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What makes a creative genius?

Find out what distinguishes a creative genius from average people and how to train your ability to develop valuable ideas.

Does this sound familiar to you? You are sitting in a brainstorming meeting or in front of a blank screen, and no ideas show up, not even a single one.

Your head feels empty, and the long-awaited creative spark does not materialize. You may blame it on the too generously heated room or its daunting lack of oxygen, or on the fact that it’s been too long since your last caffeine intake.

Maybe it’s just the usual lunch down or your co-worker’s annoying cynicism that keeps your brain from developing meaningful or notable ideas. At that moment, you might consider yourself the most uncreative person on this planet.

kissed by a muse
The Kiss of the Muse by Paul Cézanne [Public domain, Source: Wikiart]

You may be convinced that brilliant creative ideas only come to creative geniuses (like Plato, da Vinci, Dante, Mozart, Shakespeare, Stravinsky, Dostoevsky, Einstein, Jung or Picasso) as if they were somehow magically kissed by a muse.

Which mysterious ingredient enables a person to generate ideas that outlast not only their lifetime but centuries or even millennia of human civilization?

Is it the playfulness of an above-average intelligence that is so bored with the projections of its own mind onto the outside world that it begins to deal with the fundamental questions of existence?

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.”― Carl G. Jung

Is it something like an insatiable curiosity or a deep emotional connection (you might even call it love) towards the work one creates?

“Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.” — Wolfgang A. Mozart

Perhaps it is another way of thinking that creative geniuses are capable of because of some altered dynamics of their neural networks in the brain, that may differ from those of ordinary people?

As a human being, you were already placed in the cradle with the astonishing capacity for being creative.

Without the ability to create something new and meaningful that offers a particular value, our species would, if anything, live in caves, hungry and naked.

Humans would never have invented stone tools, housings, technologies, art, culture, science, or anything else because we would spend our time doing the same old things over and over again, as we’ve always done before.

This does not mean that other species do not exhibit certain precursors to creativity. For example, New Caledonian crows can creatively combine objects to construct novel compound tools (watch here a video of this).

However, there is no question that human innovation capacity has reached hitherto unknown heights.

creative ability
An artist’s impression of the InSight lander on Mars. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

We make technology to leave our natural terrestrial habitat, fly millions of miles through space, and soon even build colonies on uninhabitable planets like Mars.

We develop brain-computer interfaces that allow us to connect our organic bodies to technology, which enables us, among other things, to control machines with mere thoughts.

We perform intricate physical experiments that give us insights into the very nature of the fundamental building blocks of reality.

“To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.” — Albert Einstein

No wonder philosophers and scientists have been fascinated, if not obsessed, for centuries with figuring out how people come up with brilliant ideas and why some people seem to have more of these ideas than others.

This went so far that the brains of brilliant minds such as Galois, Gauss, Beethoven, Schumann, Bekhterev, Vygostky, Pavlov, Korsakov, von Helmholtz, Mendeleev, Kovalevskaya, and Einstein were examined during their autopsies and often preserved after death.

The main research aim was to determine if structural changes in their brains could possibly explain their extraordinary mental properties.

While some of these brains, for example, Einstein’s, showed notable peculiarities, the overall results of these postmortem studies were not meaningful with regard to finding a ‘seat of creative genius’ in the brain.

Today it is clear that any attempt to reduce creativity to the mere morphology of the brain inevitably encounters the problem of over-simplification.

What we refer to as creativity should perhaps instead be called creativities, because we subsume under this term not a single mental process, but a collection of such.

Let’s take, for example, creativity as the ability for divergent thinking — the process of generating many (preferably original and unexpected) solutions to an open-ended problem.

This ability is being upheld by a complex dynamic interplay of multiple functional networks in the brain, such as the default mode network (shown in the picture below) and the executive control network.

default mode network
Magnetic resonance imaging of brain areas in the default mode network. By John Graner, National Intrepid Center of Excellence, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, MD 20889, USA. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Recent neuroscientific research indicates that the capacity of people to come up with creative ideas can be predicted from the strength of functional connectivity within these networks.

A creative person is better at simultaneously engaging these brain networks during tasks that require creative thinking.

This is presumbly a result of the habit of creative people to extensively use their creativity (often even all day long) and thereby to strengthen the interplay of these neural networks in their brains.

You can imagine creativity as a kind of muscle, the more you train it, the more creative you become.

“Creative thinking is not a mystical talent. It is a skill that can be practiced and nurtured.” —  Edward de Bono

It is a common misconception that a creative genius sits simply down and develops a brilliant solution to an existing problem ex nihilo.

Every brilliant idea is preceded by tons of non-functioning, inferior, useless, trivial, unfitting and non-implementable ideas.

To find this one ingenious idea, you not only have to understand the problem thoroughly and be able to look at it from different angles but also find higher principles of order in the information jumble to counteract the chaos with simplification.

“Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos.” — Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

This inevitably requires that one deals with the problem through hard thinking, as the most creative solutions to problems do not pop up right at the beginning of the idea finding process.

Because at first, your brain will be busy generating ideas of things that it already knows. Our brain is kind of lazy in the sense that it is very adept at finding shortcuts.

Why should it invent something new when it can simply dig out of memory an old solution that has worked for this kind of problem in the past?

Thus, the first handful of solutions you can find for a specific problem are either things that are already in your memory or variations of it.

If you give up after generating these dozen ideas, the solutions you develop might work, but they won’t be very creative.

Here are two typical exercises to train your ability to come up with creative ideas. Enjoy!

Exercise 1: Alternative Uses

A common task to practice creativity (in the sense of divergent thinking) is the alternative uses task.

Think of an ordinary object that you use in your daily life, such as a cup, a pen, a chair, or a scarf.

alternative uses task
Compilation of 3D objects © PixelSquid360 | Envato Elements

Now try to find as many unconventional uses of this object as possible and write them down as a numbered list. The crazier, the better.

Sometimes it may feel like you have to overcome internal resistance. Push it through it. Overcoming this resistance is an essential part of the creative process.

The important thing is that you do not stop too early, the really creative ideas only begin to appear late in the process.

Exercise 2: Incomplete Picture

Another exercise is a version of the incomplete figure task that is often used in research. Here are four incomplete drawings, consisting of nothing more than a few lines.

Print or copy them and complete them. Find creative solutions to turn each of them into a meaningful picture.

You could draw an animal, a symbol, a face, an object, a house, a scene from everyday life, or a section of a close-up image, whatever you want — let your creativity flow.

The more unusual and unconventional your solution is, the better. You could also try to work out several different solutions for the same drawing.

creativity exercise
Creativity exercise by Marina Winkler 2018 [CC BY-SA 4.0]

You can share your most creative solutions in the comments to this article on Science of Minds with a link to your image (for example, uploaded to Instagram or Pinterest) so that other readers can see some great examples.

By the way, here you can find a collection of the best TED talks on creativity.

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Suggested Reading

What makes a creative genius?What makes a creative genius?

Wired to Create – Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind

by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire

Suggested Online Training

You can find my new brain-based creativity online training here.

Media credits:

Header image: ID 77208873 © Dmitry Kotin | Dreamstime.com

What makes a creative genius?
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What makes a creative genius?
Find out what distinguishes a creative genius from average people and how to train your ability to develop valuable ideas.
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