The Psychology of Human Creativity

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Updated: Aug 18, 2023
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Creative people can construct something straight out of the imagination using nothing but their unconscious. This line of thinking has proven to be monumentally important in shaping civilization in the present day. With the advent of the digital age, people are more connected than ever before, sharing their own creative work while inspiring others to do the same. Most people, however, will say that they can hardly draw a simple animal, much less a stick person. They claim that they lack the talent to be a creative individual or that they were simply not born with it.

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While there may be an apparent genetic predisposition to the artistic mindset, it is not entirely in a person’s genes. Scientists are beginning to figure out where in the brain creative thought is said to activate and how it can be facilitated in non-artists. They are also discovering what personalities align with a creative person and how much they affect a person’s creativity.

Brain Inhibition

Before the advent of modern medical machinery, the study of artists and their creativity was measured by the left-handedness of the subject. Notable artistic figures like Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael served as examples for numerous art studies. Now that brain imaging technology is here and continues to improve, scientists have observed that the left hemisphere of the brain specializes in language, while the right is reserved for art, music, and anything that falls under the creative spectrum. The general idea now is that creative people tend to use their right brain more than their left. However, to date, no consensus has been made whether left or right interactions in the brain help or hinder creative thought. Some propose that better interactions of certain areas of the brain help to facilitate creativity, while others believe that isolating these areas of the brain would allow them to behave freely and, thus, facilitate creative thinking. The latter argument falls under the blanket of Paradoxical Functional Facilitation (PFF), the enigmatic theory that states that damage to intact brain tissue helps to normalize a previously abnormal function.

In 2012, Chinese researchers used PFF to hypothesize that hindering one side of the brain will aid the activities of the other side, and vice versa. They conducted a study involving twenty-eight right-handed non-art students from Sichuan University who had no prior neuropsychiatric disorders or brain damage. They put these students through three trials to test their creativity and monitor brain activity. Firstly, they had students come up with a creative means of finishing a drawn shape. The second had students continuing a pattern, serving as an uncreative task. The final was the control, requiring the subjects to observe a blank screen. Researchers utilized E.P. Torrance’s Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT) to analyze subjects, focusing more on originality rather than the complexity or amount of artwork produced.

Behavioral results showed higher scores on the TTCT’s creative category than on the uncreative (Huang, 2727). Resistance to Premature Closure was also tested in accordance with the TTCT and it warranted similar results among the subjects (2727). Brain scanning looked specifically at the prefrontal or posterior lobes to see which section had a hand in inhibiting brain activity. Results of the creative trial showed the most activity in the left middle prefrontal cortex (mPFC), the left inferior frontal gyrus (IFG), and the right middle occipital lobe; while the right mPFC and the left inferior parietal lobe showed decreased activities (2727). The uncreative tasks warranted patches of activity in the right middle frontal lobe (rmPFC) as well as the left inferior parietal cortex (2728). This was in line with the researchers’ hypothesis, and they concluded that a possible inhibitory mechanism exists in the human brain and it is activated during figural creative tasks. However, this study does not answer why this phenomenon happens and more testing is needed in other groups of people.

This brain inhibition might explain why humans can excel in certain fields when a significant portion of the brain sustains damage. Anne Adams, a patient who suffered from primary progressive aphasia (PPA), became the subject of a study that aimed to explore how anterior and posterior brain systems interact to facilitate creative thought. PPA is a neurodegenerative condition that causes gradual problems in speech and language. Since the left portion of the brain is primarily afflicted, artistic talent is heightened for some PPA patients like Adams. She always had an interest in the arts, but her lack of talent prevented her from pursuing it. She began to paint after her son was involved in a life-threatening motor accident and, as the years went by, her paintings were described as “more vibrant, colourful, and multifaceted” (Seeley 41). Her tastes in art genres shifted as the disease progressed, going from musical themes to abstraction to photorealism before she was unable to paint due to her circumstances. The astonishing detail of her work in the final periods of her life is very telling about how brain activity affects artistic talent.

Brain scans that were taken well before Adams began showing signs of PPA showed early signs of degeneration in various parts of the left hemisphere such as the left inferior and opercular frontal regions, anterior insula, and striatum (43). When her 2004 MRI was compared to 30 other females in her demographic, results showed atrophy of Adams’ left inferolateral frontal cortex, frontal insula, and striatum (44). Further examination showed that Adams’ left temporal and parietal lobes had deteriorated significantly by the time of her passing, while her right brain remained just fine at the peak of her creativity (45). This pattern concluded that the deterioration of areas in the left brain can facilitate artistic talent in non-artists.

Personality Traits

As it progressed through the nineteenth century up to the present day, people began to look at creativity as a means of self-expression and identity, which opened it up to a mainstream audience. This advent of the art world spawned numerous creative traits that are reflected by certain personalities. A 1958 study found that those in creative fields were more mature, dominant, adventurous, radical, and sophisticated in comparison with those who were not in the same field (Cattell 1958). When compared to scientific personalities, studies showed that artists had various emotional states, a better approach to work, and were primarily antisocial, while scientists were more grounded and conscientious in their work (Feist 1998).

However, two traits that had not been fully tested in creative people were alexithymia and affect intensity. Those who suffer from alexithymia have difficulty identifying their own emotions, whereas affect intensity is the occasional feeling of intense emotional reactions during a given event. Researchers at the University of Paris Descartes wanted to find a link between the two when it came to creative people, and they hypothesized that art students at the university would exhibit varying degrees of alexithymia and demonstrate high affect intensity while working on a poster project.

They found that art students had a higher level of alexithymia when compared to general students, and that having a rich fantasy life seemed to be of notable importance to these creative students, compared to psychology students (Botella 5). This would make sense as artists are prone to daydreaming and accessing their unconscious mind, from which their ideas form. When researchers calculated the students’ affect intensity, they found that they suffered from a high negative intensity, suggesting that artists live life intensely (5). The artist’s mindset is indeed intense and emotional, especially regarding self-expression. Perfectionists like Arnold Böcklin, a prominent Symbolist painter in nineteenth-century Europe, suffered in life as he pursued individuality during a time when industrialization was booming and the art world was becoming uninspired. It was this intensity that set him apart from his contemporaries and contributed towards a shift in creative thinking as the twentieth century dawned.


Creative thinking is inherently necessary for the advancement of humanity. Without the artist’s ability to bring to light new ways of thinking, the necessary improvements for civilization and the future may never be conceived. This is why art movements provide so much insight into what people’s grievances and ideas were in the past. Now that brain imaging technology exists and is exponentially improving, scientists have unlocked the secrets of where creativity lies in the human brain. From there, they may be able to reprogram the brain’s activity toward creative thinking, inspiring those that are not previously artistic to think differently.

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The Psychology of Human Creativity. (2022, Aug 27). Retrieved from