brain-672x372If it’s true that some of us are naturally creative and some are not, what is it that sets those two groups apart? Psychologist Frank Barron intended to answer this question by conducting experiments on some of the most celebrated thinkers in the 1960s.

This led to Barron spending several days living in a former frat house at the University of California in Berkeley among such literary giants as William Carlos Williams, Frank O’Connor and Truman Capote, and some of the foremost scientists, mathematicians and entrepreneurs of the time. As the group got to know one another, they were at the same time observed by researchers, who noted such aspects of their lives as personality and work. Tests were also conducted, measuring creative thinking and looking for signs of mental illness as well.

The thinking at the time was that a high IQ equated to a high amount of creativity, but Barron found that the role of IQ was inflated. While it had something to do with creativity, it was far from the primary driver. Rather, emotional, intellectual and moral characteristics provided more influence on an individual’s creative power than anything else.

Barron found that highly creative people had some things in common: namely, a high tolerance for disorder (and an ability to derive order from chaos), risk taking, fierce independence and a natural attraction to complex problems. Regarding this strange array of qualities, Barron wrote that creative people were “both more primitive and more cultured, more destructive and more constructive, occasionally crazier and yet adamantly saner, than the average person.”

Further study on creative writers in conjunction with Donald MacKinnon underscored Barron’s growing hypothesis. The two found that despite the fact that most writers scored in the top 15% of the population in pathological mental traits, they also tended to score highly on markers of psychological health.

The researchers decided that introspection bred creativity and a greater self-awareness, which led to a comfortable familiarity with darker aspects of their personality. This explained why they displayed characteristics of what is normally regarded as mental illness, but found a balance between that and healthy behaviors.

It is therefore these types of contradictions that lead to the creative spark. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi once said of creative people: “If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities different from others, it’s complexity. They show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an ‘individual,’ each of them is a ‘multitude.’”

So creativity is much more complex than the myth of the ‘left brain/right brain’ duality. It is a process that requires entire brain utilization, but of particular importance is the ‘default mode network,’ or ‘imagination network,’ first identified in 2001, and comprising several brain regions.

It is thought that we spend up to half of our lives utilizing this network, particularly during episodes of daydreaming or similar mental states. This network allows us to experience compassion, understand our own and others’ perspectives, create meaning from our experiences, think of alternate existences, remember the past and ruminate on the future.

The default mode network employs the assistance of the brain’s executive network (responsible for our attention and memory) to shape a complete experience, and creative people seem to be particularly adept at joining these two networks in harmony, while in most people they tend to be at odds with one another.

The creative mind, therefore, is able to harness the contradictions between these two types of thought, which is why it seems an impossible task to target one particular trait or another that makes one ‘creative.’

Originally published @ Spirit Science

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