The Science, Benefits & Unfortunate Decline of the Creative Mind
Updated: Mar 19
“The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them. The hunt to discover those jewels - that's creative living.” – Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic
Creativity is the capacity to come up with original and valuable ideas – both in creative expression but also in advancing personal invention, or business and product innovation.
Big-C and Little-c creativity
Researchers divide creativity into different types – like big and little creativity.
Big-C creativity is what is we generally agree on as creativity: significant technological innovations or artistic expression. Think da Vinci, Einstein, Curie or Jobs. This go-big creativity often changes the way a society can think about what’s possible.
Little-c creativity is for the rest of us. Rather than huge leaps forward or the creation of a famous masterpiece, small creativity is democratic and open to everybody. It’s how we express our creative selves in our lives: when we write, cook, tell a joke, craft something, remodel a home, raise a family or design a life.
What researcher Ruth Richards calls everyday creativity is the ingenuity of regular people. Everyday creativity helps us jump in and tackle problems; it helps us take risks and be willing to see how the solution evolves through the process.
Creativity is on display when we remain flexible and keep at it until something works or works better.
Creativity and the brain
Many of us have heard the theory that depending on whether we tend towards a more rational or creative-type personality, we are either “left or right-brained”, meaning one or the other side tends to dominate.
The analytical, math-lovers among us are thought to spend most time on the left; and the artistic and creative types are instead considered right-brained.
Like most things, it’s not actually that simple. Our brains, like the beings they manage, are far more complex and versatile than that.
The average person takes advantage of both the rational and more imaginative parts with scans of the brain showing similar activity on both sides, regardless of personality type.
This is great news for those of us who find themselves straddling the logical/creative divide on the daily and can’t pick one camp over the other. Turns out, it’s not a divide at all.
Less location, more connection
Less about right or left location, brain activity during creative pursuits turns out to be more complex.
Research using fMRI brain scans have enlightened neuroscientists on the processes and areas of the brain connected to creative thinking. The more creative brain they found, had both stronger brain connections as well as an interplay between different parts of the brain not generally seen.
Debunking the theory that we live in either right or left-brained neighborhoods, researchers uncovered a fascinating brain process that involves both coming up with a new idea and then the ability to assess the feasibility of the idea as part of the same creative function.
However, and wherever the mind makes it happen, science has found creativity plays a key role in our lives.
In 2010, the American Journal of Public Health reported a review showing that creative pursuits have been linked to both physical and mental well-being in a number of ways.
Physical benefits of creativity
Letting the creative part of you do its thing could be the best medicine, given the virus and anxiety-prone world in which we live today.
According to researchers, creative pursuits helps boost our immune system and reduce levels of inflammation and stress hormones. Creativity helps reduce anxiety.
Creativity helps with brain functioning and cognitive dexterity. It develops critical-thinking skills and problem-solving abilities. It has also been beneficial in warding off brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Research done by the Mayo Clinic research showed that creative pursuits in middle-aged adults slowed down brain decline.
Art, music and writing therapy has long been championed for people suffering from anxiety, depression and traumatic events, allowing for healthy emotional expression rather than destructive ways.
Beyond the value in recovery, regular creative expression in our daily lives promotes mental well-being. It lets us take a break from real life for a minute. We can let all that stuff that’s pent up out – constructively. We can leave it in the kitchen, in the workshop, on the surfboard.
It’s also an expression of psychological health and is associated with increased levels of self-knowledge.
Happiness and creativity
The number one reason people pursue something creative? It feels good.
Creativity improves our mood and is a source of happiness. But it is also the effect.
Studies have shown that happier people are better able to generate creative solutions to problem-solving than neutral or unhappy subjects. Penn State University psychologist Karen Gasper (2004) found that sad moods inhibit our creativity because we tend to exercise more caution, afraid of making mistakes.
Self-esteem and creativity
Too often, self-esteem is dependent on what others think. The fear of being judged and rejected by others can stifle creative expression.
The discouragement of others is a cancer on creativity. Almost every creative pursuit is met with its fair share of naysayers. It takes internal fortitude to ignore all of that.
A study by Mak and Fancourt (2019) found that in studying over 6,200 11-year-olds in the U.K., exposure to creative activities resulted in higher levels of self-esteem. Researchers believe that creating art specifically, encourages social resilience and goal-oriented behavior.
Better yet, kids didn’t actually have to be artistic at all to reap the benefits. It was the process of being creative that was the point.
Despite how well it serves us, for most of us, creativity sadly declines as the child in us disappears.
Apparently, just mere time on this planet can suck the creativity out of us.
Consultant and systems scientist, Dr. George Land, spent decades studying how to boost group innovation for organizations – including NASA – for which he developed a creativity test to help identify inventive scientists and engineers.
In 1968, he launched a ground-breaking research study on children and creativity. As part of his study, Land administered the same test to 1,600 three-to-five-year-old children enrolled in an early Head Start program. He then re-tested the same kids when they were 10 and 15 years old.
The results were incredible. He found levels of creativity in 98% of the 5-year-olds. Those levels slipped to 30% when those same kids when they were 10; and again to 12% when the children were 15-years-old.
The same test given to 280,000 adults indicated a paltry 2% creativity score, leaving Land to conclude the sad fact that we learn to be uncreative and that life knocks the creativity right out of us.
"The creative adult is the child who survived." - Ursula Leguin
Why do we lose our creativity?
As we grow up, we are forced to follow the rules. We go to school and work and learn to adhere to instructions.
Like building with Legos, we move from creating the colorful, unrestricted and avant-garde to begin following the directions and build whatever is shown on the front of the box. We fill out standardized tests and sit in cubicles.
The emphasis on the final, flawless product leaves little room for all the messy twist and turns that are necessary as part of the creative development of anything – from cooking to coding to building a life.
Lost is the true path of how anything new comes to be, making the chaos of creativity unseen and definitely underappreciated.
Despite being one of the most important parts of the process, the fear of failure stifles the imagination and harms the creative process. Not the failure itself.
In fact, hardship conditions actually nurture creativity.
“There is no innovation and creativity without failure. Period.” – Brene’ Brown
Creativity is helped by failure
Ironically, it is failure that provides the catalyst for creativity. OK, that didn’t work; what about this?
It helps to see creativity as a process of circlings back: integrating new information, improving and making adjustments as we go, rather than a straight line.
Back in 1956 with his teachings at IBM, Louis R. Mobley called traditional learning methods like lecturing, memorization, testing and even reading, useless when it came to cultivating creativity.
Creative learning is experimental. Creativity grows from questioning, exploring, investigating and yes, failing. Being forced to figure out how to move around obstacles helps the creative muscles. While it may seem that being free of time and resource constraints would give creativity free reign, our creative mind - like a child - is actually helped by limitations.
“But out of limitations comes creativity.” – Debbie Allen
Creativity and constraints
Researchers have looked into how creativity is impacted by constraints of different kinds.
Like our strength and endurance that develop from difficult situations, creativity it seems, can benefit when moderate deterrents or obstacles force the brain to come up with novel solutions to a problem.
Creativity has shown to increase when challenged to come up with something under moderate time deadlines and when faced with limited resources. In some ways it wants or needs the extra pressure to really perform.
According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1997), having ample resources can severely stifle creativity because people get too comfortable to have to problem-solve. You simply can’t be MacGyver if you have access to every tool in the world. Otherwise where’s the motivation to try to use gum to hold a car engine together?
But know that there’s a sweet spot. Our creativity can still be a diva and isn’t coming out of the trailer if the time pressure gets too great or resources too limited. Here’s the hand-off between pressure and stress.
Creativity is helped by boredom
Just as creativity is helped by limitations and failure because it forces our brains to figure something out - like exercise for our brains. The same thing happens when we’re bored.
Boredom sets the foundation for creative processes. The brain needs empty space to get jump-started. This is almost impossible when someone else’s creativity is constantly on auto-play.
Creativity and media consumption
Perhaps the greatest enemy to our collective creativity is the non-stop gorging of the ideas and creative expression of others.
Are you primarily a creator of ideas or a consumer of the ideas and agendas of others? It’s possible your ratio is off-balance. Remember when the word binging used to have a negative connotation?
With the average American is spending over five hours a day on their smartphone, the 24/7 connection to media and social content gives the brain little time or space it needs to be creative.
Researchers Calvert & Valkenburg (2013) found that all the TV viewing, video games and internet activity is harming the creativity of children. Today 5, 10 and 15-year-olds now spend up to six hours a day on a screen – consuming the creativity of others – and just speeding up the creative atrophy.
You can see this on full display when a video-gamed-addled brain of a 10-year-old, within 5 minutes of unplugging has declared that he’s bored. Entertain me!
Imagine! Land’s research that showed the massive creativity loss in children came some 50 years before the world of ubiquitous screens.
But what does this mean long-term?
Not only does all this over-consumption cause massive distraction from achieving both big and little goals in life, being less creative has shown to make us less effective.
Indiana University psychologist and researcher Dr. Jonathan Plucker, PhD., found an association between a regular habit of creativity and productivity. Separate research links increased conscientiousness and the want to be effective and thorough in one’s work, to time spent being creative.
For the young, there could be more at stake than we think. Developed in 1966, a 50-year study using the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT), showed that creativity levels in elementary school was a better indicator of future accomplishments than IQ.
Can we get it back?
The good news is that creativity is less like a gift that some have and others don’t, but more malleable. The more it’s encouraged, the more it grows.
Creativity can be developed and practiced like any habit and it feeds on itself. Creativity breeds creativity.
Original ideas come from being around other creative people and interesting surroundings. They come from a broad knowledge of totally different fields of study that help spark creative connections.
McCoy (2002) showed how natural settings helped boost levels of creativity in high-school students. Add to that the sheer act of unplugging, and the brain is sure to catch a spark.
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