Nat Kelly Nat Kelly13 December 2023 Open Science
Can we study creativity

Can We Measure Creativity?

Creative thinking has been celebrated throughout our history, driving many of the important cultural and technological changes over the course of human development.

From stone tools and fire to the Internet and quantum computers, creativity is a vital cognitive process that is partially responsible for our success as a species. With the evolution of technology and thus the development of neuroscience as a field, we are only now beginning to uncover some of the mysteries of creative thinking.

In this article, we look at how creativity is defined and measured in psychological research, as well as some of the neuroscience behind the creative process.

What is creativity?

Creativity is defined as “the ability to produce or develop original work, theories, techniques, or thoughts” by the American Psychological Association. It is often heavily associated with the arts, but creative thinkers are abundant in science, industry, and every other field.

It tends to be perceived as independent thinking, attributed to those not afraid to go against conventional wisdom and test new ideas.

By working outside the traditional parameters of a subject, new relationships between existing elements can be observed and new solutions found, to the benefit of the field.

But, creativity isn’t just reserved for groundbreaking research or great works of art.

Big-C and little-c creativity

We display creativity in many different ways. There is a huge difference, for example, between the imaginative games of a child and the development of new technology or a scientific theory.

Researchers often use two broad categories to distinguish types of creativity: Big-C and little-c.

Big-C creativity describes huge, world-changing ideas, technology, or art: Renaissance paintings, the telescope, Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Little-c creativity is everyday, smaller-scale creativity. It’s more personal, not intent upon changing the world or the minds of others, but carried out to understand, express oneself, or problem solve.

As well as categorising types of creativity, researchers have developed various methods to measure it as a psychological construct.

How is creativity measured?

There are many facets that influence creative thinking. Intelligence, personality, experience—many overlapping and interacting factors influence an individual’s creative capabilities.

This is why researchers have had trouble producing consistent results in this field. Depending on their discipline, they answer this problem from unique perspectives, such as cognitive, personality, or behavioural psychology.

Here, we present a few ways in which creativity is measured in research.

Divergent thinking tasks

Often, creativity is reduced to the process of divergent thinking, which is made up of:

  • Elaboration – expanding upon the details of a concept
  • Flexibility – looking at a problem from different perspectives
  • Fluency – examining a problem and generating different solutions
  • Originality – producing novel ideas

Essentially, it is the ability to come up with a number of coherent and valuable solutions or ideas.

This is usually clinically assessed using abstract conceptual tasks. The problem, however, is that it is uncertain how well this applies to real-world situations. Thus, many researchers are starting to study creativity via real-world problem-solving tasks.

Personality trait assessments

Creativity is also researched as a personality trait. For example, openness and introversion vs. extroversion are related to creativity.

Self-report measures are also used, such as the Creative Personality Scale (CPS) of Gough’s Adjective Check List. Such frameworks include traits associated with creativity—such as resourcefulness, self-confidence, etc.—to quantify a person’s creative capabilities.

However, as with all self-report measures, the accuracy of the overall score is uncertain, as participants tend to portray themselves in a good light or may misunderstand the question.

Neural signals

One MDPI study measured brain signal complexity (BSC) during divergent thinking tasks to measure components of creative thinking—fluency and originality—and intelligence. They found that they are able to measure fluency and originality through BSC readings but not intelligence.

Is creativity associated with intelligence?

We tend to connect these two concepts: “Creativity is intelligence having fun”, according to Albert Einstein. One must, presumably, possess high intelligence to truly be creative within a particular discipline or field.

A 2021 MDPI article presents a minimal theory of creative ability. The authors argue there are technical issues in many of the conceptual constructs measuring this trait. They therefore argue that a minimalist approach should be utilised to develop a consistent framework in this field.

With so many interacting factors in such a broad concept, they suggest reducing it to two components: intelligence and expertise. To assess creative capability within a specific field, intelligence and domain-specific expertise should be measured.

They believe these to be the two essential components for big-C and little-c creativity, the latter requiring a degree of ‘expertise’ to occur. For example, a child needs to know at some level the qualities of, say, a fireman to problem solve and imagine themselves in that position.

However, intelligence itself is a fairly vague concept in the view of many intelligence scholars. One MDPI researcher deconstructs the common (predominantly Western) view of intelligence, based upon cognitive testing and academic success.

Some see intelligence as a set of behaviours; others think it is predominantly a biological phenomenon. This researcher distinguishes between adaptive and general intelligence, the former being how we react to the environment, and the latter being how we score on cognitive tests or how much information we can retain.

It is argued that we have defined intelligence too narrowly, and that Western cognitive tests do not accurately reflect actual intelligence.

The neuroscience behind creativity

The default mode network—a collection of connected structures in the brain—contains many of the regions associated with creativity. Containing the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, and hippocampus, it serves many important functions:

  • Constructing the self
    • Holding memories of important events and autobiographical information
    • Allowing us to reflect on our emotions
  • Thinking of others
    • Empathising with others emotions and anticipating their thoughts and reactions
    • Evaluating social situations
    • Reflecting on the good and bad results of an action
  • Memories and imagination
    • Remembering past events and envisioning future events
    • Understanding stories and narratives

Why is creative thinking important?

Creativity is not just important professionally or academically, it provides us with satisfaction in our day-to-day lives.

Research has also shown that participants engaging in creative tasks were 73% less likely to experience memory and thinking issues, which can lead to dementia. Such tasks also help us to build and maintain relationships, communicate, and ultimately express our emotions and support our mental health.

How does creativity support mental health?

It has long been known that happiness is instrumental in many cognitive processes—feeling stressed or sad can make it impossible to learn or come up with ideas.

However, many researchers now suggest that this is a reciprocal relationship: the happier we are, the more potential for creativity; also, creativity can inspire happiness.

Thus, engaging in creative tasks and thinking is a way to improve subjective wellbeing.

Future research

Due to the multifaceted and complicated nature of creativity as a psychological construct, much research remains to be done to ensure consistency in measurements and approaches.

If you want to learn more about the science behind creativity, Brain Sciences. Education Sciences, IJERPHand more have many articles covering all aspects of creative research.