I think it’s fair to say we all have a general idea of what we mean when we talk about creativity, but try to condense these ideas into a single definition, and you’ll find it just about impossible.
In fact, there are plenty of arguments that suggest we shouldn’t even bother trying. Take the argument put forward by Wellesley College’s Beth Hennessey and Harvard’s Teresa Amabile in 2009, for example, when in their psychological study of creativity they asked “Even if this mysterious phenomenon can be isolated, quantified, and dissected, why bother? Wouldn’t it make more sense to revel in the mystery and wonder of it all?”
Why bother? Revel in the mystery and wonder?
These are shocking propositions. Imagine if we had the same response to other “mysterious phenomenon” such as depression, the formation of memory, or cancer?
That might sound like an overstatement, but ask an artist, an entrepreneur, or just about anyone in between who recognises the importance of creativity, and they’ll tell you that defining and understanding it does matter.
Creativity is the root of progress and innovation today as much as it has ever been. Those who dismiss it as some kind of otherworldly power do so at their own peril.
Computer scientist Anna Jordanous of Kent University and linguist Bill Keller of Sussex University recognised this, and after substantial research, released a study in 2016 entitled Modelling Creativity: Identifying Key Components through a Corpus-Based Approach.
Extensively analysing 90 papers regarding creativity that date back to 1950, the pair extracted common key terms to produce a list of 14 components crucial to the creative mind:
- Active involvement and persistence.
- Dealing with uncertainty.
- Domain competence.
- General intellect.
- Generating results.
- Independence and freedom.
- Innovation and emotional involvement.
- Progression and development.
- Social interaction and communication.
- Spontaneity and subconscious process.
- Thinking and evaluation.
- Variety, divergence, and experimentation.
The list highlights a range of attributes, skills, and attitude-related factors that inform the process, yet there is one glaring absence: happiness.
Why is happiness counter-intuitive to creativity? As several scientists pointed out to Quartz, a positive mind, a content mind, is not a challenged mind. It’s only when we are confronted by problems that threaten to overwhelm us that we start looking for solutions. The more we focus on the problem, the more persistent we become, and that’s when the list above comes into play.
Of course, that doesn’t mean creatives need to be unhappy. History may have romanticised the image of an isolated, tortured creative genius toiling over their next great achievement, but it is the devotion to the enigma that will reveal itself as their new work, rather than their shroud of pain, that makes them excellent.
Though the study does not define how creativity works, it serves to provide a structure for what it takes to be truly innovative, and for followers to potentially determine where they may be lacking.
Jordanus and Keller also believe such a well-defined list could help overcome “the Achilles’ heel of AI research on creativity”. By teaching automated systems how to judge these components, they hypothesise that AI may one day be able to gauge the creative quality of whatever is put before it. Whether a computer will be able to succeed where the human mind has failed in this matter is a question to be answered in the not too distant future.