Four Kinds of Creative
The running themes of this blog revolve around graphic design, marketing and the creative process. Lately the creative process has been the juiciest for me.
So I was pleased to find an article that brings a diverse body of creativity research together under one (sort of) simple framework. In “The cognitive neuroscience of creativity,” author and neuroscientist Arne Dietrich, Ph.D. outlines four ways to be creative, each with its own unique circuitry in the brain.
Until recently, neuroscientific explanations of the creative process were focused on differences in the brain’s left and right hemispheres. But Dietrich’s model goes much further. It proposes that creativity is, by definition, the ability to produce novel work. And that a creative idea can emerge from either the emotional or cognitive realm…and that processing of that information can be either spontaneous or deliberate. That gives us the four kinds of creative as described below:
DELIBERATE AND EMOTIONAL processes are the breakthrough moments resulting from exploring one’s emotions, often the work of psychotherapy. The pre-frontal cortex can act as a search engine, deliberately pulling emotionally charged material from storage to piece together new insights.
DELIBERATE AND COGNITIVE processes involve knowing your subject matter and systematically ‘connecting the dots’ to create something new. Thomas Edison is a classic example. While inventing the electric light bulb, he ran experiment after experiment and saw every unsuccessful effort as another step forward. He famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” This type of creativity takes time and requires a good knowledge base.
SPONTANEOUS AND EMOTIONAL flashes of insight are the stereotype of creative genius, where ideas are delivered as thunderbolts from heaven. This type of creativity is common among great artists and musicians and can be experienced as a powerful and mysterious revelation or a mystical event.
SPONTANEOUS AND COGNITIVE processes also require knowledge of your subject matter, but the creative breakthrough happens when you are not even focused on the problem. Ideas and solutions come from outside conscious awareness with no effort on your part. This could happen in the shower, while daydreaming, exercising, or in the middle of the night. This is the process I call germinating, incubating or marinating (choose your metaphor) an idea: doing the groundwork, then letting the wisdom of the unconscious percolate insights up to conscious awareness. Isaac Newton ‘discovered’ gravity watching an apple fall from a tree. Albert Einstein theorized relativity outside of the lab, while imagining himself riding a light beam. My best design solutions often bubble up to the surface this way.
It’s been documented that consciously focusing on a problem can interfere with solving it. Deliberate, rational thought filters our range of options to fit our preconceived mental models while also creating a bottleneck with its very limited capacity for storing information. If a solution isn’t immediately at hand, it may be beneficial to withdraw, and re-visit the issue from a different state of consciousness at a later time.
Spontaneous insights are both qualitatively and quantitatively different. They are not filtered by societal norms and conventions, and allow for looser associations, insights and intuitions to emerge. Dreams, with their unregulated and unlimited combinational potential, could be considered the most extreme form of spontaneous processing, perhaps holding the greatest creative potential.
These four types of creativity most often work in combination with each other, not in a vacuum, and regardless of how a new idea is generated, it’s the circuits of the prefrontal cortex that bring it into full consciousness, evaluate its appropriateness and implement its expression.
Dietrich’s article, published in the Psychonomic Bullletin & Review (2004), is a jumping off place for more research on human creativity. Meanwhile, as the internet shows me every day, I know there are more like four billion kinds of creative.
See full article here.