What is it that sets a creative thinker apart from the everyday individual? My obsession with that question led me to drive across the United States so I could interview artists about their creativity; that in turn led to my forthcoming memoir.
But Dr. Nancy Andreasen’s obsession far predates mine. Armed with a PhD in English as well as a medical degree in psychiatry, Andreasen has for decades studied writers–including Iowa Writers’ Workshop luminaries such as Kurt Vonnegut and John Cheever–and many other artists and inventors, including Nobel Prize winners in multiple scientific fields.
Andreasen’s longitudinal study is ongoing, but she recently shared some of her findings in a fascinating article in Atlantic Monthly. You might also enjoy a short interview with her from PBS Newshour (below). I found so much in this article that resonated with my own observation of creatives.
You think you might have a creative brain? Then many of these characteristics may seem familiar:
- You see multiple possibilities. This is often referred to as “divergent thinking,” where the creative perceives multiple solutions to a problem or uses for an object. It also involves whole-brain thinking (the left and right brains). But Andreasen points out that convergent thinking–focusing on a single answer–can be creative as well; take Einstein’s distillation of E=MC2.
- You generate new creative output through free association. This is that spark of genius in the shower, or that subconscious voice speaking to you shortly after you wake. It’s that muse on your shoulder guiding your writing or painting. Creative minds maximize these moments when your brain is in what Andreasen calls REST–random episodic silent thought–to conduct divergent thinking.
- You have multiple passions. Creatives are polymaths. One of Andreasen’s subjects, Star Wars creator George Lucas, is a winner both of the National Medal of the Arts and the National Medal of Technology. It would appear a divergent thinker seeks multiple avenues to engage in creative activity.
- You seek out new knowledge and skill sets. Many of the artists I interviewed on my road trip were self-taught, but they all put time and effort into advancing their craft. Call it intellectual curiosity, call it perfectionism, or call it persistence, but this drive to improve is commonplace among creatives.
You view your creative output as unsurprising. “I’ve been struck by how many of these people refer to their most creative ideas as “obvious,'” Andreasen writes. This is in part a reflection of how natural the creative’s divergent thinking and maximization of their brain’s REST is to them.
- You come from a family of creative thinkers. We are all capable of creative thinking, so some resist the notion that one can inherit creativity. Most of my interview subjects came from creative families, however, and this is more common than not. It could be that as children these creatives were encouraged to foster creative thinking, but science tells us there are biological factors as well.
- You know what it’s like to suffer a mood disorder. This is the major theme of Andreasen’s article. Decades ago Andreasen detected a trend among artists such as James Joyce and Albert Einstein; they had close family members suffering schizophrenia. She began interviewing Iowa Writers’ Workshop authors searching for a connection between schizophrenia and creative writing and failed to do so. She did find, however, a strong commonality with mood disorders, both with the writers themselves and also in their family history.
You certainly don’t have to suffer from a mood disorder–think depression or bipolar disorder–to be creative. But Andreasen’s research coincides with others in the field such as Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison. Andreasen notes that “Jamison looked at 47 famous writers and artists in Great Britain, she found that more than 38 percent had been treated for a mood disorder; the highest rates occurred among playwrights, and the second-highest among poets.” Of course Jamison herself is a creative polymath, as a researcher and author, and also suffers from bipolar disorder. She shares her struggle with that condition in her powerful memoir An Unquiet Mind.
It just so happens that this last bullet–a family history of mental illness and bipolar disorder–is a major theme of my forthcoming book Committed: A Memoir of the Artist’s Road. I’ll leave it at that for now.
Do you see yourself in any of these bullets? What have I left out? Readers of The Artist’s Road are predominantly creative thinkers, so I value your perspective.