Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Myth Busting 101

This is the next installment of my series on creativity.
I really thought I posted it this morning here and on my personal blog.
That's what I get for really thinking!

Myth n. a widely held but mistaken or false belief

I'm excited by research that sheds light on what creativity is and isn't, how the process works and how to improve your creative abilities. Before I get to the specific skills that Epstein suggested to boost 'novel behavior', I'm devoting this post to myth-busting. Why? It occurred to me that many of us may not take the time to be creative, or work on creativity-enhancing skills if we are held back by certain myths.  It's important every now and then to check our beliefs about our creative abilities to make sure we are seeing things as they really are.

“Myths about creativity are deeply entrenched in our culture. Myths have enormous power to shape everyday behavior, often to people's detriment. When people believe the world is flat, for example, they're unlikely to venture out to sea very far and "lands away" remain undiscovered. When it comes to creativity, myths keep most people firmly shore bound”. Epstein, Capturing Creativity, Psychology Today, July 1994

What "creations" are waiting for you to create them? Are you 'shore bound' thinking that only artists are creative, or you are not a 'right brain thinker' so why try? It's time to replace those myths with the truth about creativity.

Myth # 1- Only Right Brain Thinkers are Creative

I was surprised to read what Epstein had to say about right-brain research. It is certainly different from what I've 'heard' and even read in other places. I'm not trying to stir up controversy here, but I think having accurate information about ourselves and our brains helps us to make the best use of them.

"The brain hemisphere distinction is based largely on clinical studies of about 40 "split-brain" patients--people whose brains were severed surgically in order to treat seizures or other neurological problems. The initial studies of such patients, conducted in the 1960s, seemed to show significant functional differences between the left and right cerebral hemispheres. In the 1980s, however, scientists began to reinterpret the data. The problem is split-brain patients all have abnormal brains to begin with."

"As a practical matter, the right-hemisphere myth is nonsense because virtually no one has a split brain. The two halves of our brain are connected by an immense structure called the corpus callosum, and the hemispheres also communicate through the sense organs. Creativity has no precise location in the human brain, and people who promise to reactivate your "neural creativity zones" are just yanking your chain." Epstein, Capturing Creativity, Psychology Today, July 1994

Myth # 2 - Creativity Comes From Creative Types

This myth is a close cousin to the right-brain/left-brain thinking. The following research is about creativity in the workplace but I think you will notice it has applications to other settings.

"Teresa Amabile . . . heads the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at Harvard Business School and is the only tenured professor at a top B-school to devote her entire research program to the study of creativity. Eight years ago, Amabile took her research to a daring new level. Working with a team of PhDs, graduate students, and managers from various companies, she collected nearly 12,000 daily journal entries from 238 people working on creative projects in seven companies in the consumer products, high-tech, and chemical industries. She didn't tell the study participants that she was focusing on creativity. She simply asked them, in a daily email, about their work and their work environment as they experienced it that day. She then coded the emails for creativity by looking for moments when people struggled with a problem or came up with a new idea."

"When I give talks to managers, I often start by asking, Where in your organization do you most want creativity? Typically, they'll say R&D, marketing, and advertising. When I ask, Where do you not want creativity? someone will inevitably answer, "accounting." That always gets a laugh because of the negative connotations of creative accounting. But there's this common perception among managers that some people are creative, and most aren't. That's just not true. As a leader, you don't want to ghettoize creativity; you want everyone in your organization producing novel and useful ideas, including your financial people. Over the past couple of decades, there have been innovations in financial accounting that are extremely profound and entirely ethical, such as activity-based costing."

"The fact is, almost all of the research in this field shows that anyone with normal intelligence is capable of doing some degree of creative work. Creativity depends on a number of things: experience, including knowledge and technical skills; talent; an ability to think in new ways; and the capacity to push through uncreative dry spells. Intrinsic motivation -- people who are turned on by their work often work creatively -- is especially critical." The 6 Myths Of Creativity, by Bill Breen, December 1, 2004 (italics added for emphasis)

Myth # 3 - Time Pressure Fuels Creativity

The research on this myth might be more controversial to writers than any other myth. I can already envision lots of comments from writers pointing out that without a deadline from an editor or critique group they would not get words on the page. I think the important distinction here is that time pressure may fuel productivity but not always creativity.

"In our diary study, people often thought they were most creative when they were working under severe deadline pressure. But the 12,000 aggregate days that we studied showed just the opposite: People were the least creative when they were fighting the clock. In fact, we found a kind of time-pressure hangover -- when people were working under great pressure, their creativity went down not only on that day but the next two days as well. Time pressure stifles creativity because people can't deeply engage with the problem. Creativity requires an incubation period; people need time to soak in a problem and let the ideas bubble up."

". . . it's not so much the deadline that's the problem; it's the distractions that rob people of the time to make that creative breakthrough. People can certainly be creative when they're under the gun, but only when they're able to focus on the work. They must be protected from distractions." The 6 Myths Of Creativity, by Bill Breen, December 1, 2004 (italics added for emphasis)

Myth # 4 - Fear Forces Breakthroughs

Do you have to be the moody, brooding, starving-actor-type person to be creative? The answer is a resounding, NO!

"There's this widespread notion that fear and sadness somehow spur creativity. There's even some psychological literature suggesting that the incidence of depression is higher in creative writers and artists -- the depressed geniuses who are incredibly original in their thinking. But we don't see it in the population that we studied. We coded all 12,000 journal entries for the degree of fear, anxiety, sadness, anger, joy, and love that people were experiencing on a given day. And we found that creativity is positively associated with joy and love and negatively associated with anger, fear, and anxiety. The entries show that people are happiest when they come up with a creative idea, but they're more likely to have a breakthrough if they were happy the day before. There's a kind of virtuous cycle. When people are excited about their work, there's a better chance that they'll make a cognitive association that incubates overnight and shows up as a creative idea the next day. One day's happiness often predicts the next day's creativity." The 6 Myths Of Creativity, by Bill Breen, December 1, 2004 (italics added for emphasis)

There you have it. Exposed myths to free your creative energy and allow you to 'set sail' and explore your creative potential. As always, I love to hear what you think. And I know there are more myths out there that need busting - so comment away!


  1. This is fabulous info, Tamara! Thanks so much!

  2. I am very fascinated by this information. I like to think about how I think. It does help me to understand how my characters would think too. Plus, trying to get yourself in the right creative mood can be tricky sometimes. Thanks for this info!!



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