Creativity is one of those traits that people seem to have an intrinsic understanding of, but if you actually ask them to define it, they get tripped up. It’s easy to come up with a list of creative people (Frieda Khalo, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Einstein), and the outcomes of creativity (a novel, an invention, a new way of looking at the world), but it’s difficult to wrap your head around the actual concept of creativity. The more I researched this article, the more I realized creativity is an incredibly nuanced phenomenon.

lightbulb brain hooked up to machine
by rvasilovski

But you have to start somewhere, so let’s begin with a definition:

Creativity is the ability to transcend traditional ways of thinking or acting, and to develop new and original ideas, methods or objects.

Let’s break that down:

  • It’s an ability
    It’s also an ability to run a mile, or to do calculus or recite a Shakespearean sonnet (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?). So creativity is a skill that is specific to an individual. For some people, it might seem to come naturally, but it is something that anyone can improve at if they give it the time and effort.
  • It transcends traditional ways of thinking or acting
    Transcending means you’re going above and beyond. It’s recognizing the limitations of what already exists, and trying to improve upon it.
  • It develops new and original things
    I think the key word here is develops. Creativity goes beyond imagining: it’s about developing. If it’s an idea, you go out and do the research to prove it. If it’s a new process you try and test it to see if it works. If it’s an object, you build it.

Great! And now that I’ve provided you with that enlightening definition, let’s wade a bit deeper and try to really understand what creativity is (and why you should or shouldn’t care).

Creativity is a relatively new phenomenon

Creativity has only been a thing for the past 60-80 years or so.

“But wait,” you say, “what about all those amazing artists and inventors of yesteryear. Are you telling me you don’t think Mark Twain and Sir Isaac Newton weren’t creative? Preposterous!”

I am certainly not one to dis the fathers of Tom Sawyer and gravity. What I’m saying is that the concept of creativity as we understand it—even though it seems so ubiquitous—wasn’t really part of the popular lexicon until midway through the last century:

popularity of creativity over time
From Google’s Ngram viewer

In many ancient cultures, ideas or advancements that we would attribute to an individual’s creativity were deemed “discoveries.” Even artwork was seen as an imitation of nature rather than a form of creation.

In the medieval Christian world, creative ideas were positioned as divine inspiration. Did you do something awesome? You owe god a high five for sending that fantastic idea your way, my friend.

With the dawning of the enlightenment, we started to see a gradual shift towards individual responsibility, but even then the focus was on imagination and intelligence—both of which are definitely part of the modern definition of creativity, but not quite the same thing.

brain in a box head with rainbow illustration
by E·the·re·al”

Where we really begin to see the emergence in the idea of modern creativity is in the 1920s. With the birth of psychology1 at the end of the 19th century, paradigms in the western world shifted to focus more intently on the individual, and our unique capabilities and personalities. (Another one of those things that we think as innate—personality wasn’t really a thing until Freud.) Creativity as an ability, or a personality trait, first gained popularity after Graham Wallas’ book Art of Thought. In this work, Wallas presents a model for how humans approach problems and think creatively.

And thus, the modern idea of creativity was born. Since then, psychologists and researchers in other disciplines have only continued to develop the idea into what we understand today.

So does that mean that no one was creative until the 1930s? No, clearly humans have had the ability to think outside the box and develop new ideas for a long time. What the current focus on creativity does show is that it’s a valued quality in our culture right now. The focus on it as a coveted trait can probably be linked to the rapid development of new ideas and technology in the past century.

Creativity is a pattern of thinking

So we know that creativity is an ability that allows people to develop new ideas, but that still feels a bit vague and intangible (kind of like saying swimming is the ability to not drown in water—technically true, but not particularly useful if you’re going for a deeper understanding, or ya know, wanting to not drown). Put on your floaties and let’s dive into the deep end.

All skills originate in our brains: whether it’s physical (learning to do the breaststroke) or mental (learning to solve an algebraic equation), it’s all about neurons in the right part of your brain firing over and over again until what you’re doing becomes ingrained.2

Creativity is the skill to transcend traditional ways of thinking and come up with new ideas. But where do these new ideas come from?

Forget left vs. right brained, it’s all about the networks.

Like the persistent “we only use 10% of our brains” myth, the concept of left-brained = creative vs. right-brained = analytical is total pseudoscience.

brain game
by LittleFox

Yes, there are parts of our brain that have specific functions, but it’s the connections between these areas, and the subsequent networks they create which creates cognition. For example, if you’re trying to climb over a log that’s fallen on a path, you’re likely engaging the network which links the parts of your brain that process visual images and govern motor coordination. If you’re explaining to a friend how to climb over said log, add in the parts of your brain which control language.

When it comes to creativity, neuroscientists have identified three large-scale (and aptly named) networks of the brain that are important:

  1. The executive attention network helps you pay attention and focus
  2. The imagination network allows you to daydream or imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes
  3. The salience network let’s you identify when things you have buried deep in your brain are salient to the world around you (e.g. you’re going for a hike and taking in the scenery, and you notice this plant… realize it looks familiar… and that it’s poison ivy! And you just saved yourself from a terrible itchy rash.)

The more active these networks are in your brain, and the more they work together, the more creative you are.3

So going back to our original question: what is creativity? Creativity is a skill that allows you to draw understanding of the world around you, connect those observations to your existing knowledge reservoirs, and imagine new applications of your knowledge on the world.

Is there a connection between creativity and intelligence?

link between creativity and intelligence
This study purports to find a positive correlation between creativity and intelligence, but our in-house statistician was dubious of the results.

So if it’s all about what’s going on in certain brain networks, does that mean that creative people are smarter? I wish I had an easy yes or no answer for you, but the study of creativity is still a pretty new thing, and the research isn’t entirely settled on this matter yet.

In 1999, researchers Sternberg and O’Hara provided a framework of five possible relationships between creativity and intelligence:

  1. Creativity is a type of intelligence
  2. Intelligence is a type of creativity
  3. Creativity and intelligence are overlapping constructs (they have some traits in common)
  4. Creativity and intelligence are part of the same construct (they’re basically the same thing)
  5. Creativity and intelligence are distinct constructs (there is no relationship between them)

There are studies that provide evidence in favor of each of these perspectives, but thus far none has been overwhelming in its conclusions. So essentially there’s nothing that shows if you’re smarter you’re more creative. But there’s nothing showing that there’s not a correlation either.

Are children more creative than adults?

If you do a Google search on creativity, you’ll pretty quickly run into an article that mentions a study run by Professor George Land that seems to show that children become less creative over time.

The gist: Land worked with NASA to develop a creativity test that would help them select innovative engineers and scientists for the space program. In 1968, he and colleague Beth Jarmen gave the same test to 1,600 children and found that—shock—98% of five-year-olds were apparently creative geniuses. And we all just got less and less creative as we aged, until only a measly 2% of us adults qualify as creative geniuses.

nasa creativity test pass rates
by fritzR

Now, maybe I’m just bitter because I’m jealous of all those child prodigies and their ideas that would allow them to be astronauts, but I’m a bit skeptical of these results. Sure, they make for great clickbait and feel-goodry (just embrace your inner child, ignore the pressures of society and you might be able to qualify to go the moon!) but have you spent any time with a five year old recently?

My colleague has a son about this age: this past weekend he linked together a Barrel of Monkeys to create a ladder for his green army men to climb.

Not only is this adorable, but it’s an amazing example of out-of-the-box creative thinking. But real world application? Maybe not so much. (Though I’m having a fantastic time imagining this scenario!)

Fewer synapses = fewer monkeys?

Young children have amazing brains: they develop literally trillions of neural synapses in the first few years of life. Then, through a process called synaptic pruning, those connections decrease over time, as some of these synapses are used and others aren’t.

In other words, kids connect all sorts of weird things together in their minds because they haven’t learned that these things don’t necessarily go together yet. This ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated things—also called divergent thinking—is an important tennant in creative thinking. But it’s just one part of it. And probably why I’m not quite ready to trust the Space Program to child geniuses just yet.

But this highlights an important question:

How do we test for creativity?

Some of our designers excel at divergent thinking. Flying turtle by Fafahrd Deustua.

The original creativity tests developed in the 1960s are tests of divergent thinking. A couple examples of these include alternative uses (how many different ways can you think of to use a paperclip; the number and originality of your ideas impact your score) and incomplete figure tests where you’re given a line on a paper and asked to finish the drawing (uncommon subject matter, implied stories, humor and originality earn high marks).4

Other researchers have tried to measure creativity through self-reported creativity questionnaires and social-personality approaches (where they look at a mix of other personality traits and try to find a “formula” for a creative person). Both of these methods have some inherent biases.

So while divergent thinking tests have been criticized, they are currently the most accepted measure of creativity. (Though I’m very curious to see where the neuroscience takes us.)

Why should you care about creativity?

I hope I’m not being to presumptuous when I say everyone wants to develop new skills or grow their abilities. (Who wouldn’t want to be a faster runner or a better poker player?) But we all have limited hours in the day, so you can’t practice to get better at everything. Why is creativity one of those skills you should spend time developing?

by InQueen

Well, if you care about your career, it’s probably worth the investment. Both individuals and businesses value hold those with creative qualities in high regard. According to a survey by Adobe, people that identify as creative earn 17% more money than those who don’t. Similarly, in a survey of 1,500 CEOs, IBM found that creativity is the number one trait needed for business success.

And yes, the data from these surveys is based on opinion or self-reported creativity levels, but even if the scientists might squawk, it’s probably worth paying attention to. Basically, your boss and your boss’ boss both think creativity is important. And that makes sense as the definition of a creative person is literally someone who comes up with good ideas and can bring them to fruition. In today’s world, that is exactly the fuel that drives business success. So if you want to get ahead, start churning out those ideas like a barrel of monkeys. (Am I doing it right?)

Can you become more creative?

Absolutely! Creativity isn’t a magical gift bestowed to just a few lucky individuals, it’s a skill that you can hone and develop. The trick is figuring out how to flex your creativity muscles.


1. A number of things happened at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries that shifted our world view, from the discover of relativity to the invention of mass, fast transportation, new ways of communicating across long distances, and of capturing reality (i.e. photography and filmmaking).
2. This TED Talk on how to practice effectively is great. It offers a great explanation of the impact of practice on our brains.
3.All that being said, there are some compelling evidence that our current education system is not setup to nurture the type of creative thinking that we value in today’s society. Which makes sense if you consider that the basic structure and curriculum of schools (at least here in the United States) comes from the 19th century.
4. Interested in more? 99U has a great article with 5 classic creativity tests you can try.

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