How Creative Are You, Compared to When You Were a Child?

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How creative are you now, compared to when you were a child?

A) More creative

B) About as creative

C) Less creative

For most people, the answer is (sadly) C. Children are famously more creative than grown-ups, more engaged in the world of imagination and in making connections where none existed before. But what if you could get some of that back? An interesting study by psychologists Darya Zabelina and Michael Robinson of North Dakota State University suggests a way: to think like a child.

Jonah Lehrer, author of one of my favorite blogs, The Frontal Cortex, describes the study as follows:

“The scientists took a large group of undergraduates and randomly assigned them to two different groups. The first group was given the following instructions:

“You are 7 years old. School is canceled, and you have the entire day to yourself. What would you do? Where would you go? Who would you see?”

The second group was given the exact same instructions, except the first sentence was deleted. As a result, these students didn’t imagine themselves as 7 year olds. They were stuck in their adolescent present.

After writing for ten minutes, the subjects were then given various tests of creativity, such as trying to invent alternative uses for an old car tire, or completing incomplete sketches… Interestingly, the students who imagined themselves as little kids scored far higher on the creative tasks, coming up with more ideas that were also more original. The effect was especially pronounced among “introverts,” who exert more mental energy suppressing their “spontaneous associations”. [Susan: the emphasis in this sentence is mine.]

Why does age make us less mature? Why accounts for the infamous 4th grade slump in creativity? One possibility is that we trade away the ingenuity of our youth for executive function. As the brain develops, the prefrontal cortex expands in density and volume. As a result, we’re able to exhibit impulse control and focused attention. The unfortunate side-effect of this cortical growth is an increased ability to repress errant thoughts. While many of these thoughts deserve to be suppressed, it turns out that we also censor the imagination. We’re so scared of saying the wrong thing that we end up saying nothing at all.”

I found this interesting, because it resonates with a lot of the research I’ve seen suggesting that introverts are less impulsive, more focused, and better able to delay gratification and stay on task in problem-solving tests. This is probably why they outperform extroverts in high school and college, even though their IQ scores are, on average, the same.

These are wonderful qualities, but what if they also get in the way of making associative leaps? What if they prevent us from saying — and creating — what we mean?

I think that I’ve instinctively tried to correct for this by sipping a latte when I write.  Caffeine is such a potent way of silencing the deleters and backspacers in my head that I don’t allow myself to drink it in any other context for fear of losing its magical effects.

Regular readers of this blog also know that I’m a strong advocate of doing creative work either in solitude or “alone together,” in libraries, cafes, and so on. I believe that many cognitive inhibitions are related to social life in one way or another. When we go off by ourselves, our minds become freer. We don’t have to spend energy “repressing errant thoughts,” as Lehrer puts it.

This applies to everyone, incidentally, not just introverts. Forty years of research on brainstorming has shown that individuals produce more and better ideas than groups do, in large part because in groups people are inhibited by something that psychologists call “evaluation apprehension” and that most people call peer pressure.

Also, the “fourth grade slump” in creativity that Lehrer refers to above — children experience a marked decline in creative powers around that age — is thought to be the result of the increased social obligations they assume at that stage of life. As kids devote more energy to conforming to the group, there’s less available for being their freewheeling selves.

If these ideas are right, then we should all be tapping into our third grade selves. If you’re so inclined, spend the next five minutes thinking about who you were back then — and let us know how this experiment affects you.


 

 


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14 Comments

  1. Paula on 26.05.2011 at 05:24 (Reply)

    Great post! Thanks. I am definitely as creative as I was at 7, but am far less likely to express it or act upon it, and now I know why: the “fourth grade slump”. Those “increased social obligations” or at least the perception that they were important slowly but effectively silenced me from that point on. I still had/have a rich inner life, but nothing of that life gets onto the page or canvas or is expressed out loud. For the longest time I thought that was okay; I mean, as long as I enjoy my imaginative leaps, who cares if I share them? But somehow the sharing is part of their beauty and power. Making that inner life real validates it somehow, confirms that I am who I think I am, not just the person who moves through each day in a world that doesn’t match what I am currently experiencing on the outside. Something to think about.

  2. Danielle on 26.05.2011 at 07:09 (Reply)

    I enjoyed writing poems and short stories back then and was actually good enough that my classmates would ask me to “do their grammar homework” for them. But all that came to an end when I learned to write business letters. For some odd reason, that immediately put an end to my creativity as if someone had turned the creative switch off in my head. I haven’t been able to turn it back on since then.

    So I’m one of those unfortunate Cs mentioned in your post.

  3. Jane London on 26.05.2011 at 08:42 (Reply)

    I love this post! I often look back on what I was like as a kid, to try and figure out what’s missing as a grown-up. Where was my joy, then and now? I think that I’m just as creative now, as when I was young, but it manifests in different ways.

    I love the studies on brainstorming. We joke on our radio show, that most of our best ideas/topics/solutions appear to us in the shower, rather than sitting around a table, desperately tossing out “ideas”. Revelations manfest when we’re thinking, and that usually does require solitude.

    At the risk of seeming like a blatant self-promoter, I wrote a couple of posts on my blog, Present Tense that tie in nicely with Susan’s post. If you click on my name, it’ll take you to my blog and the posts “The Best Tree Climber in the Neighborhood” and “You Are Creative” might be worth reading.

    Great info in this post. I’ve passed it along to a good friend who does writing workshops for kids.

  4. jeangreen on 26.05.2011 at 09:41 (Reply)

    At the 3rd grade level I was more of an introvert and probably more creative than I am now. I do pretend to be an extrovert in a crowd or group currently as I like to observe people and analyze their actions and words to determine if their words match up to their actions.

  5. Jim Kane on 26.05.2011 at 14:57 (Reply)

    A great post Susan thank you!
    I am working at re-developing my right brain. I think that I have always been more RB than LB. I am able, for the most part, to move between my extroversion and my introversion (my default setting is extroversion). I have intentionally pulled back my extroversion in order to allow introverts some breathing space. But your column also makes me wonder if in middle and later adulthood part of becoming a more ‘global’ person is that we seek to develop our other side.

  6. Sara Strzok on 26.05.2011 at 20:36 (Reply)

    I’m not convinced by the age link here. I’d be curious if the effect (more creativity) would be the same if the subjects were to imagine themselves in any hypothetical state (e.g., you are rich, you are on a dessert island, you are 90 years old). Perhaps it’s just having to exercise one’s imagination in that way — imagining yourself as you are not — that’s the trigger to creativity, not just imagining yourself young.

  7. Dork on 26.05.2011 at 20:59 (Reply)

    I’m definitely c. I became less creative in high school when I was just so busy with class and school activities. I’m trying to get myself to write more, but it’s so tough!

  8. Christy on 26.05.2011 at 23:38 (Reply)

    I think probably a large part of the great creativity of childhood is that child brains are more elastic and at the same time less full. The first years are an incredibly fertile time of learning and growing, whereas the adult years are more about using what has been learned and then remembering what has been used. In addition, children don’t have as many associations with the way things work and what things are as adults do, so they have more opportunity to make it up themselves.

    That said, I don’t believe I have lost any of the creativity I had as a child. It just comes out in different ways. I remain a creative and even a childlike person in some ways, and I attribute this to keeping a hold on my active imagination, frequent reading (including the books I loved as a child), constant fiction writing, and being curious about things. I think being an introvert only increases my creativity. I’m always thinking of six impossible things before breakfast.

  9. Angelina L on 28.05.2011 at 23:45 (Reply)

    I’ve never experienced the fourth grade slump. Rather, I started to read furiously at around the fourth grade, and I think I got MORE creative, rather than less creative. I am now approaching high school, and my imagination is as vivid as ever, but that’s probably because I do a lot of artsy / creative work. I find that school helps me to balance my mind, and having to go to maths and art classes in the same day helps me to ‘turn logic off’ and focus on creativity. Learning IS a creative process, and it often seeps into my maths, as I find unorthodox ways of solving problems on a consistent basis. It’s a compromise: I was never a maths person in the first place, but it works.

  10. Tamara on 27.06.2011 at 21:13 (Reply)

    Something just clicked in my mind when I read these two short paragraphs:
    “These are wonderful qualities, but what if they also get in the way of making associative leaps? What if they prevent us from saying — and creating — what we mean?
    I think that I’ve instinctively tried to correct for this by sipping a latte when I write. Caffeine is such a potent way of silencing the deleters and backspacers in my head that I don’t allow myself to drink it in any other context for fear of losing its magical effects.”
    I have that exact problem. I am an introvert and consider myself to be very creative. I’ve always enjoyed creating artwork and was often praised for my ideas and creative work. The visual art, such as drawing and painting, is what I enjoy the most. But I struggle because there is something preventing me from expressing it. I am analyzing it and processing everything way too much. I can’t simply turn off the introvert and just dive in. I need to turn it off in order to put something…anything, on a blank canvas.
    DO you have any suggestions or ideas on this topic: introversion and creativity, when introversion prevents you from expressing yourself fully.
    Coffee definitely helps! I have experienced this too. But do you have any other suggestions?
    Thank you!

    1. Susan Cain on 27.06.2011 at 21:22 (Reply)

      Great question! One thing that helps is pretending to yourself that no one but you will ever see the thing you’re working on. That takes care of whatever portion of your inhibition comes from fear of judgment. Another idea is to do your creative work every single day, so that it stops being A Big Deal and just becomes something you do, not worthy of so much over-thinking. I hope that helps!

  11. Tamara on 28.06.2011 at 12:52 (Reply)

    That is great advice, Susan! Thank you!
    I haven’t been able to put much down on paper or canvas for some time. I have heard of other people struggling with the same issue, but solutions are much harder to find.

    Thank you again!

    Tamara

  12. Roger Crane on 17.02.2012 at 13:02 (Reply)

    Dear Susan:

    Enjoyed immensely your interview on CBC morning program today prompting me to search web for your blog and book, Quiet, both of which I’m looking forward to reading.

    Best,

    Roger Crane

    February 17, 2012

    137 Mallory Beach Road
    Colpoys Bay, Ontario
    Canada

  13. barbara on 12.05.2012 at 09:47 (Reply)

    Interesting! It was in third grade that I became aware of my teacher’s response to my creative work. Until then, I was lost in my creative mind imagining “what could be” and then expressing it with the tools provided to the class. I immensely enjoyed our class time called Art. But that one day in third grade when my teacher came to my desk next to pick up my project, I saw a quizzical expression come over her face and then a look of disappointment took its place as she studied my piece. She offerred no words of praise to me but simply moved on to the next desk to continue collectiong the work. I knew then that my creations were not good enough, so from that point on I copied the example given of what we would be making that day in class. No longer would I express my interpretation of the art. Although I no longer received negative responses to my work, I no longer liked our Art class.

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