Promoting Human Creativity
David S. Walonick, Ph.D.
How do we define creativity? The most frequent answers are “new”, “unique”. “different”, and “better”. The dictionary provides little assistance: “creativity: the ability to create”. Creativity consultant Joyce Wycoff (1991) defines creativity as “new and useful”. Creativity is the act of “seeing things that everyone around us sees while making connections that no on else has made.” (p. 22)
At the other end of the spectrum, B.F Skinner (1974), the foremost expert on behaviorist theory, describes creative individuals as very good at generating mutations. He points out that people who produce more mutations are more likely to generate one that is reinforcing. The behaviorist theory falls short because it fails to recognize or explain the uniqueness of individuals.
In the classic book Science and Human Values, (Harper & Row. 1956) J. Bronowski states that the creative activity of the scientist and the artist are the same. Creativity is an attempt to discover “hidden likeness” in the universe. It is a search for recognition and order.
Many writers and artists have described creativity as something external to the body. They believe that the source of inspiration exists outside the person. Author Joseph Heller describes his own experience. “I don’t understand the process of imagination though I know that I am very much at its mercy. I feel like these ideas are floating around in the air and they pick me to settle upon. The ideas come to me. I don’t produce them at will” (Zdenek, 1983, p.10).
In contrast, business analysis Scott Witt (1983) believes that new ideas are never original, but rather, they involve the combining and adaptation of other people’s ideas. He refers to the brightest people in business, science and arts, as Creative Copycats because their ideas are an adaptation of other products, formulas or systems.
Child development author Joseph Chilton Pearce describes creativity as “moving from the known to the unknown.” Culture exerts a negative force on creativity according to Pearce, however, “were it not for creativity, culture itself would not be created”. (Pearce, 1974, p. 23)
Donald Hebb, one of the foremost theoreticians on the subject of the human brain, believes that “every normal human being is creative all the time…it is not something that occurs only in outstanding individuals”. (Restak, 1984, p. 228)
Creativity is an expression of our unique perspective to a situation or problem. It transcends our desire to be part of the group. Abraham Maslow referred to self-actualization as the need to express our individual talents and become the best that we can. It is a drive to fulfill our potential. Maslow identified fifteen traits of a self-actualized person. These included highly valued traits such as self-acceptance, spontaneity, independence, tolerance, altruism, ethics, and capable of loving others. (Wycoff, 1991, p. 24)
Wycoff (1991, p. 26) identifies four traits found in creative people:
1) They are willing to take risks and have the courage to be wrong.
2) They are willing to express their thoughts and feelings.
3) They have a sense of humor.
4) They accept and trust their own intuition.
David Perkins, of Harvard University, has identified several other traits common in creative people: (Wycoff, 1991, p. 27)
5) They have a drive to find order in a chaotic situation.
6) They are interested in unusual problems, as well as solutions.
7) They have the ability to make new connections and challenge traditional assumptions.
8) They temper idea creation by testing and judgment.
9) They enjoy pushing the boundaries of their competence.
10) They are motivated by the problem itself, rather than any kind of reward or recognition.
Wycoff believes that the traits of creativity can be taught. She points out the near total failure of our educational system to encourage and teach these characteristics. In fact, it would seem that our schools are teaching the opposite traits (e.g., discipline, conformity, silence, and “safe” thinking). Robert Root-Bernstein, a physiologist at Michigan State University, points out that “our greatest scientists are generally skilled in non-verbal thinking, yet we usually discourage science students from studying artistic subjects”. (Wycoff, 1991, p. 178)
The phases involved in the creative process were first described by German physiologist Herman Helmholtz in the late nineteenth century. (Edwards, 1986, p. 3) He identified three stages of creativity: saturation, incubation and illumination. In the first decade of twentieth century, French mathematician Henri Poincaré identified a fourth step that follows the other three. Verification is putting a solution into concrete form and checking it for errors or usefulness. Our understanding of the creative process remained stable until the early 1960s, when American psychologist Jacob Getzels proposed the idea that a preliminary stage of creativity involves finding or formulating a problem. (Edwards, 1986, p. 4) This preliminary stage was named first insight by another American psychologist, George Kneller. (1965)
Current thinking is that the creative process does involve at least five distinct phases: first insight, saturation, incubation, illumination and verification. Illumination happens in a flash–it is the brief moment of the “Ah-Ha!” experience. The other phases of creativity vary dramatically in the amount of time involved. Saturation and verification are easily understood. Saturation is the information gathering stage. There have been volumes written on how to do research, and libraries are designed to assist in gathering information. The process of verification is the implementation or testing of an idea, and it is also easily accessible to our human understanding. Note that both saturation and verification have to do with conscious thought. The other three phases (first insight, incubation, and illumination) are more mysterious and operate at some sort of subconscious level.
Betty Edwards (1987), a professor of art at California State University, identified four experiences of a creative artist. During the initial stages of drawing, an artist works for long periods without a sense of time passing. While drawing, the artist has a feeling that the object is somehow related to, or looks like something else. The artist has a need to work in isolation, away from verbal interruption. The artist has a special way of seeing the whole field, while somehow being able to perceive the relationships of the individual parts.
Of particular interest is the phase of illumination. Edwards (1986, p. 39) proposes that the “Ah-Ha” is a visual experience. She points out that many of the words relating to creativity involve visual reference. Creativity is the: “the ability to see problems in new ways”, “to see things from a new perspective”, and “the knack of looking for answers in unexpected places”. The dictionary defines illumination as “throwing light on a subject in order to see it better”. Insight, foresight, hindsight, and clear-sightedness all contain visual reference. The flash of illumination is accompanied by feeling of certainty and exhilaration.
Author Joe Khatena (1978) describes four creative thinking abilities: 1) Fluency is the ability to produce many ideas for a given task. 2) Flexibility is the ability to show a conceptual shift in thinking relative to a given task. 3) Originality is the ability to produce unusual or clever ideas that not many other people think of. 4) Elaboration is the ability to add details to the basic idea.
Barriers to creativity
There are many obstacles to creativity. The major barrier is the little voice in our heads giving all the reasons why we can’t do something, or why something won’t work. We must silence the voice during the initial stages of creative process. Logical, critical and judgmental thoughts will reduce the quality of the initial creative process.
Edwards proposes the idea that language itself might actually hinder creative thinking. She believes that direct perception is an integral part of our thinking, a way of “seeing” without using words.
One of the major obstacles to creativity is the fear of rejection. Rejection can become disabling when is stops us from taking action. Fear of rejection, or rejection itself, can stifle creativity.
Morris Berman (1989) made adaptations to Freud’s theory and discusses how creativity is thwarted in the young child. Type I occurs when the child’s sensual exploration of her surroundings is hindered. Curiosity is minimized and the child no longer engages in exploration of the environment. Type II comes as a result of psychic upheaval. While the child’s creativity survives, she is plagued by the pain and conflict of neurosis. Type III creativity emerges when the child avoids the emotional trauma of repression and creativity exists without conflict. (Ferguson,1990, p. 180)
Freud’s paradigm for understanding creativity does not appear to be useful or correct, possibly because he dealt so much with the abnormal. In fact, several researchers have found that creative people tend to be more depressed than the general population. They are more prone to alcoholism, mood-swings and suicide. Emotionally disturbed and behavior-disorientated children often show creativity levels exceeding their peers. It is interesting, however, that while these relationships exist, creativity itself is manifested during comparatively stable emotional states. Does emotional instability generate creativity, or does creativity produce emotional instability, or does the relationship involve some hidden variable not yet understood? The answers have yet to be determined.
Joseph Chilton Pearce believes that “culturization” is the reason we loose our creative abilities. He states that “cultural conditioning makes it unlikely that we ever consider anything outside the confines of cultural acceptances”. (Pearce, 1974, p. 49) Pearce believes that creativity is associated with a hypnotic-like trance state. The ability to enter a trance-like state appears at around age seven in all cultures, and in western cultures, it disappears during early adolescence. Only 20% of the adults in this country retain their childhood ability to enter a deep trance.
Piaget discusses preadolescent “reality adjustment” as the last phase of a child’s “magical thinking”. This, according to Piaget, is the beginning of true maturation. Pearce takes an exactly opposite view, and discusses the idea that the preadolescent’s “reality adjustment” marks the loss of creative potential. Beginning around age nine or ten, the child begins to adopt a kind of cultural logic, that defines their perceptual reality. By age fourteen, the adolescent has internalized the cultural reality, and thoughts outside the limits of cultural acceptance are difficult or impossible. Our “world view” becomes an editor of our precepts. Pearce states that “acculturation subverts, but never destroys creativity”. (Pearce, 1974, p. 197)
Creativity is a popular topic today, and several books and journals articles are dedicated to the subject. Many people believe that creativity is somehow dependent on “natural talent”. Most researchers, however, indicate that the skills involved in creativity are something that can be taught and learned.
In A Whack on the Side of the Head, Roger von Oech (1983) describes the characteristics that promote the creative process. These might be thought of as guidelines for a brainstorming session:
1) Generate as many answers as possible. Don’t look for the one “right answer”.
2) Don’t ask if something is “logical”.
3) Set aside all rules.
4) Don’t judge the quality of an idea by looking at its “practicality”.
5) Allow ambiguity.
6) Don’t worry about being wrong.
7) Indulge yourself…let yourself play.
8) Let yourself go into new areas.
9) Be foolish and silly.
10) Accept your own creativity.
11) Make yourself receptive to new ideas.
Scott Witt adds that confidence, independence, and curiosity are the prime ingredients of ingenuity. Witt maintains that creative people have unbending confidence in their ability to come up with solutions to problems, and that they enjoy leaving the beaten path and exploring unusual possibilities. Most researchers stress the visual aspect of creativity, however, Witt emphasizes the power of word associations (wildcatting) in generating ideas. (Witt, 1983)
In the late 1970s, E. Paul Torrance from the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Georgia, conducted several experiments to determine if creative thinking can be taught. After numerous trials involving hundreds of subjects, Torrance and coworkers found that brief and intensive training can change our thinking to include more right-brain processes. After training, subjects were better able to apply right and left hemisphere modes in a complementary way. (Ferguson, 1990)
Recent research by Terry Greene and Helga Noice states that the act of complementing students on their clothing, hair and/or jewelry will improve their performance on creativity tests. While their sample sizes are small, startling differences are apparent. Creativity is somehow related to the emotional state of the creator. (Ferguson, 1990)
Texas A&M chemist Thomas Taylor (1983) explored the effects of a sensory deprivation float tank on learning. Floaters listened to lessons with floating in the tank. Nonfloaters listened to the same lessons in a quite darkened room. Three levels of learning were measured: rote learning, the ability to apply information to new situations, and the ability to use the information in unique and creative ways (synthesis thinking). Taylor reported that floaters learned better for all three levels, but that they were vastly superior in synthesis (creative) thinking.
Michael Hutchison in Megabrain (1986) points out the importance of stimulating the brain with challenges, change, ambiguities, and novel experiences. A variety of devices have been developed by inventors who claim to be able to enhance creativity.
An electronic device known as the Alpha Stim applies microampere current through the earlobes to stimulate the brain. Physician William Bauer (1983) of Case Western University believes that the electricity produced by the device alters the neurochemicals in the brain, thus establishing the energy for creation. Another device known as the BT5 developed by Bob Beck uses a similar technique to apply current to the indentation in the jaw below the earlobes. I have used the BT5 on several occasions. While it does evoke a slight change in consciousness, I cannot report any perceptible improvement in my own creativity.
Several techniques and devices have been designed to produce brain wave entrainment at theta and alpha frequencies. These brain waves are characterized by low frequencies (between five and twelve Hertz), and are associated with relaxation, lucid dreaming, and creativity. The reasoning is that by artificially altering brain waves to the frequencies that are associated with creativity, we can thereby enhance creativity. The main idea is that the brain can be induced to “lock on” (i.e., to become entrained) to an artificially produced signal.
Biophysicist Gerald Oster from the New York Mount Sinai School of Medicine, reported in 1973 that two tones of different frequencies could produce brain wave entrainment if the tones were played into different ears. The beat frequency, or the difference between the two tones, could produce brain wave entrainment in the delta, theta and alpha frequencies. Author Robert Monroe referred to this phenomenon as frequency following response, and designed and patented a technique for creating audio tapes called Hemi-Sync. In a series of EEG experiments, Monroe reported that audio entrainment also caused both hemispheres of the brain to work in unison. (Hutchison, 1986, p. 199) I have used several brands of entrainment audio tapes on many occasions. They do indeed produce rapid relaxation and a change of consciousness. I usually fall asleep quite quickly when I listen to these tapes. I cannot report any direct improvement in my own creativity, although I would describe my brief presleep thoughts as “strange”, or kind of “off-the-wall”.
Neurophysiologist W. Gray Walter conducted a series of experiments in the 1950s using flashing lights to produce brain wave entrainment. During photic driving (entrainment), both hemispheres of the brain would work in unison. During the 1960s and 1970s a flurry of studies explored the photo driving phenomena. The result is that many photo driving devices have been designed. The most popular, known as the Synchro-Energizer, was patented by Ohio psychiatrist Denis Gorges. (Hutchison, 1986) It uses a combination of flashing lights and audio tones to produce brain wave entrainment. I have used a device similar to the Synchro-Energizer on many occasions. It does produce a rapid change of consciousness, and again, I would describe my thoughts as sort of “different”. However, I do not recall any creative revelations while using the device. Like the Hemi-Sync tapes, I generally fall asleep very quickly.
Physicist Bob Beck has designed another entrainment device known as the Magnetic Mood Pacer II. This device produces a pulsed magnetic field at 7.83 Hertz to produce a magnetic field similar to the background radiation of the Earth. Beck claims his device makes people feel good (Hutchison, 1986). I developed a similar device and have used it on myself and others on many occasions. EEG experiments confirm that brain waves do indeed become entrained with rotating magnetic fields and magnetically pulsed fields.
Magnetic field generators are different from the other devices. They do not require the active participation of the person being exposed to the magnetic fields. They are nonintrusive, and there is no conscious awareness of their presence. Creative endeavors such as brainstorming sessions might be enhanced by the artificial generation of alpha and theta-range magnetic fields.
Several drugs have been developed to promote intelligence. A particular class of these drugs is known as nootropics. None of the nootropics are FDA approved, so there are no sales in the United States, however, they can be purchased over the counter in most European countries and Mexico. (Dean and Morgenthaler, 1990, p. 43-51)
Piracetam is the most well-known nootropic. A large number of animal and human double-blind controlled studies indicate that piracetam does indeed enhance cognition. In a 1976 study of rats, neurophysiologists Buresova and Bures found that piracetam promotes the flow of information between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Communication between the hemispheres is often associated with creative thought. In a more recent study, Wilsher Dilanni and a team of neurologists (1985) found significant improvements in dyslexic children. They theorized that the increased communication between the hemispheres was responsible for the improvement.
In spite of the U.S. ban, piracetam is being manufactured and marketed by most major pharmaceutical companies. Whether or not piracetam actually enhances creativity has yet to be determined. However, the number of brand names that the drug is marketed under stands as a testimonial to the public’s perception of its usefulness. These include: Avigilen, Cerebroforte, Cerebrospan, Cetam, Dinagen, Encefalux, Encetrop, Euvifor, Gabacet, Genogris, Memo-Puren, Nootron, Nootrop, Nootropil, Nootropyl, Normabrain, Norzetam, Novocetam, Pirroxil, Pscoton, Stimucortex, and UCB-6215.
Another class of drugs believed to enhance creativity is known as psychotropics. These include highly controversial and illegal drugs such as marijuana, LSD25, mescaline, and psilocybin. While government hysteria has essentially banned current research, a variety of studies conducted in the 1960’s indicated that the illumination stage of creativity can be enhanced by the use of these drugs. In 1966, Willis Harman and a team of psychologists conducted a pilot study to examine the effects of mescaline sulfate on creativity. (Tart, 1972, p. 455-472) They used several objective instruments (Purdue Creativity Test, Miller Object Visualization, and Within Embedded Figures Test), as well as subjective reports from a variety of sources including the subjects’ self evaluations, psychiatric assessments, and industry feedback. Significant improvements in creativity were reported. Subjects’ self-reports suggested eleven possible mechanisms to explain the improvement. Note the striking similarities between subject’s beliefs about their creativity, and the traits proposed by Wycoff, Perkins and von Oech.
1) Low inhibition and anxiety
2) Capacity to structure problems in a larger context
3) High fluency and flexibility of ideation
4) High capacity for visual imagery and fantasy
5) High ability to concentrate
6) High empathy with external processes and objects
7) High empathy with people
8) Accessibility of unconscious resources
9) Ability to associate seemingly dissimilar elements in meaningful ways
10) High motivation
11) Capacity to visualize the completed solution in its entirety
Brain waves of creativity
Roger Sperry and Michael S. Gazzaniga performed a series of experiments on epileptic patients in the early late 1950s and early 1960s, where they cut the corpus callosum which connects the two brain hemispheres. When the two halves of the brain could not communicate with each other, it became clear that each half had its own traits. The left brain is responsible for language, logic, numbers, sequence, detail, linear processes, symbolic representation and making judgments. The right brain processes images, rhythm, music, imagination, color, patterns, emotions and is nonjudgmental. (Restak, 1984, p. 246-248)
The right and left hemispheres of the brain are in communication with each other through the corpus callosum, a bundle of nerves joining the two halves of the brain. Because of their different modes of thinking, the two halves of our brains might experience conflicting interpretations of awareness. Many theorists have suggested that creativity is a right-brain experience, however, some believe that creativity somehow involves the communication between the hemispheres.
Norman Don of the University of Illinois studied EEG patterns of individuals while they were meditating. Subjects self-reported peak experiences were preceded by a significant collapse of the alpha frequencies. (Ferguson, 1990)
Elmer and Alice Green (1977) of the Menninger Foundation believe that theta brain waves are the source of creative thinking. They used EEG biofeedback to teach people to enter the theta state. Participants reported that while in the theta state, they relived (actually experienced) past long-forgotten events. The also found that participants had “new and valid ideas or synthesis of ideas, not primarily by deduction, by springing by intuition, from unconscious sources”. (Hutchison, 1986, p. 97) One hypothesis is that theta waves, which have high amplitudes and low frequencies, somehow enable the brain cells to form new neural structures.
Lester Fehmi, director of the Princeton Biofeedback Research Institute, believes that hemispheric synchronization may provide one of the clues to understanding creativity. Synchronization occurs when both hemispheres of the brain generate the same brain waves. Fehmi describes the synchronization experience as a feeling of “into-it-ness”, or a feeling of being more unified with the experience. Hutchison, 1986, p. 219)
Chemist Thomas Taylor studied the EEG patterns of students while they synthesized information, by using the information in a creative way to solve a new problem. Taylor found that brain waves were in the theta state at the moment when the concepts “made sense” to the students. During the brief theta experience, Taylor reported a series of powerful fluctuations taking place throughout the brain. (Hutchison, 1986, p. 292)
Creativity is an area of human development that encompasses the future of our planet. Traditional ways of seeing the world and dealing with social issues no longer seem adequate. Clearly, we are in need of new and creative approaches to our problems. Anything we can do to promote creativity is a step in the right direction.
© Dr. David Walonick – used with permission
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