Necessity is the mother of invention.
You’ve heard this proverb before, right? Basically, when stuck in a situation that requires something to change, the individual will create a new device or method to improve the situation.
But after reading Tim Vernimmen’s article Where Creativity Comes From, published for Scientific American, the proverb gets a new spin. The article focuses on a study done by Carel van Schaik of the University of Zurich, which reports behavioral patterns of orangutans when their food availability becomes insufficient. Instead of getting creative, they fell into energy-saving mode, essentially minimizing their movements and eating whatever unappealing foods they could find.
Fortified by another study by economist Sendhil Mullainathan of Harvard University, we learn that reminding people of their financial struggles does not lead to innovative solutions. The bottom line is that difficulty doesn’t always lead to creativity, but preoccupation with meeting daily needs such as food and paying bills leave little opportunity to create innovative solutions.
“So if you ask me, opportunity is the mother of invention.” ~Carel van Schaik
Mullainathan’s article highlights an important question: how complex is creativity and how can we pin down what makes an individual ‘creative’?
The creative mind is not primarily prompted by the need to survive. In fact, several studies state that individuals are ‘creative’ thanks to their mental flow. While the left brain is known to be a more analytical, linear, and disciplined thinker—and the right brain is more artistic, visual, and imaginative—the complexity of creativity goes way beyond that.
Arne Dietrich, professor of psychology at the American University of Beirut, shares her thoughts in the article “Where does ‘Creativity’ Happen in Your Brain?”
She mentions the Alternative Uses Test (AUT), a study where participants are to provide alternative uses for common objects. Unusual responses are awarded creativity points, basing a person’s creativity level on responses given within a one-minute time frame. Dietrich has concerns over the validity of this test: can we really assess creativity levels by administering such a test?
She writes, “Creativity is a complex psychological phenomenon that taps into many different mental processes, and the AUT cannot identify the ones that matter. And if you fail to isolate the subject of interest in your study, you can’t use neuroimaging to hunt for mechanisms. You just don’t know what the brain image shows.”
There are a multitude of processes behind the creative process. Although creative types may not be able to come up with inventive uses for everyday tools, they can still generate highly creative endeavors.
“Creativity is just connecting things.” ~Steve Jobs (Wired interview in 1997)
‘Connecting things’ is another important aspect of creativity. It incorporates a certain temperament and willingness to try things, as discovered in a study done by Edward Neckaa and Teresa Hlawaczb. In their research article “Who has an Artistic Temperament? Relationships Between Creativity and Temperament Among Artists and Bank Officers.”, they identified that both artists and bankers shared the same temperament. What distinguished artists from bankers, however, was their higher level of activity. The more experienced individuals (in this case the artists) used their varied knowledge for divergent thinking, which made them more thoughtful and creative.
Scientifically, our understanding of creative minds is primitive. The cultivation of creativity, however, is identified by different exposures, behaviors, unplanned detours and patterns.
Another catalyst for creativity is the freedom to let go. Utilizing work done by psychologist Jonathan Schooler, Eric Kandel authored The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind and Brain.” The book argues that ideas “seem to come not when people are hard at work on a problem, but when they are sidetracked: going for a walk, taking a shower, thinking about something else.”
Creativity isn’t a simple-minded trait or identifiable with testing. The complexity of creative brains spans over life experience, personality traits, mindfulness (or lack of), and fervor.
Dietrich explains, “It’s easy to point out England on a map, but you can’t find all people in the world who speak English that way. Creativity, then, isn’t any different than other complex, higher-order psychological phenomena – political orientation or religious conviction, if you need examples. They also don’t have a precise, single location in the brain.”
The quest to discover what makes someone creative may be long and puzzling. There are many clues and variables that establish a pattern of creativity, but for now it is a mystifying process perhaps best explains by Mozart himself:
“When I am, as it were, completely in myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer — say traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly. Whence and how they come, I know not; nor can I force them. All this fires my soul, and, provided I am not disturbed, my subject enlarges itself, becomes methodized and defined…All this inventing, this producing, takes place in a pleasing lively dream.”