The Creativity Instinct

In an interview earlier this week, I was asked to define creativity, a fairly common and entirely reasonable request given that I have made the expression and study of creativity my profession. Lately, I have found that I’m less and less comfortable answering that question with the traditional response; some combination of novelty and utility. That is, creative output must both be novel (a new combination of existing ideas or objects or an entirely new thing) and useful (that is, have some purpose). I won’t go into detail defending this particular definition or knocking it down, for that matter, except to say that as we learn more and more about creative behaviors and the motivation behind creativity, defining it has become as easy as herding cats. And likely just as useful.


I have come to believe that defining creativity in one comprehensive sound byte is at best unnecessary and at worst potentially harmful, if we ever want to truly understand it. What if we applied that same strict criteria to an equally complicated cognitive construct, such as memory? I often use the following definition of memory when asked to provide one, which is both unsatisfactory and strictly true: the change in behavior that comes with experience. I have developed muscle memories for singing after 15+ years of training and my behavior has changed as a result of that experience. I have a long autobiography of vivid events that I can summon at will to affect my current actions. My experience of the visual realm affects the way that I interpret what I see today. Although accurate, the definition glosses over the very aspect of memory that piques the curiosity of most people who want to discuss the topic: the fact that we can search through a vast repository of information that we gathered over a lifetime and use it to our advantage. How it works is much more interesting than what it is.

The very same is true for creativity. Creativity, like memory, is a collection of many processes and behaviors, with many different motivators and mechanisms. Like the study of memory, the study of creativity would also benefit greatly by a shift away from definition and towards understanding how it works under different circumstances. We talk about the differences between memory for events and motor skills or habits. In the same way, we should talk about the differences between creativity in writing and creativity in dance.

Often, when I’m not doing a particularly good job of sharing my enthusiasm for science and instead am caught up in academic jargon or the minutiae of some esoteric argument, I see the eyes of my conversation partner glaze over with boredom. It always surprises me because I’m clearly interested in what I’m talking about. But then I remember that what fascinates me is not what I know, but, rather, what I don’t know. Delving more deeply into a topic as wide-reaching and humanistic as creativity only raises more questions. And that is what drives interest. We flock towards the mysterious, towards things that we can’t seem to explain because curiosity leads to knowledge which leads to better decisions and, dare I say, the reproduction of those genes that underlie curiosity (for a paper on a potential curiosity gene, you can read about great tits, though not the kind you’re thinking of, unfortunately).

We hate boredom: it’s a highly uncomfortable state, as evidenced by our knee-jerk reaction to pick up a smartphone or even look out the window. And we love information: twitter thrives because it promises a never-ending stream of information about our world and its co-inhabitants. The bigger the mystery, the more surprising the cliff-hanger, the more complex the visual scene, the more interested we remain. Provided, of course, that there is some pattern or some hint of a pattern that suggests it’s not completely random. Because randomness is unpredictable and therefore useless information. Creativity, that new interpretation of ourselves and our world, is arguably our most powerful instinct. Only by understanding how it works can we ever hope to understand what it is.