Creativity for Introverts

Why do we become less creative after fourth grade?

Posted May 31, 2011

How creative are you now, compared to when you were a child?

A) More creative

B) About as creative

C) Less creative

For most people, the answer is (sadly) C. Children are famously more creative than grown-ups, more engaged in the world of imagination and in making connections where none existed before. But what if you could get some of that back? An interesting study by psychologists Darya Zabelina and Michael Robinson of North Dakota State University suggests a way: to think like a child. Jonah Lehrer, author of one of my favorite blogs, The Frontal Cortex, describes the study as follows:

"The scientists took a large group of undergraduates and randomly assigned them to two different groups. The first group was given the following instructions:

"You are 7 years old. School is canceled, and you have the entire day to yourself. What would you do? Where would you go? Who would you see?"

The second group was given the exact same instructions, except the first sentence was deleted. As a result, these students didn't imagine themselves as 7 year olds. They were stuck in their adolescent present.

After writing for ten minutes, the subjects were then given various tests of creativity, such as trying to invent alternative uses for an old car tire, or completing incomplete sketches... Interestingly, the students who imagined themselves as little kids scored far higher on the creative tasks, coming up with more ideas that were also more original. The effect was especially pronounced among "introverts," who exert more mental energy suppressing their "spontaneous associations". [Susan: the emphasis in this sentence is mine.]

Why does age make us less mature? Why accounts for the infamous 4th grade slump in creativity? One possibility is that we trade away the ingenuity of our youth for executive function. As the brain develops, the prefrontal cortex expands in density and volume. As a result, we're able to exhibit impulse control and focused attention. The unfortunate side-effect of this cortical growth is an increased ability to repress errant thoughts. While many of these thoughts deserve to be suppressed, it turns out that we also censor the imagination. We're so scared of saying the wrong thing that we end up saying nothing at all."

I found this interesting, because it resonates with a lot of the research I've seen suggesting that introverts are less impulsive, more focused, and better able to delay gratification and stay on task in problem-solving tests. This is probably why they outperform extroverts in high school and college, even though their IQ scores are, on average, the same.

These are wonderful qualities, but what if they also get in the way of making associative leaps? What if they prevent us from saying -- and creating -- what we mean?

I think that I've instinctively tried to correct for this by sipping a latte when I write. Caffeine is such a potent way of silencing the deleters and backspacers in my head that I don't allow myself to drink it in any other context for fear of losing its magical effects.

Regular readers of this blog also know that I'm a strong advocate of doing creative work either in solitude or "alone together," in libraries, cafes, and so on. I believe that many cognitive inhibitions are related to social life in one way or another. When we go off by ourselves, our minds become freer. We don't have to spend energy "repressing errant thoughts," as Lehrer puts it.

This applies to everyone, incidentally, not just introverts. Forty years of research on brainstorming has shown that individuals produce more and better ideas than groups do, in large part because in groups people are inhibited by something that psychologists call "evaluation apprehension" and that most people call peer pressure.

Also, the "fourth grade slump" in creativity that Lehrer refers to above -- children experience a marked decline in creative powers around that age -- is thought to be the result of the increased social obligations they assume at that stage of life. As kids devote more energy to conforming to the group, there's less available for being their freewheeling selves.

If these ideas are right, then we should all be tapping into our third grade selves. If you're so inclined, spend the next five minutes thinking about who you were back then -- and let us know how this experiment affects you.


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