Is Creativity Contagious?

Greetings! I’m at the 2011 New England conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), and I’m looking forward to two days of keynote speakers, writing workshops, and networking. Tonight I attended the conference orientation (as well as a hilarious cabaret performance), and being surrounded by so many people who are passionate about children’s literature got me thinking–is creativity contagious? What about motivation? Inspiration? Success?

I think we all know that success isn’t contagious, or else…oops, my bad–I was just about to make an inappropriate joke about Charlie Sheen and the company he keeps. I’ll refrain.

But seriously, research has shown that smiling can be contagious, and I think most people would agree that it’s hard not to laugh when you’re surrounded by laughter, or to feel excited when the air in a room is practically humming. If mood states can be catching, I wonder if simply being in close proximity to like-minded people can help get one’s creative juices going. (I certainly hope so!)

I’ll just have to wait and see how the rest of the weekend unfolds–and although I might not be able to predict what will happen the next time my pen touches the page, one evening in the company of these fabulous authors and illustrators has already given me the itch to sit down and write. So I consider that a pretty good start. 🙂

Some New Quotes

On Writing:

“The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible.” ~Vladimir Nabakov

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” ~Mark Twain

“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” ~Flannery O’Connor

On Creativity and Imagination:

“A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.” ~Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Flight to Arras, 1942

“Sometimes imagination pounces; mostly it sleeps soundly in the corner, purring.” ~Terri Guillemets

“Some stories are true that never happened.” ~Elie Weisel

 

(Thanks to www.quotegarden.com!)

The Happiness Advantage

I’m reading a book entitled The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor, a professor of Harvard’s famed course “Positive Psychology” and the founder of Good Think, Inc, a company that speaks to major organizations around the world on how they can improve their productivity through an emphasis on employee happiness (www.shawnachor.com).

The Happiness Advantage describes “the seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work.” Its main message? Happiness is a predictor of success–not the other way around. In short, we grow up believing that we will be happy when we earn that next good grade or score that next big promotion, and so we always see happiness as something that can be attained down the road–the result of success, a reward for achievement. But scientific research has debunked this myth. Research has shown, time and again, that happiness precedes success, and Achor’s book translates the findings of scholarly articles into an interesting and easy-to-read guide to happiness and productivity for the public. While these principles are especially important for CEOs, managers, supervisors, and anyone else responsible for implementing change in the workplace, they also can be utilized by individuals seeking fulfillment as they strive toward their own personal goals.

Visit the Bookshelf (Psychology page) for a complete description of The Happiness Advantage, as well as a link to buy it at Barnes & Noble (you will not be disappointed!). In the meantime, I just wanted to include a brief excerpt that shows how some of these positive psychology principles relate to creativity:

“Extensive research has found that happiness actually has a very important evolutionary purpose, something Barbara Fredrickson has termed the ‘Broaden and Build Theory.’ Instead of narrowing our actions down to fight or flight as negative emotions do, positive ones broaden the amount of possibilities we process, making us more thoughtful, creative, and open to new ideas. For instance, individuals who are ‘primed’–meaning scientists help evoke a certain mindset or emotion before doing an experiment–to feel either amusement or contentment can think of a larger and wider array of thoughts and ideas than individuals who have been primed to feel either anxiety or anger. And when positive emotions broaden our scope of cognition and behavior in this way, they not only make us more creative, they help us build more intellectual, social, and physical resources we can rely upon in the future.” (pg. 44)

In the pages that follow, Achor describes seven key principles of positive psychology and provides concrete suggestions for capitalizing on this research. I’m about 65 pages in–reading about the second principle–and this book has already filled me with excitement, optimism, and hope. It’s becoming clear to me that Achor’s “happiness work ethic” is a tangible catalyst for huge gains in productivity and satisfaction in the workplace, and, of particular relevance to writers and artists, that this mindset can fuel creativity and originality, as well.

Happy Reading! 🙂

Art & Fear

I recently started reading the book Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland (it will be added to the Psychology page of the Bookshelf in the near future!). Here’s the description on the back of the book:

“What is your art really about?
Where is it going?
What stands in the way of getting it there?

These are questions that matter, questions that recur at each stage of artistic development–and they are the source for this volume of wonderfully incisive commentary.

Art & Fear explores the way art gets made, the reasons it often doesn’t get made, and the nature of the difficulties that cause so many artists to give up along the way.

This is a book about what it feels like to sit in your studio or classroom, at your wheel or keyboard, easel or camera, trying to do the work you need to do. It is about committing your future to your own hands, placing Free Will above predestination, choice above chance. It is about finding your own work.”

 

I know my psychology colleagues would probably have a thing or two to say about the ‘Free Will’ issue, but, personally, I think that believing in Free Will is empowering for individuals, and I refuse to take the behaviorist perspective on the matter (take that, B.F. Skinner).

Regardless, I’m not reading this book to try to figure out whether my choices matter. I know they do. I’m reading this book because I know what it feels like to struggle as an artist, to doubt myself and my abilities, and to get stuck dreaming instead of writing. As Rita Mae Brown says, you should ‘never hope more than you work.’ That’s sage advice, but it’s hard to put into practice sometimes. Why is that?

I think the title is particularly intriguing–Art & Fear. For all of us creative souls, art is love, art is passion, art is self. But fear can still get in the way. Fear of what, you ask? Fear of anything–fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of ourselves and our own potential. Even when we know it’s not rational, our fear can still prevent us from being the best artists we can be.

More on these ideas later, as I continue to read. For now, I’ll leave you with the quote that starts the second chapter: “Artists don’t get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working.” ~Stephen DeStaebler 

(Do you agree?)

Six-Word Memoirs at SMITH Magazine Online

If you think writing a full-length memoir is difficult, try writing one in only six words!

Six-word memoirs have become somewhat of a craze recently–their surging popularity undoubtedly linked to how much fun they are to try to write. At SMITH magazine online, you can create your own user account for free and add your memoirs to the thousands submitted by other writers/readers. Categories for memoirs include Life, Love, Moms, Teens, Food, America, the Green Life, and there is a special tab for memoirs on Pain and Hope, devoted to the non-profit movement, To Write Love on Her Arms. Every week, SMITH compiles a list of their favorite user-submitted memoirs, so if you write something really clever/powerful/poignant, they might take notice!

If you get hooked by these succinct gems (as I have), you can also buy compendiums in print–and yes, your submissions to SMITH have a chance at being selected for a future book!  

An aside for fiction writers: six-word stories  are a worthy challenge, as well. Write for the pure satisfaction of condensing a beginning, middle, and ending into only six words, or submit your best to Narrative Magazine for a shot at getting your words published. (There’s a small fee to enter, but also monetary compensation if they like what they see!)

So what are you waiting for? Start experimenting today!

Time of Day and Creativity: When Do You Write?

Is it the crack of down when you spring from your bed, grab a mug of hot coffee, and then plop down in front of your laptop/netbook/iPad/typewriter, your fingers absolutely itching in anticipation of the writing opportunities afforded by this glorious new day?

Or maybe you sleep in until 10 or 11, struggle to untangle yourself from your covers, yawn as you rummage through the kitchen cupboards for something to eat, and then seat yourself in front of your writing tool of choice, squinting with only one eye open at the blank page before you. 

Obviously these are only a couple of “get up and get to work” scenarios–just an example of what it might look like to be a “morning person” in the writing profession, as opposed to someone like me, who would rather wait until evening to get the creative juices flowing.

But this brings me to the question: what time of day would you write, if life was perfect and your work schedule was at your mercy?

And, when you’re forced to work at a less-than-optimal time of day, how do you think that affects your creativity?

Feel free to share your personal experiences and opinions in the comments section, and stay tuned for my next research post: a look at the psychology of circadian rhythms and creativity.

Update Your Summer Reading List With Spells and Secrets

Check out the Children’s/Young Adult Fantasy page of The Bookshelf for a couple of new additions (or ‘editions’! har har). The Magic Thief series by Sarah Prineas will be especially appreciated by the younger end of the 9-12 spectrum, while The Black Book of Secrets by F. E. Higgins is a darkly satisfying read for older kids, teens, and even discriminating adults! These titles have enriched my summer reading list–entertaining me during my recuperation from two separate neck surgeries–and F. E. Higgins has even earned herself a place on my list of go-to authors.

Next up on my reading list is the (aforementioned) seventh book in the Artemis Fowl series, followed by Falcon Quinn and the Black Mirror by Jennifer Boylan. Falcon Quinn may be Jenny Boylan’s first children’s novel, but she is widely known as the bestselling author of the memoirs She’s Not There and I’m Looking Through You, both of which captured my interest with their anecdotes and humor and moved me with their honesty and authenticity. Jenny Boylan resides in my home state of Maine and is an English professor at one of the finest colleges in the country, so I cannot wait to read Falcon Quinn. Stay tuned for these upcoming reviews.

Thanks for reading, as well as for your understanding regarding my lack of research posts this summer. My medical leave will end in September, and then it will be back to the thrilling world of academia for me! So don’t fret–more discussions on the intricacies of the relationship between psychology and creativity will inevitably follow…

Quote on Creativity

“We are all cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.”

~Ray Bradbury

The Association Between Creativity and Psychopathology: Part IV

Current Directions: Creativity and Schizotypy

           There has been a shift in recent years regarding the type of psychopathology at the center of the “mad genius” debate. While early studies focused on mood disorders, many current lines of research are investigating the relationship between creativity and schizotypy—a continuous, personality variable that describes proneness to psychosis (Claridge & McDonald, 2009). Nettle (2006) explains that factor analysis of traits associated with schizophrenia and schizotypal/borderline personality disorders reliably load onto four factors: Unusual Experiences (involves positive symptoms of schizophrenia such as hallucinations, magical thinking, and perceptual aberrations), Cognitive Disorganization (difficulty concentrating, moodiness), Introvertive Anhedonia (a negative symptom like the anhedonia described for schizophrenia), and Impulsive Nonconformity (violent, reckless, and self-abusive behaviors). The Oxford-Liverpool Inventory of Feelings and Experiences (O-LIFE) is one of the best-validated and most often used measures of schizotypy, and it contains 104 items relating to the traits of interest.

Nettle (2006) describes two theories pertaining to the nature of the creativity-schizotypy linkage. One suggests that the relationship is an inverted U shape; in this model, creativity first increases along with schizotypy, but then it decreases as the psychosis becomes severe (which is consistent with our discussion of mood disorders, in which debilitating depression actually stifles creativity). An alternative comes from the two-factor approach of Barron (1972, as cited in Nettle, 2006), who argued that creativity results from a combination of psychopathology and ‘ego strength’, a measure that includes resilience, self-control, and ability to cope with stress. Ego strength would therefore serve as the mediator that determines whether schizotypy turns into psychopathology or creative output. Because Schuldberg (1990, as cited in Nettle, 2006) found that positive schizotypy symptoms correlate positively with creativity while negative symptoms correlate negatively with creativity, ‘ego strength’ should increase as negative symptoms decrease. For the O-LIFE, then, creativity should show a positive association with Unusual Experiences but a negative association with Introvertive Anhedonia. To investigate this possibility, Nettle (2006) administered the O-LIFE to participants from the general population, psychiatric patients, and a group of creative individuals.

In order to examine the differences between creative domains, Nettle (2006) included mathematicians as well as poets and visual artists in his study. Mathematicians have been shown to score more highly on measures of autistic traits and convergent thinking (see Nettle, 2006, for relevant citations), which seems to be the opposite personality profile of most creative individuals, who often score highly on divergent thinking tasks. Thus, Nettle (2006) hypothesized that the mathematicians in his study might show patterns opposite to those of the artistic groups (i.e. low Unusual Experiences and possibly higher Introvertive Anhedonia). Using self-report data, participants were categorized into four groups based on level of artistic creativity (in poetry and visual art): non-participant, hobbyist, serious, and professional. All participants were also categorized as mathematicians or non-mathematicians. Finally, based on questionnaire responses, participants were also divided into four psychopathology categories: none, non-psychotic affective conditions (e.g. depression and anxiety), schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. Note that psychopathology and creativity group categorizations were independent of one another, so a particular individual could be simultaneously a serious visual artist and a bipolar patient (Nettle, 2006).

Results of Nettle’s (2006) study provided some support for the two-factor model of Barron (1972). Creative groups scored as high as schizophrenic patients on Unusual Experiences and Cognitive Disorganization, but lower than controls on Introvertive Anhedonia, suggesting that “artistic groups and psychiatric patients share divergent thought, but they differ in that the latter are troubled with negative symptoms such as avolition and anhedonia, whilst the former are unusually free of these traits” (p. 886). In addition, as predicted, mathematicians scored significantly lower than controls on the positive symptom dimensions of schizotypy (Unusual Experiences and Cognitive Disorganization) as well as Impulsive Nonconformity, and there was a trend toward higher scores for mathematicians on Introvertive Anhedonia. This supports the hypothesis that mathematicians’ personality profiles have contrasting features to the artistic profile, and the findings are consistent with “Baron-Cohen’s work on systemizing as a core feature of autistic spectrum disorders” (p. 887). Nettle (2006) concludes that these results support the link between vulnerability to psychopathology and artistic creativity, but that further research is needed to understand this association within a broad range of ‘creative’ endeavors (e.g. music and drama, or involvement in the natural sciences).

 

References:

Claridge, G. & McDonald, A. (2009). An investigation into the relationships between convergent and divergent thinking, schizotypy, and autistic traits. Personality and Individual Differences, 46, 794-799.

Nettle, D. (2006). Schizotypy and mental health amongst poets, visual artists, and mathematicians. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 876-890.

The Association Between Creativity and Psychopathology: Part III

Creativity and Mood Disorders

          The works of Andreasen, Jamison, and Ludwig focused primarily on the hypothesized link between creativity and mood disorders, and the majority of anecdotal evidence supporting a creativity-psychopathology link involved cases of major depression and bipolar disorder (schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, and other mental illnesses were given much less attention in the literature). Verhaeghen, Joormann, and Khan (2005) state that “a wide range of studies using diverse methods clearly suggest a connection” between creative behavior and mood disorders, though, unsurprisingly, this proclamation is followed by citations for Andreasen (1987), Ludwig (1994; 1995), and Jamison (1993) (p. 226). While Verhaeghen and colleagues accepted these well-known studies as empirically sound, they also expressed puzzlement regarding one facet of the purported connection: even though correlation does not equal causation, implicit in the conclusions of the “Big Three” is the assumption that psychopathology leads to enhanced creativity. This seems counterintuitive given that the defining symptoms of depression—anhedonia, lack of motivation, loss of energy, inability to concentrate, etc.—are the antithesis of what creativity requires. With the help of some relevant anecdotes, the authors assert that depressive episodes actually decrease creative productivity, and therefore they hypothesize that a direct relationship between the two is unlikely. They suggest that a third variable—namely, self-reflective rumination—mediates the link between creativity and depression (Verhaeghen et al., 2005).

          The researchers predicted that self-reflective rumination would be correlated with both depressive symptomatology and creative behavior, and they used multiple measures of the creativity construct, including a self-report questionnaire on creative interests, the Abbreviated Torrance Test for Adults (ATTA; Goff & Torrance, 2002), and select items from the Purdue Creativity Test (PCT; Lawshe & Harris, 1960) (as cited in Verhaeghen et al., 2005). The questionnaire assessed interest in and seriousness about various artistic and creative activities, such as painting, writing, drawing, photography, acting, etc. The ATTA presented participants with three activities. In the first of these, participants were asked to imagine what would happen if they ‘could walk on air or fly’ and to make a list of problems that this might create. In the second and third activities, participant were presented with a variety of abstract shapes and asked to use the shapes to create ‘unusual’ and ‘interesting’ pictures and to give each picture a title. The ATTA is scored on three scales: “Fluency is the number of distinct answers generated. Originality is the number of responses that do not appear on the list of common answers provided by the test manual. Elaboration is the number of details contained within the answers; the test manual provides strict scoring criteria for these” (p. 227). Finally, the PCT presented participants with abstract line drawings and asked, ‘What is this?’ The total number of responses generated in two minutes were tallied for the fluency score (Verhaeghen et al., 2005).

          Measures of depressive symptomatology included the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale (CES-D; Radloff, 1977, as cited in Verhaeghen et al., 2005), a self-report questionnaire in which participants reported the frequency of specific depressive symptoms within the past week, as well as a checklist of past depressive symptoms, for which participants were instructed to indicate whether they had experienced any of 10 symptoms within the past year, for a period of two weeks or longer. Self-reflective rumination was evaluated using a ‘5-item subset of nondepression-related items’ from the Ruminative Responses Scale (RRS; Nolen-Hoeksema & Morrow, 1991, as cited in Verhaeghen et al., 2005); these items were chosen to try to isolate pure rumination-as-reflection, or ‘reflectiveness,’ from rumination that is tied directly to depression (p. 228).

          As predicted, results indicated that the correlation between depression and creativity was not direct, but rather due to the link between both of these variables and self-reflective rumination. This relationship can be conceptualized in a couple of different ways: A writer with a biological diathesis for depression may spend a lot of time introspecting and ruminating, and this, in turn, may increase the risk of symptom expression. Alternatively, individuals suffering from depression are more likely to ruminate, and some of these individuals might express these feelings via creative outlets, such as writing. The authors propose a model in which depression explains some of the variance in creative behavior, but only through its relationship with rumination, and the majority of the variance in self-reflective rumination is unexplained by past depression. They theorize that self-reflective rumination itself could influence creative behavior through two pathways: motivation and ability. Reflectiveness might promote seriousness about creative endeavors, which would increase an individual’s motivation to become proficient in a given domain. Or, because self-reflectiveness increases creative fluency, it could have a direct effect on creative ability through increased production of novel/original ideas (Verhaeghen et al., 2005).  

          The authors conclude that, even though depressive and bipolar disorders appear to be “linked” to creativity, depressive symptomatology is not responsible for this link—self-reflective rumination is the mediator, and positive affect therefore must be responsible for any enhanced productivity. They suggest that depressive symptoms might influence the content of creative works, and, during periods of improved functioning in which the creative process is not hindered, this content emerges during creative production (Verhaeghen et al., 2005). This is an interesting new way to think about the nature of the potential link between mood disorders and creativity, but the underlying assumption of the study—that the correlation between mental illness and creativity has been empirically validated—must garner more evidence before too many conclusions can be drawn.

{Next up–Current Directions: Creativity and Schizotypy…}

References:

Verhaeghen, P., Joormann, J., & Khan, R. (2005). Why we sing the blues: The relations between self-reflective rumination, mood, and creativity. Emotion, 5(2), 226-232.

For more on creativity and mood disorders:

Santosa, C. M., Strong, C. M., Nowakowska, C., Wang, P. W., Rennicke, C. M., & Ketter, T.A. (2007). Enhanced creativity in bipolar disorder patients: A controlled study. Journal of Affective Disorders, 100, 31-39.

Strong, C. M., Nowakowska, C., Santosa, C. M., Wang, P. W., Kraemer, H. C., & Ketter, T. A. (2007). Journal of Affective Disorders, 100, 41-48.

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