Creativity, Learned or Innate? From a soulful poem to an ingenious experiment, what sparks the creative process? Is creativity something you're born with, or can it be learned? A look at the nature of creativity with neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen.
NPR logo

Creativity, Learned or Innate?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Creativity, Learned or Innate?

Creativity, Learned or Innate?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Up next this hour, a little inspiration. Perhaps if you're thinking about, you know, being creative and submitting some sort of photo to the National Science Foundation and trying to tap into your creative side, how can you stimulate that creative side? Just what is the creative side? What makes a perfect - a person creative? Is it nature or nurture, or is it a combination of the two? Can science tell us what is happening actually in your brain, perhaps in the DNA of creative people? Can you really measure creativity? I mean do you have to be a creative person to measure - can you measure your own - how do you decide what creativity is, and who is the judge of creativity? And, well, maybe it's time to face the fact that you're not going to write that great American novel.

My next guest says it is never too late to get those creative juices flowing. And she is Nancy Andreasen. She is the Andrew H. Woods chair of psychiatry and the director of the Mental Health Clinic Research Center at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. She's also author of "The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius." That's the hardcover version. They've changed the name in the paperback version to just "The Creative Brain." I guess they ran out of ink for the rest of the line. Same content, different name. She joins us from the studios of WSUI on the University of Iowa campus.

Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Andreasen.

Dr. NANCY ANDREASEN (Author, "The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius"): Nice to be with you, and thanks for getting all those titles straight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Why did they change the name, you know, like too long for paperback version?

Dr. ANDREASEN: I guess that was a decision that the publishers made, yeah.

FLATOW: Let's not even go there, OK...

Dr. ANDREASEN: (unintelligible)

FLATOW: ...about the publishing. This was certainly...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Let's talk about how do you define creativity? And you have certain definitions in your book to define what it means to be creative.

Dr. ANDREASEN: Yeah. You - as you suggested in the introduction, this is a somewhat controversial topic. There are two positions. One is that a person is considered to be creative if the peers in that person's field views him as creative. In other words, you have to have external recognition and validation of your work. I take a slightly different view because by that definition Van Gogh wasn't creative. Mendel wasn't creative. None of them got recognition in their lifetime. They didn't become creative until they were officially recognized much later. My own view is that creativity is an intellectual capacity that's not directly related to intelligence. And it is capacity of seeing new things, new relationships, create novel things, and it spreads across the arts and sciences.

FLATOW: You said an important statement there, I thought; it's not related to intelligence. You made pains to point out in your book that you don't have to be a genius to be creative.

Dr. ANDREASEN: That's right. I mean there's the stereotype that a genius is somebody with a very high IQ, and the point I make is the genius is somebody who has the capacity to think outside the box and have original ideas, produce beautiful things, things that are useful to society and so on.

FLATOW: Well, that's an interesting - another interesting point you make is that it's one thing to be, you know, have highfalutin type of dreams. But to be creative, you have to produce something of use. You just can't think about how, you know, how things might work. But a creative person actually comes up with a product or something utilitarian.

Dr. ANDREASEN: Yeah. I mean the utility may only be to warm people's hearts or inspire them. It may be the utility of the automobile or the airplane, or the Internet or all the other technology that is around us. But I think the utility has to be conceptualized broadly so that the arts are included.

FLATOW: How do you measure creativity? Is there a test for creativity?

Dr. ANDREASEN: Well, you know, you eluded that in your introduction; historically, there were efforts to create test and creativity. And I think basically most people think they failed because it's not really possible to capture the ability to be creative with a test. That person who invents the test, as you suggested, has to be more creative than creative people, and generally they are less creative.

The test is, you know, can you give a test like that to somebody when they're, say, 10 years old or 15 years old or whatever and predict who's going to be creative 10 or 20 years later. Those tests that were invented just failed miserably. They have no predictive validity at all.

FLATOW: We're going to talk lots more with Nancy Andreasen, author of “The Creating Brain.” The old title had the “The Neuroscience of Genius” attached to it, but now in paperback it's “The Creating Brain,” an excellent book. With Nancy Andreasen, who started her out life out in the arts. We'll see how she jumped over to the science section, and maybe she has both sides of her brain creating like most of us don't. So stay with us. We'll talk to her lots more about her book. Don't go away.

(Soundbite of music)


(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour with Nancy Andreasen, who actually was awarded the National Medal of Science in 2000 by President Clinton. Her latest book is “The Creating Brain.” Our number 1-800-989-8255.

Before the break, I was mentioning that Dr. Andreasen started out as a professor of Renaissance literature, that's what she got her Ph.D. in at Iowa. So how did you make that crossover from literature to science? Was it difficult for you? And what interests you in both fields?

Dr. ANDREASEN: Well, actually, the crossover wasn't all that difficult. What is interesting about it is that I was deeply trained into the humanities and discouraged from doing science by, you know, everybody in the world around me. It was a personal decision to switch careers, go into medicine, basically based on the belief that I could do more with my - whatever innate inabilities I have to (unintelligible) silly as it sounds, I guess; I could do more to help other people in a field like medicine and science.

And so I made the transition, and what I discovered was that I had a tremendous gift for science that I would never have known about had I not made that change. So I am I guess somebody who's intellectually ambidextrous, good at two different fields. I realized I have a real aptitude for math and physics, for example. And my husband and I sometimes say what might have happened if anybody had encouraged me as a high school student to do more math and physics. It has big implications for our educational system and also for just general stereotyping of women.

FLATOW: Yeah. If we could find, you know, stimulate people earlier in life…


FLATOW: …who are like, you know, people told you you were nuts to do this. What do they know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. ANDREASEN: You need people to do - yeah. Yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah. And they thought you'd crash and burn when you do this.

Dr. ANDREASEN: They absolutely did. Absolutely. It was a real struggle to get accepted in medical school even though I had four-point in a era before great inflation and high MCAT scores and so on. But the belief was I was a married woman with a child. I didn't belong in medical school. And, you know, I guess I can laugh at them now.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. I also find interesting your definition of creativity - down through the ages it's true about how all this people like, sort of like yourself were shunned. You know, they did not receive the applause of their peers in their lifetimes.

Dr. ANDREASEN: One of the most important things that I think about is how many people have creative capacities that just don't have a chance to express them. That's one of the reasons I dedicated the book to the lost geniuses of the past, in the hope that there will be more found in the future. We must have all over the world gifted people who don't do anything just for lack of opportunity and nurture.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's see what some of listeners have to say. John(ph) in Chicago. Hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

JOHN (Caller): Hi. Really interesting show. This is fascinating stuff. I was lucky enough to, you know, here in Chicago, be trained in improv for 10 years with some really cool people. And I seem to think that creativity is a learned thing. I was not as creative as I was 10 years before I started improv, but at the end of it I find my creativity to be at an all-time high now. So I'd just like to hear what you thought about that.

FLATOW: Dr. Andreasen, can you learn creativity?

Dr. ANDREASEN: Well, you can surely learn ways to be more creative. Yes. And I think what you experienced in learning improv would be a good example. You undoubtedly have the capacity to begin with, or you wouldn't be doing well at it now. But I don't know what you were thought, specifically. But, yes, of course, people can improve their ability to be creative.

JOHN: Well, I think one of the basic things in improv that we learn is two little words: Yes, and - and that's always springboards to something. It seems so stupid and so simple, but those two little words springboard you into another world. And just getting that in your head and the repetition of it has made me much more creative around my peers and my co-workers. It's been just the most helpful two little words that anybody can learn.

Dr. ANDREASEN: Well, that's good advice.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling, John.

JOHN: Thank you.

FLATOW: Can you tell what's going on in the mind of a person when they're in the creative process? Are there similar processes happening in musicians or artists or scientists when they're creating something, Dr. Andreasen?

Dr. ANDREASEN: Well, in the book, I talk about first-person accounts from a variety of different creative people such as Mozart and Poincare, and there is a very common theme, which is what happens in the brain is almost a-ha-like experience. You can't force it to happen. It typically occurs when you're in a state of, you know, kind of almost altered consciousness - walking, swimming, daydreaming. And suddenly an idea that you've been thinking about in the background crystallizes and an answer emerges. So that is kind of the nature of the creative process.

FLATOW: Also, things happens subconsciously. You talk about some cases where people may be having a dream or something and they're interrupted and, you know, they forget a lot of what - they don't write it down at once. And they're sorry they didn't write it down till they lost a whole out of the stuff; they go back and they can't remember it.

Dr. ANDREASEN: Yeah. Yeah. The book starts with the famous example of Coleridge writing “Kubla Khan,” which he subtitled “Vision in a Dream.” And, you know, what you described is exactly what happened. He composed a poem, woke up, started to write it down. There was a knock out of the door and he left, came back, and he lost it all.

FLATOW: Had he - lost. Wow. I understand you talked with Neil Simon at length and he described the creative process to you - what he goes through.

Dr. ANDREASEN: Yeah. I mean what I described there is just typical of almost all creative people. They don't know necessarily what the end is going to be before they start. It's, you know, it's kind of an unconscious process. And he actually said, you know, when I write, it's as if the muse sits on shoulder. It's, you know, the ideas just flow from my brain to my pen. I don't know how it happens.

And I never know what the end of a play is going to be until I finished it. And lots and lots and lots of writers have exactly that experience. And again this has interesting implications for education because people who teach writing, you know, train people to do an outline. For me, personally, I always thought that was so frustrating and I would have to write my paper and then produce the outline after I've written the paper because I didn't know what I was going to say until I said it. And so I think, you know, in our educational system, we need to be thinking sort of more creatively about how to teach people how to write. Not everybody needs an outline.

FLATOW: That could be part of the terror of the blank page.


FLATOW: Where you think you have to start at A, and if you can't get started, you can't do B to C or Z.


FLATOW: When you might start in the middle or the end and work backwards.

Dr. ANDREASEN: There are personality traits that characterize creative people, and one is just sheer persistence. I mean not everybody has a great - who is creative - has a great idea every minute of every day. But people who are creative also force themselves to work. When they don't - when they have that blank page in front of them, they have to terror but they put words on it. You know. The other thing about people who are creative is that they push the limits. They get rejected. They have the, you know, the pain of rejection. They still keep going. They're curious. They're loads of fun to interview and work with because, you know, they're just bubbling with ideas all the time.

FLATOW: Yeah. We had Steve Wozniak on the show a few weeks, and he was just all over the - you know, he was just - like a push a button and he goes. And he's a terribly creative guy.

Dr. ANDREASEN: Yeah. I had one of the most creative people in the world here in Iowa City as a subject in the imaging study I'm doing. Literally, he got off the plane, started talking, and he talked continuously for two and a half days. I scarcely got a word in.

FLATOW: Wow. Wow. Do you find that because you do that, that a lot of creative people are social outcasts because they're so into what they're thinking about?

Dr. ANDREASEN: Well, I don't think so. I mean it depends on which society you're in.


Dr. ANDREASEN: You could be a social outcast if you're around people who don't appreciate originality. But among original people, it's great fun to listen to somebody who has brilliant ideas.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones. Will(ph) in Grizzly Flat, California. Never heard of that town. Where is that near?

WILL (Caller): That's - you know where Sacramento is? It's up towards Lake Tahoe?


WILL: Between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe.

FLATOW: Beautiful.

WILL: Sierra Nevada. Here's something - I don't know if it's a question, a concern or - anyway, I'm an old buzzard now.

FLATOW: Well you live in Grizzly Flat - I'm sorry. Go ahead.

WILL: Yeah. Well, here's my - I have had, I believe, a creative streak in me most of my life. And I guess my question is I see it in my grandchildren, I kind of was too busy working and, you know, creating - making a living for our family before, so I didn't have the outlet. But I see it in my children a lot of creativity. Mine was basically stifled. I don't know if it's a cultural thing or whatever, but I was pushed into a field that I really couldn't express myself the way I wanted to. So I became frustrated, and I believe in my older years I think I have adult ADHD or something. Something is going on. I'm wondering how much of the ADHD or ADD has contributed to having a stifled creative process. Does that make sense?

Dr. ANDREASEN: Well, it is a little complicated as a question.

FLATOW: Let me just give her - let me give Nancy some breathing room because one of the rules we try to enforce on SCIENCE FRIDAY is we do not ask our guests to prescribe or diagnose our listeners.

WILL: Right.

FLATOW: But she'll give you a general kind of - you know.

WILL: Yeah, I know. It's not about me anyway. But…

FLATOW: You know, okay.

WILL: …wondering about, you know, there's so much to express and it kind of backs up - it becomes frustrating.

FLATOW: Do you feel like you have stuff you want to express now, that you can't express?

WILL: Oh, man, I have so much stuff I want to express. I would have to be up 36 hours a day with a pen and paper or some way of expressing it. It just doesn't stop.

FLATOW: Are you writing this down? Are you speaking or is there - any -

WILL: Ha! I'm writing it down, I've got Post-its everywhere. I've got notebooks with all kinds of (Unintelligible). I mean I'd have to be - I'd have to live to be a thousand years to express these things. It's driving me nuts.

FLATOW: Nancy, any comments.

Dr. ANDREASEN: Well, I would say, first of all, that I believe creativity is a capacity that we can use throughout our lives. And if you were stifled earlier, you still may be able to do something interesting now. But fix something -don't have Post-its all over everywhere with no focus. Pick a particular thing and work on it and pursue it and persist in it, because that is -

WILL: You mean be disciplined?


(Soundbite of laughter)

WILL: And you hadn't made a comment that a lot - most creative people are persistent. Is that if you're creative, you have to persistent? Or it's just that a lot of them that have become creative have the persistence and then just won't stop until they have a - they put something - a product out to market or wrote a song or book or what?

Dr. ANDREASEN: Yeah, you know, I mean typically creative people get rejected because they are ahead of the curve, and they have to keep on, you know, getting knocked down and standing back up and saying I'm going to do this. And you know, take somebody like Tucker, the car manufacturer, way ahead of the curve. I mean there are people all around us who are exemplars of originality that had to persist in order to realize some dream. Lots of us in science have the same experience.

FLATOW: Talking with Nancy Andreasen, author of “The Creating Brian,” this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

I'm Ira Flatow talking about what makes creativity - you do mention that persistence and actually staying up a long time - getting - working and working and working until you get the job done, you know, oblivious to what's going around you is a trait of creative people.

Dr. ANDREASEN: That's right. One of the…

FLATOW: So they…


FLATOW: So they may be scattered, but when they focus on something they're finishing it.

Dr. ANDREASEN: Yeah. One of my favorite examples is Michelangelo when he was in his ‘80s. He just still had so much work yet to do that he often worked all night. He devised a hat that he could wear with candles on it so that he would, you know, work all night with his chisel and be able to see in the dark on what he was actually doing.

FLATOW: And that's true of scientists too.

Dr. ANDREASEN: Oh, absolutely. I mean my science friends - I have a lot of very creative science friends - most of us work 16 hours a day and we often work seven days a week because we so much want to solve all these problems.

FLATOW: Can we inspire creativity in children? What would you suggest, how to do that? I mean our kids are sitting in front of their laptops or their video games and whatever.

Dr. ANDREASEN: I think thinking about ways to help our children be more creative is, you know, one of the - another one of the very important social and educational questions that we face. I think there are things that can very much enhance creativity, and a lot of it involves, well, variability, not over-scheduling them, giving them free time to think and observe. I'm a big believer in getting kids outdoors to look at the natural world. If we think of the history of very creative people like Darwin or Galton or, you know, most of the great scientists of the last century were naturalists, first and foremost. So getting them out in the natural world, getting them to play creatively.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. ANDREASEN: Just a bunch of things. And if I - you know, it's the obvious stereotype: Don't park them in front of a TV set to keep them entertained. Reading, I mean interactive reading, getting them - asking questions with them. You know, where's the light in a light bulb come from. Why does a balloon stick to your head if you rub it against your clothes?

There's just all kinds of questions that you can raise. For a 4-year-old, what does it mean to be 30 feet long? How many times would your grandmother have to lie on the floor to make a line that's 30 feet long? You know, fun little things that will get him to think outside the box.

FLATOW: And trying not to discourage them when they're being creative.

Dr. ANDREASEN: Absolutely, yeah. I mean this is another thing about our educational system. It becomes so regimented that, you know, kids are taught to pass exams rather than to think originally. And we are going to lose kids, you know, probably our best and maybe our brightest, but certainly our best creative people are going to be bored in school, you know, if they're so regimented.

FLATOW: Talking with Nancy Andreasen, author of “The Creating Brian.” That's out in paperback. The hardcover was “The Creating Brian: The Neuroscience of a Genius.” And we're going to come back and we'll spend a few more minutes with Nancy, and then we're going to switch gears and talk of - continue our hour of creativity and talk about Jackson Pollock and fractals. And how some scientists, mathematicians believe that you can fingerprint paintings with fractal geometry. So stay with us, we will be right back after the short break.

(Soundbite of music)


(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

A brief program note: Coming up on Monday, join Neal Conan for an exclusive live performance with the musician you used to know as Cat Stevens. He gave up that name and rock & roll 28 years ago, and now under the name of Yusuf Islam he has a new album out. And on Monday, he performs live and takes your call. I don't think he will be performing while he's taking the calls. I think he performs live, then we'll take your calls. And that's Monday on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

This hour, we're finishing up our conversation with Nancy Andreasen, who is the author of “The Creating Brain,” and we're talking with her about creativity. You're a practicing psychiatrist. You work with patients experiencing mental illness. We hear so often that genius and madness go hand in hand. What's your opinion on that? I'm thinking of people like Vincent van Gogh, people like that who, you know.

Dr. ANDREASEN: Of course. You know, there's definitely a connection. I did actually the first objective empirical study of the relationship looking at people at the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop, a study that I did in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I interviewed a total of 30 of them about their own history of mental illness and that in their families, as well as the history of creativity in their families.

And I did not expect the findings that I obtained, which was that a very high percentage of them suffered from depressive illness or bipolar illness at some time in their lives. And they had a higher rate in their families and they had a higher rate of creativity. And subsequently, other have done a similar study and replicated it. So it's fairly solid that creativity in the arts, at least in writers, is related to instability of mood.

FLATOW: Let me give you one last…


FLATOW: I'm sorry, go ahead.

Dr. ANDREASEN: I wanted to add one important thing, though. These writers, though they had episodes of mood disorder, were mostly normal in between their episodes and almost universally they said that they would prefer not to have mood disorder, that it impaired their creativity rather than enhanced it. That's to get rid of the stereotype of romanticizing the mad genius.

FLATOW: Right. I got you. I want to thank you taking time to be with us, Dr. Andreasen. And good luck to you on your book.

Dr. ANDREASEN: Thank you. I've got to get back to being creative in my research right now.

FLATOW: Well, I'm sure you will. Nancy Andreasen is author of “The Creating Brian,” and she was talking with us from WSUY on the University of Iowa campus.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.