Creativity in the Brain

Source: Arts.Gov, Jul 2014

The purpose of the meeting was to “evaluate the legacy of creativity research and to look for ways to mine new knowledge at the intersections of cognitive psychology, neurobiology, neurotechnology, learning, and the arts.”

The Santa Fe Institute’s complex systems approach aggregates a set of distinct intelligences, methodologies, and “ways of knowing” in an all-hands-on-deck approach to tackle a common problem or issue. For example, our meeting brought Marc Runco, who has for 20 years edited the Creativity Research Journal (which captures a range of study from realms such as behavioral, clinical, cognitive and social) together with Robert Bilder, director of the Tennenbaum Center for Biology of Creativity, who brings a neuroanatomic and neuronsychological lens into the investigation.

There is no agreed upon standard definition of creativity (or is there?).   While it makes intuitive sense that the study of creativity will require originality, good science tends to naturally require the subject to be pursued in a manner that allows research to build upon and to validate previous research.

This creates natural pressure for a standardized definition–so the conditions around the thing we are testing can remain somewhat consistent. Mark Runco noted that articles in the Creativity Research Journal, which publishes scholarly research that captures a wide range of approaches to the study of creativity (behavioral, clinical, cognitive, developmental, educational, social, etc.) have been tackling this problem for some time. In these sectors a candidate has emerged over time that suggests a definition with two criteria; creativity requires both originality and effectiveness.

But even within these fields questions remain on whether two criteria are necessary (maybe more, maybe less?).  And if so, whether these are the right ones. When you step outside of these realms things get even trickier. The artists in the group did not feel confident that this was the most effective way to frame an examination of arts-based creativity.

This also proposes challenges for people considering ways to measure creativity from a molecular-biological standpoint. Imagine if we are able to capture what’s happening at the molecular level in the moment of an “a ha!”–one could imagine that there may soon be a way of tracking how neurons that hold together one idea are able to connect with neurons of another to form a new meaning or association–but how then to factor into that measurement whether or not the association was deemed to be”‘effective.” According to whom?

These and similar concerns combined to form one of the most complex and vexing problems encountered by the group, but there was agreement that this is a matter that demands further investigation. Good science tolerates a limited amount of improvisation. As Charles Limb (a surgeon and an accomplished jazz musician) pointed out, a patient coming under his scalpel would not tend to feel that now was the time for the good doctor to “get creative.”    

Creativity matters.   Concerns around creativity are emerging across all facets of society. In industry, creativity and imagination are becoming more and more valued as key competencies for the 21st-century workforce.  Parents want to ensure their kids will develop the necessary skills that will enable them to fully participate in these future economies. These sensitivities combine to create new pressure to advance our ability to foster creativity and innovation as educational priorities, as evidenced in the energy gathering around STEAM learning. The role that creativity and the arts can play to advance health and well-being are also gaining traction. And of course, the role that arts and creativity have always played in helping us to understand ourselves continues to be a core concern of the human endeavor, perhaps even more so now as we navigate our way through a shifting and disrupted human condition. 

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