What Is the Motivation for High-Level Creativity?

Creative outcomes are not accidental but are highly motivated.

Posted Dec 16, 2020

In my expositions of scientific creativity, I have emphasized the strong passions of outstanding scientists like Einstein, Darwin, Yukawa. Other scientists in the chosen 45 science Nobel laureate subject group I have interviewed spoke of exceptional devotion to the solving of their chosen enigmas and a great sense of relief and often elation at the realization of completion and success. There are likely many reasons for each scientist's strong emotional involvement with a particular exploration as well as, given the value of the solutions, understandable positive emotion on the reaching of the goal.

For Einstein and Darwin, particularly, the passion was connected with the relevance of the problem to all of their scientific work up to that point. Why these, and other scientists, choose to work on particular problems is surely in part a result of the knowledge and conceptual understanding of the problem's importance in their fields. Some writers, in fact, have emphasized the role of what they call "problem finding" in creative scientific work.

It should be noted, however, that the choice of a field and a particular research endeavor has sometimes been virtually accidental or circumstantial, even for leading scientists; almost invariably, such choices have been later followed by deep interest, and in the cases of outstanding creative accomplishment, dedication and zeal. Other factors, in addition to knowledge and conceptual understanding, are operative with the early or late choice of a particular scientific problem.   

Problem finding is a significant factor for the valuable or value aspect of creative achievement. Knowledge of the field guides a scientist who is so disposed to the choice and involvement with a problem having important and far-reaching consequences. However, the newness or novelty aspect required in creative achievement may not be apparent beforehand. All important scientific problems, in other words, do not require creative solutions. Various types of approaches, such as linear and straightforward logical thinking, inductive, deductive, and analogical processes, often at a very high level of proficiency, can and do function to solve some of the most important scientific problems.

It is often claimed in writings on scientific creativity and even accepted by knowledgeable scientists themselves that many, perhaps even most, important scientific discoveries result from serendipity. The term "serendipity," meaning accidental or spontaneous discovery, was originally coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole to describe strange, accidental discoveries made by traveling princes in Sri Lanka. In science, the term has been applied to such discoveries as Fleming's regarding penicillin, Roentgen on x-rays, Benedictus on shatterproof glass, and Sternbach on Valium. In each of these cases, an unexpected result occurred because of some factor external to the investigation or an outright accident, such as the contamination of Fleming's bacterial cultures by airborne yeast.

On the basis of a careful analysis of each serendipitous discovery, however, it is clear that the discoverer had what Pasteur called "the prepared mind," by which he meant that such accidental events would not have been perceived or appreciated in each case by a less knowledgeable scientist and by extension, I will claim, a scientist who was not truly "prepared" to make a creative achievement. The point is that the motivation to create is a constant factor in scientific creativity regardless of the circumstances in which the achievement occurred.

Fleming, for instance, had been looking for an antibacterial product in his research prior to the discovery of penicillin. Seeing the contamination on the bacterial plate of agar, he conceived that he could use the yeast as a biological antibacterial agent, an idea that had not previously been formulated. Similarly, data from all of the Nobel laureate scientists in my research subject group and those autobiographically documented with creative accomplishments, discoveries, or theories displayed a distinct motivation to create at some point in their scientific work, usually in connection with the discoveries for which they were awarded the Nobel Prize.

The motivation to create is more clearly apparent in art and literature than it is in scientific endeavors. The writer is confronted with a blank page at the start, the artist with an empty canvas, the musician with a random sound. All must produce something that didn't exist before, although all do not succeed, or even intend to succeed, at producing something both new and valuable: that is, meaningful creativity. Many writers produce "stock" characters and plots, often with much appeal, and many artists produce skilled reproductions. Both of these endeavors, therefore, produce something of value but not in any sense new.

Moreover, the literature on creativity is replete with personal accounts of spontaneous and so-called unconsciously derived inspirations that suggest unmotivated (and sometimes magical) creative sources. These accounts, it should be noted, are invariably given by poets, authors, artists, and musicians who nevertheless spend a great deal of time both beforehand and afterward oriented to producing concrete creations. The most famous of these accounts is Samuel Taylor Coleridge's account of having received the entire text of his poem "Kubla Khan" in an opium dream. That creativity is more complex than such involuntary autonomous events is indicated in this case by the discovery of numerous revisions and insertions by Coleridge in his first written manuscript of the poem.