Who’s creative?

Creativity Science for Designers: Who is creative? — Part 3

In part 1 and part 2 of this series, I gave an overview of the history of creativity and consensual definition of it, how the creative process works and the outstanding models to map creativity. We looked at how creativity is a result of a fusion of many different elements that occur at the right time and place, and sometimes at random. In this part, I’m gonna tell you what I learned about the essential component of creativity and the main catalyst — the creative self. I’ll look at creative individuals and their different qualities.

Ardavan Mirhosseini
12 min readApr 22, 2018


The Genius is Complex

The quality of a creative individual has been analyzed from different angles. This exciting topic has attracted many researchers from various disciplines, viewing it at different lenses, from studying biographical inventories to psychometric analysis, neuroscience, biochemistry and even genetics. It turns out that a creative genius is way more complex than a set of mental abilities or cognitive qualities, and it’s this complexity which makes them a deviation from conventional thinkers. Creative people are multi-faceted with the right amount of intelligence and luck.

Howard Gardner carefully illustrated this complexity in his intelligence model. He is a developmental psychologist who studied both gifted and normal children, and is well known for shifting publics’ and academics’ mindset away from general (single) intelligence model, in the 80s. He selected seven creative geniuses of the twentieth century to study creativity based on his Multiple Intelligence (MI) theory, where he concludes that creatives possess multiple intelligences in varying doses. An individual may possess a profile of intelligence that might be high in one intelligence and low or moderate in others. Creative individuals have different mechanisms of thinking and learning that could work independently or in tandem with the central intelligence. The amalgam of different bits of intelligence and the ability to use them in tandem is what makes one creative.

Eight Intelligences from MI Theory

According to Multiple Intelligences, Mozart and Fitzgerald happened to inherit distinct intelligences that played a role in their career achievements. Mozart happened to have a higher musical intelligence and he’s good at patterns, rhythms, and sounds. Fitzgerald happened to be linguistically-verbally intelligent and he’s strong with words and stories. Those intelligence(s) are the two of (so far) nine intelligences in Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences theory. These intelligences might have been passed down genetically, but there hasn’t been a single gene yet to determine intelligence and special cognition qualities.

Suppressed genius

When intelligence requirement is met, personality traits and a fertile socio-cultural environment would make a genius to emerge. Mozart’s older sister, Maria Anna, a brilliant harpsichordist, had her career cut short by her father when she reached the marriageable age of 18. In the 18th century of the socio-cultural, it was the time for the prodigy to marry and not risk her reputation. Since she was also musically-intelligent, with the right auditory processing and interpretation, a suppressing environment stopped her to thrive. Many examples are available to support the role of the environment, by looking at the rate of innovation and creative achievements in deprived or impoverished societies.

Brain’s Connectivity

Brain’s Connectivity

The intelligence(s) and creativity are the results of dynamically-interacting and interconnecting neurobiological structures. A team from University of New Mexico led by neuroscientist Rex Jung, using diffusion tensor imaging, had found that high creative scorers have more communications between different parts of their brains. The method, in short, uses MRI to trace the diffusion of water in cellular components along with axons (water in white matter moves along with the length of axons), white matter, in general, works as a relay to connect different regions of the brain for communication.

Neuron Axon transmit electrical impulses to other neurons.

They used combinations of tests to assess creativity from a divergent thinking problem-solving, to draw geometric shapes within a limited amount of time. When they compared the top 15 percent of creativity scorers to the bottom 15 percent, there was a significant difference between the connections of the two hemispheres. Most of these activities occur in frontal lobes, which is responsible for executive attention, language production, and forms long-term memories.

In the past decade, the emergence of connectomics as an area of study has helped us to understand how the brain functions as a holistic network of connections. Scientists use mathematical theories like graph theory to map the links between the nervous system of organisms, instead of the traditional study of specific areas.

There are also evidence that creative cognition dynamically engages the neural circuits of the brain that don’t normally interact, on their own. In a recent study of 163 participants, researchers found a high functional connectivity in individuals with higher creativity scores. Functional connectivity is basically activation patterns of anatomically-separated brain regions. This study, like most of the neuroimaging of creativity studies, assessed creative ability of individuals based on divergent thinking tests while under fMRI scanners. Functional connectivity was higher in frontal and parietal regions in salient, default and executive networks. These three networks are essential to creative ideas, but they do also conduct other important tasks. I will briefly talk about these networks later.

Creatives Don’t Have Higher IQ

Creative IQ-meter

Having strong networks would allow the creative to access remote ideas, experiences and memories to combine them for a new variations/combinations. Higher cognitive ability would help to make the best of this hyperconnected system, and to direct the flow of information with better executive control. Both long-term memory and IQ have shown playing roles in ideation and creative thinking. Although at a certain point, the IQ doesn’t matter in terms of performance and creative achievements.

Terman’s study of 1,500 Californian students is the most well-known longitudinal studies of gifted students with over 140 IQ score, in the 30s. Children with a high IQ score didn’t necessarily do better in life later on, and he concluded that “intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated.” Many of them pursued humble professions, and their levels of divorce, alcoholism and suicide were about the same as national average.

The same has been tested for creativity, where there is correlation between low IQ and lower creativity, but with IQ higher than 120, creativity varies. Higher IQ is not a precursor to creativity. It has been known as Threshold Theory proposed by Torrance in 1962. I talked about him in part 2. It concludes that cognitive intelligence is necessary to a certain point in order to be creative, but when you pass the average IQ it won’t really matter. Although the threshold has been defined differently. Guilford (1981) suggested 120 IQ points to be the threshold, based on his vast previous studies. He explained the individuals with lower IQ rely more on their divergent thinking than individuals with higher IQ who use their convergent thinking ability in the tests. Beyond a certain IQ point is required, for an individual, to realize that the problem exists, then try to solve it.

Awareness of one’s creative potential is key to high achievements.

Eysenck (in 1996) in Cambridge University press, makes a great hypothesis, where he made this distinction between creative potential and creativity achievements. He concludes that with higher intelligence and based on personal qualities, the individual comes to the awareness of her/his creative potentials. This awareness enables the individual to explore their creativity with higher confidence. Creative potential refers to the ability to create something novel and useful, whereas creative achievement refers to the realization of this potential and using it for real-life accomplishments. These two types of creativity have been named differently by different psychologists, for example, little-c (everyday creativity) and big-c (high-level achievements) creativity.

Wiring of human brain, from the Human Connectome Project.

Having said that, neuroimaging has demonstrated that memory and cognitive control are supported by the brain’s default network and executive network, the two networks are shown by connectomes (maps of connection networks of the brain), which play essential roles in creativity. Memory and cognitive control are the building components of IQ, therefore, they are important in creative cognition.

Making Associations and the Role of Knowledge

Comedians are good examples to start exploring the association argument. A good sense of humor or making right jokes is creative because it makes remote associations with things you don’t normally connect. So, that satisfying surprise makes you laugh, and the unusualness of that connection makes you “wow”. In 2014, MIT Tech Review published an essay Isaac Asimov wrote on creativity by examining the generation of the theory of evolution by natural selection being created by two men individually and independently, Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace, as about the same time.

Darwin and Wallace both read Essay on Population by Malthus

Considering their common practices, common observational methods and common knowledge, none of them could come up with the theory until both read Malthus’s “Essay on Population.” So, that obviously shows both men got the idea from the essay and made associations with their work. He concludes that the ability to make “cross-connections” between two items that may not seem connected is essential to creativity alongside with specialized knowledge and general knowledge, and unconscious active semantic and mnemonic networks. For more on these networks, read Part 2.

In 1962, Sarnoff Mednik introduces the Associative Theory. In this framework, creative cognition is defined as associative mechanisms that are active within the semantic memory networks. Creative thinking arises from the combination of associative elements that are conceptually distant. “The forming of associative elements into new combinations which either meet specified requirements or are in some way useful […] the more mutually remote the elements of the new combination, the more creative the process or solution.” Insight is the result of this atypical connection when a person takes a different view of a problem.

Sample question from Remote Associate Test. The right answer is “white”.

In this associative framework, creative people have a flatter associative hierarchies than less creative people who have a steeper associative hierarchy. It means that the pool of information is more limited in a steep hierarchy, therefore, the combination of novel ideas that are useful could quickly get exhausted. In contrary, highly creative individuals have flat hierarchies, they can generate the most associative variations which will increase the odds to find the fittest remote association. In the study of well-known poets and writers, using network science methodologies, Sarjoun Doumit and colleagues have shown that poems have a flatter hierarchy. Here’s the network of the 100 most-frequent words used in Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby vs 100 most-frequent words for the poet Dylan Thomas. Network on the left has flat hierarchy, therefore it’s more creative.

Dylan Thomas on the right vs The Great Gatsby on the left. Scientific America

For a designer, the takeaway is to make the information available to associations and boost creative generation. Mindmaps and mood boards are great tools to make meaningful associations. Although many of us don’t take the time to leverage these great creativity tools, and I’m sometimes guilty of that. Collaborative mind-maps and idea boards are richer in the information they contain and the number of possible cross-connections becomes exponentially bigger.

Brain’s Creativity Network

Default Mode Network regions

What does observing and mapping neuronal networks on the brain tell us about creativity? The first thing you should seriously stop saying is that you’re right or left-brained. Different networks in different regions in different sides of the brain interact dynamically to make cognitive functioning for creativity. My favorite one is the Default Mode Network (DMN). It includes inside of the prefrontal cortex and temporal lobe. It’s the area that is active when a person is daydreaming and mind-wandering or at rest wakefully. The brain attentional sources are active internally and the attention to the outside world is mostly suppressed. It’s when a brilliant idea crosses the mind while taking shower or you have solutions to all problems in the world while laying on the bed before shutting down your eyes to sleep. People who meditate or reflect internally are master activators of DMN. I personally have my pen and paper next to my bed so that I can write ideas as they surface.

Mind-wandering under the shower

There are two other important networks for creative thinking that play the role of judging and evaluation of what is the result of DMN. They do it by dynamic coupling between the networks, and switching between these networks. Executive Control Network (ECN) and the Salience Network (SN) are the other two. Various studies have found evidence from neuroimaging to validate the role that these networks play in creative cognition. The salience network (SN) is for detecting and reallocation of attentional sources to the stimuli, both internally and from the environment. It basically selects which stimuli deserve our attention. ECN, on the other hand, is engaged during cognitive tasks that require externally-directed attention, things like managing working memory and task set switching for controlling thoughts, emotions and behaviour. Individuals who are better at allocating these networks could think more creatively. Although Default Network Mode and Executive Control Network anti-correlate (i.e. the activation of one suppresses the other), the switching between them are done by the Salient Network.

What else do we need to know?

Creative individual psychometrics

There has been a lot of research from different fields and disciplines working to solve this problem. Creativity has been related to different personality traits, motivation, psychopathology, and environmental factors. Numerous personality researchers have concluded that creatives have high scores of openness, low-agreeableness, low-conscientiousness, and high neuroticism, based on Five Factor model. A meta analysis of 50 years of psychological studies somehow approves this, which includes other personality dimensions like self-acceptance, driven, ambitious, self-confidence etc. They also concluded that these personality traits are temporarily stable in creative people.

Creative people are also very concentrated and hyperfocus on the tasks they are doing, and very intrinsically motivated. Teresa Amabile, one of the leading figures in motivation research, believes that the natural tendency to flourish as a creative individual is through personal enjoyment of the work, as she calls it “Intrinsic Motivation Principle of Creativity”. Whether is the curiosity to find something new, as many scientists or philosophers have experienced, or irresistible need to express inner qualities as artists do. This inclination helps them to be in the zone, and experience more than the state of flow with the clarity of their goals in mind.

Although from history, we know that all the creative achievements have been influenced by extrinsic forces and motivators as well. Here is a scrap from Geoff Colvin in his book Talent Is Overrated:

“When Waton and Crick were struggling to find the structure of DNA, they worked almost nonstop because they knew they were in a race with other research teams. Alexander Graham Bell worked similarly on the telephone, knowing he was in competition with Elisha Gray, whom he beat to the patent office by just hours.”

The Bottom Line

As the science shows us so far there is no one recipe for creativity, but there are some patterns we can recognize by studying creativity. I have tried to cover the most important theories and models in this series. But obviously, there are a lot more to read and learn. There is a lot of effort in the design community to formulate creativity, but if you know the fundamentals of creative thinking, you don’t need to worry about the branded models that are trying to monopolize and commodify creative processes.

As always, thank you for reading…

Further reading:
Creativity Intelligence and Personality
What makes a genius?
The Real Neuroscience of Creativity
Default and Executive Network Coupling Supports Creative Idea Production
The Downside of Being Clever



Ardavan Mirhosseini

Lifelong learner, critical thinker, art lover, generalist, and senior product designer @intuit, prev @xello