The Science of Creativity

How can we instill creativity in children?  As adults how can we get our own creative juices flowing?  What factors bring creativity to the forefront for all of us?  Find out what works and what doesn’t.

The following excerpt is from Psychology Today – Authors, D. Goleman & P. Kaufman

Has this ever happened to you? You’re out for a jog, completely relaxed, your mind a pleasant blank. Then all of a sudden the solution to a problem you’ve been mulling over for weeks pops into your head. You can’t help but wonder why you didn’t think of it before.

In such moments you’ve made contact with the creative spirit, that elusive muse of good—and sometimes great—ideas. Yet it is more than an occasional insight. When the creative spirit stirs, it animates a style of being: a lifetime filled with the desire to innovate, to explore new ways of doing things, to bring dreams of reality.

That flash of inspiration is the final moment of a process marked by distinctive stages—the basic steps in creative problem-solving. The first stage is preparation when you search out any information that might be relevant. It’s when you let your imagination roam free. Being receptive, being able to listen openly and well, is a crucial skill here.

That’s easier said than done. We are used to our mundane way of thinking about solutions. Psychologists call this “functional fixedness.” We see only the obvious way of looking at a problem—the same comfortable way we always think about it. Another barrier is self-censorship, that inner voice of judgment that confines our creative spirit within the boundaries of what we deem acceptable. It’s the voice that whispers to you, “They’ll think I’m foolish,” or “That will never work.” But we can learn to recognize this voice or judgment and have the courage to discount its destructive advice.

Once you have mulled over all the relevant pieces and pushed your rational mind to the limits, you can let the problem simmer. This is the incubation stage, when you digest all you have gathered. It’s a stage when much of what goes on occurs outside your focused awareness, in the unconscious. As the saying goes, “You sleep on it.”

The unconscious mind is far more suited to creative insight than the conscious mind. Ideas are free to recombine with other ideas in novel patterns and unpredictable associations. It is also the storehouse of everything you know, including things you can’t readily call into awareness. Further, the unconscious speaks to us in ways that go beyond words, including the rich feelings and deep imagery of the senses.

We are more open to insights from the unconscious mind when we are not thinking of anything in particular. That is why daydreams are so useful in the quest for creativity. Anytime you can just daydream and relax is useful in the creative process: a shower, long drives, a quiet walk.


Creativity takes root in childhood. For the child, life is a creative adventure. The most basic explorations of a child’s world are creative exercises in problem-solving. They begin a lifelong process of inventing themselves. In this sense, every child reinvents language, walking, love.

“The kernel of creativity,” says psychologist Teresa Amabile, “is there in the infant: the desire and drive to explore, to find out about things, to try things out, to experiment with different ways of handling things and looking at things. As they grow older, children begin to create entire universes of reality in their play.”

Our experience of creativity in childhood shapes much of what we do in adulthood, from work to family life. But if creativity is a child’s natural state, what happens on the way to adulthood? The psychological pressures that inhibit a child’s creativity occur early in life. Parents can encourage or suppress the creativity of their children in the home environment and by what they demand of schools. Most children in preschool, kindergarten—even in the first grade—love being in school. They are excited about exploring and learning. But by the time they are in the third or fourth grade, many don’t like school, let alone have any sense of pleasure in their own creativity.

Amabile’s research has identified the main creativity killers:

  • Surveillance: Hovering over kids, making them feel that they’re constantly being watched while they’re working.
  • Evaluation: Making kids worry about how others judge what they are doing. Kids should be concerned primarily with how satisfied they—and not others—are with their accomplishments.
  • Competition: Putting kids in a win/lose situation, where only one person can come out on top. A child should be allowed to progress at his own rate.
  • Overcontrol: Telling kids exactly how to do things. This leaves children feeling that any exploration is a waste of time.
  • Pressure: Establishing grandiose expectations for a child’s performance. Training regimes can easily backfire and end up instilling an aversion for the subject being taught.

One of the greatest creativity killers, however, is more subtle and so deeply rooted in our culture that it is hardly noticed. It has to do with time.

Children more naturally than adults enter that ultimate state of creativity called flow. In flow, time does not matter; there is only the timeless moment at hand. It is a state that is more comfortable for children than adults, who are more conscious of the passage of time.

“One ingredient of creativity is open-ended time,” says Ann Lewan, a director of the Capital Children’s Museum in Washington, D.C. “Children have the capacity to get lost in whatever they’re doing in a way that is much harder for an adult. They need the opportunity to follow their natural inclinations, their own particular talents, to go wherever their proclivities lead them.”

Unfortunately, children are interrupted, torn out of their deep concentration. Their desire to work through something is frustrated. “We live in such a hurry-up way, so again and again children are stopped in the middle of things they love to do,” Lewan says. “They are scheduled. That, more than anything, will stifle creativity.”

Creativity flourishes when things are done for enjoyment. When children learn a creative form, preserving the joy matters as much—if not more—than “getting it right.” What matters is the pleasure, not perfection.

A stimulating physical environment is part of the equation. So are specific attitudes that also foster the creative spirit in the young. In creative families, there is a different feeling in the air; there’s more breathing space. The parents of creative children give them what may seem to be a surprising amount of freedom.

That is not an easy lesson for many parents. “The main thing I’ve learned from my own daughter, Kristene,” says Amabile, “is not to overcontrol, and how important it is as a parent to give her freedom and space. When she was really little, I’d see her playing with a new toy or a game. And she’d be trying to put something together or do something in a way that I knew was wrong; it wasn’t the way the game was ‘supposed’ to be put together. And I’d rush in and say, ‘No, no, honey, let me show you how to do it.’ And as soon as I did that, she’d lose interest.

“I realized that she was discovering new ways of playing with games and toys. Maybe these weren’t the way they were intended to be played with. But she was being creative.”

When parents are supportive of their children’s creativity, they will discover what most psychologists are now confirming: Most children have a natural talent for a particular activity. By letting a child explore a range of activities, budding talents are more likely to emerge, The essentials of children’s creativity—especially the importance of finding what they’re excited about, mastering the skills necessary to realize that intelligence, and collaborating with others—are prerequisites for creativity in adult life.

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