Why Science Can’t Measure Creativity

In a very interesting interview on the radio program “Studio 360,” NYU psychologist Gary Marcus says he’s skeptical of attempts to scientifically define and measure creativity:

“’[High scores on tests of creativity] correlate somewhat with actual achievement. It’s like measuring someone’s height and saying, “Are they going to be a good basketball player?” he said. “On average, taller people are better basketball players. But it’s an average, and it’s a pretty indirect measure.’

The key problem for all scientific approaches to creativity, Marcus thinks, is that creativity isn’t one thing. There is no box in the brain.

Instead, he sees an interplay of personality traits and particular aptitudes that develop over time.

‘I think I’m creative as a scientist and as a writer. I’m not creative as an artist or as a musician,’ he said, although he writes music. [Marcus is the author of the book Guitar Zero, about learning to play a musical instrument as an adult.]

Being good at songwriting, or any other field, involves too many separate skills and abilities for science to locate what is happening, he said. But components of the skill might be definable.

‘Being good at rhymes — that might be a fine enough ability that science could (one day) nail it down, and say “this is how the brain gets good at rhyme,”‘ he said.

Marcus emphasized that mastering conventions of a field (and when to break them) is a key component of art making.

But ‘part of creativity,’ he said, “is just the guts to break the rules.”

He wants creative scientists working in his own lab, of course.

‘The thing I care about the most is: are they troubleshooters, problem solvers? In the real world of science, nothing ever goes as planned, and you want people who sit there and try to fix it,’ he said.

This is true in aspects of art making as well, he points out.

‘You try out a chord structure and it doesn’t work. Either you sit there and look at it, or you say “How can I make this better?”‘ he said.” (Read more here.)

There’s a lot of wisdom here about what goes in to creativity. I would add that it’s not only the “an interplay of personality traits and particular aptitudes” that produces creativity, but also the interplay of those things with the world at large, with the zeitgeist. Creativity isn’t only internal; it engages with society and with the cultural moment.

One Response to “Why Science Can’t Measure Creativity”

  1. Rick Peters says:

    Well said! it has been my experience, however, that the public doesn’t “like” interactive models–to complicated and messy for most… They want ratings, on an A–F scale, if possible.

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