Aurora Magazine

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What is Creativity?

Published in Jul-Aug 2023

Arshad Awan explores the essence of creativity.

Frequently we wonder what influences creativity and whether or not we are genuinely creative or merely imaginative. Everyone is creative – that much is true. But how true is it? Exploring the depths of our imagination and unlocking our creative potential can be a perplexing journey. We question the origins of our ideas, the uniqueness of our creations and the factors that shape our output. In this quest for understanding, we delve into the intricate workings of the human mind, searching for insights that illuminate the enigmatic nature of creativity.

Are we merely imaginative beings, weaving dreams and fantasies in our minds? Or do we possess the ability to transform those imaginings into something innovative and valuable? The answers lie within the interplay of imagination and creativity, beckoning us to explore the boundaries of our creative capacities.

Creativity and imagination are closely related yet distinct concepts. Imagination is the capacity to create mental images, ideas or concepts, absent from our immediate sensory experience. They combine knowledge and experiences in novel ways to generate new and original concepts. Creativity, on the other hand, encompasses the ability to bring imagination to life by producing or manifesting something that is both novel and valuable. It involves not only generating ideas but applying them in a meaningful and useful manner, whether through artistic expression, problem-solving, innovation or other creative endeavours.

Imagination is a fundamental component of creativity; it provides the building blocks for original thinking and idea generation. However, creativity requires more than imagination. It involves the additional step of transforming and implementing those ideas into something tangible, impactful or meaningful.

Creativity can be cultivated and developed through practice, exploration and honed skills. Many factors contribute to creativity, including knowledge, expertise, motivation, environment and a willingness to take risks and embrace uncertainty. Humans are capable of both genuine creativity and mere imagination. Imagination is the raw material from which creativity emerges, and it is our ability to harness and apply that imagination in a productive way that distinguishes true creativity.

Intriguingly, we are the people who claim to be highly creative and then ask, how? Typically, one can receive fascinating responses, theories and philosophies. After hearing this hodgepodge of reactions, one cannot help but question if we understand creativity and why this simple concept is so difficult to grasp.

First of all, creativity is subjective and can be interpreted differently by different individuals. What one person considers creative, another may not. It is a complex and abstract concept that can vary across cultures, disciplines and contexts. This subjectivity makes it challenging to both define and quantify creativity in a universally agreed manner.

Creativity involves a combination of cognitive processes such as imagination, originality, problem-solving, critical thinking and divergent thinking. These processes are multifaceted and interconnected, making creativity a complex phenomenon. Similarly, creativity often defies linear and predictable patterns. It is not necessarily a linear process with clear steps or a straightforward formula. Creative ideas can emerge through non-linear thinking, unexpected connections and leaps of imagination which can be difficult to explain or replicate consistently.

Creativity often involves taking risks, exploring uncharted territory and embracing uncertainty. This can be daunting for individuals who fear failure or prefer certainty and structure. Fear of judgement or criticism can hinder creative expression as people may hesitate to share their unconventional ideas or perspectives.

Cultural and societal factors can shape our understanding and perception of creativity. Some societies may prioritise conformity and tradition over novelty and innovation. Cultural expectations and norms can also create barriers to embracing and nurturing creativity. Individual factors such as self-doubt, perfectionism, lack of confidence or rigid thinking patterns can impede creative thinking. Overemphasis on productivity, immediate results or external validation can hinder the process.

Despite these challenges, creativity remains a fundamental aspect of human expression and innovation. By fostering an open mindset, embracing curiosity, and practising techniques that enhance creative thinking, individuals can develop their creative abilities and better understand and appreciate the multifaceted nature of creativity.

The common understanding of creativity is that it is about forming new ideas to influence and expand our experiences, based on inspiration and the influences of everything we have interacted with recently and which stimulates our brain cells. However, there is more to creativity.

Problems, environments, and the willingness to investigate are the three primary components of creativity. Examining any inventive solution from the past 12 decades will reveal the presence of each characteristic. The initial impetus for creative thought is a problem, but the most powerful impetus for idea exploration is, without a doubt, the pursuit of a solution. If everything is operating flawlessly (which it is not), exploring new ideas within our encompassing environment is challenging. Consequently, conflicts and issues in anyone’s life affect our creativity.

In this instance, the immediate area is divided into three sections.

Firstly, the historical environment affects creativity by providing an approach to technologies and established concepts that inspire new ideas. In his book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson writes that incentives or rewards do not solely drive innovation. Instead, he suggests that innovation arises from creating environments or situations that foster the association and connection between different ideas. He argues that when we examine historical examples of innovation, it becomes apparent that breakthrough ideas often emerge when different concepts and knowledge intersect, leading to new insights and discoveries.

Secondly, another subset of environmental influences on creativity is environmental mindfulness, which enables one to comprehend the opinions and technologies that might be used to solve a problem. One can refer to this trait as ‘imagination,’ whereby one’s comprehension of the surrounding technology and concepts influences one’s perception that something is possible (or not).

Thirdly, another environmental deconstruction acknowledges failure as an influence on creativity. A hospital would not be conducive to failure, whereas a classroom would present the ideal opportunity. The priority in a hospital is providing immediate healthcare and failure can have serious repercussions and consequently, due to the high stakes involved, limited time or resources may be allocated for reflection, analysis and learning from failures. The focus is on preventing errors and minimising risks to the patient. A classroom, however, will often encourage students to experiment, explore and learn from their mistakes. Students perceive failure as an opportunity for growth and improvement and they are encouraged to take risks and learn from the consequences of their actions. By embracing experimentation, individuals are more likely to step outside their comfort zones, take risks and try new things. This mindset allows for the understanding that failures can provide insights and learning experiences. When someone is willing to experiment and potentially fail, they can discover new and unexpected paths, challenge conventional thinking and unlock their creative potential. When faced with a problem or seeking creative solutions, one can explore various possibilities, ideas, or strategies. It is about being open-minded and adventurous in exploring different avenues, even if they involve uncertainty or the possibility of failure. 

These three elements significantly impact creativity if one is not feeling creative today or is merely interested in how to be more effectively creative.

It is frequently deliberated that someone is very creative because he or she is a talented vocalist, dancer, painter or musician. People commonly recognise that creativity depends on a specific ability. In fact, creativity is not dependent on a single talent but rather on a combination of cognitive and behavioural abilities.

Typical creativity related to skills (such as divergent thinking for example) generates a variety of ideas or approaches to a problem. It entails departing from conventional thought and investigating novel and uncommon possibilities. Associative thinking is the ability to connect seemingly unrelated ideas or concepts. It involves using metaphor and analogy to generate new insights and perspectives. Similarly, flexibility is the ability to adapt and change course as needed and originality requires the ability to generate ideas that are new and unique. It involves avoiding clichés and conventional thinking and coming up with innovative ideas. Persistence is an important factor in this regard, and it is the ability to stick with an idea or project despite setbacks and obstacles. It involves being resilient and persevering through challenges to achieve creative goals.

Many creative people possess a combination of these skills, as they are not mutually exclusive. Creativity can be cultivated and nurtured through exposure to new ideas and experiences and practice.

But still, what really influences creativity?

Creativity is influenced by a variety of factors, not just one factor; e.g. creativity often builds on existing knowledge and expertise. People who have a deep understanding of a subject are more likely to generate creative ideas in that area. The work environment can have a significant impact on creativity. For instance, a cluttered and noisy workspace can be distracting and inhibit creativity, whereas a calm and organised one can foster creativity. People are open to new experiences. They are willing to explore different perspectives and take risks, which can lead to innovative ideas. Brainstorming can be a great way to generate new ideas and perspectives. Collaboration with people from diverse backgrounds can also bring fresh perspectives and lead to innovative solutions. Passion for a topic or an issue is frequently the source of creativity. People are more likely to generate creative ideas when they want to solve a problem or create something new. A mindset that emphasises the belief that hard work and perseverance can develop abilities and intellect can increase creativity. This mindset encourages experimentation, failure-based learning, and perseverance.

Creativity is a multifaceted phenomenon influenced by numerous factors. By grasping these factors, individuals and organisations can create environments and conditions that foster creativity and innovation. Creativity entails many intricate cognitive and behavioural processes that interact with one another.

We regard creativity as a complex phenomenon for several reasons because creativity is not localised to one specific area of the brain. Instead, it involves multiple brain regions, including the prefrontal cortex, the temporal lobes, and the parietal lobes. These regions work together in complex ways to generate and evaluate creative ideas.

Creativity often involves combining and integrating different types of knowledge and information from different domains. This requires the ability to see connections between seemingly disparate ideas and to think flexibly. Creativity is highly context-dependent and can vary based on the situation and the individual. What is deemed creative in one context may not be deemed so in another, and what is effective for one individual may not be effective for another. Mood, motivation, social norms and cultural values are just a few of the internal and external factors influencing creativity. It is difficult to predict when and how creative ideas will emerge due to the complex interactions between these variables.

Creativity is not a linear process that can be easily replicated or predicted. Instead, it is often a non-linear and unpredictable process that involves moments of insight and sudden breakthroughs. Creativity can be difficult to measure and evaluate objectively. There is no standardised test or metric that can accurately capture the multifaceted nature of creativity.

Creativity is very difficult to measure objectively because it often involves subjective judgments about novelty, usefulness and originality.

More so, it can be difficult to replicate because it often involves moments of insight and sudden breakthroughs that are difficult to predict or control.

Yet, despite these challenges, researchers continue to study creativity and develop new methods for measuring and fostering it.

Arshad Awan is an author, brand strategist and educationist.