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Are we all potential Einsteins?

Are creative geniuses born or made? What fuels - and stymies - our imaginations? Karen Gold tracks down some inspirational answers

How would you react to a child in an art class who gave you a blank white sheet of paper, saying it was a picture of geese flying in a snowstorm? Is that creativity? Insubordination? Both?

In theory everyone believes creativity is A Good Thing. In practice they may not. When people call for more creativity, then all kinds of tricky questions about its nature, prevalence and breeding conditions arise. Here are some of them:

1) What is creativity?

The most widely accepted definition is by Robert Sternberg, professor of psychology and education at Yale University. "Creativity is the ability to produce work that is both novel (ie original, unexpected) and appropriate (ie useful, adaptive concerning task constraints)," he says.

Unfortunately this still leaves questions unanswered. What about creativity's moral undertone? Few people would describe the inventor of Zyklon B as "creative'.

The definition also does not make clear whether "novel" means never seen before. Children's musical phrases, for example, are rediscovered year after year. Is their work not creative because it is only new to them?

Above all it still does not tell us what kind of thing creativity is. Is it a brain impulse? An inspiration? (A metaphor today, but pre-Renaissance creativity was literally seen as the Holy Spirit working via an incidental human being). Is it irrepressible? A habit? A personality style? Aconscious decision?

Nobody really knows.

2) Is everyone creative?

"There is no open and shut case that everyone is creative," says Sternberg.

"But there is good evidence to assume that they are."

Experiments in the United States and China show that if you offer people extra points for creativity and imagination, the creative content of their work immediately rises. It also improves if people are encouraged to take risks, or are fascinated by what they do. Since all these behaviours can be manipulated, probably most people are creative, given the right activity and environment.

3) Are some people more creative than others?

There are at least four questions underlying this one. Are children more creative than adults? Are some cultures more creative than others? Are some creative geniuses - Mozart, Newton, Shakespeare - of a different order from the rest of us? Or does creativity vary incrementally, so it might be measured on a sliding scale, like intelligence?

The answers to these questions are yes, yes, yes, and maybe. Yet the answer to the overall question of whether some people are actually innately more creative than others could still be no!

It is possible that children's brains undergo physiological change around the age of nine, when creativity drops sharply. There is a little bit of biological evidence that highly creative people are different from the rest of us: for example they perceive electric shocks to be stronger and hurt more, according to Dr Colin Martindale of Maine University.

But even these differences may not be innate. The influence of our environment is so great that it is impossible (at present) to tell if very creative people are born like that or made so by their upbringing.

Einstein's secretary said that even if he were born among the polar bears, Einstein would still be Einstein. But unless the polar bears knew some theoretical physics, Einstein would not be Einstein as we know him at all.

4) Can creativity be taught?

Big money rides on the idea that it can. Commercial creative thinking courses used in business and increasingly in schools, promote certain thinking techniques, all well-supported by psychological research. They include brainstorming, redefining the problem, questioning assumptions and making connections between separate fields of knowledge. (This last is the most difficult to do in secondary school, and possibly the most fruitful).

Do they work? Applied to one-off problems, says Sternberg, they do. But much more fundamental change is needed (see box below) if we want widespread consistent creativity: "The biggest obstacle isn't that people don't know these tricks. It's that the current pay-off system means that using them doesn't get you anywhere."

5) What kind of work is creative?

Ministerial speeches inevitably discuss creativity in the context of the arts. They reflect a widespread misunderstanding, says Nicholas Shepherd-Barron, professor of algebraic geometry at Cambridge University.

Any activity is potentially creative: "Mathematics as done by professional mathematicians is trying to do things which haven't been done before.

There's no big teacher who sets the problem and then marks you out of 10 for your efforts.

"Many 18-year-olds coming to study mathematics at university have come to regard it as not being a creative subject. But even 10-year-olds can get that feeling of joy and exhilaration which comes from encountering something difficult and finding insights which you haven't found before."

6) Do we need creativity?

One human response to mental pain - found in any copy of The Big Issue - is to write, or paint, or garden. That suggests individual creative expression may be vital to us. Collectively we are told that creativity underpins our economic survival. For how that turns out in practice, see the next question.

7) What suppresses creativity?

Anxiety inhibits creativity, say psychologists. So does shortage of time.

So do narrow questions, simple answer tests and an emphasis on external rewards rather than self-motivation.

And if all those were not enough, says Sternberg, other people who don't use their creativity don't like it when you do: "Most creative ideas don't pan out. So if you have a creative idea that doesn't work, then people's response to it is pretty negative. They knew it wouldn't work all along.

"Sometimes they even sabotage it because they don't want to change."

We license certain individuals to be creative, says Dr Ken Robinson who chaired the Government's 1999 inquiry into creativity in education:"They don't wear ties and come into work late because they had an idea ." But unlicensed creatives - Galileo, Solzhenitsyn - get very different treatment.

Consequently the people who carry on being creative are people determined to do things their own way. They may be no more creative than their conformist next-door neighbour. They are simply more resistant to being trained out of it.

The Issue: children's play in TES Friday, 13

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