Creativity is a natural outgrowth of our capacity to use prior knowledge and experience as well as innate talent to envision and fashion new and novel expressions. As such, it can be nurtured and developed.
The capacity of human beings to be creative, to imagine, and to innovate has been the subject of scientific investigation for several decades, especially by psychologists. Some years ago, Robert Epstein wrote an article for Psychology Today, highlighting some of the more recent findings on creativity. Some of the findings he reported as well as the issues he addressed in the article continue to be some of the most relevant topics for a meaningful discussion on the scientific investigation of the role and importance of creativity in enhancing the quality of human life.
One of the issues Epstein addressed is the “myth” that creativity is a “right brain” function that only certain people have. Abundant recent research clearly indicates that functions like creative and abstract thinking and artistic expressiveness are much more complex and involve many intricate inter-connections between various parts of the brain. Besides the fact that the brain is not as area-specialized as we once thought, it is an enormously “plastic” organ, and various structures and interconnections can be developed to a greater or lesser degree by the kinds of stimuli to which we are exposed and the kinds of environments in which we learn. So, it’s a myth that creative people are simply born that way (although some aptitudes appear innate) and that they’re the way they are strictly because their brains are “wired” differently from others.
Another issue that’s been debated for awhile is whether the most common kinds of learning environments in which we place our children nurture or inhibit their creative tendencies. The evidence is mounting that the traditional learning environments to which most students are subjected do tend to stifle creativity. Most schooling environments don’t encourage children to question, daydream, or think alternatively. Because there is so much to learn, and because the information we’re trying to impart to students is more technically complex, emphasis is placed on rote memorization as opposed to creative thinking. True, there are some alternative schools and special programs that break with the traditional model, but these entities are in the minority. The result is that the natural creativity of children doesn’t get much formal nurturing — at least not in traditional academic environments.
As Epstein noted, creativity is not a mysterious or “mystical” phenomenon that we’re incapable of exploring or understanding scientifically. Instead, it is a natural outgrowth of our capacity to use prior knowledge and experience as well as innate talent to envision and fashion new and novel expressions. As such, it can be nurtured and developed. And it can also be studied scientifically and better understood. He noted that research has indicated that particularly innovative or artistic people seem to regularly employ certain techniques that enhance their creativity:
- Creative people pay attention to and carefully preserve in memory the novel insights they “capture” from their experiences. The more committed to creative expression a person is, the more they tend to ritualize this capturing process (e.g., sketch artists carry sketch pads with them, writers capture ideas on tape recorders, etc.). It’s almost like the brains of creative people are always taking “snapshots” of things that strike them as novel, intriguing or important.
- Creative people enjoy “broadening” their experience. The wider their frames of reference, the deeper their pool of creative ideas. And it’s not so much what we learn or experience, but rather how we go about the process of learning and experiencing that seems to make a difference. So, when we involve our different senses, different modes of observation, and different perspectives in studying anything, our ability to think creatively expands.
- Creative people also “surround” themselves with other creators and expression-fostering situations and immerse themselves in enterprises that are likely to stir their creative juices. They tend to avoid the sterile and mundane and keep their experiences rich and stimulating.
- Creative people are also not afraid to “challenge” either themselves or the prevailing situations and views. They take risks and try new approaches. They tend not to blindly accept the status quo. They look for new perspective and are intrigued by alternative perceptions.
Given the aforementioned characteristics of creative individuals, it’s easy to see how creativity can be nurtured or enhanced in anyone. If, for example, we encourage young students to challenge more, surround them with an atmosphere in which creativity is not only permitted but encouraged, help them not only learn diverse things but provide them with opportunities to learn in diverse ways, and afford recognition and endorsement of their unique observations — no matter how insignificant they might seem at the time — we are likely to increase their creative potential significantly.
Sometimes, I think educators need to remember that it’s today’s daydreamers that often become tomorrow’s innovators. Although it’s important that we give young people the information they need to function in our complex and technologically-advanced world, they need to have their creative spirit nurtured as well if they’re to bring richness into their own lives as well as better the lives of others.
The essential elements of boosting creativity discussed by Epstein are but a few of the important findings emerging from the scientific study of this fascinating topic. From time to time in forthcoming articles I’ll be presenting other research findings that can help us all understand and nurture the artist within.