Essay by

Your Brain on Creativity

Essay by

I was in Santa Fe recently to be part of a working group on “Creativity in the Brain.” The night before the start of the conference, I visited the home of some very serious art collectors who have a James Turrell Skyspace in their home. Turrell’s architecture of light is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Sitting underneath this stretched square hole in the ceiling of one of the rooms in their home is like lying on the floor of a museum and watching a painting emerge, evolve, and transform above you, before your very eyes. How else to describe this but as an idea and an art that reflects the highest form of creativity?

A blank post-it note
A blank post-it note. 
Photo by P. Carl. 

In April of 2013, President Obama announced the Brain Initiative—a $100 million challenge to scientists to give them the “tools they need” in order to “better understand how we think, learn, and remember.” Since Obama’s announcement, a lot of people are thinking about the ways that initiative will impact our thinking on brain science. The neuroscience of the brain is a hot topic—you see articles all over on the growing field of neuroscience and the study of the brain. The working group I was invited to be part of, brought together by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Santa Fe Institute, is a direct attempt to make sure the study of creativity is included in this burgeoning field of brain research. Most of the working group was composed of neuroscientists, social scientists, and educators with various kinds of expertise in the relationship between creativity, identity, learning, and the brain. Several things emerged over my two days of meetings that I’m still thinking about.

1.  We don’t actually know that much about creativity that feels definitive, even though there has been a lot of study on the subject. The thought, even amidst this elite group, that we could create a functional definition of creativity, or create a working group dedicated to such a task, didn’t make much sense. There are, however, many theories that attempt to get at the characteristics that make someone creative. Mark Runco, the E. Paul Torrance Professor of Creativity Studies at the University of Georgia and the editor of the Creativity Research Journal, started our gathering by giving us an overview of current theories of creativity that include:

Divergent thinking: being able to come up with multiple responses to a single question—this requires flexibility and originality.

Two-tiered creative cognition: some combination of knowledge and motivation that intersects with problem finding, divergent thinking, and critical thinking.

Insight: protracted Aha! moments.

Overinclusive thinking: often associated with mood disorders—seeing connections where others don’t, a combination and recombination of disparate ideas and imaginings.

In one of the articles that Dr. Runco gave us, there’s this definition of creativity, “the ability to derive novel, excellent, and relevant ideas and products.”

Words that circulated throughout the two days—novel, divergent, original, flexible, inclusive (overinclusive), excellent—created a kind of nondefinitive word cloud around our subject matter of creativity.

Photo by Polly Carl.
What does creativity do? Photo by P. Carl.


Where does creativity live in our field or is it inherently creative? Who gets called creative within our theatre institutions?


Over the course of the gathering and at many other times in my career, I’ve thought a lot about what defines creativity in the theatre. Did the word cloud at the conference fit with my sense of theatrical creativity? Is it “novel” for example, to master a craft or more “original” to blow it up? Is a truly compelling story one that is “overinclusive” in its ability to connect ideas and actions in a way we hadn’t considered before? A recent New York Times article connected creativity to a kind of dialectic between pairs of thinkers rather than individual genius. Is collaboration in our practice where the creativity lies? The article points out pairs like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, even Einstein and engineer Michele Besso. Are there great pairs of collaborative genius in the theatre? Does the theatre expand the notion of pair to ensemble as the locus of genius? Is it clarity of storytelling that matters most in a creative play, or is the artist’s task to make the space for audiences to create their own narratives and paths through the work? Where does creativity live in our field or is it inherently creative? Who gets called creative within our theatre institutions?

Some neuroscientists and psychologists talk about the difference between big “C” Creativity and little “c” creativity. Little “c” creativity is looking at average folks and seeing how creative they are within their work and personal lives. It considers things like how often someone uses divergent thinking, or demonstrates flexibility in approach to problem solving. Big “C” Creativity is more rare, “It occurs when a person solves a problem or creates an object that has a major impact on how other people think, feel, and live their lives.” Those who study the big “C,” research creative people and make connections to the shared narratives among them. Neuroscientists are interested in ways that the brain imaging of big “C” people demonstrate similarities.

(It’s important to note here, that Dr. Runco finds this “big C/little c “ distinction highly problematic because it is a dichotomy that fails to account for “the functional connections between the two”—the ways they are interrelated.)

How do we identify and reward creativity in the theatre? Are we most interested in identifying those who demonstrate the big “C?” Where do we put our resources in relationship to the creativity quotient? I think it’s curious that a lot of our awards go to successful artists or “makers” but our biggest salaries go to administrators. Is one’s creativity determined in inverse proportion to one’s bank account? And what about all of this talk of participation? As a field are we beginning to see that our future may hinge on playing to the little “c” in all of us as a way of creating the most expansive and vibrant future possible? Can a lot of engaged little “cs” equal a big “C” moment for our field?


And I asked, after watching a number of interesting PowerPoint presentations on the brain that were brilliant but not as gripping as they might be, how might theatre artists help scientists tell their stories of creativity in the brain?


2.  The conference made me personally ask, “What is the role of artists in contributing to the study of creativity?” I felt very respected and listened to throughout the conversation even if my level of understanding of fMRI brain imaging is limited. (I was one of the only people without an image of the brain in my presentation!) And I also felt a bit like the subject matter. This made me think more concretely about the role of theatre in shaping science. And I asked, after watching a number of interesting PowerPoint presentations on the brain that were brilliant but not as gripping as they might be, how might theatre artists help scientists tell their stories of creativity in the brain? What is the artist’s role as citizen in shaping the narrative of our national story on why creativity matters? How can we as experts in storytelling specifically inform the stories science is telling about creativity? The stories neuroscientists will tell over the next decade will have an enormous impact on the kind of respect, attention, and funding creativity receives as a legitimate field of study—how creativity will be perceived as a necessary trait to cultivate in order to enhance our humanity, our self-understanding, our educational systems, and our arts institutions.

One of the many highlights of the conference was getting to better know the work of Doug Aitken, a filmmaker who has made an important contribution to the study of creativity through his interviews with a variety of kinds of creative people, called The Source. His work challenges me to think about how as a theatre field we can document and track the creativity of our artists in ways that might be useful to the study of creativity.

As a side note, his interview with Tilda Swinton provided one of the most personally provocative moments in my meeting preparation. Doug asks her, “You went from poetry and literature and somehow you moved into the moving image.” She responds, “The thing that keeps me being a performer is my interest in society’s obsession with identity, cause I’m not sure that I really believe identity exists.” This single sentence, “I’m not sure that I really believe identity exists,” momentarily freed my own creative impulses and intellectual preoccupations to imagine what a world without identity might look like theatrically. How might the theatrical form free itself from the preoccupations of identity as the basis for storytelling?

3.  The conference also made me think a lot about REST—random, episodic, silent thought. One of the articles we read in preparation for the conference points to a brain study that suggests, “When eureka moments occur, they tend to be precipitated by long periods of preparation and incubation, and to strike when the mind is relaxed.” Dr. Nancy Andreasen reminds us that the “eureka” comes from the famous archetypal story of Archimedes who was supposedly in the bathtub when he realized he could measure density through the displacement of water. As a studier of the big “C” she says creative people say the same thing about the eureka moment:

I can’t force inspiration. Ideas just come to me when I’m not seeking them—when I’m swimming or running or standing in the shower. It happens like magic. I can just see things that other people can’t, and I don’t know why. The muse just sits on my shoulder. If I concentrate on finding the answer it never comes, but if I let my mind just wander, the answer pops in. 

This made me think a lot about our obsession with busyness. I’m not sure the “I’m so busy” problem is unique to theatre, but I personally find it a maddening part of institutional culture. Everyone is simply too busy to find time where those random eureka moments might occur. We rarely just hang out or create the kind of down time for ourselves that make a creative life possible. Have our theatres and their creativity suffered for a lack of REST? Is the business of theatre antithetical to its creative soul?


I restarted long morning walks with my spouse instead of getting overwhelmed with email first thing in the morning.


4.  Finally, I had a personal eureka moment that came over dinner with a neuropsychologist who teaches a course at UCLA on “Personal Brain Care.” He asked me a simple question (I shared this with many of you on Facebook, which by the way, he considers to be the equivalent of cocaine but maybe even less productive) about where my current brain activity has been focused: “Do you check your email?” I answered in the affirmative, not really understanding the question. He responded, “never check your email, only do your email.” He told me that our brains are now overwhelmed by all of the things we’re not doing, and by checking our email we add to that chaos of things left undone. By not checking email, but only sitting down to do it, we leave more space to be focused on the present moment, for focusing on what we can do/are doing.

This little tip from a neuropsychologist has turned my life upside down in the best possible way. I stopped checking my email. In only a couple of weeks, I’m stunned by the amount of brain space this has freed up. Stunned. In two weeks time, on top of my usual work, I’ve read a piece of nonfiction, and started a new novel, and I’ve I had time to write this brief reflection. I restarted long morning walks with my spouse instead of getting overwhelmed with email first thing in the morning. I only check Facebook once a day, if that. This morning my spouse said to me as we headed out to our walk, “I saw the most interesting thing this morning—your phone abandoned on the dresser underneath some magazines—who are you?”

I’ll be thinking about this working group for a long time and just know that if you email me or send me a message on Facebook, and I don’t respond within fifteen minutes, I’m either RESTing and hoping for a eureka moment, or focused on the current task in front of me.

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Hey Polly - glad the Email mantra "In Box Zero" seems to be working for you! Your personal neuropsychologist :) Bob Bilder

thank you for sharing! This is very helpful -- I've recently been working with folks creatively who don't self-identify as artists, and very different understandings of creativity have surfaced. I've been looking for resources to dive into! Thanks for this springboard.

I've been pondering these ideas for several days, so thank you very much for the brain food! One log that I would like to throw onto the fire: what about the fact that so many creatives in the theatre field practice and identify themselves in multiple crafts? I see so many directors who write, actors who play music, designers who act...there is a real dedication to becoming skilled and dedicated to more than one craft, and perhaps to cherish them both equally. While they certainly all fall underneath the theatrical umbrella, playing an instrument and designing costumes exercise the brain and creativity in different ways yet both roles are essential to the creation of the work. I've always loved that many artists in the theatre are chameleons and offer themselves in multiple disciplines. I would be curious to see what thoughts are about artists who are expressing themselves creatively in multiple disciplines, rather than operating within the same systems and expressions over and over again.

Excellent essay! As one who has never had a Facebook account, only checks Twitter (at most) once a day (I don't even have a "smart phone" or any other portable computing device!), and has often had my best play ideas (22 short and one long completed so far) while walking outside enjoying the fresh air, I agree wholeheartedly with almost everything you wrote!

The only exception is that I'm not as excited as you seem to be about so much money being spent on "studying creativity" when (as other recent Howlround essays have pointed out) so many actors and writers aren't even being paid enough to survive.

Especially since (to recycle one of your phrases from above) I think, after all that money is spent, the results will be "brilliant but not as gripping as they might be".

The creation of "creativity studies" seems to undermine the very thing it seeks to study: how can divergent thinking happen in a field so specific and specialized.

I worry that these definitions of creativity are looking to create a product which can be sold -- there is an emphasis on creative success being determined by, well, success. To quote: “the ability to derive novel, excellent, and relevant ideas and products.” Why relevant? So many thinkers we admire today were discarded as irrelevant at their time of publication. So, how can we define creativity without it relating to industry?

I'm also intrigued by the mention of mood disorders and making connections that aren't there; it seems to fit the trope of the brooding artist or the insane artist. Ann Cvetkovich writes about the importance of depression to the creative process and attempts to, in some ways, depathologize depression (see Depression: a Public Feeling). Along with the pressure to always be "doing" perhaps the pressure to be "happy" ends up undermining creative efforts. Creativity could be a melancholy endeavor, or something someone "unwell" excels at. But maybe the key is not seeing that as a bad thing, but just another state of being. Moreover, perhaps the pressure to conform to normative thinking is the very thing that makes this endeavor sad.

This may shed light on my second point: creative success is seen as changing the thinking happening around you, creating an idea which other's find novel. Thus, you are validated: there isn't anything wrong with you. The implications of this on creative individuals who are not successful are enormous and probably creates too much pressure to do much of anything.

There are so many voices telling us to stop being busy, but the perspective you offer shows ways to do it from within the field. It reminds me of Pat the Dog, a playwright advocacy/dramaturgy group in Ontario, that makes time for play as an office, not in terms of specific projects. I think it's finding little ways like not checking but doing email and such that will help actually change the creative culture away from busy to built-in REST moments. Thank you.

thank you so-o much for this thoughtful article, Polly. It is also very refreshing to read such enlightened comments (not the usual antagonistic fare). As a theatre director with epilepsy and bi-polar disorder, I have noticed that there is a connection between creativity and storms in the brain. Dostoevsky had epilepsy...much research remains to be done.

Thanks for the article, Polly. I think there are definitely a number of "successful pairings" in the performing arts. Your question reminded me of Jerzy Grotowski and Ryzard Cieslak, David Mamet and William H. Macy, Julian Beck and Judith Malina. As well as Merce Cunningham and John Cage, Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane, the Mabou Mines "collective" of Lee-Ruth-Fred-Terry (and Philip & Joanne), the core team of the Wooster Group. In cinema, it reminded me of Martin Scorsese & Robert DeNiro (or, as in recent years, and Leonardo DiCaprio), and many other filmmakers (Soderbergh, Coppola, Nolan, Lumet) who frequently work with the same people on multiple projects over years and years of time. I think Scorsese has had the same editor for....40 years? Imagine the shorthand those two share!

I also applaud your new relationship to email and Facebook. I read an article last year about the habits of people like Picasso, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, etc, and saw that they carved out specific periods of time to do "correspondence" (which I´m not including as email) each day. A separate and distinct activity, from their core artistic work. As well as....daily walks, afternoon naps, and so on. Since doing my best to adopt an adapted version of these suggestions, I have also noticed a greater degree of energy, productivity, and freedom in not only my artistic life, but in my personal life as a husband, father, and friend, as well. Being online is fine, but not when I´m constantly "checking it" throughout the day. Now I just do it either in the morning or in the evening, and then for a fixed period of time.

Here are some books to reinforce these important insights:

LEISURE: The Basis of Cultureby Josef PieperEarly editions have an intro by T. S. Eliot

Working Ourselves to Death: The High Cost of Workaholism by Diane Fassel

As a legendary teacher at CalArts, Alexander Mackendrick, the great British film director (Ladykillers, Man in the White Suit, Sweet Smell of Success) often quoted Jim Young's theory of Creativity. Mackendrick's book On Film-Making (intro by Martin Scorcese), goes into all of this more deeply.

Jim Young Theory (How to be Creative!!!)

1) COLLECTING THE ‘DATA’Don’t get an idea – yetDon’t organize or categorize – yetBe inquisitive – about factsRepress critical facultiesDon’t decide yet what is not relevant

2) ORGANIZING THE DATABe critical – Be objectiveDon’t be creative – yetWrite – Tabulate – Draw diagrams -Memorizing

3) SLEEPING ON ITDon’t thinkBut discipline your unconscious (??)

4) INSPIRATIONDon’t start writing - yet

5) THE CRAFT – CONCENTRATETry not to have Fresh ideasWork back from inspirationKeep the imagination moving Backwards and Forwards

I suspect the following very short book is by the same Jim Young that Mackendrick is talking about, but this book presents it differently...

A Technique for Producing Ideas (Advertising Age Classics Library) by James Webb Young

In getting to know European theatre artists, they are much less concerned about proving how hard they work and what good business people they are. There is a very different rhythm to the work... much less BUSY. I remember one director saying that no one was allowed in their theatre for a whole day before opening night. The "waters" of the theater had to be allowed to calm. Can you imagine? When I visited Bratislava in 1986, in what was then Czechoslovakia, to work with the great Slovak set designer and teacher, Ladislav Vychodil, the first place he took me? A wine cellar. The second place he took me... another wine cellar. We then walked the streets of Bratislava and he let me know where Mozart stayed when he visited, where Liszt stayed, etc. Dinner. Vodka. Socializing. The next day I suggested we talk about the play we were going to work on. He said we were still getting to know each other. We toured his school, the Slovak National Theater, watched a rehearsal, saw a war monument, saw a play, went to a late night theatre club. On the third day, he pulled out the script and we got to work. In the USA, people get off a plane and are dropped immediately into meetings. From Vychodil, I learned how ridiculous and uncreative that can be. He was a top designer, comparable to Svoboda, working all over the world, in major productions from Tokyo to Oslo. During the summers, their set designers were sent out across the country to paint both landscapes (Nature) and architecture (the Man Made.) Finding the rhythms of nature in both rural and urban environments was the essence of their training. This is an important topic. Thanks, Polly, for bringing it up.

I´ve worked in Europe for the past 21 years, and have been living in Norway since 2008, in the performing arts. I agree that there is a different "rhythm" here on the continent, in contrast to the American model.

I think we should be cautious in over-romanticizing "Europe" as being "better" than the US, in terms of theater & the performing arts. A significant difference as to why theater professionals here in Europe have the "luxury" of more time, less need to work as hard as their American counterparts, is the fact that the bulk of the cultural sector is state-financed. This means that there is less need for theater-workers here (let´s say in Scandinavia, which is the region that I am most familiar with) to "prove" themselves as business-people, because they are not doing the business-component to the same degree as Americans are.

Sounds great? Well, this state-financing has its own problems, as well. For example, the work at these state-funded theaters tends to be more conservative, and more restricted, because the state is footing all of the bills. It is also criticized for being very insular, not being very diverse, and not nurturing a lot of creativity. Some of Scandinavia´s most brilliant artists tend to become expatriates, seeking the freedoms of larger markets (ie London, New York, Los Angeles, elsewhere), where one can "do what one wants."

In 2010, my company Ensemble Free Theater Norway was in residence at the Greenhouse Theater Center in Chicago for 4 months. That single venue had more independent theaters in residence than...the entire country of Norway! The amount of independent work being produced in the Windy City is staggering. The flip-side is that, exempt for a handful of groups such as Steppenwolf and the Goodman, the majority of those theater professionals are struggling to make a living at it.

My point? Perhaps just a reminder that utopia is always...."over there." Just as Americans look to Europe with a view of "Wow, everything is so much better there," many Europeans are doing the same thing, looking towards us. Both have benefits. Both have problems. Just depends on what kinds of problems you want to engage with on a regular basis.

Your points are good ones, but I'd like to clarify that I don't mean to romanticize Europe at all. Utopia is where you build it, or fail to build it. You're right... it's never "over there." I live in LA. It's an impossible city, and I love it. However, my point is that most countries, other than Japan, have a more healthy and sane attitude to work than here in the USA. We are a deeply workaholic culture. The Japanese, I believe, even have a name for people who drop dead too young from devotion to work. Many countries have longer vacations than in the US, better health care and less out of control executive salaries. You would think our artists might be exempt from the American work ethic, and that we would find more of them "marching to a different drummer," etc. Instead, artists in the US tend to work even harder than business people, while still struggling, as you say, to make a living. The weird twist is that many American businesses are working hard to bring more creative approaches into the workplace, while theatres have been working diligently to integrate the methods of the 1950s Organization Man bureaucracies.

Thank you for Your reply, Mr. Jacobs. I agree With Your clarifying point: that (generally speaking) Europeans, such as Scandinavians, have a better life + work Balance. For example, here in Norway, the average work week is 37.5 hours. There are extensive maternity leaves, as well as paternity leaves, both paid. For many, work is seen as a "necessary evil," something one does so that you can afford to live in society, but where the real joy is having time OFF of work to be With Family, friends, and loved ones, go on holidays, etc.Coming from an American context, there is certainly a lot to be appreciated here, both as a visitor as well as an immigrant / expatriate. Compared to Our workaholic culture in the US, I can definitely appreciate this distinctly different way of life. That being said, a frequent complaint here--by native Norwegians as well as foreigners--is the lack of drive, a poor work-ethic, and the damaging effect on the country as a Whole by the population's sense of "entitlement". Because the social services here are so strong, few find a need to work hard, much less innovate. Why bother? As a Norwegian once told me, America invented cinema, airplanes, automobiles, the internet, the personal computer, and the Telephone, whereas Norway invented the paperclip. Personally, I think both the US and Europe (including Norway and Scandinavia) both have Rich opportunities and benefits, as well as systemic problems. This goes for the average individual regardless of profession, as well as theater artists. For every problem that is "solved" by living in Europe, a different one crops up. Same as With the US. Just Depends on what kind of problems you want to engage With.