The Disappearance of Creativity – Who is the Culprit?

Written by: Nick Skillicorn ; Chief Editor and Founder of Idea to Value – Oct  8th 2017

All children are born creative.

Yet why is it that when we ask adults, the majority would not describe themselves as being creative anymore?

What has happened over those formative years to remove a person’s ability to come up with great new ideas? Can we keep our children creative for longer?

And more importantly, is there anything we can do to bring back this lost creativity in adults?

For the past four years, I have been gathering evidence and research about what really helps new ideas and innovation happen. It has included deep dives into the neuroscience of what is happening in your brain while you are creative, to why the most innovative companies in the world can seize upon new ideas which older companies ignore.

Fortunately, we now have answers to all of these questions. And the answers are positive.

What affects our creative ability as we get older

Before we begin to make broad assumptions about how children are more creative than adults, we should first look at what the evidence says.

In 1968, George Land (with Beth Jarman) conducted a research study to test the creativity of 1,600 children ranging in ages from three-to-five years old who were enrolled in a Head Start program. This was the same creativity test he devised for NASA to help select innovative engineers and scientists. The test was to look at a problem and come up with new, different, innovative ideas, and their responses could be used to assess a person’s creative capability at that time.

The assessment worked so well he decided to try it on children. He re-tested the same children at 10 years of age, and again at 15 years of age (a longitudinal study), with the results published in his book Breaking Point and Beyond. The results were astounding. The proportion of people who scored at the “Genius Level”, were:

  • amongst 5 year olds: 98%
  • amongst 10 year olds: 30%
  • amongst 15 year olds: 12%
  • Same test given to 280,000 adults (average age of 31): 2%
george land creativity study idea to value

Figure 1: Breaking point and Beyond, George Land (1998)

But what is causing this drastic drop in our ability to come up with new ideas as we age? Is it just a biological process (nature) or is it caused by changes from the society around us (nurture)?

As with most aspects of developmental psychology, both play a factor.

From a natural change perspective, there are some changes which happen in our brains as we age. Various scientific studies have shown that the human brain is incredibly good at recognising patterns of what has previously worked. It is an evolutionary benefit to prevent us going into risky situations, like going into a dark cave without checking if there was a predator inside. When it notices that a previous way of doing things worked well and was safe, it makes this mental pathway stronger making those specific connections more energy efficient every time they are used together. As we age, our most-used memories and habits are continually reinforced until they can cause the brain to instantly have the right answer with no effort, almost running on autopilot.

However, this same process also makes it harder to have creative ideas, as they force the brain to process all new information again, which is far harder and may result in a risky new solution which doesn’t even work. Therefore, the older brain’s preference will always be to use safe memories instead of creative new ‘risky’ solutions.

Additionally, numerous other scientific studies show that different parts of the brain are activated and deactivated when you are engaged in different types of creative thinking:

  1. Convergent thinking: where you judge ideas, criticise them, refine them, combine them and improve them, all of which happens in your conscious thought and focus
  2. Divergent thinking: where you imagine new ideas, original ones which are different from what has come before but which may be rough to start with, and which often happens subconsciously as new pathways are spontaneously explored deep within the brain

And this feeds into the second aspect of decreasing activity, the nurture of how children are brought up.

When children are very young, they are often encouraged to use their imagination, draw, dance and create stories. But once school begins, the emphasis shifts to learning and reciting facts. And then onto tests and exams which grade you on being able to give the right answers to specific questions. As we get older, the importance of each set of these exams also grows (from passing a year, to getting into university, to getting the grade for the career you want).

The effect of this is that throughout their development, children are taught that giving the right answer is what is important, which is in line with convergent thinking only. Divergent thinking, which can result in a whole list of incorrect answers, is drilled into us as being dangerous and to be avoided. Another study by Kyung Hee Kim (2017) showed that since the 1990s, when additional “exam result focussed teaching” became the standard in the USA, creativity scores of the whole population has continued to fall each decade. Therefore, children grow up into adults who want to avoid making mistakes, and therefore avoid the risks of creative ideas.

So while nature has a part to play in declining creativity, the main cause is actually the mindset we build in ourselves as we grow up. The good news is that by understanding this mindset, we can actually train ourselves to be more creative again, even as adults.

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