The Human Nature of Creativity, by John D. MacArthur

Your brain is a creative work in progress that stands on the shoulders of ten-thousand generations. Immeasurably greater than the sum of all its parts — from its survival core to its emotional center to its thinking cap — your brain is the leading edge of an evolutionary wave, ever-cresting an infinite threshold.

Your brain cannot help but create. It was literally born to do so. A half-billion years ago when sponges were still just hanging about — waiting brainlessly for dinner to arrive — primitive jellyfish and sea anemone were getting creative. They invented the first nerve cells as a way to coordinate movement, so they could travel to their food. This creative leap gave the first animals an important advantage in a world that, as Woody Allen observed, "is really just one big restaurant."

Thus, the nervous system itself began as a creative solution. Now, after millions of years of experimentation, nervous systems have created some pretty remarkable ways of going out to eat.

For humans this has led to tools and talking, thinking and planning, art and science. An insatiable appetite still propels our creative curiosity, compelling us to invent ways to fill ourselves with nourishment and with knowledge. (The question still remains, however: "How much deeper would the oceans be without sponges?")

Creativity Is Contagious

For untold generations, the creative urge has been passed from parent to child — escalating and evolving. "Creativity may breed creativity," says psychologist Dr. Barbara Kerr of Arizona State University. When college freshmen and sophomores who had a lot of creative accomplishments were asked if their family supported their ideas, Kerr said "the reply was so strong that we had to divide the responses into yes and yes plus. It is hard to emphasize enough how strongly supported these participants felt."

Creative Play is a Survival Skill

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University found that children who are good at using their imagination during creative play were better able to cope with stress later in life. The processes "that occur in pretend play are important processes because they relate to adaptive functioning in children — creativity abilities, coping abilities," according to Sandra W. Russ, professor and chair of the psychology department. This underscores the importance of praising and encouraging children to be creative and to use their imagination.

Our natural curiosity also leads to new opportunities for creative behavior. Because humans cannot rely on instinctual reactions, we must learn to behave. Curiosity is an important part of the process. As Konrad Lorenz observed, "Human exploratory inquisitive behavior — restricted in animals to a brief developmental phase — is extended until the onset of senility."

The Whole Truth

In his 1988 book about creative genius, "Fire in the Crucible", John Briggs cautions against reducing the creative process. He says it is not necessarily dependent on IQ, right hemispheric dominance, or skill at problem solving. Neither is it a compensation for psychological inadequacy or a function of manic depressive skills. By limiting it, we not only miss something about the creative process, we miss everything. "Creators create in order to find some truth about life, and we value them precisely because we see that they have found it and have bequeathed to us their mind-altering vision."

Albert Einstein said he desired simply to "experience the universe as a single significant whole." From childhood, Charles Darwin said he had the "strongest desire to understand and to comprehend whatever I observed." Mozart's compositions would grow on him until "the whole, though it be long, stands almost complete and finished in my mind, so that I can survey it, like a fine picture or a beautiful statue, at a glance. Nor do I hear in my imagination the parts successively, but I hear them, as it were, all at once."

One of the central driving forces of creative genius is this urge for wholeness, an attempt to see the big picture and reconcile the personal with the universal. This urge to fit all life's nuances into one big puzzle is a hallmark of creativity.

Creative Intelligence

Intelligence derives from the Latin word "legere" — to gather, collect, assemble, choose, form an impression, deduce, hence to understand, to know, to perceive. (Negligence is the opposite of intelligence.)

Create derives from the Latin word "creare"— to produce, cause to grow, hence to come into existence.

An intelligent person knows how to select and choose — what to leave out and what to keep. A creative person knows what to combine.

Remembering to Create

Creativity is closely bound to memory. That's why creativity declines along with memory. In the creative process the brain takes inventory of everything it knows about a subject, then strings together different — even surprising — elements of that knowledge in a novel, inventive way. This requires an ability to recall memories as well as being able to focus intently on them.

Visual Memory and Creativity

Your visual memory is remarkable. The amount of information it can hold is staggering, which is related to the fact that most sensory input is via the eyes. Just look at your natural ability to recognize the faces of the people you've met throughout your life — including your childhood friends who have grown up. You can even see a mother's expression in her child's face.

In one study, volunteers viewed 2,000 photographic slides over several days. Then they were shown 280 pairs of slides, side by side on the same screen — one of which had not been seen before. When asked which of the two images they had seen before, their answers were 85-95% correct.

Visual memory has always been vital to survival. It enabled hunters and gatherers to find food and return home at any time or season. It allowed children to recognize the faces of their family and clan, and to identify strangers. In his 1980 book, "The Right Brain", Thomas R. Blakeslee reckons, "This same ability to recognize things in an altered form or context is the basis of creative thinking. Creative breakthroughs generally are a result of finding hidden relationships — patterns that are obscured by their context."

The Creative Flash

A classic example of the intuitive leap is Archimedes' bathtub realization that he could measure a metal's volume by the amount of water it displaced. "Eureka, I have found it!".

Such creative flashes of insight may really be the result of a deeper process, described by psychologist Howard Gruber as "a long pull punctuated by small insights that result in (and form) a constant shifting of frames of reference." Weeks or years of gradual work can culminate suddenly in an intense moment of realization.

A Method to the Mindness

Blakeslee describes the four stages of the creative process identified in 1945 by G. Walas: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification.

"The preparation stage consists of gathering relevant information and narrowing the problem until the obstacles are visible. Incubation is a period in which the unconscious processes of the mind seem to work on the problem. During this time, it is permissible to think occasionally about the problem, but generally there should be no pressure for a solution. The illumination stage may come spontaneously or as a result of conscious effort. This is where intuition and insight produce possible solutions to the problem. Finally, in the verification stage the intuitive solutions are logically tested for validity, then organized and elaborated into a finished solution."

The middle two stages involve unconscious processes, while the first and final stages are well-defined conscious tasks. The creative process is a whole brain synergy of both processes. Visual thinking generates ideas and verbal thinking verifies them.

Computers Learn the Rules of Creativity

A 1999 experiment reinforces the importance of the conscious side of creativity. A computer programed with a few simple advertising patterns was able to create outstanding new ads — as good or even better than those created by professionals. It seems the creative process is less about freedom than it is about following a series of distinct subroutines. The best results come when options are limited and thought is focused in a specific direction. ("Science", Sept. 1999)

Synesthesia — Sense and Intelligence

Do you hear colors or see sounds? Perhaps you feel smells or taste colors. This perceptual mixing of the senses is know as "synesthesia." For many creative people, their ideas and concepts are frequently associated with a combination of sensory impressions.

To Frank Lloyd Wright, "Music and architecture blossom on the same stem — sublimated mathematics. . . Instead of the musician's systematic staff and intervals, the architect has a modular system as the framework of design. My father, a preacher and music teacher, taught me to see — to listen — to a symphony as an edifice of sound."

Einstein said his problem-solving was accompanied by visual images and muscular contractions. His fingertips even tingled when he was on the right track. The prolific inventor Nikola Tesla envisioned his electric motor while reciting a poem at sunset. The rhythm of the poem and the sight of the solar circle of energy combined with his mathematical logic to give him his creative leap.

Your Thinking Cap

Einstein's brain was very well developed in one particular area of the inferior parietal lobe, which is located at the upper, rear part of the brain's neocortex. Known as Area 39, researchers believe this is the most evolved site in the human brain — home to our higher intellect.

According to Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D., author of Brain Longevity, when people suffer damage to their Area 39, "they have great difficulty with abstract imagery, memory, attention, and self-awareness. They are largely unable to read, recognize letters, spell, or do calculations. They also have much difficulty integrating visual, auditory, and tactile input."

Although Einstein's Area 39 did not have an excess amount of thinking-cells (neurons), it did have significantly more glial cells than normal. Large quantities of these support cells were necessary to metabolically sustain the high levels of work being performed by his neurons. Einstein had a very fluid intelligence, which is the measure of how efficiently the brain works — its processing skills as opposed to storage capacity.

Renowned brain researcher, Dr. Marian Diamond, found that Area 39 was 16% larger in the brains of rats who lived in large, enriched environments compared to rats who did not have thought-provoking toys in their cages. This was due to extra glial cells.

A Never Ending Story

Your brain cannot help but create. Set in motion at conception, your brain is a creative machine that continually recreates and rearranges itself. If it has a goal, perhaps it is to communicate with its world, to say something special, something only it can say.

Like a composer experimenting with an infinite orchestra, your brain searches for its signature sound, one that says "Aha!" That's what inspires your brain to live. It must create and connect, within and without.

Briggs concludes: "Vision evolves, the creator evolves, the magnum opus leads to a new magnum opus — otherwise the creative life dies. . . .There's no fixed beginning to such an enterprise, and no predicting its direction."

"Now understand me well. It is provided in the essence of things, that from any fruition of success, no matter what, shall come forth something to make a greater struggle necessary." - Walt Whitman

Invest in Brain Futures

Who knows what hidden reaches of the brain are on the verge of awakening and unfolding. Just as the area for speech evolved over time, perhaps there's a brain area for ESP waiting in the wings to be coaxed into consciousness. In a few hundred generations ESP could be the norm for humanity. The creative potential of the human brain is boundless. Even now, we're developing intelligent interactive machines that can augment our cognitive abilities. As they become smarter and smaller — using human DNA in their chips — the time may come when "cyborgenetic nanobots" will roam your brain, boosting its efficiency and your joy.