Creativity: From Beyond

Tell me, O Muse, of the man of many devices, who wandered full many ways after he had sacked the sacred citadel of Troy.

So begins Homer’s beloved epic The Odyssey,1 pleading the Muse of Epic Poetry to inspire his telling of the tale. The ancient Greeks attributed the sources of art, music, literature, and general knowledge to the Muses — quite the opposite of the individualist approach. Perhaps their perspective has some merit: what can we learn from assuming that individuals cannot produce creative works; rather, something beyond their control operates through them? Ultimately, do we have any control over what we create?

The Sacred and the Supernatural

While sacred and supernatural causes are typically left out of scientific reviews of creativity research, gods and muses are no less a source to consider. Indeed, they created the heavens and the earth2 3 4 and then imparted humanity with the ability to create. In the Pentateuch, God fills people with skill, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs.5 In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the Self has the freedom to act and create as desired.6 7 In Confucianism, dao (also spelled tao) is the source of change in the world, and consequently the source of human creativity.8 Ultimately, anything sacred that enables free will must be interpreted as also enabling creativity, for the smallest choices require even the slightest degree of creative influence.

Dao, or the way, is an important part of Confucianism and numerous other cultures and religions.


If we are dissatisfied with the high-level explanations from the world’s religions, then we might look toward other ways of interpreting what we know about creativity. Raymond Cattell, one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century, explains that Creativeness must come from the individual, but it is the task of society to produce the climate in which introversion and restraint are viable styles of life.9 Though creativity is no longer believed to be limited to the introverted individual, Cattell’s statement captures a very real phenomenon: it is much easier for artists, scientists, and others to create in a society and culture that enables them. Nomadic groups or war-torn civilizations are simply in less of a position to provide the resources or time necessary to match the intense creative output of laboratories, conservatories, and other institutions. Culture can hinder forms of creativity by valuing mathematics and science above music and art10 or by rewarding the correct answer but not the equally reasonable creative one.11 Fortunately, culture can also stimulate creativity through the very same means: an environment which encourages experimentation and creation will tend to be more creative.


Creativity itself primarily exists as a social construct. What are the differences between creativity, intelligence, imagination, insightfulness, and success? How can we know that one thing is more creative than another? Without a reliable rubric to quantitatively rate creative products, not to mention the incomprehensibility of cross-domain comparison — how does one compare poetry with engineering innovation? — answering these questions falls to evaluation based on intuition. Our socialization from childhood teaches us what is creative and what is not, and from these experiences we develop the sense necessary to judge creativity. It is this socialization which enables us to do everything from forming opinions on art to granting Nobel Prizes, and it is the basis for what is called the Consensual Assessment Technique.

The Consensual Assessment Technique, or CAT, combines the opinions of a panel of experts to rank creative products relative to each other. These domain experts have been socialized in their field well enough that they can identify what is exceptional. Indeed, it makes most sense to have poets evaluate poetry and architects evaluate buildings. Because the CAT relies on the ability to compare creative products all within one group, it cannot be used as a standardized measure of creativity. However, many within-group comparisons have yielded insightful results. The CAT has enabled creativity researchers to compare creativity differences across gender, ethnicity, social economic status, and other demographic dimensions (of which little difference has been convincingly or consistently shown); to understand the effects of motivational stimuli on creativity; and to characterize why experts are typically more creative than novices.12 Our inability to precisely define creativity does not limit this technique; rather, it allows it.

The curators of art museums determine what to include and display in the collection based on what they have been socialized to consider appropriate.13

Socialization teaches us more than what creativity is: it teaches us how to be creative. Artists may visit art museums and galleries for inspiration. Scientists may attend conferences and browse journals to the same end. Athletes may study top performers and have trainers to push their physical creativity. By putting some things — but not others — in galleries, books, curricula, media, and the like, society tells the individual how to be creative. Though this provides high-quality inspiration, it also limits what is considered noteworthy: for instance, the Impressionist painters were denied from displaying their works in the usual galleries of the day because their new perspective on what a finished painting could look like clashed with the widely accepted concept of a painting. Ideas can be too unlike anything else that their brilliance is overlooked and their creator dubbed insane. Nonetheless, these extraordinary ideas are eventually recognized once enough of society catches up.

Physical Environment

During the height of World War II, a Yale geographer by the name of Ellsworth Huntington published a large compilation of research called the Mainsprings of Civilization.14 In it, he provides evidence that humans are generally most productive in the higher latitudes, hypothetically because of a cooler climate. Indeed, through analysis of library circulation, factory output, scientific collaboration, and filed patents, he found that productivity rates are highest on days with average temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Curiously, productivity also peaked during late autumn and late winter — when average daily temperatures would rarely rise above 40°F at those latitudes. Finally (for this discussion, that is, as his book identifies hundreds of factors and cycles in human behavior) productivity drops before thunderstorms and rises immediately after — Huntington explains that the heavy air before the storm reduces intellectual activity, but the cool, higher pressure air that follows most storms stimulates people into action. While weather and climate certainly appear to have some correlation with human creativity, Huntington’s extensive analysis is limited by the fact that so many other factors could also affect physical and mental well-being.


The human mind easily perceives phenomena in ways that deviate from reality, such as seeing water in a hot sunny desert or hearing whispers in the rustling of leaves. Justin Barrett argues that humans have a hyperactive agency detection device (HADD) which suggests that inexplicable changes in our environment are the result of some unseen agent.15 In the cognitive science of religion, the HADD hypothesis explains how beliefs in supernatural beings arise: who created the earth and the stars? HADD skews us to imagine the creator. Why did that door swing open of its own accord? HADD might suggest a ghost as the answer. Whether or not an agent is truly involved, HADD hints that there is. While some may argue otherwise, many people hold that the Sasquatch is a myth: instead, some creativity was involved in connecting footstep-like depressions in the ground with human-shaped tree branches. Indeed, many mythological creatures, real or not, have inspired thousands of captivating, creative stories. Natural (and evolutionarily useful) properties of the human mind result in hyperactive agency detection, optical illusions, and many other unexpected experiences that just might lead to creative insights.

Darrell Staggs took this photo in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The hiker looks like he is about to fall off the edge of a cliff: in reality, water is reflecting the cliff face high above.16

The single source of new ideas, according to cognitive scientist and linguist Mark Turner, is cognitive blending. Imagine if you were to combine two known concepts — let us say a whale and a giraffe — into one creature: you have just performed a blend. What does this animal look like? What does this animal eat? Notice that to answer these questions, you have taken certain qualities from what you know about whales and other qualities from what you know about giraffes. Furthermore, you have something that is more than the sum of its parts: it is not just a whale side by side with a giraffe, but a whale-raffe with a long, skinny neck and massive fins. Blends offer important insights through these emergent properties (though a whale-raffe might not be the most enlightening), and they effortlessly form all the time in everyday thinking.17

In Nigel Cross’s analysis of the product design process, the creative leap — so often surprising to those who experience it — is instead a result of realizing the emergent properties of a cognitive blend. His example in Designerly Ways of Knowing describes three product designers who are discussing how to attach a hiking backpack to a mountain bicycle. For a while they evaluate the prospect of using a bag, but they wanted to prevent any straps from hanging down to get tangled in the wheel. At times they each mention some sort of piece of flat plastic to which a backpack could be attached. The moment of insight comes when one designer mentions a tray, which an outside observer recognizes as a blend between the earlier idea of a piece of flat plastic and the other concept of the bag. The designers become excited as they realize a tray would contain the way a bag would and simultaneously act as a mudguard.18 Their creative leap, in retrospect, seems much less like a leap than it does a blend of ideas.

Neuroscientific research supports the blending hypothesis. Certain small groups of neurons, called neural cliques, respond to stimuli of very specific natures; for example, the visual cortex has different neurons that activate based on the orientation of a line (horizontal, vertical, or some diagonal angle).19 This targeted response to microfeatures is predicted to be the mechanism behind many forms of memory.20 Feeling an object with right-angled corners, a general shape of a rectangular prism, and striated papery texture along three sides is likely to stimulate the neural cliques that represent the concept of BOOK in your memory. Creative blending starts when something activates permutations of neural cliques that don’t usually activate together. If you were feeling around in the dark in search of a book but instead felt something furry that also started growling, then the neurons that collectively represent BOOK and MONSTER would activate and suggest something like the Monster Book of Monsters from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban —  certainly a creative invention.

The Monster Book of Monsters from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. This magical book will bite the unsuspecting reader unless its spine is gently stroked. In linguistics, writing words in all capital letters indicates that one is talking about the concept of that item, rather than the word itself or any particular feature of the concept. Therefore, BOOK refers to the word, the mental imagery, the imagined texture, and other features associated with a book. If the concept of MONSTER were also active at the same time, you might imagine something like the book shown here.21


Neuroscience has struggled to understand creativity primarily because of the difficulty in narrowing down what it means to be creative. Neuropsychology and psychopathology — fields based on brain damage and mental illness, respectively — have revealed that creativity is typically unaffected in artists suffering from Alzheimer’s disease22; that mood disorders are more common among artists, musicians, and writers23; but also that progressive nonfluent aphasia (which results in difficulty producing coherent speech) has inspired intense creative output of geometrically-regular paintings.22 In healthy patients, however, studying creativity is mostly limited by the specific tasks that can be performed while attached to (in the case of EEG) or inside of (in the case of fMRI and PET) highly sensitive machines. Creativity in the real world often relies on more than just thinking of as many words as possible that start with the letter g, and even more problematically, these tasks require working memory or visual imagination that lead to activations of large groups of neurons. How does the neuroscientist distinguish between simple working memory and creative working memory, if there even is such a thing? While the parietal and pre-frontal regions exhibit more activity during creative tasks compared to non-creative tasks,24 the inherent difficulties associated with neuroimaging make these observations only stepping stones (but useful ones, indeed) for developing future studies.

A number of people acclaimed for their creativity have cited dreams as their source of inspiration. August Kekulé von Stradonitz, the chemist who proposed the structure of benzene, explained in a speech years later that he had been falling asleep when suddenly he envisioned an ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail. The circular shape made him realize — correctly, as later experiments showed — that benzene would best be understood as a ring of carbon atoms.25 While dreams don’t always yield insights as productive as Kekulé experienced, the low-risk environment allows the dreaming mind to play with strange and surprising ideas. In fact, some scholars argue that it is this low-risk environment that also makes daydreams beneficial for creativity.26

Recreational drugs have been used to stimulate creativity with mixed results. Numerous creatives from history were alcoholics, from Ludwig van Beethoven to Jack Kerouac. Moderate alcohol consumption typically lessens inhibitions that might otherwise discard more exotic ideas, and has been shown to increase performance for activities like finding the word that associates three otherwise unrelated words (e.g. peach, arm, and tar each form a phrase with the word pit).27 However, alcohol also has led to decreased productivity and has caused the death of many creative people.26 Research is more limited on how other drugs affect creativity, primarily due to the dangers and difficulties of administering such drugs while still being able to maintain scientific value. In the 1960s, psychedelic artists claimed that their drug-induced experiences greatly affected their work. From 1954 to 1962, Oscar Janiger administered LSD to hundreds of people from a variety of professions and backgrounds, and while most of them reported feeling more creative, a lack of appropriate measurement and experimental control severely limits his study. Harman, McKim, and Mogar demonstrated in 1966 a similar lack of useful results for mescaline.26 While recreational drugs certainly seem to have some effect on creativity, that effect has vastly mixed results and only stems from the mind-altering properties of the drugs.


Creativity is divine inspiration. It is enabled, disabled, defined, and shaped by culture and society. It is affected by drugs, weather, mental illness, and brain damage. It is a product of the natural properties of human neural networks. With so many possible sources of creativity, which do you believe is the one? Does there have to be only one true source, or is creativity too complex to explain that way? Perhaps creativity comes from within, but perhaps it is also something we cannot control. Whatever the case, creativity is an awe-inspiring, unavoidable aspect of our lives.

  1. Homer. (1919). The Odyssey. (A. T. Murray, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Retrieved from
  2. Genesis 1:1 New International Version
  3. Qur'an 16:3 Sahih International
  4. Rig-Veda 10:129–130 Translated by R. T. H. Griffith
  5. Exodus 35:31–32 New Revised Standard Version
  6. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1:4:15 Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1968
  7. Chapple, C. (1986). Karma and creativity. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
  8. Niu, W. (2013). Confucian ideology and creativity. Journal of Creative Behavior, 46(4), 274–284.
  9. Cattell, R. B. (1971). Abilities: Their structure, growth, and action. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
  10. Robinson, K. (2006). How schools kill creativity. TED. Retrieved from
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  12. Kaufman, J. C., Plucker, J. A., and Baer, J. (2008). Essentials of creativity assessment. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
  13. Image by André Lage Freitas, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
  14. Huntington, E. (1945). Mainsprings of civilization. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc. It is particularly interesting that this volume was published during World War II in that it directly addresses how race, heredity, culture, climate, geography, agriculture, and other factors affect civilization. A large section of the book is dedicated to proving that the Aryan race is not significantly better than any other race.
  15. Barrett, J. L. (2004). Finding agents everywhere. In Why would anyone believe in God? Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
  16. Image by Darrell Staggs, from the National Park Foundation Share the Experience photography contest. Used under fair use.
  17. Turner, M. (2014). The origin of ideas: Blending, creativity, and the human spark. New York: Oxford University Press.
  18. Cross, N. (2007). Designerly ways of knowing. Springer Science and Business Media.
  19. Hubel, D. H., and Wiesel, T. N. (1965). Receptive fields and functional architecture in two nonstriate visual areas (18 and 19) of the cat. Journal of Neurophysiology, 28(2), 229–289.
  20. Gabora, L., and Ranjan, A. (2013). How insight emerges in a distributed, content-addressable memory. In O. Vartanian, A. S. Bristol, and J. C. Kaufman (Eds.), Neuroscience of creativity (19–43). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  21. Image from the Harry Potter Wiki.
  22. Viskontas, I. V., Miller, B. L. (2013). Art and dementia: how degeneration of some brain regions can lead to new creative impulses. In O. Vartanian, A. S. Bristol, and J. C. Kaufman (Eds.), Neuroscience of creativity (115–132). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  23. Carson, S. (2013). Creativity and pscyhopathology: shared neurocognitive vulnerabilities. In O. Vartanian, A. S. Bristol, and J. C. Kaufman (Eds.), Neuroscience of creativity (175–203). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  24. Fink, A., and Benedek, M. (2013) The creative brain: brain correlates underlying the generation of original ideas. In O. Vartanian, A. S. Bristol, and J. C. Kaufman (Eds.), Neuroscience of creativity (207–231). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  25. Benfey, O. T. (1958). August Kekulé and the birth of the structural theory of organic chemistry in 1858. Journal of Chemical Education, 35(1), 21–23. doi: 10.1021/ed035p21
  26. Bateson, P., and Martin, P. (2013). Play, playfulness, creativity, and innovation. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  27. Jarosz, A. F., Colflesh, G. J. H., and Wiley, J. (2012). Uncorking the muse: alcohol intoxication facilitates creative problem solving. Consciousness and Cognition, 21, 487–493. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2012.01.002