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Can Creativity Really Be Taught?

Thinking of shelling out for creativity training? Have a look at the latest brain science before you open your wallet.
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If you're looking to increase your creativity or that of your employees, an army of experts, gurus and consultants will be happy to help, offering a variety of plans and programs promising to increase your ability to think creativelyand come up with new ideas. Is it worth shelling out for this sort of personal development?

That's one question tangentially answered in a long and fascinating article in The Atlantic on the roots on creativity. In the midst of a discussion of how and when artistic greats do their best work, author Cody C. Delistraty also delves into the latest research on how much of creativity can be taught and how much is inborn.

So what's the conclusion? Basically, if you're looking to boost creativity don't expect miracles. While there are some practices you can learn to become a more innovative thinker, much of what distinguishes the most creative among us is hard-wired into the brain and not really about training or technique.

What You Can Improve

The first study Delistraty looks at come was led by Wenfu Li, a psychology professor at Southwest University, that was published recently in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. The research team first gave a group of participants a standard test of creativity and then looked at what differences, if any, they could find in the brains of those that scored the highest.

"What they found is that compared to those who score low on creativity, the participants who scored highest tended to have a greater volume of grey matter in the 'right posterior middle temporal gyrus' (pMTG), an area of the brain related to the aforementioned creative traits," reports Delistraty.

These findings beg the question, is this a type of wiring something you're born with or can you boost this area of the brain through doing something deliberate? To try to get an answer Li's team also looked at the participants' personalities and found that a characteristic called 'openness'--those with high levels of openness hunger for new experiences, are curious and display an active imagination--was highly correlated a hefty pMTG. And it turns out that openness is something you can cultivate.

"Trying new foods, learning foreign languages, meeting new people, giving the Times' Sunday crossword a go, pondering complex issues and varying viewpoints are all ways one can work to increase their 'openness,'" writes Delistraty. "It seems then from this study that creativity, although deeply affected by one's neurology, can at least be partially learned and improved upon vis--vis openness to experience."

And What You Can't

But while there is some evidence that learned behavior can boost your creativity, that's not the whole picture. Another study from Frederick Travis of Maharishi University and co-author Yvonne Lagrosen published in the June issues of Creativity Research Journal demonstrates the limits of training and lifestyle on creativity.

The researchers found "that people who have brains that process information faster can also make more diverse connections and original associations, a hallmark of creativity," writes Delistraty. "Travis and Lagrosen seem to have shown that creativity--or at least the ability to quickly condense disparate experiences and memories into original ideas--is based on the brain's processing speed."

In other words, to use what is surely an over-simple metaphor, if you think of your brain as a machine for creating new ideas, you can control the input of raw materials by ensuring you have as many stimulating new experiences as possible, but you can't alter its basic processing power, which determines how efficiently it turns that input into innovative thoughts.

What's the final takeaway then? Based on the latest findings in a field that is admittedly very much in flux, there are certainly lifestyle changes thatimprove your chances of coming up with breakthrough ideas (and, though these particular studies are silent on the matter, it probably can't hurt to learn the best way to harvest ideas from your team either), but whether it's worth paying someone to tell you to get out of your rut and try new things, is a call only you can make. Just keep in mind that when it comes to creativity training, there probably are no miracles.

Have you benefitted from creativity training?

Last updated: Jul 29, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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