In a rare collision with my day job, the internet poetry forum I frequent had an extensive discussion on this recent article in The Atlantic about the study of creativity and the brain: http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/06/secrets-of-the-creative-brain/372299/
Nancy Andreasen’s original hypothesis was that creativity was linked to madness and this would be demonstrable by increased incidence of mental illness in geniuses (great writers, composers, scientists, etc.) and their families compared to the general population. Over the years, this seemed not to be reliably borne out, and she has switched lately to using the psychiatry industry standard functional MRI studies to try to anatomize creativity and genius.
The basic test as I understand it is to put a person in an MRI scanner and take repeated measures of the signal in their brains as they try to think of as many uses as possible for a brick, to test ‘divergent thinking’, a hallmark of creative genius. The basis of this ‘functional MRI’ is that when different brain areas are active, their signal increases due to the increased blood flow to the area, which is needed to provide extra nutrients and oxygen for the extra work done. Numerous studies have demonstrated the ability of this method to map areas of cortex responsible for vision, finger tapping, certain types of memory, etc. Therefore it seems reasonable to attempt to study creativity using the same methods. And yet…there is a real problem with the reproducibility and testability of creativity, because it is so individual to the person involved.
Say the experimenter in the article performs her fMRI test on 1000 subjects chosen at random. Maybe the person who can think of the most uses for a brick is a builder, because he uses them every day. Or maybe it’s a psychopath who can think of 43 ways to kill me with a brick. Does that make him a creative genius? Maybe on average men can think of more uses for a brick than women can. Does that make them more creative? If instead the test were to compose a sonnet in their heads, poets would perform quite well but composers and scientists would be at a disadvantage. I think it’s impossible to devise a test of creativity which isn’t inherently biased in some way. I can’t think of a better test than the brick test, because at least everyone is familiar with what a brick is, but I still don’t believe it tests what it claims to.
And furthermore, she didn’t perform this test on 1000 people chosen at random, she selected 2 small populations of extremely creative and non-creative people, and I don’t trust that at all. The extremely creative population at least has a reasonable requirement to have done work that was recognized for its originality, although it’s still a subjective assessment (and in science at least, it isn’t always entirely clear what creativity ought to be attributed to the prof and what to perhaps a PhD student working in the background). But the non-creatives were defined as people who worked in jobs such as administrators, accountants, and social workers. How dare she say that a particular group of accountants have low creativity, just because of the job they ended up in? I think everyone has some spark of creativity within them, but how and whether it is expressed is dependent on circumstance and opportunity.
I see it as a seed-and-soil situation. Even if I were bombarded with seeds of inspiration to compose an opera, the soil of my mind is unprepared: I don’t know squat about opera and I can’t carry a tune. Those ideas would go nowhere because I’m not trained to recognize and develop them. We all choose in our education which aspects of inspiration we will prepare ourselves to receive (assuming we are lucky and rich enough to obtain a decent education — it’s no coincidence that very few great operas are composed in poverty-stricken countries). It seems to me nonsensical to define creativity or genius as something wholly separate from knowledge of a particular craft. Both are necessary for the creation of original work.