These misconceptions cloak creativity in mystique and they foster elitism—the idea that the potential for innovation and imagination is a rare gift enjoyed by only a select few “creative types.” Here we debunk five persistent myths that misrepresent the true neuroscience and psychology of creativity.
[Editor’s Note: This essay was adapted from Christian’s new book Great Myths of the Brain available on Amazon.]
Myth 1: To be creative you need to be right-brained.
Here, the trope of the “creative type” joins forces with classic neuro-bunk. This myth says some of us are logical and analytical because we are left-brain dominant, whereas others are creative and imaginative because they are right-brained.
It’s a harmful idea because it suggests that if you have the wrong kind of brain, you can’t be creative. The myth is often applied to specific groups, providing a spurious neuroscience foundation for old, divisive stereotypes, as in the 2009 book: War in the boardroom: Why left-brain management and right-brain marketing don’t see eye to eye.
It’s true that the two brain hemispheres do function differently, but crucially they are joined by massive bundles of nerve fibers and most mental functions involve the two hemispheres working together. When it comes to creativity, yes, there’s research showing that the right hemisphere is important for problem solving, but there’s also evidence that the left-hemisphere is adept at story-telling.
Not only is it a simplification to label creativity as the exclusive domain of the right-brain, it’s also mistaken to claim that some people are right-brained and some people left-brained. In 2013, researchers scanned the brains of over a thousand people and found no evidence for this way of categorizing people. Calling someone right-brained” or “left-brained” is as useful as saying that someone is Virgo or Pisces.
Creativity isn’t the preserve of one side of the brain, and it isn’t a talent confined to people with a special kind of brain. Real neuroscience says: if you’re human and you’ve got a brain, you’re capable of being creative.
Myth 2: You’ve got to hope for a “Eureka!” moment
Michael Jackson once described how the bass line for his mega hit “Billie Jean” fell into his lap, as if a gift from God. It’s a modern equivalent of the apocryphal tale about Newton discovering the law of gravity when an apple fell and hit him on the head.
This myth of sudden creative epiphanies is seductive because often it feels as if ideas do arrive in a flash of genius. However, such moments belie the hard work and perseverance that’s needed for them to occur in the first place.
It’s well documented that Jackson was one of the hardest working, most perfection-seeking artists in the entertainment industry. Newton was obsessed by his work and had been thinking about gravitational forces long before the apple incident.
The trouble with the myth of the Eureka moment is that encourages the belief that creativity is a passive process. It suggests you have to wait and hope that you’ll make a breakthrough. It’s true that the final moment of insight often comes as a surprise— a spurt of inspiration rising suddenly from the geyser of the unconscious. But crucially, for this to happen, your unconscious mind needs material to work with. It cannot sift and recombine ideas—a process known as “incubation”—if you don’t first put in the hard work of studying and mastering your field and exposing yourself to different perspectives. That Eureka moment is actually the last step in a long, involved process and not the only step.
Myth 3: Creative people are lone, eccentric geniuses
When many of us imagine a creative person, we picture a lonely angst-ridden artist or poet. Indeed, research published this year showed that people judge creative work as higher quality and more valuable if they’re told that the person who produced it was eccentric. This is a stereotype and it’s unhelpful because it suggests the route to innovation is to cut oneself off from colleagues and collaboration.
The reality, as David Burkus explains in Myths of Creativity, is that “creativity is a team sport.” Burkus describes how the prolific American inventor Thomas Edison—popularly depicted as a lone genius—was in fact supported by a group of engineers and scientists known as “the muckers.” Similarly, Michelangelo didn’t paint the Sistine chapel on his own; a team of talented artists assisted him.
For more evidence on the importance of collaboration and teamwork for creativity, consider the fact that a greater number of patents are registered by cities that feature a high density of creativity professionals. It’s encounters between fertile minds that breeds innovation, not hiding away like a hermit.
A related misconception about creative people is that they are geniuses with rare intellect. A classic study makes nonsense of this idea. Back in the 1920s the psychologist Lewis Terman began monitoring a group of the very brightest children in California. He watched as they grew into adults and their careers developed. None went on to be highly creative. As the neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen told The Atlantic earlier this year, “a crucial conclusion from Terman’s study is that having a high IQ is not equivalent to being highly creative.” You need a modest amount of intelligence to be creative, but extremely high IQ is neither sufficient nor necessary for being an innovator.
Myth 4: You need external incentives to help you be creative
In many realms of work, it makes sense to think that the more reward you offer someone, the better job they’ll do. When it comes to creative output, this isn’t necessarily the case. In fact the opposite may be true. Research suggests that work driven by internal ambition and reward—in other words for the sheer joy and satisfaction of doing it—tends to lead to more original and imaginative end results than work fueled by the promise of external gain, such as money or kudos.
There are many examples of this principle. Among the most compelling is a study of artists and sculptors by Teresa Amabile at Harvard Business School. She asked these creatives to provide examples of works they’d produced for their own pleasure and others they’d produced for a fee. All the works were then judged by a panel who were ignorant of who’d produced what, and ignorant of which pieces of art had been commissioned and which had been created for sheer pleasure. The striking result was the pieces of art created by the artists for their own pleasure received consistently higher quality ratings from the judges.
It was a similar story when Amabile asked female college students to create paper collages. Half of them were told that they would be judged on the quality of their output, whereas the others thought the purpose of the study was completely unrelated to the art they produced. The finding here was the women produced better quality collages when they thought they weren’t being judged—another example of how we’re more creative when we’re driven by intrinsic motivation rather than by external reward. As Alfie Kohn, the author of Punished by Rewards, puts it: “It is simply not possible to bribe people to be creative.”
Myth 5: Brainstorming is the best way to be creative together
We already heard that the notion of the creative lone genius is a myth. The most useful, innovative ideas usually arise from a meeting of minds. Unfortunately, a persistent myth in this regard is that the best way to come up with ideas together is to embark on a classic brainstorming session. Usually this means that a group is faced with a problem and they attempt to solve it by sitting around the table throwing ideas at each other.
This process is extremely popular, especially in corporate industries, and yet time and again research has shown that people in fact come up with more numerous and better quality ideas when they initially work alone, than when they go straight into a brainstorm.
This may sound like a contradiction of the myth of the lone genius, but the important point here is that people need time to work alone first, and only then should the collaborative process begin. Group brainstorming is an effective way to share and merge people’s ideas and solutions (and it’s worth remembering that many of the most important inventions and innovations are combinations of existing ideas), but it’s the wrong way to come up with ideas in the first place, and it certainly shouldn’t be the end of the creative process. After creative cross-pollination people need time alone to reflect and meld other people’s insights with their own.
It’s also important to conduct brainstorming sessions in the right way. Groups need to guard against those dominant characters who shoot down other people’s ideas; and more passive individuals need to be encouraged to share their thoughts without fear of being judged or ridiculed.
The potential for productive imagination lies in all of us. But it doesn’t come without effort. We must balance time alone with collaboration. We must research, listen and meet with others, sowing the seeds of fresh thinking in our minds. Prepare the ground with care and you’ll be rewarded with the growth of new ideas.