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Secrets of the Creative Brain - The Atlantic

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So, what secrets have you learned Geege?

If having a very high IQ was not what made these writers creative, then what was?

“The Termites,” as Terman’s subjects have come to be known, have debunked some stereotypes and introduced new paradoxes. For example, they were generally physically superior to a comparison group—taller, healthier, more athletic. Myopia (no surprise) was the only physical deficit. They were also more socially mature and generally better adjusted. And these positive patterns persisted as the children grew into adulthood. They tended to have happy marriages and high salaries. So much for the concept of “early ripe and early rotten,” a common assumption when Terman was growing up.

But despite the implications of the title Genetic Studies of Genius, the Termites’ high IQs did not predict high levels of creative achievement later in life. Only a few made significant creative contributions to society; none appear to have demonstrated extremely high creativity levels of the sort recognized by major awards, such as the Nobel Prize. (Interestingly, William Shockley, who was a 12-year-old Palo Alto resident in 1922, somehow failed to make the cut for the study, even though he would go on to share a Nobel Prize in physics for the invention of the transistor.) Thirty percent of the men and 33 percent of the women did not even graduate from college. A surprising number of subjects pursued humble occupations, such as semiskilled trades or clerical positions. As the study evolved over the years, the term gifted was substituted for genius. Although many people continue to equate intelligence with genius, a crucial conclusion from Terman’s study is that having a high IQ is not equivalent to being highly creative. Subsequent studies by other researchers have reinforced Terman’s conclusions, leading to what’s known as the threshold theory, which holds that above a certain level, intelligence doesn’t have much effect on creativity: most creative people are pretty smart, but they don’t have to be that smart, at least as measured by conventional intelligence tests. An IQ of 120, indicating that someone is very smart but not exceptionally so, is generally considered sufficient for creative genius.

So creativity is not necessarily correlated with intelligence.

Creativity is not easily assessed.

One approach, which is sometimes referred to as the study of “little c,” is to develop quantitative assessments of creativity—a necessarily controversial task, given that it requires settling on what creativity actually is. The basic concept that has been used in the development of these tests is skill in “divergent thinking,” or the ability to come up with many responses to carefully selected questions or probes, as contrasted with “convergent thinking,” or the ability to come up with the correct answer to problems that have only one answer. For example, subjects might be asked, “How many uses can you think of for a brick?” A person skilled in divergent thinking might come up with many varied responses, such as building a wall; edging a garden; and serving as a bludgeoning weapon, a makeshift shot put, a bookend. Like IQ tests, these exams can be administered to large groups of people. Assuming that creativity is a trait everyone has in varying amounts, those with the highest scores can be classified as exceptionally creative and selected for further study.

While this approach is quantitative and relatively objective, its weakness is that certain assumptions must be accepted: that divergent thinking is the essence of creativity, that creativity can be measured using tests, and that high-scoring individuals are highly creative people. One might argue that some of humanity’s most creative achievements have been the result of convergent thinking—a process that led to Newton’s recognition of the physical formulae underlying gravity, and Einstein’s recognition that E=mc2.

Perhaps creativity cannot be measured.

About creatives and mental health: 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—only slightly less than an age-matched group in the general population. (At first I had been surprised that nearly all the writers I approached would so eagerly agree to participate in a study with a young and unknown assistant professor—but I quickly came to understand why they were so interested in talking to a psychiatrist.) The Vonneguts turned out to be representative of the writers’ families, in which both mood disorder and creativity were overrepresented—as with the Vonneguts, some of the creative relatives were writers, but others were dancers, visual artists, chemists, architects, or mathematicians. This is consistent with what some other studies have found. When the psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison looked at 47 famous writers and artists in Great Britain, she found that more than 38 percent had been treated for a mood disorder; the highest rates occurred among playwrights, and the second-highest among poets. When Joseph Schildkraut, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, studied a group of 15 abstract-expressionist painters in the mid-20th century, he found that half of them had some form of mental illness, mostly depression or bipolar disorder; nearly half of these artists failed to live past age 60.

Creative people have more ups and downs.

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