A Giant Web in the Brain—The Science of Creativity

I just spent several days in Tijuana, Mexico, doing volunteer medical work. My favorite site when I travel there is a community the volunteers fondly call ‘the dump’.

Yes, a real city dump. We set up a portable medical clinic at the site of the landfill, a place of extreme poverty, where, over time, a shanty town has risen from the trash-filled ground. Literally. Dig down a few inches anywhere and it’s someone else’s garbage.

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Pepenadores—waste pickers—are people from the community who make their living picking through the trash left by dump trucks. Almost everything they have, wear, or eat comes from the dump. In the garbage, families find what they need to survive.

But this outcast community is an amazing place. As I make my way past a row of homes I’m stunned by the ingenuity of the people. They’ve built everything they need from junk that was uncovered in the landfill.

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Example of artistic construction from junk. Tio’s Tacos, Riverside, CA. A wall is built from bottles, bottle caps, and cement. The restaurant’s owner grew up in Mexico in extreme poverty and he continues to re-use and re-purpose junk.

Houses on the landfill are pieced together from tarps, pallets, plywood, corrugated metal, and even old garage doors. Furniture is constructed using everything imaginable from buckets to tires. And art that can be sold is created from things like bottle caps, glass, and oil cans. It would seem ‘Dump city’ is a perfect example of creativity as a result of necessity, where everything thrown away is re-used, re-cycled and re-purposed.

So I began wondering about creativity and ingenuity. How can a community so impoverished be so creative to make everything they need from only the items they find? So many people living in America couldn’t even deal with that sort of existence, let alone survive.

Is creativity something one is born with or is it born of necessity? Is it a game of life where either you’ve got it or you don’t? What is creativity, anyway?

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Mexican art from junk, Tio’s Tacos, Riverside, CA. This is a bench made from a discarded bed frame.
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Mexican art from junk, Tio’s Tacos, Riverside, CA. Light fixture made from a tin can.

At the end of the clinic day, I walk the paths across the landfill. There are no sewers nor garbage collection on the dump. Electricity is stolen from nearby electrical poles and the dirt roads are pockmarked with mud-filled holes. There are no city services in an illegal town.

When there’s a rain storm, the hillsides bleed trash. Needles and bottles, plastic utensils and doll’s arms poke out of the mud like broken bones from an open wound.

Garbage tumbles into the ravines below, and mangy, stray dogs and wild chickens roam the debris. American volunteers see an abundance of trash, but the people living there see raw materials to make something they need.

Fires can erupt from the methane produced by decomposing trash, and when they do, homes are destroyed. Then the people, with unbelievable optimism, start over, fabricating new homes and new furniture from junk they salvage, and they continue their lives, but their lives are always difficult.

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Even though they’re living on top of decades worth of trash, there’s a cemetery on the landfill where the dead are buried. The graves are piles of dirt or cement slabs, but families have planted trees, painted many of the slabs with bright colors and fabricated decorations. Walk through the graveyard in November and it’s gorgeous. Nearly every gravesite is beautifully decorated with flowers, offerings, and handmade religious items, all in celebration of El Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

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Mexican art, Tio’s Tacos, Riverside, CA. A painted skeleton head is often seen during Day of the Dead celebrations.

Every path I walk in the landfill community there is evidence of creativity despite the heavy burden of poverty. This phenomenon doesn’t happen only in the Tijuana dump. Across the world, especially in poorer countries, art is often the first commodity created, made from whatever the people have around them and sold on the streets to tourists.


Teaser of the upcoming documentary film “Landfill Harmonic”

In Paraguay, people living on a landfill have used the trash to create musical instruments. Their instrumental music is now available everywhere on the globe and a movie about them is in the works. Constructing instruments from junk and then playing them beautifully is real creativity!

So, how is creativity in such deprived areas explained?

Is necessity the mother of invention?

Sort of. But there’s more to invention than just necessity. According to scientist Jonathan Schattke, who is often quoted on this subject, “Necessity is the mother of invention, it is true, but its father is creativity, and knowledge is the midwife.”

The latest science agrees, suggesting there are many factors that go into invention and creation. Need plays a role, like in Tijuana, but studies suggest that creativity entails a lot more.

Is creativity a right brain activity?

Neuroscience has given us new insights about creativity, clarifying what it is, and more importantly, how to enhance it. Creativity is not located solely in one spot on the right side of the brain. We can no longer use the excuse to explain away someone else’s creativity as, “Well, they were just born with it.”

MRI studies (where people solve riddles or brain teasers, create rap lyrics, draw or otherwise improvise inside the MRI machine) show that when a person is being creative the brain lights up in many, many locales—not in a single spot on the brain’s right side. All over the brain, right and left, these illuminated areas are associated with facts, experiences, motor activity, emotions, knowledge, and memories.

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It would seem, everything we have ever experienced is involved in our creativity.

Studies show that creativity is exactly that, a spark, a new and unique connection between two or more spots in our brains. A person who has a greater number of points (call them memories, facts, experiences) in their brain to draw upon is much more likely to have that new and unusual connection, that spark of creativity.

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A brain with few facts and experiences can only make a few ordinary connections.
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A brain with many facts and experiences can make more connections, especially more unique connections.

What about kids?

On the Tijuana landfills, children often work alongside their families. They collect and try to sell to strangers all sorts of items they’ve found or made. These kids aren’t old enough to have a lot of knowledge or experiences, so why do children everywhere seem to have a tremendous amount of creativity without a lot of knowledge?

Kids often connect their dots randomly and therefore stumble into creativity. Their thinking isn’t rigid about what experience is supposed to connect with which fact. They are more likely to make spontaneous and wild connections, which adults see as creative. Those same adults tend to suppress any odd ball connections they might have.

But, studies show that by third grade the ability to connect random dots in a creative or unusual manner decreases. One of the theories thrown out there is that kids are limited by a growing awareness of rules and regulations. Others say it could be the educational system. And as kids get even older, the peer pressure to fit into an accepted mold discourages both creativity and individuality.

So how are we supposed to counter those forces in order to maintain or encourage childhood creativity?

The answer seems to be in providing kids with creative outlets. Scientists suggest asking them open-ended questions, playing ‘what-if’ games, and giving them problems that require creativity in solving, such as riddles or situations where the answers aren’t obvious. What can they make from three random objects or what can they draw from a squiggle on a piece of paper?

Take kids to new places and provide them with lots of knowledge, information, and experiences to populate their brains. Encourage curiosity. Follow the ants to see where they go instead of stepping on them. Help kids build a repository of memories and then let them freely explore the ideas that result.

How can a person enhance his or her own creativity?

Most Americans don’t have survival as the impetus to be creative like the people who live on the landfill. But for those whose job requires creativity or who have a creative hobby, what can be done to enhance it? Science tells us a number of ways we can stimulate our own creativity.

Make more dots that can be connected across a wide range of knowledge and experience.

Discoveries, inventions, and creative ideas come from synthesizing information across different fields and building on the works of others. Most creative or scientific breakthroughs come from people who have been learning about their own field for many years. Studies suggest it takes approximately ten years worth of experiences or knowledge in any given area to be able to invent or create something really new and innovational.

But all experiences count. It’s easy to see how important it is to create a storehouse of knowledge and memories that we can draw upon later, providing our brains with a web of opportunities to spark that unique connection.

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Be optimistic.

No matter how hard they have it, most people living on the Tijuana landfills are optimistic, always hoping for a better life. Studies show that being positive works alongside knowledge and experience to boost creativity and ingenuity. Realizing that first ideas are often worthless (the simple, easy connections in the brain), we should push ourselves further until we have that flash of genius (combining ordinary ideas in extraordinary ways).

Take a shower (But keep a waterproof notepad handy).

There are many anecdotes about how someone got an idea or an answer to a problem in the warm relaxation of the shower or bathtub. One of the ideas for the Hubble telescope folding arms came to its engineer while taking a shower. Greek scientist Archimedes was stepping into a bathtub when the principle of fluids came to him. Creativity doesn’t blossom under pressure. We need to relax. A shower does that.

Have some alone time.

Inventor and engineer Nikola Tesla said that to be alone is the secret of invention, that working or relaxing alone is where ideas are born. Often daydreaming and pondering without interruption triggers those obscure connections we seek.

Take a walk.

Taking a walk helps us get away from our problem for awhile. It also allows our subconscious to work on testing connections without putting up barriers. Once all the raw material is loaded into our mind, we need to allow it to incubate while we take a slow pleasant walk. Listen to the birds. Smell the flowers along the way. Eureka! The answer to our problem has appeared to us, like magic.

Take a trip or live in a foreign country.

The American Psychological Association was the first to study the links between living abroad and creativity. It found that foreign travel was like thinking outside the box, expanding one’s experiences and knowledge and boosting creativity. After living many years in Paris, the Spanish artist Picasso created Cubism only after he spent time studying art in Africa.

Take a nap.

Wasn’t Sir Isaac Newton relaxing/napping under an apple tree when an apple fell on his head? Was it the nap or the experience of the apple conking him in the head that sparked his first ideas about gravity? Or both?

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Napping works. A power nap of twenty minutes helps alertness and motor skills. A ‘REM sleep’ nap of sixty minutes or longer can boost your memory, energy, and especially creativity, helping you solve those creative problems. On the other hand, sleep deprivation has been proven to stifle creativity and problem solving.

Then there’s Google.

We’ve all heard of Google employee job perks—a place to take a nap, music, serene grounds to stroll through, a basketball court, library, and gym, etc.  Well, it turns out, these types of diversions are the very things science says will trigger those sparks of genius that the Google employees are known for. Google is correct. These diversions may not be perks at all, but a necessity for creativity.

Finally…

Is creativity something one is born with?
No. Anyone from any background can be creative. Given enough knowledge and experiences to build upon, almost anyone could create something unique or innovational. The goal is to pack your brain with facts and experience which you can draw upon later when you need it.

Is creativity in a specific spot in the right side of the brain?
No. In an MRI scan, the brain lights up in multiple places during creative activities. The brain draws upon all the experiences, memories and knowledge the person has to reach a solution.

Can creativity be enhanced?
Yes. We can increase the number of possible connections in our brain. That means we must see more, learn more, do more, feel more. When we need a creative idea, we allow our subconscious to work on making those connections. Relax. Take a shower. Take a nap. Take a walk or even a trip.

The spark of an idea or the answer to a problem can come in any moment, in peace and quiet, in a diversion or in physical activity, so keep your phone or notepad handy.

JellyFishSharkCollageTijuana graffiti – Jellyfish, Shark, and Turtle

 

I created this post after visiting a foreign country, walking my dogs—and then taking a nap.

How do you boost your creativity?

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Kathryn Sant is a retired obstetrician who has witnessed the births of thousands of future readers. She has published a middle-grade novel, Desert Chase (Scholastic), and under the pseudonym BBH McChiller she is a co-author of the fun, spooky Monster Moon mystery series. Curse at Zala Manor is the first book in the series, Secret of Haunted Bog is the second title, and the upcoming Legend of Monster Island will be the third. She is currently working on two middle-grade boys’ adventure novels and the next Monster Moon book.

Her interest in adventure, research, and genealogy has led to a love of world travel, exotic adventures, and museums of all kinds. But she also enjoys quiet evenings reading with her dogs at her side.

 

 

21 thoughts on “A Giant Web in the Brain—The Science of Creativity

  1. Fascinating post, Kathy! Thank you for sharing all this valuable info about creativity and how the people of Dump City put their creativity to use. I love the photos and diagrams. I’ll share this post with all the parents, teachers, and creative people I know! Well done! 🙂

  2. Brilliant piece! There’s so much about our own brains we don’t understand. I think it’s fascinating to study the thing we use to study 😉 Now, time to take a nap!

  3. Thanks, Lynn. I hope all parents and teachers want to instill creativity in their kids. Future ingenuity, culture and invention depends on it.

  4. This post was so unique. Thanks, Kathy! I love all of your creativity tips at the end. I’ve drawn on or employed them all at one time or another, but I’ve found I really jump start my creativity when I exercise. Your post was also a reminder for me to be thankful for what I have.

  5. Loved reading this, and I’m with Alan, the nap section was especially validating. I also completely concur with the shower tip. That has happened to me often in the past. Thank for the post.
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  6. What an amazing post! And the accompanying photos are wonderful. I really want one of those benches with the beautiful eyes. Thanks so much for all the work you put into this. I’ve shared and tweeted so others can read such an interesting take on creativity.

  7. Michelle and Lois, thanks.
    I agree, exercise then take a nice shower afterwards and you are definitely ready to go write!

  8. “Anyone can be creative” YES
    Thank you!
    Sure some are born with certain talents but anyone can create and can learn to create better. Optimism, persistence, and a belief that we can.
    Gardening helps me write better. Writing encourages me to get out and dig in the dirt. Both help me maintain my sanity and CREATE
    But napping? Hmmm. I think I could get into that as well

  9. Kathy,
    Thank you for an inspiring post. I especially like the napping suggestion. 🙂 NY Times best-selling author David Farland suggests thinking about story plot issues as you drift off to sleep so that your subconscious can work on it while you sleep. I have done this several times and have found that when I start writing again, a solution comes.
    I love it when it works out like that.

    1. Monique,
      Definitely, I think many writers have that experience, and if you don’t have a notepad handy, then it’s sometimes tough to remember those brilliant solutions that appeared during twilight sleep.

  10. Darlene, I bet you will have many wonderful adventures in Spain and will have a treasure trove of memories when you return.Thanks for reading.

  11. Hey Kathy, what a fantabulous post! I truly loved reading your words and looking at the pics. You’re right. Anyone can be creative. It is NOT something we’re born with. And it must be nurtured. It looks like your life has been full of nurturing the creativity. I boost mine by riding my horses. Nothing better. That’s where I solve all my writing problems. Thanks for all the time it took to write this. I learned a lot!

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