The crisis of creativity

We are losing our grip on creativity; how can we regain it?

Research suggests that creativity has been declining over recent centuries¹; a trend which shows no sign of abating. But why is this the case? And is there a way of reviving creativity within the confines of the modern world? In this article, Peter Carruthers examines the origins of creativity, and argues that in order to reclaim this lost art, we must put down our devices, and allow our minds to wander again.


Creativity is the production of things that are both novel and valuable (whether physical artefacts, actions, or ideas). But what are the sources of creativity? Are there different kinds of creativity? And how can creativity be facilitated or impeded?

The sources of creativity are unconscious. You can’t force it or choose it. You have to let it come. The Greeks even believed that there are divine spirits—the Muses—who whisper into their devotees’ ears, giving them inspiration. If we don’t go down that road, we are left with a puzzle: how does the unconscious mind come up with valuable forms of novelty? Although creative ideas seemingly come “out of the blue,” they aren’t random. Even if they don’t work out on further inspection, they are generally at least relevant to the task or problem they are designed to address. So how does this happen? In order to answer that question, we need to distinguish between two forms of creativity: online and offline.

Online creativity happens “in the moment,” under time pressure. Think, here, of jazz improvisation, freestyle rap, improv comedy, and—more mundanely—witty conversation. In such cases, there is no time to think or plan, yet some people nevertheless manage to produce something new and valuable (at least some of the time—of course attempts at wit can fail miserably). The other kind of creativity happens while one’s mind is engaged with something else (“offline”). Ideas occur to one while in the shower, or while taking a walk. But they aren’t random, either; they at least purport to address some problem or puzzle that has remained in the background.


Many of us are aware that when one hits a wall, one should take a break ... this allows the relevance system to sift through unconsciously-activated ideas and memories in the meantime, evaluating them as potential solutions to the problem


Online creativity leverages the competitive character of normal action-selection. Whenever an action is in the offing, multiple competing motor plans become active and are swiftly evaluated (unconsciously) for adequacy and ease of implementation. But such competitions are also heavily biased by what cognitive scientists call the “relative accessibility” of the representations involved, which in turn is influenced by frequency of occurrence in the context—in short, by habits. People who have found a way to harness online creativity in a given domain manage to suppress the obvious, most accessible, continuation of a sentence or musical phrase, and to select one of the less-accessible alternatives. There is a story to tell about how that happens. But that is not what I want to focus on here. For it is offline creativity that correlates with real-world success in most forms of art, science, and business innovation; and there is some reason to think that the two forms of creativity are anti-correlated.

Offline creativity results from an interplay between two competing attentional systems in the brain. One is “top-down” and executively controlled. Targeting with top-down attention is generally sufficient for a mental state to become conscious. The other system is “bottom-up.” It is sometimes referred to as the salience system, since it responds to sudden changes in stimuli (loud noises, looming objects, and so on). But it might better be called the relevance system. For unconsciously activated stimuli and memories are constantly being evaluated against current goals and standing values. The salience system continually competes for the resources of top-down attention and entry into consciousness, as it were shouting, “Hey, pay attention to me!”.

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To illustrate, consider what used to be called the Cocktail Party Effect. (Do cocktail parties still exist?) You are conversing with someone in a crowd of people, with a buzz of unattended conversations all around you. You have no awareness of what they are talking about. But if someone in one of those conversations mentions your name, chances are it will “pop out” at you. You hear it and orient to that conversation instead. For this to happen, the relevance system has to have been monitoring the surrounding conversations unconsciously—probably not processing them in full, but at least extracting the meanings of single words and phrases. When your name is recognized, that is evaluated as highly relevant. (“What are they saying about me? Is it good? Is it bad?”) If relevant enough, this is sufficient to switch the direction of top-down attention, and the sound of your own name breaks into consciousness.


The (negative) effects of social media on mood have been much noticed and talked about. Equally important, perhaps, may be their negative effects on creativity


The relevance system is especially likely to have an impact on attention and conscious experience under conditions of low concentration, particularly when mind-wandering. So you are in the shower, humming to yourself, thinking of this and that; or you are strolling through a park, noticing birds and flowers, hearing snatches of passing conversations, and so on. Fragments of memory (in short, “ideas”) will get activated associatively (and unconsciously) all the time, as one stimulus or thought is followed by another. If you also have a background puzzle or problem of some sort that you haven’t yet been able to solve, chances are the goal of solving it will still be accessible, and will be one of the standards against which unconsciously-activated ideas are evaluated for relevance. As a result, the solution (or at least, a candidate solution) may suddenly occur to you out of the blue. Creativity doesn’t so much result from a Muse whispering in your ear as it does from the relevance system shouting, “Hey, try this!”.

This account is consistent with everyday experience, of course. Many of us are aware that when one hits a wall, one should take a break—do something else, take a walk, have a nap, or whatever. This allows the relevance system to sift through unconsciously-activated ideas and memories in the meantime, evaluating them as potential solutions to the problem.

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What is the main impediment to offline creativity? In short, not allowing one’s mind to be offline—rarely choosing, or having the chance, to be alone with one’s thoughts, and to let one’s mind wander. Some people are too busy, perhaps. And for others, it is because they make the choice never to lack focus, opting always to have a podcast to listen to, or the television news to watch, or whatever. But for many, it is because every free moment is spent on social media, with their attention being dragged this way and that, shifting conscious focus over matters that have nothing to do with their creativity-requiring problems and concerns. The (negative) effects of social media on mood have been much noticed and talked about. Equally important, perhaps, may be their negative effects on creativity. For the algorithms behind social-media sites are designed to attract, and to hold, eyeballs and attentional engagement. Since there is no room for minds to wander if attention is dominated by attention-grabbing social-media posts, that means there is less scope for creativity, too. The bottom line: people need to wean themselves off social media—and also to find sufficient unstructured time in their lives for mind-wandering—not just to improve their own mental health, but to restore or enhance their own creativity.

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