The Curious Case of Creativity

Reflections on Anna Abraham's Introduction to Creativity

By Kelsey Graywill, Trishla Surana, Sarah Hashemian, Faisal Mian, Kewei Huang

The Makapansgat Pebble

Creativity is considered to be one of humankind’s defining features: the pinnacle of our cognition, what separates us from other animals. But where did it all begin? Some might say: in a cave in South Africa,

circa 3,000,000 BCE. Known as the Makapansgat pebble, a small stone found in a cave far from its origin. It had the wearing patterns of a human face and was carried across an entire continent by an

australopithecine who ascribed some meaning to it, in what is regarded as the earliest example of symbolic recognition in humans. From there, our imagination would only lead

humans further down the path of progress, creating a robust world filled with innovations in science, arts, technology and beyond.

Creativity is an expansive topic, but scholars have tried to capture its essence in a few defining features. First, for something to be creative it must be original or novel and, secondly, it must be appropriate or useful. For example, if someone is given a shoe and asked to find a creative use for it, they might do any of the following: use it to kill an insect (not original, but appropriate), wash their clothes (original, but not appropriate), or use as plant pot (original, appropriate). Next, we can consider different scales of creativity. Historically important examples of creativity (e.g. famous works of art or notable inventions) are known as “Big C” creativity, whereas smaller instances of

creativity we experience would be “Little C,” which can be further subdivided into

personal, expert, and everyday creativity.

The evolution of human cognition gave us the ability to store, retrieve and retain information and use our memory to address unique problems, eventually enabling us to not only communicate information but also imagine things which are not realities.Generating solutions to a problem is a creative process that may involve linear, systemic thinking (convergent thinking) or may be an open-ended process connecting remote ideas (divergent thinking). Both convergent and divergent creative thinking can be utilized by many people for many purposes.

If creativity is far-reaching, what does it mean when we regard people as “creative”? Is someone simply creative in general or in a specific domain. People may be creative in visual, musical, literary, numerical, kinesthetic, or scientific domains. There are some overlaps within domains – a songwriter may also be creative in literary and music. Also, we cannot neglect other factors that might affect one’s creativity in a specific domain.For example, researchers found a positive correlation between mental illness and creativity in the art field, but the correlation is very weak in sciences. Although some factors might apply across domains, the manifestations of creativity motivation are actually domain-specific. For example, one will show higher creativity when his

motivation and reward are intrinsic than one who is extrinsically motivated and rewarded

by others.

What leads us to be creative? The concept of inspiration, closely linked to creativity, dates back to ancient Greece, where Muses brought inspiration from the Gods. Individuals can find inspiration from many different areas to create new original ideas: a novelist might develop their imagination and form new ideas by listening to variousmusical genres or looking at paintings, showing a certain continuity in the process ofcreativity. Other methods, such as relaxation, yoga, meditation or contact with nature, can help an individual set up good conditions to find inspiration and be open to new thoughts and ideas. Some artists also see in psychedelic drugs a way to enhance their

imaginations and see the world in different perspectives. The use of LSD in the 1960s and 1970s was fairly common for artists to reach a mental and physical state in which they were able to create original ideas and even years before that, numerous artists had already used substances to exploit their creative abilities. Baudelaire, for instance, is notorious for using opium while writing some of his most profound poems.

Is creativity an inherent part of us or can it be taught, enhanced, and developed? It is likely that, if you sit in a room full of people, many of them will say they are not creative.Does this mean that those people just haven’t learned particular behaviors from a young age? That they haven’t practiced creative thinking? If so, how do we begin to understand the ways we tap into this creative ‘spark’? Traumatic brain injury in some instances has sparked changes in creativity, suggesting that there may be creative traits that are not restricted to any one sort of person and may have to be potential to emerge in anyone.

Drawings by 49 year old man who developed brain trauma through a severe blow to the head

While it could be argued that certain environmental conditions can elicit creativity in anyone, research suggests more nuance is needed. In the famous case of Nadia Chomyn, she suffered from severe autism and couldn't communicate, but had an extraordinary ability to draw horsemen and animals from a young age. Even though she had little experience, she drew inspirations from picture books. Her drawings showed linear perspective and uniquely accurate interaction of objects. Cases like Nadia support the idea that some aspects of creativity are innate rather than learned.

Nadia’s drawings

The advent of modern neuroimaging tools has allowed us to study such aspects of creativity more intimately than ever. Observing creativity by measuring blood flow (MRIs) and electrical activity (EEG, ERP) has implicated brain structures and networks spanning attention, memory, emotion, reward, and beyond. By looking at unique case studies and exploring creativity as a function of personality, environment, and domain in tandem with neural correlates of divergent thinking, we can begin to elucidate the compelling but elusive mystery that is creativity. The Makapansgat pebble may have been initially been stone cast into darkness, but through the years its significance as the origin of creativity in humans has been a beacon of light driving the search for what makes us creative.


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