Creativity: From Within

Experts describe it as a new idea, an insight, a spark, or something produced out of nothing.1 2 It is extraordinary3 and arises out of ambiguity and serendipity.4 It leads to its own proliferation, and it appears everywhere from art and storytelling to science and business.1 Despite the thousands of pages written on the topic, human creativity remains mysterious and even magical. Creativity is a crucial aspect of our everyday lives, driving innovation and problem-solving, providing entertainment and self-actualization, and yet it is hardly understood.5

In 1950, J. P. Guilford delivered the presidential address at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association. His topic — creativity — had been ignored by much of the scientific community, having been explicated away as high intelligence or as some form of neurosis.5 As researchers realized the importance of creativity in human accomplishment, they began devising creativity tests and providing creativity guidelines. Yet, the elusive nature of creativity continued to reveal itself in the many failed products of scientific research.6 Much has been learned from failure, however, and plenty of discoveries have been made.


Around the time of Guilford’s address, creativity was studied only as an aspect of personality. In 1944, Horn7 attempted to show that certain personality traits tend to appear together. Over an 18-month period, his laboratory evaluated 28 male Harvard college students on 11 personality traits. One of these traits was creativity, defined as the manifest ability to produce and develop ideas. Creative individuals, according to Horn’s analysis, demonstrated either of two typical trait combinations: they were creative, imaginative, subjective, and preoccupied with their own thoughts; or they were creative, impulsive, and determined. However, Horn sought to find correlations between traits that are by no means guaranteed to be independent of each other: for example, simply by definition, intense emotionality is likely to affect anxiety and desire for change is likely to affect impulsivity. Therefore, the high correlation between such traits is no surprise. While Horn’s results were limited and did little to define creativity, they provided direction for future research on creative people.

The word creative derives from Latin creāre, meaning to procreate, to bring into being, or to produce. Creat, in its Middle English form, most often referred to God’s act of forming the Earth, and indeed, until the nineteenth century, creative was typically used only to describe God or nature, not humans themselves.2 8

More recent personality studies, sampled across many ages and domains, have revealed more consistent characteristics of creative people. These include greater autonomy, value for aesthetics, curiosity, unconventionality, insightfulness, and versatility. Creative people tend to center on themselves, demonstrate diverse interests, and recognize their own exceptional creativity.9 However, as Csikszentmihalyi and Getzels pointed out in 1973 and as remains true today, the correlation between personality traits and creativity does not explain which causes the other, or even if a third factor might cause both. The fact that artists, for example, are typically unconventional may be a result of unconventional people realizing they can express themselves through art. On the other hand, people who practice art may naturally become more unconventional.10 Consequently, though personality appears to correlate fairly well with creativity, the vague nature of some personality descriptors and the lack of causal information from these studies begs for research from other perspectives.


As if creativity itself were not hard enough to measure, why not see how it relates to the similarly hard-to-quantify concept of intelligence? Most studies have found small to zero statistical relationship between measures of general intelligence and creativity, with a few studies even reporting inverse or more complex thresholded relationships.6 9 This variation is understandable as a product of diverse intelligence metrics — Structure of the Intellect, crystallized and fluid, Weschler Intelligence Scale for Children — which sometimes even include creative abilities as components of intelligence (e.g. the Sternberg Triarchic Abilities Test). Regardless of the details of interplay between creativity and intelligence, Barron and Harrington keenly note that in everyday conversation, creative and intelligent aren’t always distinct. Perhaps as a sort of halo effect, creative people simply may be perceived as more intelligent, much like attractive people often are.11 12 While this does not exclude the possibility that intelligence and creativity are correlated, evidence pointing toward every relationship imaginable leads to confusion at best.

Divergent Thinking

Divergent thinking (DT) studies have by far dominated creativity research, and with the thousands of publications on the topic, summarizing them all in several paragraphs leaves a lot out. For a more comprehensive review, the reader is recommended to Chapter 2 of Kaufman, Plucker, and Baer6 and Yoruk and Runco.13 In general, DT tasks ask participants to generate as many responses as they can to satisfy a prompt: for example, how many ways can one use a pencil? What different things does this ink blot bring to mind? The responses are then tallied and analyzed for:

These dimensions provide a convenient and simple framework for quantitatively describing creative products, and assessments such as the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking14 utilize this framework to not only measure a child's creativity but also to compare that child to the published norms. Derived metrics, such as Snyder, Mitchell, Bossomaier, and Pallier’s Creativity Quotient, attempt to better quantify creativity, for example by combining fluency and flexibility with emphasis on the number of categories.15

Divergent thinking exercises modulate activity in many areas of the brain, depending on the type of exercise and how the instructions are presented. Areas typically activated by DT include the inferior frontal gyrus, precentral gyrus, and various gyri of the left temporal and parietal lobes. These findings imply that DT recruits neural networks associated with semantic processing and past experiences. Furthermore, DT does not appear to tax working memory, nor does it require focused attention.13 Overall, neuroscientific studies of divergent thinking have offered insight into how the brain goes about generating new ideas.

Is it reasonable to measure creativity with divergent thinking tests? Composite scores from the TTCT have shown fairly high correlation (standardized path coefficient of 0.6) with creative achievement later in life. Quantity of ideas, however, has been repeatedly shown to affect the quality of the ideas as well as their originality. Thus, simply generating large numbers of ideas may inflate creativity scores, when in reality the tests measure divergent thinking scores.16 Most DT tasks also operate in generalized frames, despite most adult creativity occurring within specific domains of expertise. Finally, using DT solely as a measure of creativity leaves out other significant aspects of real-world creativity, such as the evaluation of one’s own ideas for quality and usefulness (that is, convergent thinking).6 Divergent thinking has brought a lot to the field of creativity research, but the multidimensional nature of creativity means DT cannot capture the entire phenomenon.


Creativity has puzzled everyone from philosophers and scientists to anyone who has asked. It seems to go hand-in-hand with certain personality traits but has an unclear relationship with intelligence. Divergent thinking is a significant component of creativity, but certainly not the only one. Despite the wealth of data collected and conclusions made, exactly how creative ideas arise remains a mystery. What neural processes lead to something produced out of nothing, and how do we differentiate between the creative and the non-creative? Does creativity even come from within? In Part 2 of this series on creativity, I explore how creative works may actually be products of our environment.

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  12. Verhulst, B., Lodge, M., and Lavine, H. (2010). The attractiveness halo: Why some candidates are perceived more favorably than others. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 34, 111–117. doi: 10.1007/s10919-009-0084-z
  13. Yoruk, S., and Runco, M. A. (2014). The neuroscience of divergent thinking. Activitas Nervosa Superior, 56(1–2), 1–16.
  14. Torrance, E. P. (2005). Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. Bensenville, IL: Scholastic Testing Service, Inc. Retrieved from
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  16. Kim, K. H. (2006). Can we trust creativity tests? A review of the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT). Creativity Research Journal, 18(1), 3–14.