profession, but you can still find creative ways to achieve progress.
As for needing genius to excel creatively, a longitudinal study by Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman in the 1920’s studied children with high IQs throughout their lives to see what became of them. While some did end up in creative professions, just as many became tradesmen or clerical professionals. What he found was that intelligence is needed to be creative, but genius is not.
How about mental illness? Well, Salvador Dali went out walking the streets of Paris with an anteater, and Van Gogh cut off his ear and gave it to somebody as a present. Victor Hugo bathed naked on the roof of his house, and Lord Byron was, in Lady Lamb’s words, “mad, bad and dangerous to know.”
There have been links between creativity and mental illness, but one does not necessarily lead to the other. It may be that people with mental health issues find creative work easier to cope with, or more therapeutic, but the vast majority of creative people have no history of mental illness, and in fact, mental illness affects all professions and all segments of the population. For every one creative with a mental health issue, you can find 100 without.
A final common myth about creativity is that it strikes when you least expect it. Like Archimedes sitting in his bath, or Newton under his apple tree, a sudden spark will ignite and you will suddenly see the light. This myth persists because iit’s so enticing.
If creative thinking arrives out of nowhere then you don’t have to do any work on it, right?
Wrong. Newton’s apple wasn’t the end of his creative journey, it was the beginning. Only after seeing that apple fall, did Newton ask the question “What makes that apple fall perpendicular to the ground every time?” It was the starting point for a lot of work that eventually led to his idea of gravity. Ideas do not fall out of the sky. Creativity is about putting in the hours to bring an idea to life. As we saw when we looked at the rituals of the most creative people in history, the common theme in all their lives was an astonishing capacity for work. This ‘99 percent perspiration’ is where creativity really come to life, not the ‘1 percent inspiration’.
This myth is also the product of hindsight. We only see the fruits of their creative labor – the sonnets, the symphonies, and the theories – but never see the actual work required to bring them to life. Einstein published 300 academic papers over a 50 year career. Though one of the best minds that ever lived, a man with creativity coming out of his ears, his greatest achievements were the result of years of painstaking thought and research. He worked hard to make it look so easy.
The common theme in all of these myths is that you have to be special in some way to be considered creative, but the truth is everyone has creative capacity.
What really holds people back in their creative endeavors is their own self-belief, work ethic, and their work environment.
Self-belief and work ethic is something we all struggle with, and something that only comes with time. As you start to see the fruits of your creative labor it will be easier to continue your work and realise that it will lead to success. You can use ideas from our recent posts to help structure your work environment and allow you to maximize your creative capacity and your work ethic. Schedules and routines can also help you maintain focus when it starts to wane, as can taking breaks.
So don’t worry if you’re not right-brained, you’re not crazy, you’re not an artist and you haven’t had your Eureka moment. A left-brained, mild-mannered, patent office clerk who has toiled away for decades has the potential to be history’s most creative mind.