Jason Powers

Jason Powers M.D.

Beyond Abstinence

The Creativity Crisis and What You Can Do About It

Creativity can be cultivated, but it takes training.

Posted Aug 13, 2015

Photo purchased from iStockphoto, used with permission.
Source: Photo purchased from iStockphoto, used with permission.

Let’s start with an exercise to measure your creativity. Imagine a shape that looks something like a sideways V. (see the image on the top left). Use it to create a new picture.

This “Incomplete Figure Test” is part of the renowned Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, the most used creativity test in the world. Millions of schoolchildren have taken the test since its development by E. Paul Torrance in the 1960s and their scores have proven to strongly predict adult creative achievement. Children who have done well on the tasks have grown up to be successful attorneys, inventors and entrepreneurs.

So, how did you do with that sideways V? If you closed it up, to create, say, a shark fin, your creativity score would be lower than the person who left it open to make the guy on the left, here.

For decades, the Torrance test scores delighted educators, revealing a continual improvement in our children’s ability to think creatively. But all of that began to change in 1990. The results began to disappoint, big time. An examination of 300,000 Torrance tests by the College of William and Mary’s Dr. Kyung-Hee Kim found that scores had significantly decreased across all age groups.

In an era of crises, the Torrance test results illustrate a dilemma about which few are aware. A “creativity crisis” is plaguing this country, and the consequences could be devastating. Creativity has decreased in the United States since 1990, according to research by Dr. Kim, one of the world’s leaders in creativity research and application. We must improve the creative climate to reverse the trend.

Grim Consequences

My friend from MAPP, who just happens to be one of the best writers around and is also a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, Dr. Samantha Boardman, recently wrote about this little known crisis in our country.  

I fully admit we have other serious and more acute problems such as our rising national deficit and global terrorism, so before you dismiss this “issue” as trite, let’s consider exactly why diminishing levels of creativity lead to a grim outlook on our future.

First, creativity decreases as we age. Anybody with children, or who has spent any time around others’ kids, knows this. As children, we are all natural detectives. We ask questions: why, why, why — sometimes until parents and/or other adults are motivated to induce vocal cord paralysis. This training as gumshoes changes on both accounts by middle school when the question-asking has all but stopped. Dr. Boardman cites a Newsweek article that “highlights the problem with children and the disadvantages of living in an environment that assumes one right answer to every question.”

This isn’t surprising, but what did alarm me was learning about the collateral damage associated with the decreased creativity. As Dr. Kim explains, “We are becoming less verbally or emotionally expressive or sensitive and less empathetic, less responsive in a kinesthetic and auditory way, less humorous, less imaginative, less able to visualize ideas, less able to see things from different angles, less unconventional, less able to connect seemingly irrelevant things together, less able to synthesize information, and less able to fantasize or be future-oriented.”

The creativity crisis has clear ramifications as our world grows more complex. An IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the most crucial factor for future success. In fact, creativity is now seen as more important than rigor, management discipline, integrity or even vision.

The good news is that creativity can be cultivated, but it takes training. University of New Mexico neuropsychologist Rex Jung has concluded that those who “practice, practice, practice” creative activities can actually build brain tissue and learn to recruit their brains’ creative networks quicker and better.

Part of maintaining a healthy, creative climate is avoiding addictive behaviors, Dr. Kim writes. Addiction, whether it be to drugs, Facebook, television or video games, kills creativity, she says. Each new technology offers potential for creative undertakings, but the achievements of the few creators lead to addictive behaviors for the masses.

The ‘Four Cs’ of 21st Century Education

The National Education Association says the “Four Cs” — creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration — are the skills most important for 21st century learning. The challenge, it says, is building these traits into K-12 education. It has put together this guide for educators.

Jung says schools are killing creativity by placing too much emphasis on mastering specific material and taking tests, saying that opportunities for thoughts to flow freely are fewer now than in the past. Dr. Kim echoes that: “If we neglect creative students in school because of the structure and the testing movement — creative students cannot breathe, they are suffocated in school — then they become underachievers.” 

And under the pressure of test scores, schools err badly when they fail to make time for recess, Jung believes. Recess gives kids time to let their thoughts wander and flow.

“This is where imagination often happens,” Jung told The Atlantic. “That downtime is really important — kids had their time in class, so then they need time to think about something they learned in class or absorb the material in a different way by getting away from it for a period of time.”

I would love to hear what you think has happened with our overall creativity. Let me know in the comments. And to foster the trait in your children, follow the advice of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and make your home a Petri dish for creativity. Here’s how.

Jason Powers, MD, is chief medical officer at Promises Austin drug rehab center and The Right Step network of addiction treatment programs in Texas. He is the pioneer of Positive Recovery, an approach to addiction treatment that helps people discover meaning and purpose in their lives, and writes a blog on addiction.

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