3 Ways Creativity Improves Mental Health

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. This year mental health is of particular concern among students due to the impact of Covid-19 and school closures. CDC data found that mental health related emergency visits among K-12 students increased by 25% – 31% last year. Several survey results show that student mental health issues have exacerbated during the pandemic. In one survey, over half of teen students indicated that they faced mental health challenges like anxiety and trouble concentrating, and a third of the parents indicated that their child’s emotional and mental health had become worse during the pandemic.  

These sobering statistics were further compounded by the fact that many approaches to mitigating mental health issues like healthy social interactions or building trusted relationships were harder to do with school closures. 

When social connection is not easy, individual practices can help. Teaching students mindfulness meditation has shown to reduce anxiety and stress. However, in this article we will look at a somewhat less known way to improve mental wellbeing –  engaging in creative problem solving and building a creativity mindset. 

Stress and Coping Skills

Creative thinking skills allow students to approach daily challenges more effectively.  In a study of 3rd to 6th grade students, researchers found that students who scored higher on creative thinking, had better coping skills in the school environment and exhibited fewer disruptive behaviors.  

As the researchers explained, “The ability of children to keep an open mind and not judge or reach conclusions about people, situations or problems too impulsively may be a significant factor in successfully managing the stresses of daily life. Also, the ability of children to maintain flexibility of thought and to generate ideas that are not only fluent in number but original may contribute significantly to successful coping.

In addition, the study also noted that students may respond more readily to creative thinking opportunities than training workshops on stress management and social skills. 

Other research has shown that creative people are more comfortable being on the “edge of chaos”, are better at reframing challenges into opportunities, and less likely to withdraw from college or fail academically. 

In other words, teaching children creative thinking has the secondary benefit of building better coping and stress management skills, that can last well into adulthood. 

Interpersonal Skills

In a study to understand the relationship between creativity and interpersonal problem solving, researchers tracked K-8 students over a period of two years. They found that creative thinking, and in particular ideational fluency – the ability to come up with several ideas – was significantly correlated to different aspects of interpersonal problem solving. 

One potential reason for this is that both creativity and interpersonal problem solving involves related underlying skills – coming up with several solutions, evaluating the impact of ideas and flexibly adapting to different situations to produce novel outcomes. 

Another study showed that more creative children displayed less aggression than less creative children. Research also seems to suggest that creativity is related to successful aging and longevity. 

Higher Values

Abraham Maslow studied creative people and talked about self-actualizing (SA) creativeness which came from possessing an “openness to experience” attitude, and displayed itself in everyday life. SA creative people were not just eminent people who produced groundbreaking work, but also regular people who approached everyday situations with creativity. As he explained, “I learned from her and others like her that a first-rate soup is better than a second-rate painting, and that, generally, cooking or parenthood or making a home could be creative while poetry need not be; it could be uncreative.

More interestingly, Maslow found that SA creative people seemed happier, more at peace and more fulfilled. They were more motivated with higher values like truth goodness and beauty, and focused more on larger endeavors. 

These qualities are good for individual growth but are much more important for solving larger societal issues and driving social progress. 

Teaching Creativity

Often the most effective interventions are those that don’t even appear to be so. Building more creative thinking skills has a spillover effect into daily life. Creative people are able to use their cognitive style in a flexible and open manner to solve problems and cope with daily life stresses. Teaching creativity has the potential to develop more well-rounded and well-adjusted citizens. Unfortunately, despite being a critical 21st century skill, creativity isn’t often taught often or encouraged in schools. 

As Dr. Richards, an advocate for teaching more creativity, laments in Everyday Creativity, “How odd it may seem, considering the benefits, that we do not stress everyday creativity more in schools, homes, businesses, healthcare settings, senior centers, and centers for personal growth and development. Why, one may ask again, is our creativity so hidden or diminished (or underrecognized, underdeveloped, and underrewarded)?

This article first appeared on edCircuit.

World Creativity and Innovation Week: April 15 – April 21

The Fourth Industrial Revolution, marked by an increased use of AI and automation, is expected to have a profound impact on the workforce. 

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report found that by 2022, machines and algorithms will increase their contribution to specific tasks by 57% and in some categories of jobs the ratio of work done by machines vs. humans is going to tip towards machines. Tasks that are repetitive in nature and involve sequential thinking are easy targets for automation. Creative, non-linear ways of thinking are much harder to automate and future job growth is expected to come primarily from the creative domain. As the report outlines, “Proficiency in new technologies is only one part of the 2022 skills equation, however, as ‘human’ skills such as creativity, originality and initiative, critical thinking, persuasion, and negotiation will likewise retain or increase their value.

Creativity is no longer just nice-to-have, it is now an indispensable skill for students to build. 

The UN recognized the growing importance of creativity, and in 2017 it designated April 21st as the World Creativity and Innovation Day (WCID). Their goal is to raise the awareness of the role of creativity and innovation in human and economic development. April 21, the day before Earth Day, April 22, was deliberately chosen to emphasize the role creativity plays in solving global challenges to create a sustainable planet.

The origin of the WCID goes back several years. It was founded in 2001 by Marci Segal, after seeing an article on the Canadian Creativity Crisis. Having studied creativity at the International Center for Studies in Creativity, SUNY Buffalo earlier, she decided to raise awareness around creativity and its impact around the world. In 2006, the day expanded to a week-long celebration starting on April 15th, Leonardo daVinci’s birthday, and culminating on April 21st. The World Creativity and Innovation Week (WCIW) was born!  

WCIW starts next week on Thursday (4/15) and there are several events planned for that week. Here are a few fun events geared towards building and encouraging student creativity. 

  • Seven-Day CreateTUBEity Challenge, April 15-21 12 pm EST: Dr. Cyndi Burnett, Creativity expert and Director of Possibilities at Creativity and Education, and children’s book author Barney Saltzberg, are going to subject themselves to a new creativity challenge led by a different creativity expert each day from around the world. Join them for a FREE daily 15-minute live-stream event on CreateTubeity. Appropriate for the young, and the young at heart!
  • Global Innovation Field Trip (GIFT), April 17th-April 18th: GIFT is a 24-hour, virtual, multi-country event hosting presentations from innovators currently spanning 28 countries. Young innovators and educators from across the globe will share their ideas to support and inspire innovation, and the event is free for anyone to attend. “GIFT provides an excellent platform for students to share their stories of innovation with a global audience and inspires educators to incorporate innovation, invention, language, culture and a variety of other subjects utilizing STEAM skills into their regular daily lessons,” says Juli Shively, GIFT Co-Founder and COO of Innovation World. 
  • Belouga’s Creativity and Innovation Playlist: To inspire students and educators to learn more about creativity, Belouga has created a playlist of lessons for the World Creativity and Innovation Day. There are over 50 lessons corresponding to over 30hrs of content, covering many different aspects of creativity in our lives. 

I hope you can find time to join in these creativity focused events next week, or be creative in your own way! And if you choose to do your own creative activity, don’t forget to register it with WCIW and share with others. 

This article first appeared on edCircuit

Creativity Hack: Doodle To Discover Your Assumptions

We are starting a new blog category called “Creativity Hacks”. Each blog will contain one concrete technique that can be used in the classroom to help bring out student creativity. Our first one is a technique to help students find underlying assumptions they hold. 

About The Hack

A highly effective creativity technique is to reverse a commonly-held assumption which often gives radically new insights. 

When we teach our invention class one of the tasks we give students is to find an assumption they are making about the object of their innovation. As a warm up activity, we play a game called “Opposite Day”, where students work in teams and pick an assumption to reverse and present their solution to the rest of the class in about 5 minutes. For example, if the assumption is “Tables have legs”, then students have to reverse it (“Tables don’t have legs”) and then find a design or a situation where the reversal will make sense. When we gave this prompt to one group, they came up with a table that is held up with wires attached to the ceiling and can be lowered when needed or raised to make more space in the room. 

The nice thing about this technique is that it often gives very original ideas that one would normally not come up with. However, we found that while older students (middle school and up) are reasonably comfortable with coming up with assumptions themselves, elementary students have a harder time. They are able to come up with solutions once an assumption is given to them, but finding an underlying assumption itself is tricky. 

This brings us to a creativity hack we discovered. We found that asking students to first draw their object and then question each part of their drawing makes it easier for them to identify assumptions they can subsequently work with. We all hold mental models of objects that reflect commonly found real world implementations. By doodling we bring to surface the salient features of the object model, which can then be used to generate new ideas. 

Summary

Finally, here is a quick summary of the creativity hack and how to use it with students.

DescriptionDoodling your idea can help surface assumptions you hold about the object or idea. Once surfaced, it’s easier to reverse those assumptions and get new insights.
ExampleIf you ask students to draw a table they will typically draw a rectangular surface with four legs. They then question each part – “Should tables have four or any legs?”, “Does the tabletop have to be one flat surface?”. Examining each question can give students fresh ideas and insights for designing a new kind of table. 
Tips Give students <1min to doodle their object in order to bring out the most common held model.Reiterate to students that the quality of the drawing isn’t important but drawing all parts is. 
ExtensionsWhile we have used this technique on concrete objects (invention, design thinking), it is possible to extend this to abstract concepts like biases. For example, if students are asked to doodle a scientist, do most of them draw a man in a lab coat? If so, it can lead to a good discussion about women as scientists and different kinds of scientific disciplines. 
Hack: Doodle To Discover Your Assumptions

Inventor Spotlight: Geeth Nunna

Our featured student inventor is Geeth Nunna, who created an interesting storage pouch. Her idea won a national level award as part of the “Student Ideas for a Better America” competition organized by the National Museum of Education

Here is Geeth talking about her invention in more detail.  

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

My name is Geeth Nunna and I’m in 5th grade! My interests-hobbies-favorite subjects consist of video games, social network, drama, acting, music, science, social studies, etc. And, my dream job(s) are to be a model, an actor, or a doctor/investigator helping discover new medical research.

What is your invention and how does it work?

My invention is a multi conventional storage pouch! Basically it has several layers, and each layer has a certain item(s), for example: The top layer has your pens, while the bottom layers have something else like your notes, food, or anything else of your choice.

What inspired you to develop this invention?

At the time I had made this invention, I was very interested in d.i.y’s. However, as I researched further about these “do it yourself” crafts they were very harmful to the environment as they used lots of plastics that couldn’t be recycled. So I decided to make something that could be used as several things, a lunch box, pencil case, cosmetics case, etc. And not only is this invention making less waste, it’s also made out of recycled items, so that it can be made out of someone else’s waste, and when the owner wants to throw it away it can also be re-recycled.

Did your prototype work? How was that experience? 

Yes my prototype did work on the first try, however our inventions had to be made out of cardboard and paper. Yet I still managed to make it work!

What are some things you learned from your MindAntix camp that will help you in the future? 

I learned a lot about adapting to new situations. For example, if one of my ideas didn’t work, I learned to change it to make it more useful for my purpose rather than trash the whole idea itself.

Who is your favorite inventor and why? 

My favorite inventor is George Washington Carver. This is because, to me, the whole purpose of inventing is for safety to people and the planet. Mr. Carver found 300 uses for peanuts again being resourceful and his creativity with the plant helped the whole world, and using one thing to make several others is another way of reproducing, again also helping the planet!

What kind of problems do you want to solve in the future?

I want to help the loss of animals in the ocean, due to litter. And I also want to help the homeless! 

How will you use your prize money? 

I’m not too sure right now, but I’m sure that I’ll find a good purpose for it.

Congratulations Geeth for winning the award! We hope to see you solve bigger challenges in the future.

Inventor Spotlight: Pahal Sah

Our featured student inventor is Pahal Sah, who created a more useful backpack. Her idea won a national level award as part of the “Student Ideas for a Better America” competition organized by the National Museum of Education

Here is Pahal talking about her invention in more detail.  

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

Hi! I’m Pahal Sah, a 5th Grade Quest student at Albert Einstein Elementary. I love reading books about mystery and fiction, arts and crafts, playing board games, and playing with friends! My favorite subjects are Reading and Social Studies, mainly because of the fun projects we have.

What is your invention and how does it work?

My Invention is the Fluffy Carrier 9000, and it is a backpack, a normal one, but with a few extra features. One of them is the wheels and handle, like a suitcase. Whenever you pull the handle, wheels pop out of the bottom. I also added an expandable pocket in the middle, and if you unstrap it, the other side turns into a blanket! There are many pockets for school supplies, and another great part is that the backpack itself is waterproof.  

What inspired you to develop this invention?

Two problems inspired me – how wet backpacks got during rainy days, and that most of the time I couldn’t fit all my supplies in my bag at school. It was a real pain carrying my water bottle, folder, and lunchbox while trying to board a bus.

Did your prototype work? How was that experience? 

Yes, my prototype worked! I made a bag using construction paper; the hardest part was shaping it. I’m pretty sure I used some cardboard for the base, and I decorated it with even more “pockets”. For the wheel, I taped a small circle and the handle, I used a piece of construction paper to sort that out. I was very happy at the end when my prototype looked like an actual backpack! 

What are some things you learned from your MindAntix camp that will help you in the future? 

To think out of the box and to be creative. Later, I will have to make my own ideas not copy them from other people. I really loved how we were supposed to make our own inventions! 

Who is your favorite inventor and why? 

I don’t really have a favorite inventor. All the inventors stand out to me!

What kind of problems do you want to solve in the future?

In the future, I want to solve the problems that are affecting nature such as Global Warming, helping save endangered animals, and more. 

How will you use your prize money? 

I actually haven’t thought about that…maybe to get something I really want? Or maybe I could use it to get a new game or book!

Congratulations Pahal for winning the award! We hope to see you solve bigger challenges in the future.

Inventor Spotlight: Manan Ghosh

Our featured student inventor is Manan Ghosh, who designed an interesting board game. His idea won a national level award as part of the “Student Ideas for a Better America” competition organized by the National Museum of Education

Here is Manan talking about his game in more detail.  

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

My name is Manan Ghosh. I’m in 5th Grade Quest at Ella Baker Elementary School in Redmond. My favorite subjects are Science and Math. During my free time I like to play Minecraft and build items in Paint 3D that I can use in Minecraft. My dream job is to be a scientist.

What is your invention and how does it work?

My invention is a board game called “Castles at Battle”. In the game, you move your pawn across the board to collect  resources such as Wood, Rock, Metal and Bricks. You then use these resources to build parts of your castle that then do battle with each other. As part of this, you can enhance the defenses of your castle by adding  things like Walls, Towers and Drawbridges, using the resources that you have collected. Resources also let you attack your opponent’s castles by buying attacks, like Knight Attack and Archer Attack. It is a game of moves and countermoves, as you try to get enough resources to defend your own castle while also collecting resources to attack your opponent. You win if you eliminate all other players, this is done by sending out an attack that deals more attack points then the defense points of the other castle.

What inspired you to develop this invention?

I like games involving war and when you have to focus on more than one thing to win. Making 3-D models of castles, walls and towers was a lot of fun and made playing the game more real.

Did your prototype work? How was that experience? 

I could not finish my prototype though I did make some of the 3D printed items for my game. Since it was my first time doing 3D printing and my game pieces were a bit complex, it took me more time than I expected. It was still a lot of fun.

What are some things you learned from your MindAntix camp that will help you in the future? 

I learned how to design 3D objects using new tools and print them. I have played board games, but it is different to think about board games from the point of view of the designer. You have to think about different things.

Who is your favorite inventor and why? 

Leonardo Da Vinci is my favorite inventor. He was an artist and also made many inventions in various fields.

What kind of problems do you want to solve in the future?

I would like to find ways to solve the problem of too much plastic and pollution in the oceans.

How will you use your prize money? 

I will save my money until I find some good use for it.

Congratulations Manan for winning the award! We hope you enjoy playing your board game with your friends and family.

The Educational Challenge For This Decade: A Story In Two Graphs

As we start the new decade and move towards the post-pandemic phase with cautious optimism, the question of how education needs to evolve is still looming. The pandemic shone a light on challenges like the magnitude of inequity in our society, but it also became a catalyst for better technology adoption in schools. Without technology platforms that made remote learning feasible, it is scary to imagine what last year could have looked like. 

However, the role technology has played in education so far has been to enable the same teaching that took place in person to occur in remote settings – it hasn’t really transformed education in deeper ways. But transformation is what’s really needed to address underlying issues.

The problem with our current educational system has been in the making for several decades – we are simply not adapting fast enough to keep up with the technological progress. The gap between skills that students acquire in schools and skills that are needed in the workforce continues to widen. 

Jonathan Rochelle, who started the Google Apps for Education team, captured the essence of the problem we face in education today. While comparing the progress we have made in machine learning to human learning, he quippedwe are teaching machines to be more like humans and we are teaching humans to be more like machines.” 

Is Creativity The New STEM?

The impact machine learning is having on human livelihood brings us to the first graph (Fig. 1). 

Research by economists Henry Siu and Nir Jaimovich shows that economic growth over the last two decades has come entirely from non-routine, or creative jobs. Routine work – both manual and cognitive – has been steadily declining due to automation. Machines learning is getting better at increasingly complex tasks, performing them with fewer errors compared to humans. 

We are teaching machines to be more like humans, and we are doing that quite well. 

As a side note, the graph also shows that every recession accelerates the decline in routine work, and in a few years we will learn the full impact of covid on long-term job trends.

The current situation is reminiscent of the early 2000s when various reports (e.g. Rising Above the Gathering Storm) raised concerns about the quality of math and science education, and the shortage in the STEM workforce to meet the growing demand. 

In response to that Obama, who had earlier called STEM education our “Sputnik” moment, announced incentives for schools that create STEM programs for their students in his 2013 State of the Union address. That triggered an intense focus on STEM education from many players including schools, nonprofits and the technology industry. These efforts have paid off to an extent. Access to coding and other STEM programs is much more easily available to students of all age groups and backgrounds now. There are indications that although we have a scarcity of STEM graduates in certain geographical areas and domains, we also have a surplus in others. 

We are yet again at a junction where economic forecasts are pointing to the need for a skill that isn’t being adequately addressed. It’s likely that Creativity is the STEM of this decade. 

The Decline of Student Creativity

How well students are doing in their creative thinking abilities brings us to the sobering reality of our second graph (Fig. 2). 

Professor Kyung Hee Kim first discovered that student creativity as measured by the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT) has been declining since the 1990s and her analysis led to the highly popular Newsweek article, The Creativity Crisis. She found that measures like originality (thinking of novel ideas) and fluency (thinking of several ideas) – the hallmark of creativity – have shown a significant decline over the years. 

Part of the reason for this decline, according to Prof. Kim, has been the heavy and narrow focus on standardized testing which doesn’t leave room for building higher order thinking skills. Learning in school heavily prioritizes “one right answer”, which machines are good at, as opposed to multiple possible solutions, which give students the opportunity to exercise their creative muscle. Or as Sir Ken Robinson expressed, “we are educating people out of their creative capacities.

Current EdTech tools used in schools aren’t helping either – they primarily help students express their creativity instead of building it. 

In other words, we are teaching humans to be more like machines, and unfortunately, we are doing that quite well too.  

Navigating the Skill Gap

Educators have long recognized the importance of fostering creativity as part of student learning but the current economic environment is making this an urgent need. 

The good news is that creativity is a cognitive skill that can be developed with practice, and cognitive creativity programs have shown promising results

The not-so-good news is that most focus on divergent thinking which is disconnected from academic content students are learning. As one study pointed out, “It is hard to see how listing 100 interesting and unusual ways to use egg cartons will help Johnny improve his scores on state-mandated achievement tests.” 

One approach taken at MindAntix is to identify thought patterns, like associative or reverse thinking, that aid in creative thinking and actively incorporate them into school curriculum. Other educational approaches, some of them domain specific, have also been effective in improving creativity which offers room for some optimism. 

If we start teaching humans to be better at what makes us uniquely human – our ability to think creatively – we stand a much better chance at improving educational and career outcomes for our students. 

This article first appeared on edCircuit.

Creativity In Education: Reflections From ISTE 2020

The ISTE conference, one of the largest in the edTech space, concluded earlier this month after the pandemic delayed it from its regular summer schedule. Apart from presenting our approach to creativity this year, I was also interested in learning about tools and techniques educators are using to foster creativity among their students. 

Overall, I found it heartening that educators are increasingly recognizing the importance of creativity and discovering ways to nurture it in their students. Creativity is a crucial 21st century skill. Unlike linear and sequential thinking, creativity relies on non-linear processes making it hard for AI to automate. This is one of the main reasons why creativity is now the most sought after skill among employers. 

EdTech tools, on the other hand, haven’t progressed much in improving student creativity.   

(A quick note – while I looked at several different sessions related to creativity, this is not meant to be an exhaustive analysis as there were several hundred sessions this year.)

What is Creativity?

One of my first observations after watching several sessions related to creativity was that most educators use creativity as a proxy for open ended projects where students have freedom to express themselves. While this is clearly better than assigning work with one right answer, it’s not sufficient.

Simply giving students the space to be creative doesn’t necessarily equip them with the skills to think creatively. What students produce may or may not be creative, and can only be assessed by digging deeper into student created artifacts. 

As a result, most educators and students have built misconceptions around creativity.

So, what really is creativity? Creativity as psychologists define it is the ability to come up with ideas that are both novel and useful. An idea that looks original but doesn’t solve a problem or is appropriate in a situation is simply imaginative, not creative. Similarly, if the idea solves a problem but has already been done by others is useful but not creative. 

There are several models of the creative process and at a high level we can think of it as two phases – coming up with the initial creative idea followed by expressing the idea and iterating if needed.

Do EdTech tools help or hinder creativity?

All of the EdTech tools I saw – which included products from Google, Microsoft and Adobe – were geared towards helping students better express their creative idea but didn’t play a role in enabling creative thinking. In that sense, they don’t really help build creativity.

That said, they can potentially hinder creativity in some cases. One of the problems in using digital tools too early in the process is that students end up producing work that looks very polished but isn’t backed up with deep thinking. Students might rush into creating the final product without spending sufficient time exploring and examining different ideas, leading to sub-par results. 

This doesn’t mean that these tools shouldn’t have a role in the classroom. These tools are great for building digital literacy, acquiring knowledge and collaborating with others. But, as far as creativity is concerned, we need to be mindful about how to use them in the overall workflow. 

How are educators fostering creativity?

I saw several examples of educators using digital tools in interesting ways to teach content to students. However, those approaches fall into the category of “teaching creatively” instead of “teaching for creativity”. Teaching creatively implies finding novel ways to make teaching more effective and engaging, but it doesn’t help build student creativity. Teaching for creativity, on the other hand, is to teach in ways that help students build their own creativity. 

Some educators have made teaching for creativity a core part of the student experience. Here are some examples:

  • Visual Thinking: Using sketches and doodling is a way to not just express ideas but to think. Sketchnoting can help students find connections between different concepts and build personal meaning. Manuel Herrera got inspired to use visual thinking after attending a design conference. He realized that not a single speaker at the design conference talked about any tools. Instead, the conference was all about the creative process before any tools are used. That influenced him to start using a visual thinking process with his students. One of his techniques is to ask students to fold a sheet of paper in eight sections for brainstorming. Students then take 30 seconds to sketch an idea in one section and then quickly move on to the next one. He found that when students get to the fourth or fifth idea, they start coming up with more original and interesting ideas.
  • STEAM Mindset: Tim Needles shared how he encourages the STEAM mindset which centers around creativity, failure, curiosity, design and fun. After working on many projects he has realized that the process is more important than the product – even if students don’t have a successful piece they still learn through the process. One of his techniques to spur creativity is to introduce a constraint which forces students to think in different directions. For example, in one project he asked students to create an untraditional selfie using a different material. Students  responded with creative self portraits made out of skittles, cheetos or leaves. 
  • Creative Thought Processes: Our own work on building creativity relies on identifying thought processes like associative or reverse thinking, that underlie creative thinking, and incorporating them in the process. This year I presented some fun warm-up games that can be used standalone as brain breaks or incorporated into what students are already learning (see resources here). For example, one game asks students to reverse an assumption and find a scenario where the reversal would make sense. One group of students who challenged the assumption that tables have legs, came up with a table design that can be lowered from the ceiling. Students often find that by challenging assumptions they can come up with radical insights.  

The future of creativity in education

Given the economic trends and forecasts, the role of creativity in education is only going to grow more. Current edTech tools allow students to express their creativity more efficiently, but don’t help build it. This leaves the job of improving student creativity to educators who are filling this gap through different creative processes. This doesn’t mean that EdTech tools can’t improve creativity. It is highly likely that as these tools evolve to incorporate creativity building elements, they will make a much bigger impact on student learning and creativity.

This post first appeared on edCircuit

Creativity Through The Lens of Evolutionary Biology

Understanding how we, as humans, think and behave has always held fascination for scientists. Creativity – the ability to think of novel and useful ideas – is often considered a key trait that has allowed us to flourish as a species. Evolutionary biology dictates that traits beneficial to the species as a whole survive in the long term, while the less useful traits die down. 

So, in what ways is creativity beneficial to us?

Research of innovation in other birds and animals provides clues that creativity evolved when brains developed more, and it provided distinct survival advantages. 

One example found in nature is the bowerbird, one of nature’s creative engineers. Bowerbirds, found natively in Australia and New Guinea, have an interesting courtship and mating ritual. The male bowerbirds build elaborate structures called bowers from sticks and vegetation, and then decorate them with brightly colored objects like shells, stones, flowers or berries. 

When scientists looked at the complexity of the bower, which indicates higher intelligence and creativity, and the brain size they found an interesting correlation. Bowerbird species that built more complex bowers also had a larger cerebellum volume. 

Similar research on birds and primates confirm the hypothesis that more advanced brain structures developed to allow more complex cognition, which conferred evolutionary advantages. In a metastudy of birds and primates, researchers developed an innovation index by coding documented innovative behaviors and found that higher innovation levels correlated with larger brain sizes. 

Two main aspects of cognition that have to work together to support adaptability are innovation and social learning. 

Innovation

The ability to innovate plays a crucial role for a species in its survival. When faced with a new environment, species that are able to discover new food sources, avoid new predators or adapt to a different weather have significant advantages over those that don’t. One example of innovation in adapting to new foods comes from black rats that occupied the Jerusalem pine forests. The only source of food appropriate for the black rats in that area are pine seeds. The rats developed a technique to strip the pine cone to reach the seed, a behavior they had not previously used, which was critical for them to survive in the new habitat.  

Social Learning

While discovering a new food source or developing a new tool to extract hard to reach foods can help an animal survive a new environment, the species as a whole can only benefit when animals can learn from each other. Using the earlier example of black rats, scientists found that black rat pups were able to learn the new pine stripping behavior from their mothers, while other adults were not always successful in learning through observation. This successful transmission of learning from mothers to their pups allowed the black rats to flourish in the new environment. 

Our own history offers numerous examples of successful innovations that were exchanged and adopted by others. Our ability to think creatively and learn from others have allowed us to thrive in new environments. As one of the research studies summarized, “The combination of innovation with social learning, as documented in a number of primate species, is likely to be especially advantageous for species in novel habitats, as it could allow copying exploratory behavior per se as well as permitting the rapid transmission of successful strategies.”

How Imagination Builds Creativity and Social Emotional Skills

Nikola Tesla is one of the most fascinating inventors and futurists in recent history. His numerous accomplishments include the AC induction motor, Tesla coil and radio communication. His method for creating and inventing was not conventional – he relied heavily on imagination and visualized his ideas in great detail before taking any action on them. He describes his thought process as: 

“I do not rush into actual work. When I get an idea I start at once building it up in my imagination. I change the construction, make improvements and operate the device in my mind. It is absolutely immaterial to me whether I run my turbine in thought or test it in my shop. I even note if it is out of balance. There is no difference whatever, the results are the same. In this way I am able to rapidly develop and perfect a conception without touching anything.”

Imagination is the ability to form internal images of objects or situations that are not present to the senses. It is often the first step for a creative endeavor, and often provides the initial insights that lead to a novel solution. Tesla’s ability to visualize and imagine complete devices was extraordinary and allowed him to save immense amounts of time typically spent in prototyping. This approach to imagining problems and possible solutions has been common to many creative endeavors and scientists like Einstein, Feynman and many others have described their own imaginative experiences that led to scientific breakthroughs. 

There are other aspects of imagination that go beyond conceiving a single creative idea to building a more holistic creative mindset for an individual. 

From the earliest ages, children engage in pretend play with each other and with their toys. They imagine themselves in new roles and new situations, which helps them build crucial social and problem solving skills. 

When older students can imagine a future self that is more successful than their current selves, they are more likely to regulate their current behavior and show more persistence. They are more likely to participate in class discussions, spend more time in homework and achieve better grades. 

Imagination’s benefits go beyond personal goals to more broader social contexts. Similar to pretend play, when students are able to imagine others’ perspectives and their feelings, they are more effectively able to build consensus and navigate tricky social situations. 

Despite the advantages of nurturing imagination and creativity, our educational system currently doesn’t prioritize building these skills adequately. As researchers in imagination point out, “…supporting youths’ capacities for social-emotional imagination – their abilities to creatively conjure alternative perspectives, emotional feelings, courses of action, and outcomes for oneself and others in the short- and long-term future – is a critical missing piece in many classrooms.

While imagination is often considered a “soft-skill” and therefore less important than critical thinking, it is really a cognitive skill that schools should encourage in students. Imagination helps not just in creative problem solving, it also helps build important social and emotional skills that are essential for success in the real world.