Art makes our wheels spin

🕔Sep 22, 2005
Part 1

Multi-faceted, contentious, intriguing and fun, creativity plays a role in our daily lives whether we are aware of it or not. The ability to “be creative” is directly linked to the ability to create, and when looked at through such a lens, it is clear that everyone, every day, achieves some level of creativity: from birthing a child, to making a pine-cone mobile, to inventing a new way to clean grout on bathroom tiles—creativity is everywhere.

The nature of creativity is amorphous and difficult to pin down; its reception is situation-dependent, and feelings towards creativity are volatile. Creativity is frequently double-sided; a creative person can be heralded as genius one day and insane the next. Popular culture tends to limit the indulgence of creativity to particular groups of people, e.g. young children, weirdos, or those lucky folk engaged in jobs where lateral thinking and originality are encouraged.

Creativity is not acceptable for mainstream folk. Too much time taken to be creative is often seen as non-productive. Indeed, becoming a more creative person often looks terribly suspicious, as it usually involves a certain amount of play and fun. Tangible results are not immediate, nor are they easily quantified, measured, or tallied.

Creativity is treated as an aside—a quirky tool that we look to now and then, but which we do not understand, nor fully utilize.

Paradoxically, the belief that creativity is a beneficial and necessary life skill is gaining increasing recognition in limited circles. Educational psychologists, brain-based learning specialists, human resource experts, and some entrepreneurs subscribe to the view that creative skill is a must to succeed in today’s competitive world. Incorporating this creative ideal into a realistic framework for people in all walks of life is an ongoing challenge.

Creativity defined: the impossible task

Creativity at its core is the ability to generate or invent, to approach problems in any field from fresh perspectives. Major characteristics of creativity are:

  • fluency (the generation of many different ideas)
  • flexibility (an ability to shift thinking from one option to others; to break out of a rut)
  • elaboration (the fleshing out of a general idea)
  • originality (“Wow. I hadn’t thought of that.”)
  • evaluation (the selection and refinement of ideas)

Seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? A group of biotechnology engineers refining the latest food science advancement, or a group of gym students inventing a new way to play a favourite game, could both satisfy the above criteria for being creative. It all has to start somewhere.

Creativity unleashed

Kids are the most obvious examples of people who give their creative energies free reign. Less influenced by society’s limitations and definitions of who they should be, kids (when happily, freely creating) pass around a euphoric vibe that cannot be matched. The benefits of activities that stimulate creativity are indisputable. Cognitive, social, emotional, and physical growth can all take place within a supportive environment focused on creative learning (see below).

Double the fun: creativity and two brains in one

So, where do we find our creative genius? Well, in the obvious place—our brain. It is vital to note that creativity is not limited to a specific area of our brain. Rather, science has found that the creative process is a whole-brain symphony. Modern life focuses on the development of one side of the brain to the detriment of another, and, as luck would have it, the side that gets ignored is where a large part of our creativity dwells.

Brain 101

Our brain is divided into two halves: the left and the right hemisphere. The halves have specialized functions, and act as two separate brains. They are connected by a fibrous band of neural tissue called the corpus collosum, which connects the two halves.

The left brain is the domain of communication, logic, and math. Logic, sequencing, and speech are at home here. The right brain gives us a different, yet crucially important set of skills. Intuition, emotions, visual and spatial awareness, as well as music, rhythm, and cadence are right-brain functions. In short, the left-brain provides the organization and discipline to ensure that something gets done, while the right brain ensures that the idea isn’t as stale as last week’s bread.

An unnecessary disconnect

Life today encourages the growth and development of the left hemisphere. We live in a standardized, regimented world that is run by the clock and the stocks. We talk too much, we over-analyze everything, and most of us have lost touch with how we feel about half the things we think we have to do. The world is quite fixed in left-brain mode, and the left-brain is a bit of a bully.

Imagine it is Monday morning. Everyone at the office is a bit dozy; perking up slowly with coffee. The crew is gathered around the table and the meeting is in progress. You go out on a limb, and make a drastically different suggestion for increases in efficiency. The boss receives your crazy new idea with an enthusiastic “Heck, it’s weird, but let’s try it,” and a congratulatory slap on the back, instead of a stare that asks “Are you crazy?”

Let me switch gears. The left brain is not a demon. I’m a major left-brainer, and I love that half of my think tank. Yet I do think that a bit of balance is in order. We were a right-brained people for thousands of years. We practiced dancing, singing, drumming, and lived in harmony with the seasons. We honoured dreams and intuitions as divine, and we healed ourselves and created many beautiful things. Embracing our right brain heritage will add to our happiness, not detract from it. Watch kids play. Ask them to solve a problem.

The good ol’ days

Rewind to what foggy memory you have of your early years in school. If one was lucky, this time stands out as fun and engaging. Early elementary school generally differed from the rest of our adolescent and adult lives in that when we were kids, the right brain was allowed to play. It was embraced on par with the left.

Sure, we learned the alphabet and some math, as well as science and a bit about the world beyond our immediate neighbourhood, but way more than that, we engaged in a smorgasbord of activities that stimulated and revved up the right brain. We sang, listened to music, danced, moved, played with blocks and toys, read myths and fairy tales (which speak to the intuitive right side of our brain). We finger-painted, crafted, glued until our fingers were stuck together, and drew spaceships that looked like dogs. We were given a lot more time to be silly. We were given a lot more time to have fun on our own terms. We experienced more freedom, and could take risks and experiment with different ways of doing things. We were learning, and we were involved in a lot of authentic, creative activities.

Step creative process for problem solving

The following framework demonstrates the vital significance of both halves of the brain in solving problems.

  1. Preparation: Gather information, study the issues, define the problem and clarify goals. (Left brain is analyzing and turning on logic engine. Full steam ahead.)
  2. Concentration: Tune out distractions and focus on project. (Left brain is involved in discipline, while right brain becomes intrigued, absorbed, and searches for patterns and relationships using an holistic approach.)
  3. Incubation: Step back and give it time. Putting the idea on the shelf allows the unconscious to take over. This process is inhibited by concentration and willing. (Right brain is seeking to integrate the component parts into a whole pattern.)
  4. Illumination: The “a-ha” moment arrives spontaneously; a solution is accompanied by gut feelings (intuition), visual images, and sounds. (Purely right brain power here.)
  5. Evaluation: Analysis of idea for practicality and application proceeds. (Swings back to left brain for completion and implementation.)

When trying to solve problems using just the left-brain mode of thinking, frustration levels are high and innovation and creativity are low. Solutions fall flat and seem boring. We think—“We are smarter than this. What’s wrong?”

Fast-forward to the future: there is hope

Although most people have a predisposition to have a dominant side of the brain, our tendency to lean right or left is far from set in stone. It is quite possible to work on developing and building neural pathways in our non-dominant hemisphere. It simply takes a bit of time and effort. We all know the brain is a muscle. For the most though, we just don’t care to use the half that is flabby.

In part two of this series, creativity will be dished up with a specific focus on the big people, a.k.a. “grown-ups.” Plan on recognizing the rut we have all inhabited at some point in time, and learning strategies for how to break the mold.

results of creative play
  • intense absorption and persistence
  • observation and understanding of patterns and relationships
  • ability to take risks
  • willingness to see things in a new way; thinking shifts
  • stimulation of independent and/or critical thinking
  • development of confidence
  • the challenging of assumptions or authority based on a reasoned-out opinion
  • use of analogies/metaphors/similes in speech
  • strengthening of intuition (and of the self-esteem needed to heed it)
  • ability to tolerate ambiguity (the individual doesn’t need an immediate, black and white answer)
  • enjoyment working alone