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Where Creative Potential Comes From

Scientists studying creativity from around the world gathered last week at a virtual conference organized by the Marconi Institute for Creativity (Bologna, Italy) and the International Society for the Study of Creativity and Innovation to discuss the nature of creative potential. Experts in psychology, neuroscience, education, and organizational behavior presented their research on various aspects of creative potential—from examining how creative ideas are generated, to the relationship between creativity and well-being, and practical strategies to nurture creativity.

Here are the three major lessons from the conference.

Creativity is rooted in our values and experience.

Whether creativity is even contemplated as a possibility is based on learned values. Filmmaker Steven Fischer shared an example of a 4-year-old sitting in a cardboard box and going to the Moon. The child will learn different values of creativity if someone comes and hops on the ride or if an important someone (a parent perhaps) comes and says that a cardboard box cannot possibly go to the moon. Sometimes the feedback about the value of creativity is explicit like in this example. And sometimes the feedback about the value of creativity is implicit through messages of who is creative (people like Einstein only? or also a neighbor who leads a remote dance class during a pandemic?) and what activities parents and teachers support (e.g., are creative ideas rewarded as much as checking all the worksheet boxes quickly).

Adults approach creativity in a similar way. We carry with us a lifetime of encounters with others who either hopped in our cardboard box to the Moon or who opted for so-called more educational activities with explicit steps to be completed. We also continue receiving feedback in our work environments when our ideas are acknowledged and built on, ignored (often because of gender or racial bias), or harshly criticized and shut down. An environment that provides psychological safety gives us permission to engage in the mature version of childlike exploration.

Creative courage is built by learning that one’s world values creativity and learning also becomes a source of potentially creative ideas. Everything we create has a root in experience and associations forged among previously encountered ideas. This is the case when my son drew hills in different shades of bright colors, inspired by a trip to a national park and it is the case when a cancer researcher uses art to represent cancer cells and see them in a different way. That is why it is crucial for the well of creativity to soak up everything the world could offer. Pilar Cortada from the University of Barcelona warned that creative products cannot be predetermined because they change in the process of interacting with the material and social world, detecting opportunities for action, and openness to new information that can change the course of one’s work.

Creativity and well-being are mutually reinforcing

Creativity is increasingly important for our overall well-being. Giovanni Corazza from the University of Bologna described that in the post-information society, creativity will become crucial for survival and dignity. The nature of technological changes and developments the world is experiencing will make creativity a necessity. Coupling of economic growth and population well-being that has been the hallmark of prior industrial revolutions might be breaking down because the developments of artificial intelligence make increasing productivity possible without much work to be performed by humans. As the information revolution made know-how widely available, both material well-being and distinctiveness will be possible to achieve only through creativity—the ability to generate what is yet not known or in existence.

In addition to becoming crucial for financial and social well-being, creativity has psychological benefits. James Kaufman from the University of Connecticut examined how creativity has a potential to contribute to past, present, and future meaning-making. Past-focused meaning making involves finding ways to successfully cope with challenging experiences, such as trauma, regret, or nostalgia-provoking events. Researchers identified multiple pathways for creativity to contribute to such meaning-making, from its role in post-traumatic growth or when writing about one’s experiences builds a sense of coherence and well-being. Creativity offers a pathway for present-focused meaning-making by helping people manage their moods and relationships (e.g., devising a creative birthday scavenger hunt in the pandemic could boost mood and friendship), as well as by contributing to problem-solving and making a contribution at work. Finally, creativity offers a pathway for future meaning-making through establishing one’s legacy with work that can outlive its creator (and reduce mortality salience).

Creativity does not only contribute to different aspects of well-being, but well-being can facilitate creative thinking. Darya Zabelina from the University of Arkansas conducted studies that show creativity boosts from a mindfulness activity. In her studies, both children and adults produced more creative and complex drawings after spending 10 minutes in a mindful practice (slowly eating a craisin and reflecting on the process) than those in a control condition who did not engage in such practice. Mindfulness has been linked to emotional well-being and it might help creativity by improving one’s ability to observe and broaden awareness.

Creativity needs to be purposefully nurtured

Barbara Kerr from the University of Kansas summarized several decades of working with creatively gifted adolescents into key advice for supporting creativity development. Pressures of education have been increasing in recent years, with greater importance of higher education, college entrance becoming more competitive, and pervasive cultural messages putting pressure on standardized educational achievement. When high school students hear about the necessity of exceptional grades and being well-rounded, how can they persist in their creative pursuits?

The advice Barbara Kerr and her colleagues offer is to teach selective conscientiousness. In other words, to develop creativity, high school students should be encouraged not to invest their full effort into every school subject. Rather, they can be selective and invest sufficient effort for good, but perhaps not maximal performance in those areas that are not close to their interests. Do what is necessary in some areas to create energy and space for other areas that are more important to one’s emerging identity and developing interests. Academic achievement certainly matters (and interests can change), but full attention does not have to be given to all subjects equally.

Furthermore, development of creative potential requires creating time and support for experiences of flow. These experiences involve high challenges that are matched with similarly high skills. When in a flow state, students are fully engaged in an activity, and often experience a sense of time flying as one action follows from another. The educational system rarely supports such experiences and even praises quickly detaching from activities by its structure, starting as early as preschool where even young children’s choice and play activities are organized in very short chunks of time.

The nature of creative potential proves to be complex. Creative ideas come from values learned in the course of one’s development and continually throughout one’s life and experience, but they also come from emotional experiences that open new possibilities by enabling us to notice what we otherwise would not or to consider new perspectives on old problems. Finally, to support creativity, parents, educators, supervisors, and mentors need to be mindful in creating spaces for thinking and deeply engaging in work. Without time that can enable experiences of flow, neither our children or the rest of us are able to reach our potential.

References Corazza, G. E. (2017). Organic creativity for well-being in the post-information society. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 13(4), 599-605. doi:10.5964/ejop.v13i4.1547 Kaufman, J. C. (2018). Finding meaning with creativity in the past, present, and future. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(6), 734–749. Kerr, B. A., & McKay, R. (2014). Smart girls in the 21st century: Understanding talented girls and women. Great Potential Press. Landhuis, E. (2018). Science and culture: Cancer researcher looks to artists for inspiration. PNAS, 115 (5), 826-827. Zabelina, D.L., White, R.A., Tobin, A. et al. The Role of Mindfulness in Viewing and Making Art in Children and Adults. Mindfulness (2020).


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