Defining Creativity

Creativity: Method or Magic?

by Stevan Harnad

Cognitive Sciences Centre
Department of Psychology
University of Southampton
Highfield, Southampton
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Creativity may be a trait, a state or just a process defined by its products. It can be contrasted with certain cognitive activities that are not ordinarily creative, such as problem-solving, deduction, induction, learning, imitation, trial-and-error, heuristics and “abduction,” however, all of these can be done creatively too. There are four kinds of theories, attributing creativity respectively to (1) method, (2) “memory” (innate structure), (3) magic or (4) mutation. These theories variously emphasize the role of an unconscious mind, innate constraints, analogy, aesthetics, anomalies, formal constraints, serendipity, mental analogs, heuristic strategies, improvisatory performance and cumulative collaboration. There is some virtue in each, but the best model is still the one implicit in Pasteur’s dictum: “Chance favors the prepared mind.” And because the exercise and even the definition of creativity requires constraints, it is unlikely that “creativity training” or an emphasis on freedom in education can play a productive role in this preparation.

What is “creativity”? Is it a stable cognitive trait that some people have and others do not? Is it an occasional state that people sometimes enter into? Or is it defined completely by its products: “creativity is as creativity does”? Whatever it is, how does creativity come about? How do you do it? Are there rules? Will practice help make you creative?

There is probably some truth in all three notions of what creativity is. It is (at least sometimes, and to some extent) a trait, because it is a statistical fact that some individuals exhibit it repeatedly. It may also be correlated with some other traits; some even think it can be predicted by objective psychological tests. But it is also obviously a state, because no one is creative all the time, and some people are highly creative only once in their lives. Sometimes creativity may not even be a special, unique state, but rather a circumstance that is defined by hindsight based on something external, something creative an individual happens to have done.

There are a number of theories about the underlying mechanisms of creativity, theories attributing it to everything from method to madness — none of them very satisfactory. As to inducing creativity — by using heuristic strategies or through “creativity training” — this has had very limited success.

Pasteur’s dictum. Before proceeding to a discussion of mechanisms and methods of creativity, we do well to keep in mind Pasteur’s famous dictum, <<…le hasard favorise l’esprit prepare>> (“chance favors the prepared mind”), because this will turn out to say more about what can be said about creativity than the more ambitious or modern notions. Pasteur was speaking, of course, about a very specific kind of creativity, namely, experimental scientific creativity. (The quote actually begins: <> — “In the experimental fields” or “In the fields of experimentation,” and was in part concerned with the question of whether experimental discoveries — the so-called “serendipitous” ones — are really just lucky accidents.) Pasteur’s insight seems to apply just as aptly to all forms of creativity, however.


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