These days, creativity means many things: a personality trait, a way of being in the world and a multi-million-dollar industry. We worship at its feet without fully understanding what’s in play. We recognize it in Jackson Pollock’s chaotic canvases or Google’s complex algorithms, even though these products have almost nothing else in common.
Neuroscientists aren’t certain where creativity resides in the human brain. Harvard Medical School neurologist Alice Flaherty argues that creativity comes from interactions between the frontal lobe (associated with generating ideas), the temporal lobe (responsible for vetting and revising them) and the limbic system (which enables motivation), but there are likely more factors involved. In 2010, researchers in Japan found that subjects who scored high on a creativity test also had well-developed white-matter tracts, the pathways that enable disparate brain regions to communicate with one another. Their work suggests that the characteristic doesn’t exist in any specific brain centre-rather, it’s everywhere at once.
Despite its elusive nature, creativity now commands high social capital. In his work, Toronto-based urbanist Richard Florida talks about “creative class” cities, prosperous urban locales in which these innovative thinkers (marketers, designers, engineers and entertainers) form the backbone of the economy. Last year, he estimated that 4.3 million Canadians, roughly 30 per cent of the country’s work force, were employed in creative fields.
It may be surprising, then, that humans were once thought to be almost completely incapable of truly creative pursuits. In ancient Greece, innovation was mostly thought to come from the gods. It wasn’t until the Renaissance that creativity was seen as an attribute that humans-albeit only a small cohort of artists, poets and musicians-could possess.
We’re now learning that this trait isn’t just for the lucky few. “There’s a misconception that creativity is something we either have or we don’t,” says Alberta psychologist Jim Henry. “It’s a natural thing that can happen for all of us when certain elements are present. If they are present, creativity has the chance to occur. If they are present in abundance, creativity has the chance to flourish.”
Researchers worldwide are trying to determine those elements. Some believe the brain, like all muscles, performs best when put on a regular workout regimen. In one 2014 study from Indonesia, 85 Grade 5 students were trained in Logo programming-a software language that requires spatial reasoning and problem solving-and became better at devising creative solutions to complex problems as a result. Other experts believe that relaxation, not exercise, is the key to innovation. Writing for the Harvard Business Review in 2005, American psychiatrist Edward Hallowell argued that in high-stress situations the lower brain-the primitive section that processes instinct, fear and panic-takes over, hindering the mind’s capacity “to solve problems flexibly and creatively.” He claimed that creative workers perform best when they aren’t burdened by overloaded schedules, unreasonable expectations and micromanaging supervisors.
Employers might even consider letting their staff doze off from time to time. A growing body of research indicates that early-morning grogginess or late-night fatigue can loosen the thought process, enabling people to tackle problems in novel ways. (Many famous writers, including Marcel Proust and Vladimir Nabokov, were legendary night owls.)
Others argue that sleep itself is an active ingredient in harnessing innovative thinking. In 2013, researchers at the Federal University of Paraná in Brazil gave 29 adult subjects a logic-based computer puzzle game that required extensive creative reasoning. Those who were permitted to take a nap while working on it were twice as likely to arrive at a solution to the problem.
As researchers chip away at the myriad ways to enhance creativity, Henry argues that two of the most important are also the most obvious: passion and hard work. Want to become a hypercreative software designer? Start by learning the ins and outs of computer coding. Just don’t expect that it’ll make you a better painter, too. “Einstein was a highly creative physicist, and he was a not-so-creative violinist,” Henry says. “That’s because he had great skill and facility and passion in physics, but only reasonable skill and facility with the violin.”
Desperate for a creative epiphany at work? You might be better off staying home in bed. In 2012, a research team from the Netherlands and the United States led by psychologist Simone Ritter assigned a creativity problem-requiring subjects to brainstorm ways of tackling an open-ended task-to a group of 49 people between the ages of 18 and 29.
Some subjects were exposed to an orange-vanilla aroma while contemplating the assignment. Then, during sleep, they were exposed to that same scent. (Other sleeping participants were exposed to a different smell or none at all.) Those who encountered the original scent-while both examining the problem and sleeping-came up with the most innovative solutions, leading researchers to conclude that the aroma programmed their subjects’ unconscious minds to work on the task. In the future, you might be able to purchase scent diffusers to help harness the power of your sleeping brain. “By applying the right means, we may be able to actively trigger creativity-related processes during sleep,” the researchers wrote. “We do not have to passively wait until we are hit by our creative muse.”