Everybody knows the general story of Harry Potter. A teenage boy with magical powers saves the world from an evil serpent man. What makes this story so captivating? We find ourselves drawn into this fictional world because it is something that we have never seen or experienced before. It is creative.
Creativity has remained an enigma for ages. Scientists, philosophers, and religious leaders have all sought the root source of imagination. After all, creativity is what separates us from animals; it defines us as humans. Still, despite its abstract nature, creativity has been closely dissected and analyzed by researchers hoping to someday control innovation. From a psychological perspective, creativity, or “divergent thinking” is often broken down into components. J.P Guilford, a pioneer in creativity research, attempted to measure divergent production on the bases of fluency, originality, and elaboration. On the other hand, psychologist Teresa Amabile proposed that domain-relevant skills, quality processes, and intrinsic task motivation were key components of creativity. Psychological studies have also found that creativity is stimulated when we get a good night’s sleep, take long walks outside, and even when we take showers. These are interesting tricks to help us write stories, but they do not explain where exactly creativity comes from.
Unsatisfied neuroscientists have opted to take a closer look at a more tangible source of creativity: the brain. Dr. Alexander Schlegel, along with his team of Dartmouth researchers, used a fMRI scanner to directly analyze the workings of imagination, discovering a large cortical network across the brain. This network, termed the “mental workspace” was found to encapsulate 11 different neuronal regions, each of which has a unique connection to the rest of the brain (a connectivity “fingerprint”). As the network switches between these unique connections, visual representations and information are either manipulated or maintained, depending on the connection. In other words, the “mental workspace” works to produce new manipulations of imagery, ideas, and theories. Still, when looking at the foundations of neurobiology, creativity seems inexplicable. Our brain receives and processes signals, adapts through long-term potentiation, and stores the information, allowing us to recreate these sensations at a later time. But if our behaviors are based off of our past sensations and experiences, how does J.K. Rowling describe things that she’s never witnessed before? How do we create something out of nothing?
A noteworthy consideration is that creativity varies from person to person. The notion that some people simply have more creativity than others suggests that creativity is based on genetic differences in brain structure. However, creativity has also been found to be based upon one’s environment, situation, and context. In fact, creative ideas sometimes appear out of nowhere, yet are often elusive when needed. It appears almost as if creative thinking requires complex cognition but is completely distinct from the thinking process: a fusion of nature and nurture. Notably, Eric Hoffer said that “creativity is the ability to introduce order into the randomness of nature,” suggesting an innate human tendency to organize the world. After all, Newton defined a set of laws in a chaotic universe, Mozart composed music out of sounds, and Picasso painted art out of colors. Perhaps our mind uses creativity to arrange our environment in the same way that it arranges cognitive information.
Regardless of the approach or perspective, a scientific breakthrough that fully elucidates a psychological or even biological basis for creativity may allow society to progress at a faster rate. Of course, altering an individual’s sense of creativity could be considered akin to altering an individual’s self-concept and identity. The mind is the very essence of a human being, and we must be very careful when tampering with it. Nonetheless, by harnessing imagination, the world may experience immense improvements in problem-solving, enabling it to overcome obstacles and answer questions across all fields. In truth, if individuals could attain their own level of originality, we might all be able to discover our own Harry Potter.