A Scientist Explains How Creativity Is MADENone By Orin C. Davis, Ph.D.
Over the years that I have been teaching creativity, I've found that the most important idea I want my students to learn is that they are capable of being creative—that is, producing novel and useful things and ideas. In past posts, I've written about why people should believe in their own creativity, and the mindset that facilitates creativity. But neither of these topics covers the actual mental functions that lead to creative production. Admittedly, we have a lot to learn about that, despite some amazing research by a good number of really fantastic scientists (among many others). Fortunately, a sweep of the scientific research highlights four processes that show how creativity is MADE:
Your experiences are among the primary aspects that make you unique. They give you a singular perspective, and also enable you to diverge from the normal and average. Memory allows you to bring to bear all that you have encountered so that you can extrapolate from it, recognize when something is familiar or new, or isolate relevant details, among many other processes. Using memory, you can either depart from the norm to engender the novel, or you can anchor the wild to make it useful.
Association is about finding points of commonality, such as by using analogies and metaphors, so that you can combine and recombine items in different contextual configurations in order to generate a product—one that is sufficiently unlike anything encountered previously, but grounded in the familiar and known. For instance, in 1948, George de Mestral went out into the mountains with his dog, and was rather curious about the cockleburs embedded both in the dog’s fur and in his pants. Looking at them under a microscope, de Mestral saw that the hooks in the cockleburs had attached themselves to loops of fiber in his pants. De Mestral realized that nature had provided him with an example of a different kind of fastener that could rival the zipper—just put loops on one surface and hooks on the other! You now know this material as Velcro.
Generating novelty and understanding its uses can be fostered by having a wide range of experiences. Indeed, openness to experience is one of the key personality traits connected with creativity, and it helps in part because unfamiliar territory can be a source either of new ideas to solve problems or of new problems that fit solutions you generated in the past. In either case, having a broader perspective makes you more likely to have enough material to remember and associate in order to create. In fact, one of your favorite office supplies started with a rather frustrated church choir singer named Art Fry. Many church choirs jump around in the hymnal during services, and Fry was getting annoyed when the slips of paper he was using as bookmarks kept falling out or sliding between the pages. Then Fry remembered something: A while back, his coworker at 3M, Dr. Spencer Silver, had been trying to get people to find a use for the reusable, pressure-sensitive adhesive that was his failed attempt at creating superglue (Silver had been touting this “glue” for years, but no one could figure out what to do with it). It was kismet, and the result was the delightful yellow stickies we call Post-its.
You've likely heard the aphorism "Ideas won't work unless you do." Across their research studies, both Simonton and Csikszentmihalyi found that eminent creatives put in high amounts of effort and are often extremely prolific in their generation of ideas and products. In short, if you want to be creative, keep working at it. Generate ideas (both good and bad), refine them, and think about problems...over and over! (UNC creativity researcher Keith Sawyer provides a helpful eight-step process for developing creative capacities and products.)
The best part about how creativity is MADE is that it's not reserved for the smart, or the wealthy, or people under 25. Creativity is an opportunity for everyone, because anyone can bring memories to bear, make connections between constructs, seek out a wide range of experiences, and put in the elbow grease to make things happen. What's even more exciting is the consequent realization that everyone has something to contribute and create—including you! So what are you waiting for?
Orin C. Davis, Ph.D., a science advisor to Happify, is a positive psychology researcher and organizational consultant who focuses on enabling people to do and be their best. His consulting work focuses on maximizing human capital and making workplaces great places to work, and his research focuses on self-actualization, flow, creativity, hypnosis, and mentoring. Dr. Davis is also a start-up advisor who helps early-stage companies enhance their value propositions, pitches, culture, and human capital, and is an adjunct professor of business, psychology, entrepreneurship, and creativity. His blog posts can be found here. (@DrOrinDavis)
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