It’s Getting Better, and Worse, All the Time

Shelley Carson is a research associate and lecturer in the department of psychology at Harvard University. She wrote  ”Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life.” We spoke on the telephone.

Q: How do you define creativity?

A: Good question. So researchers in general — and I know you’re coming at this from the arts angle, and I’m coming at it from the research angle —  researchers suggest that creativity contains two components. First is originality and novelty. And the second thing is that it has to be either useful or adaptive in some way. In other words, either the product or the idea has to serve a purpose.

Q: How do you measure creativity?

A: Good question again. There’s a number of different ways to measure creativity. As researchers we’ve found that the best way to do it is to come at it from multiple angles. The most frequent way of measuring creativity is through divergent thinking tasks. Are you familiar with divergent and convergent thinking?

Q: I am.

A: Okay. So divergent thinking tasks are one of the things that are used in brain scans, when you’re doing neuroimaging, and it’s typically used as a measure of trait creativity. There are several different subscales of the divergent thinking tasks. They measure fluency, which is the number of responses you can come up with to a given prompt, they measure originality, which is the statistical infrequency of a person’s response, they measure flexibility, or the ability to change from one category of response to another, and they also measure elaboration, how much detail do you give to your answers. Another way of measuring creativity would be through interest or achievement inventory. So for instance, I’ve devised a measure called The Creative Achievement Questionnaire or the CAQ, and it’s fairly widely used now around the world. Basically it asks you to check off any accomplishments you have in 10 different domains. It begins with “I have taken lessons in this area.” Basically it’s a hierarchy of things that become more and more exclusive as you go through each domain or area of creativity. Then you get a total score for that. And then another way that creativity is measured is actually in the lab, having people make a creative object. The two that are most often used would be a collage or what’s called an American haiku, which is a non-rhyming five-line poem. And then these in turn are rated by professionals in the field for creativity, usually a panel of three to five people will measure it.

Q: And what are the criteria for rating them?

A: Whatever the rater wants to use. The reason we choose the haiku and the collage is because they don’t take any technical ability. You don’t have to know how to draw to make a collage. You don’t have to know how to make words rhyme or iambic pentameter or any of that other stuff for an American haiku.

Q: Interesting.

A: And so then you have experts in the field and we usually have them rate for two different things, how much they like each individual, say, collage, and then how creative they think it is. That kind of allows us to get the liking part of it out of the way.

Q: The personal taste part.

A: And we let them use whatever criteria they want for creativity.  Then you average all five experts together.

Q: How long have researchers been investigating creativity?

A: You know, it’s been written about by philosophers and biographers since the time of the Greeks and probably before. Plato wrote about creativity. Aristotle wrote about creativity. But it hasn’t been studied using empirical methods until 1950. Actually J. Paul Guilford, who was the President of the American Psychological Association in 1950, in his acceptance address told everybody that we have to start studying creativity. Before that it really hadn’t been studied by psychologists because they didn’t have any idea how to measure it. It was considered very touchy-feely and fluffy, and psychologists have always wanted to be known as scientists. Anyway, that was the beginning of study, in 1950, and then neuroscientists really got interested in creativity. I would say the first neuroscience studies began around 2000. So it’s very recent that hard science has become interested in it. I have to tell you, I taught the first course at Harvard on creativity in 2002, and I really had to fight to get them to allow me to teach a course in it. It’s become pretty popular, so there hasn’t been a lot of push back lately.

Q: I’m not surprised. It’s a subject that resonates, I imagine, with a lot of people no matter what field they’re in.

A: Well Harvard’s got a lot of very creative people there, so yeah.

Q: What do we know about the relationship between age and creativity? How much, how little?

A: Well, it depends on the domain in which the individual is working. Dean Keith Simonton has done the bulk of the research on creativity across the lifespan, and what his work really shows is that it depends on the domain in which you work. So poets and theoretical physicists tend to peak very early in life, and other types of creative work, for instance writing novels, tends to peak much, much later. And things like musical composition, while composing tends to be at its highest in midlife, many times there will be what’s called swan song effect. So that a person may do their very best and most creative work in midlife and then kind of gradually decline a little bit. And then right near the end of their life have another spurt of creativity.

Q: Based on your observations and research, in what ways does the aging process either diminish or enhance the creative process. It seems that it can cut both ways.

A: Oh I think so. I think some of the cognitive aging problems that people have work against creativity. So, for instance, one of the things we know that’s associated with creativity from the biological point of view is dopamine, the amount of dopamine production associated with novelty seeking, and novelty seeking is very important in creativity. Dopamine starts to decline right around the sixth decade of life. So that brings to mind questions of, well, can we enhance this? And hence you see a lot of the studies of Ritalin and things like that being used on elderly people. There was a great study that came out of the University of Toronto a couple of years ago on distractibility in aging. We know that aging increases distractibility. But in this particular study they found that even though older people were more distractible, they were able to use those distractions to solve creative problems, much more than the young people were. And it paralleled what we, in our lab, have found, which is that highly creative people do tend to be more distractible.

Q: It sounds like the flip side of distractibility is an openness to a broad range of stimuli.

A: Exactly. So you have more information in your conscious workspace that you can combine and recombine in novel and original ways. So that’s one of the good things that happens with aging. One of the bad things that happens with aging is the speed of processing tends to slow down. And that tends to make it a little more difficult for people to do very, very complex creative activities such as, for instance, theoretical physics, where you would presumably have to keep a number of different things in mind while you’re trying to look at a problem. And as mental speed slows, certain things are going to start dropping out of working memory while you’re trying to process. But basically, except in math and theoretical physics, mental speed doesn’t matter. Older people tend to use mental imagery well. They tend to be able to see things in the mind’s eye well. They tend to have greater crystallized knowledge, which is the amount of information you’ve accumulated over a lifetime. And they tend to be pretty good at pattern recognition because they’ve seen so many things before. And all those things are important to creativity.

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