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. 🙂

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Becoming Wizards and Vampires

Click the link below to read a summary of a psych study that investigated our fundamental “need to belong” by measuring the degree to which undergraduates identified with wizards and vampires after reading an excerpt from either Twilight or Harry Potter:

http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/becoming-a-vampire-without-being-bitten-a-new-study-shows-that-reading-expands-our-self-concepts.html

What do you think of the findings? Do you agree with the C.S. Lewis quote–‘We read to know we are not alone?’

Personally, I’d much rather be a witch/wizard than a vampire… 🙂

Situations Matter

Heads up, psychology fans: award-winning professor of social psychology at Tufts University, Sam Sommers, has written a book that is available for pre-order now at http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1594488185/ref=cm_sw_r_fa_alp_IlMNnb0C4315B! It’s called Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World. Here’s a synopsis:

“The world around you is pulling your strings, shaping your innermost instincts and your most private thoughts. And you don’t even realize it.

Every day and in all walks of life, we overlook the enormous power of situations, of context in our lives. That’s a mistake, says Sam Sommers in his provocative new book, SITUATIONS MATTER (Riverhead Books, 12/29/11). Just as a viewer overlooks the frames around paintings, so do people overlook the influence of ordinary situations on the way they think and act. But frames – situations – do matter. Your experience viewing the painting wouldn’t be the same without them. The same is true for human nature.

In SITUATIONS MATTER, Sommers argues that understanding the powerful influence that context has in our lives and using these insights to rethink how we see the world makes us more effective at work, at home, and with others. He describes the pitfalls to avoid and offers insights into making better decisions and smarter observations about the world around us.”

 

Not only does the book sound cool, but the author is a great guy. Dr. Sommers is intelligent, witty, and great at softball (let’s hope the psychology department can beat the chemistry department again this year!). He’s also tech-savvy, so you can “LIKE” his author page on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/?q=#/sam.sommers.author?ref=ts or follow him on Twitter (@SamSommers). Did you know he also writes a popular blog for Psychology Today called “Science of Small Talk”? It’s true! Get a preview of his writing skillz here: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/science-small-talk (his blog posts are always entertaining as well as interesting and informative, so, after a little perusing, you’ll definitely want to pre-order Situations Matter).

As soon as I get my copy, I’ll add a review to the Bookshelf. But don’t wait on me…pre-order today!

After a long hiatus…

I can’t believe I haven’t made a post since November! Time really flies during the holiday season, I guess. It’s now 2011…another year full of opportunities and possibilities. (And snow–that seems to be a theme so far this year. How does the weather affect your creativity?) 

The new semester is underway, and I’m hard at work on my Master’s thesis. Posts may be sporadic this spring, but the blog is going to get a facelift once I graduate in May. I’m undergoing a personal transformation of sorts–viewing myself as a writer first and psychologist second, now, as opposed to the other way around–and my blog will reflect that change as I move forward.

Until I’m able to finish another research post, I’ll at least try to share a few thoughts here and there on the books I’m reading, the projects I’m working on, writing tips I come across, etc. Here are a couple of quotes to lead things off:

On Writing:

“I grew up in this town, my poetry was born between the hill and the river, it took its voice from the rain, and like the timber, it steeped itself in the forests.” ~Pablo Neruda

“A line will take us hours maybe; yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, our stitching and unstitching has been naught.” ~William Butler Yeats

On Creativity:

“The men of experiment are like the ant; they only collect and use. But the bee . . . gathers its materials from the flowers of the garden and of the field, but transforms and digests it by a power of its own.” ~Leonardo DaVinci

“I do not seek, I find.” ~Picasso

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! 🙂

Distraction vs. Downtime: Do You Ever Unplug?

Here’s a link to a great post entitled, “What Happened to Downtime? The Extinction of Deep Thinking and Sacred Space” (Scott Belsky): http://the99percent.com/articles/6947/what-happened-to-downtime-the-extinction-of-deep-thinking-sacred-space 

I think that many of us can relate to this post (some of my best ideas do hit me when I disconnect from technology for a bit, such as while I’m showering), and I particularly like #5 on the list of suggestions, which discusses the importance of preserving what Belsky calls the “state of no-intent.”

Check out the article, and then ask yourself a few questions: Do you ever go “unplugged”? Do you do it regularly? What would happen if you did? How do you think this would affect your creativity?

I’m going to give it a try myself this weekend, even if just for a few hours. (Wish me luck! :-P)
~Stacey

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.

“The Writer Who Couldn’t Read”

This NPR feature is a must-see for anyone interested in the brain and its role in our creative endeavors. It tells the story of a Canadian author who woke up one day, after unknowingly having suffered a stroke in the night, and discovered that he could no longer read. Naturally, he thought his writing career was over.

It wasn’t. 

Watch the video and read about his amazing story here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127745750

To Write or To Type: That Is The Question

I recently stumbled across a thought-provoking essay entitled “The Phenomenology of Writing by Hand” by Daniel Chandler.

He proposes that there are at least two different “types” of writers–Planners and Discoverers–and that these contrasting personalities might prefer different modes of expression (i.e. writing by hand vs. by word processer). In his words, “Planners tend to think of writing primarily as a means of recording or communicating ideas which they already have clear in their minds; Discoverers tend to experience writing primarily as a way of ‘discovering’ what they want to say.” He acknowledges that every writer is a bit of both–writing would be practically impossible without some planning beforehand (you must at least have the kernel of an idea to begin), and, on the flipside, it would be rare for an author to craft a story without discovering anything new along the way.

But if you had to choose, which do you identify with most strongly?

I, myself, am a Planner–I retell a story to myself over and over in my mind before I set the first words on the page. I believe this brings authenticity to my stories–they are not written until they are real–but I do not undervalue the sparks of discovery that the writing process inevitably ignites; sometimes the best moments in my stories occur when my characters take charge and do what they want, with complete indifference for my tidy outline.

The essay goes on to explore how these two orientations might differ in terms of  values, self-revision, editing, and language precision, as well as the role that writing tools (pens vs. pencils vs. word processers) play in this process. Here’s an excerpt:

“Different tools vary in the support they offer for revision, and their use tempers the experience. Writing by hand is not limited to the pen: the pencil is in some ways a quite different medium. Henry Petrosky (1989) suggests that the pencil is ‘the ephemeral medium of thinkers, planners, drafters and engineers, the medium to be erased, revised, smudged, obliterated, lost – or inked over,’ contrasting it with ink, which ‘signifies finality.’ It is a medium supportive of design. This may begin to explain why some literary writers prefer to begin in pencil. Hemingway wrote initial drafts in pencil: ‘You have to work over what you write. If you use a pencil… it keeps it fluid longer so that you can improve it easier’ (Strickland, 1989). Many writers, of course, experience a similar fluidity with the word processor. The word processor extends the malleability of the written word. Paper ‘sets’ text, but text on disc and screen is ‘wet’ and workable. Some writers enjoy this sense of fluidity. However, some report that the ease with which they can edit encourages them to be ‘sloppier’ or less critical than they feel they are with the pen or the typewriter (where words must be pre-considered). Some feel that the word processor encourages them to do too much editing, and leads to a loss of spontaneity. And as we shall see, some simply find screen-based text too ephemeral.” (Chandler)

I don’t have the time or space to summarize the entire essay (and it’s better to get it straight from the horse’s mouth, anyway–read the full text here: http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/short/phenom.html), but, based on what you’ve just read, I’ll leave you with a few questions to ponder: Do you write by hand, or by word processer? Could your choice of tool affect your creativity? What are the pros and cons of each mode of expression?

It’s been a LONG time since I’ve written by hand–I like to edit as I go, and I find that typing is a much quicker way to get my words on the page–but Chandler’s intriguing essay makes me wonder just what I might have to gain from reconnecting with the physical act of writing…

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.

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