Can creativity be taught?

All humans have a mindful capability for creative thought. Unleashing it is dependent on how we're taught to go about the creative process.

  • Divergent thinking is a fundamental aspect of creative teaching.
  • Studies have found that there are a number of valid teaching methods that inspire creativity in their students, regardless of what field they're in.
  • Ordinary modes of education are not conducive towards developing creativity if they do not employ methods like divergent thinking and also allow mistakes to be made while learning.

Creative intelligence is the ability to observe or act with any of the senses, enact mimicry to a certain fidelity and then through repetition make that thought, action or idea your own before you can then develop it to new places it's never gone before.

The creative spirit and process is something that is highly sought after. For writers and artists, the concept has even been deified as the Muses. Nowadays it's not just the eccentrics and poets looking to get a creative hit, but also business people and regular students seeking out that creative magic.

It's a process that, for a while, many people didn't think could be taught. It's more than a set of skills or behaviors within a predefined set of parameters. It's mysterious and novel. Creativity manifests when somebody has mastered a subject or skill and then needs to invent a new solution to a problem that couldn't be overcome with any previous method.

While it's difficult to teach someone a new creative solution, it is possible to instill the fundamentals so that a person may go on and become creative in their own right.

Analyzing creative teaching systems 

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A creative mindset can be taught, but not from sitting in a lecture hall or taking a standardized test.

In the early 21st century, researchers from the University of Oklahoma set out to analyze a number of different creative teaching systems. They set out to learn how different training programs helped foster and spur creativity, and published their findings in the Creativity Research Journal:

Over the course of the last half century, numerous training programs intended to develop creativity capacities have been proposed. In this study, a quantitative meta-analysis of program evaluation efforts was conducted. Based on 70 prior studies, it was found that well-designed creativity training programs typically induce gains in performance with these effects generalizing across criteria, settings, and target populations. Moreover, these effects held when internal validity considerations were taken into account.

Observations of these teaching methods showed that there was an effective increase in successfully developing cognitive skills that helped students apply a creative mindset during realistic exercises.

Although creative trainings differ in scope and the field they're trying to train people in, the authors found a few fundamental trends for successful programs. Most successful creativity training shares a common foundation: divergent thinking. They write:

We refer to the notion of divergent thinking or the capacity to generate multiple alternative solutions as opposed to the one correct solution… The evidence accrued over the last 50 years does suggest that divergent thinking, as assessed through open ended tests such as consequences and alternative uses, where responses are scored for fluency (number of responses), flexibility (category shifts in response), originality (uniqueness of responses), and elaboration (refinement of responses), does represent a distinct capacity contributing to both creative problem solving and many forms of creative performance.

The authors have identified divergent thinking as something that is fundamental towards teaching and recording creative ability. But that's just one part of creative abilities.

Methods for how to teach creativity 

Thinking outside the box has become such a cliched maxim that we take for granted how important it is to be able to come up with far out ideas for solving problems. Methods for teaching creativity are just as vast and varied as the act of creation itself.

Here are a number of tried and true methods that have been able to light a creative spark for many people throughout the years.

Utilizing a creativity model

The Osborne-Parnes model is a very popular system used in educational and business settings. It's split into six steps, each one bringing with it a divergent thinking pattern to challenge status quo ideas.

  1. Identifying a goal or objective.
  2. Gathering data.
  3. Clarifying a problem.
  4. Generating ideas.
  5. Evaluating ideas.
  6. Creating a plan to implement ideas.

Diverge and converge

Designing assignments that have both divergent and convergent ways of thinking. For example, standardized tests are a great way of measuring analytical thinking (convergent) by relying on deduction and answering for one correct response. A mix of divergent questioning would be tremendously helpful for creativity testing.

Build a congenial learning environment

Creative thinking is one of collaboration and bouncing ideas off of others in a social setting. Promote student's creativity by validating their off-hand ideas that go beyond the subject matter.

Try the incubation model by E. Paul Torrance

It has three stages which include: Making connections between classroom work and real life situations, engage curriculum in multiple ways, extend learning opportunities outside of classroom settings.

Applying these methods in a focused manner can be a surefire way to get the creative flames rising.

Louis R. Mobley’s IBM school for creativity 

It was in 1956 that Louis R. Mobley was tasked with turning IBM's executives into creative powerhouses. The executive school was built around six insights that Mobley came up with for inspiring and teaching creativity.

  1. Traditional teaching methods are useless for encouraging creativity.
  2. Becoming creative is more about unlearning than learning a new process.
  3. We don't learn to be creative, we learn to become creative people through action and transforming ourselves in the experience.
  4. Creative people beget other creative people. Basically, hang out with other creatives and watch what they do and how they think.
  5. Self-knowledge is imperative if you're to overcome your own limiting biases.
  6. Give yourself the permission to be wrong and to fail. There are no bad or wrong ideas, just ones that just aren't quite there.

The process isn't going to be easy and learning to be creative is still going to be difficult. Some are more apt to it than others, but there is no doubt that the seeds of the imagination can be taught and passed down to others.

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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