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InPsych 2015 | Vol 37

June | Issue 3

Cover feature : Psychology and creativity

Psychology’s creative links and applications to therapeutic practice

If we were to ask people to define creativity, it’s likely that many of the ideas offered would reflect the range of common myths associated with the creativity construct. Many would associate creativity with the visual and performing arts, reflecting domain-specific creative 'products', such as paintings, musical compositions and literature. Others link it to innovation and originality as a creative ‘process’, stimulating new ways of getting things done, such as may occur in industry, and which has implications for whole societies. Still others link creativity with unusual behaviour and lifestyle choices, the free-spirited and bohemian individual who isn’t ‘quite like us’. Essentially, people attribute creativity to characteristics of the creative product, process or person.

The diverse ways in which creativity is conceptualised also highlights the challenges faced by early researchers in arriving at a consensus about what creativity is and is not. In the latter half of the twentieth century, psychologists concluded that creativity was largely an artefact of human language, a word used to describe products and processes fashioned from common practical and cognitive abilities. If such abilities are, in fact, ‘common’, how are we then to understand the mythical quality ascribed to creativity and creative people?

The key psychological approaches, or lenses, through which creativity has been viewed include early romantic and rational conceptions, followed by twentieth century refinements where it was re-conceptualised to incorporate group and individual level creativity and, most recently, neuro-anatomy. Over time, it became apparent that creativity is evident at all levels of observation (see diagram), and that each level is intertwined with, and interdependent on, the other. Historically, the most observable level was presumed to be individual creativity.

Individual perspectives – personality and cognition

Creative personality factors

Early romantic conceptions held that creativity emerged from some deep non-rational well of instinct and emotion and followed the ancient Greek idea that creative genius was a form of divine madness, gifted only to certain individuals and sometimes taking the form of demonic possession. The Hippocratic theory of the four humours, prominent until the Middle Ages, linked creativity to the melancholic temperament, i.e., introverted, sensitive, eccentric. Similarly, many are familiar with the romantic view of creativity as being linked to mental illness, which didn't actually appear until the early 19th century when modern ideas about madness became the focus of scientific enquiry (Sawyer, 2006). The common thread, however, is that all these notions reflect characteristics of the creative person.

Do creative people have specific characteristics that are distinguishable and measurable? Research appears to support an individual difference perspective from investigations of personality and cognition (Hennessey & Amabile, 2010). Empirical attempts to define core characteristics of the creative personality were facilitated by development of valid and reliable measures, such as the California Personality Inventory (CPI) and the Adjective Checklist (ACL). Influential studies reported personality facets including imaginative, inventive, determined, independent, individualistic, enthusiastic and industrious. Conversely, those deemed most creative were also described as lower in self-control, more labile, and more likely to report unfavourable characteristics.

The developer of the ACL (Gough & Heilbrun, 1965; Gough, 1979) inferred from this constellation of traits that the creative person would be sensitive to the unusual and challenging, restless and intolerant of routine, and high strung. Or, as Freud had alleged, “not far from neurosis” (1916-1917). This thinking appeared to confirm the myth that creativity and madness were related, even though personality-based measures were often equivocal in terms of predictive validity. Whether or not these attributes translated to creative achievement appeared to depend on additional characteristics, including other personality traits, intelligence, intrinsic motivation and – importantly – situational factors.

Creative cognition

Studies of the rational-cognitive approach investigated elements of cognition in creativity, such as memory, attention, intelligence and problem-solving abilities. One of the central issues in studies of intelligence and creativity arose during the twentieth century, when researchers attempted to separate one from the other. Early studies suggested that intelligence and creativity were distinct and that creativity was better defined in terms of divergent thinking, versus the convergent thinking typically measured by intelligence tests (see also Guilford, 1950, 1967 and Eysenck, 1993). Spearman (1927) refused to believe that creativity could be different from general intelligence, or ‘g’, and proposed that it was a process of eduction, or drawing out salient memories and associations to reproduce an action.

Stage models described creative eduction, or inference, in linear terms, including preparation, the time when knowledge of the relevant domain is acquired, followed by incubation, when mental elements combine and lead to insight, or the sudden “seething cauldron” of ideas alluded to much earlier by William James (1880, p. 456). All of these ideas signaled the presence of mental associations from which creative ideation and actions were believed to follow. Experiments based on ‘associative theory’ tested the range of original ideas for problem-solving in open-ended tasks, such as occurs with the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (Torrance, 1981). Questions remained, however, about whether such tests are simply measures of divergent thinking rather than creativity. Nevertheless, most researchers agreed that there is a minimum threshold of intelligence, below which the capacity for creativity is unlikely to be observed. It seems intelligence is a necessary but insufficient condition for creativity.

Contextual perspectives – groups and societies

Despite adequate intellect and advantageous personality-based attributes, creative productivity is not guaranteed. The contextual view of creativity partly explains why some people realise their creative potential when others do not. This view recognises the social and historical context within which individuals are situated, including circumstances that may or may not provide the right confluence of factors to facilitate creative achievement. One only has to consider the bias towards male gender in the recorded history of art, music and literature: females are not less creative, but have been limited by their roles in society. Circumstances can operate as deterrents to, or enablers of, creative achievement.

Prior to the Romantic era (18th century), paintings were largely executed for religious purposes, until the emergence of wealthy aristocratic classes who sought to immortalise themselves in portraiture, and who sponsored artists to meet the demand. What remains as a legacy of that period reflects the beliefs of the time and the creative products of a select few. Consider the modern equivalent seen in the vigorous marketing of artists across the spectrum of creative endeavour. Culture has also been influential. In early civilisations, the skills of artists and artisans were passed through generations and valued for their usefulness to the community rather than as talents or special abilities (e.g., blacksmiths and weavers). The importance of the creative product was therefore defined by the audience, or end-user, not by the producer (Runco, 2007; Sawyer, 2006). The combination of contextual and individual elements – a merger of place and person – coalesced as the socio-cultural model of creativity, eventually leading to new ways of understanding corporate creativity in teamwork and innovation (Weick, 2001).

Biological perspectives and neuro-anatomy

Recent advances in neuroimaging have allowed researchers to consider the biological correlates of creativity and has helped address some of the weak inferences previously made from, for example, hemispheric specialisation and handedness (Runco, 2007). Studies of the alexithymic response typical of split-brain patients appeared to indicate some sort of “cognitive-affective disturbance” (TenHouten, 1994, p. 225, in Runco, 2007), or deficits in the ability to add meaning, valence and appropriate language to evocative stimuli. Handedness studies reported only behavioural tendencies, from which hemisphericity and dominance were inferred. Neuro-anatomy and other brain sciences advanced to a point where measurement of creativity became possible, using electroencepholagrams (EEG), positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). EEG studies pointed to the importance of primary (uninhibited) and secondary (logical) process cognition, in the inspiration and elaboration stages of creative thinking, and supported notions of creativity as involving remote associates.

The process of exploring ‘remote associates’ has been proposed by neuro-anatomists to be a product of prefrontal cortical activity, including aspects of attention, perception, memory, arousal and reflection (Vandervert, Schimpf & Liu, 2007) and heightened activity in the anterior cingulate (Dietrich, 2004). Csikszentmihalyi (1996) described the creative experience as ‘flow’, or a peak state, where cognitive abilities combine with affective valence to produce a state of intense concentration and productive absorption.

Similarly, Damasio (2001) asserts that affective valence is central to creativity, as is drive, knowledge and experience in the domain of creative endeavour. Vartanian and Goel (2004) agree, asserting that the emotional brain mediates the interaction so that emotional information (e.g., primary process) combines with rational thought (secondary process). Precisely what a person chooses to attend to, become aroused by and links with prior associations, produces complex neural patterns in the prefrontal cortex that can be mapped via cerebral blood flow. Creativity is thus conceptualised as a process where the ‘right’ problem is perceived and acted upon, where problem-finding is the first stage of the process, followed by problem-solving, and the two are inherently linked at the neural level.

Creativity as therapeutic practice – person, place and process

So, how does this translate to therapeutic practice? Many consider therapy as 'art and science' as a means of somehow describing the fluidity of process that characterises therapeutic dialogue (see Holland’s 1973 RIASEC framework that describes this vocational orientation, or personality, as ‘social-investigative-artistic’). They function as participant-observers in the therapeutic dyad, noticing affective valence in the client’s narrative and inhibiting their own reactions in order to balance primary and secondary process cognition. They are already primed with a background of technical and theoretical knowledge that combines with repeating themes in case information, allowing incubation to occur.

Presented with new case problems, psychologists sometimes experience an apparently serendipitous ‘aha’ moment, the sudden and singular insight that helps to initiate forward momentum for the client. The highly specialised context – the ‘holding space’ of therapy – has facilitated problem-finding in the therapeutic dialogue, as the psychologist’s remote associates – or background knowledge and experience – have seemingly merged as novel ideas and hypotheses (Picciuto & Carruthers, 2013). Torrance (1962) described the experience as “sensing gaps or disturbing missing elements” (p. 16), which function as precursors to creative problem-solving.

Psychologists-in-training are taught the skills of clinical case formulation and conceptualisation as foundations for generating appropriate evidence-based treatment strategies. In doing so, the various elements of the presenting problem are examined within the biopsychosocial and/or diathesis-stress frameworks, to inform treatment planning. The step-by-step deconstruction of ‘the problem’ (in case formulation) allows psychologists to detect what may or may not be relevant and to clarify the appropriate response (treatment options). Yet, many psychologists harbour anxiety about professional adequacy and competence. According to Stein, creativity is fostered by society "to the extent that it encourages openness to internal and external experiences...societies that are full of don'ts… and mustn'ts restrict freedom of inquiry...[and]... pressures to conformity are so intense that deviations are punished directly or indirectly" (1963, p. 130, in Runco, 2007). Like their clients, however, psychologists are subject to the myriad internal proscriptions that inhibit creativity. They support clients to examine their experiences, but may intellectualise their own in order to sustain an internalised image of a ‘good psychologist’. They conform.

Nevertheless, when therapy is viewed through the socio‑cultural lens on creativity – that creative output occurs when the knowledge and technical foundations are present and the environment is facilitative – the notion that creativity is commonplace in therapy seems reasonable. Indeed, many consider therapy as 'art and science' as a means of somehow describing the fluidity of process that characterises therapeutic dialogue. The synthesis of scientific knowledge and artful discourse is, potentially, the point at which the technical and knowledge foundations from which psychologists work have already become background. What was once new and effortful has itself become part of the context for creativity, despite one’s lingering disquiet. An illustrative case study is provided in the boxed information.


Psychological therapy brings together a particular context and two or more parties, psychologist and client/s, all with a particular set of attributes, none of which have ever been combined in the present moment in quite the same way. Context, or place, merges with the unique persons and processes to culminate in a creative rejoinder, a moment in time that seems to arrive unbidden but makes irrefutable sense in hindsight. Acknowledged or not, this is the lived experience of creativity for psychologists. The question then is not about whether psychologists can be creative in their practice, but in what ways they already are.

An illustrative case study: Creativity as therapeutic practice

Brad presents with severe anxiety around an upcoming court case that will overturn a two-year suspended sentence. He’s motivated to come to therapy for all the wrong reasons, and he’s candid in saying he has no desire to reduce his present drug use. He could be experienced by his therapist as ‘difficult’, ‘treatment resistant’ or ‘pre-contemplative’. And yet, there is a consistent motif in Brad’s narrative about his personal honour system and a hoped-for future where he is free. His actions have clearly worked in opposition to what he wants, and he’s been spinning around in the judicial system despite trying to alter his life course. He blames the police and struggles with a sense of helplessness. However, there is also behavioural evidence of his capacity to follow his moral code when tempted by others to, for example, take drugs in jail.

When Brad recounts some of the choices he’s made, good and bad, it seems to echo something more about his personhood and situation. What associations occur for the therapist? Perhaps they are experienced as transient intuitions, instincts or gut feelings? They may feel right, but may be difficult to link to behavioural observations (evidence). Can the internal experience be trusted? Accepted treatment options are likely to be framed within cognitive behaviour therapy, mindfulness-based interventions or motivational interviewing. All would be evidence-based and potentially helpful – and all may miss the mark.

Research evidence already tells us that extra-therapeutic factors, including the working alliance and client characteristics, are more predictive of treatment outcomes; it follows that alternative approaches should be permissible (Martin, Garske & Davis, 2000). Can the psychologist draw upon the combination of momentary experience and remote associates – or current observation plus training and experience – to enhance his or her problem-finding? For example, if one notices the theme that permeates Brad’s narrative, new doors open. Addressing the underlying theme allows the psychologist to reframe the dialogue around notions of ‘liberty versus freedom’, where liberty is viewed in existential terms as environmental, or the absence of external control, and freedom is experienced within as a subjective drive for choices and beliefs, and is related to personal meaning (see Victor Frankl, 1959).

While it may seem an unlikely conversation to have with a forensic client, it could be the right problem to find in this case. Identifying and honouring the not-quite-stated conflict for the client then becomes the path to effective problem-solving. It opens up other conversations about distress tolerance, cognitive errors and emotion regulation, which – paradoxically – are evidence-based and pose no compromise to professional ethics or competence.

The author can be contacted at quinnpsychology@bigpond.com


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Disclaimer: Published in InPsych on June 2015. The APS aims to ensure that information published in InPsych is current and accurate at the time of publication. Changes after publication may affect the accuracy of this information. Readers are responsible for ascertaining the currency and completeness of information they rely on, which is particularly important for government initiatives, legislation or best-practice principles which are open to amendment. The information provided in InPsych does not replace obtaining appropriate professional and/or legal advice.