A Peek Inside the Creative Mind

Creativity is messy. Whether you are a creative person, or you have the pleasure of living with one, this should come as no surprise.

But wouldn’t it feel vindicating to know this statement is backed by significant research?

“The common traits that people across all creative fields seemed to have in common were an openness to one’s inner life; a preference for complexity and ambiguity; an unusually high tolerance for disorder and disarray; the ability to extract order from chaos; independence; unconventionality; and a willingness to take risks.” (Creative people’s brains really do work differently, qz.com — Carolyn Gregoire and Scott Barry Kaufman)

Hello, I just saw myself on a page.

I was sitting at Starbucks reading an article I had saved to kill time, and I felt like the world stopped for a moment. I slowly reread and considered each set of traits.

INNER LIFEgirl-1126008_640

That seems like something that would be hard to quantify. How do I know if I am more open to my inner life than others? I love to be alone and often prefer to think than to talk — does that count? May be it just means I’m antisocial 😉


A preference for complexity and ambiguity — that, I can get behind. Details take a back seat to ideas and concepts. This isn’t always helpful in organizing my day-to-day life (sorry husband and kids!) but it opens the mind to broader possibilities.

This isn’t a quality reserved for the creative person. A tolerance (if not a preference) for complexity and ambiguity is a critical skill. The world is getting increasingly hard to navigate — issues like sustainability, global warming, heck, even who to vote for in the upcoming US election, don’t have easy solutions. But it seems society’s desire is for everything to be black & white, right & wrong, my side vs your side. We aren’t putting value on looking at issues from all directions, or accepting that sometimes there just isn’t a right answer.

One factor contributing to this problem is our education system’s penchant for standardized testing and bubble-filling, which is beating the creativity, curiosity and desire to learn out of our students. You need creativity to problem-solve. There are plenty of intelligent, knowledgeable people in the world. If it were just a matter of knowledge and IQ, the problems would be solved already, no?

rain-955956_1280One way to assess creativity is to test skills in divergent thinking — open-ended thinking aimed at generating fresh views and novel solutions.

I’m excited by divergent thinking. Thoughts and ideas leading to other thoughts and ideas, like a spider’s web of interest and fascination. We are teaching our kids to be convergent thinkers, producing the one right answer for each question. But the conformist will never achieve great things because great things come from new and original ways of looking at the world.


The next-door-neighbor to conformity is conventionality.

winter-69832_640If I asked you “Who here wants to be conventional?”, how many people do you think would shoot their hands into the air with gusto? Most of us don’t intentionally set out to be conventional, or envision a future of doing the exact same thing as everyone. But it seems to be easier to follow the same path, just like slipping into the grooves made by someone else’s cross country skis instead of forging out on your own in the freshly-fallen snow. It’s hard to make your own path, slog through the friction of the snowpack, carry the weight of that snow on top of your skis. You hope you won’t come to an unexpected gully or hurdle. But if you take the same path as everyone else, you’ll never discover a hidden clearing or an untouched stand of trees.

I say “seems to be easier” to be conventional because at the end of the day, what’s easy about looking back and wishing you’d done something else? Been braver, stronger. There’s nothing easy about regret.

Which brings me to the next point:


What is the appeal of a risk? Do something others won’t do, so you can reap the rewards that others won’t have. Sometimes it pays off, and sometimes it doesn’t. As a writer, my risks are fairly minimal. They mostly consist of spending a lot of time working on pieces that may come to nothing. I am blessed with an understanding husband and low-maintenance kids, so my requirements at home are minimal. But devoting time to writing means taking time away from other things.

I spent our last eight months in Germany writing a novel. The kids were gone for 9 hours a day and I had the house to myself with minimal obligations. The risk — I spent all that time and creative energy on a project that is still only a 2nd-draft manuscript. Maybe it will see publication; maybe it won’t. But that’s far better to me than the regret of never trying.


The next quality, well … I’m not going to sugar-coat it: “a tolerance for disorder and disarray” is apparent to anyone who knows me. It’s nice to know I can blame this character defect on my creative nature instead of on a pitiful lack of organization skills.

nostalgia-499988_1280But the other side of the coin, the pretty sparkly shiny side, is “the ability to extract order from chaos.” When I was a kid, my room was a disaster (some things never change). If my mom asked me to tidy it up, my response was always “but I know where everything is!” I still use this logic, usually based on this thought process: where would that ripped-out magazine article be? Well I last saw it when I was working on the design for a new bracelet, so it must be in the pile beside the essential oils reference book. It is a logic apparent only to me.

But it’s proven that disarray can lead to connections and ideas; if everything is in its place then there is no spark of ‘aha’ when you see the postcard from the exterminator layered over the community sports pages and your mind starts to develop the plot-line for a story about a soccer-playing spider (which are his arms? which are his legs? does he get penalties for using the wrong limbs?)


Going back to extracting order from chaos: in the article Secrets of the Creative brain (The Atlantic), Nancy C. Andreasen wrote “creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections, and seeing things in an original way — seeing things that others cannot see.”

I can’t speak for others, but if I tried to draw what my mind looked like, it would be a dancing swirl of colors and light, constantly moving and changing in a blur of images, always accompanied by a shifting soundtrack of random lyrics and melodies. This quality makes it possible for me to connect seemingly random thoughts until something sticks. It’s not a conscious process. That’s why so many people talk about having ‘aha’ moments or solving what seemed like impossible problems while they were taking a walk, showering, falling asleep. The mind needs to be untethered to make those connections.

steep-59685_640But this quality it also makes it nearly impossible for me to stick with a task from start to finish without losing my train of thought or jumping to another project.

I’ve come to realize that this is one of the reasons why I write, as a coping mechanism I’ve developed over a lifetime. I can’t follow an idea from point A to B to C in my my head very easily. I get distracted by the branches of thought, following them to often useless places. But if I write things down, my mind has something to cling to and follow.

The dark side of this, making connections, is that “having too many ideas can be dangerous. Part of what comes with seeing connections no one else sees is that not all of these connections actually exist.”

Which leads to an interesting point: research shows that “the average writer is in the top 15% of the general population on all measures of psychopathology.” Andreasen discovered that of her study group of creative geniuses, “A full 80 percent of them had had some kind of mood disturbance at some time in their lives, compared with just 30 percent of the control group.”

Not that all creative people are crazy (using that word facetiously here). But we do tend to have an inherent predisposition to a little mental instability. We like to — or perhaps just aren’t afraid to — look deep into ourselves and the parts of our psyche that other people prefer to bury or ignore. How else can we develop intricate, compelling and complex characters if we don’t plumb the depths of our own souls?

“Today, most psychologists agree that creativity is multifaceted in nature. And even on a neurological level, creativity is messy.” – Gregoire and Kaufman.

And to that I say Hooray. Hooray for the mess. Hooray for the disorder. Hooray for the swirling whirling chaos of thoughts and lights and colors in my brain, because without it, there would be less light and color in my life.

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