Childish Creativity

Pablo Picasso once declared that "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up."

The solution to Picasso's problem is startlingly simple, at least according to the psychologists Darya Zabelina and Michael Robinson of North Dakota State University: We just need to think like a little kid. In their recent paper, "Child's play: Facilitating the originality of creative output by a priming manipulation," the scientists took a large group of undergraduates and randomly assigned them to two different groups. The first group was given the following instructions:

"You are 7 years old. School is canceled, and you have the entire day to yourself. What would you do? Where would you go? Who would you see?"

The second group was given the exact same instructions, except the first sentence was deleted. As a result, these students didn't imagine themselves as 7 year olds. They were stuck in their adolescent present.

After writing for ten minutes, the subjects were then given various tests of creativity, such as trying to invent alternative uses for an old car tire, or completing incomplete sketches. (These are sample tasks from the Torrance test of creativity.) Interestingly, the students who imagined themselves as little kids scored far higher on the creative tasks, coming up with more ideas that were also more original. The effect was especially pronounced among "introverts," who exert more mental energy suppressing their "spontaneous associations".

Why does age make us less mature? Why accounts for the infamous 4th grade slump in creativity? One possibility is that we trade away the ingenuity of our youth for executive function. As the brain develops, the prefrontal cortex expands in density and volume. As a result, we're able to exhibit impulse control and focused attention. The unfortunate side-effect of this cortical growth is an increased ability to repress errant thoughts. While many of these thoughts deserve to be suppressed, it turns out that we also censor the imagination. We're so scared of saying the wrong thing that we end up saying nothing at all. One interesting line of evidence in support of this speculative theory is that jazz musicians engaged in improvisation selectively "de-activate" their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. In other words, they inhibit their inhibitory brain areas, which allows them to create without worrying about what they're creating.

While this clever study won't transform us into John Coltrane or Pablo Picasso - silencing our inner censor only works if we have something worthwhile to express - it does suggest a simple way to expand the circumference of the imagination. By thinking of ourselves as a child, we end up thinking in more child-like ways. The end result is that we regain the creativity lost with time.

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As we get older, we are trained out of our creativity. Constraints are put on us and self-imposed.

You shouldn't spend your time on art. Do something "useful." Make money. Only do things that are "really good." Don't embarrass yourself. Don't be foolish and do risky things. This is how things work and the way they are.

These are big constraints.

When we're a kid, we don't know these things. Our minds are truly free.

This reminded me of a book I read years ago about how to run; it said to run like you're a child and your body will have a free, healthy form. The irony is, I'm an artists - not a runner.

Even as someone that, at 23, has a family of artists and an easel in my bedroom, sometimes I still feel silly for taking time out of my day for art. I think maybe it's because real, fun, creative art (the kind that's really freeing and "childlike" to make) often... well... is an awesome process but terrible outcome. The more work on my plate and numbers on my to do list, the less likely I am to set aside those couple hours to "play" in the studio - especially since I know the more likely I am to have fun the less likely I am to make something framable.

I don't have any answers, but I know that art has been the most healing thing in my life... and it's a constant meditation and practice in letting go of the outcome (because it really is hit or miss).. maybe that's what the jazz musicians have figured out :)

Wonderful article, thank you for merging my two favorite subjects - art and psychology.

I'm curious if there would have been a jump in creativity if another scenario were put in place for the "You are 7 years old" stipulation - for example, "You are a pupil at 18th century Oxford", or "You are a teacher at a local elementary school." Perhaps the creativity increase does not specifically come from imagining oneself as a small child, but simply from imagining oneself in different circumstances.

Mozglubov, I like your comment. I think creativity is a kind of behavior, as Jennifer seems to acknowledge too. If I understand "How We Decide" accurately, we engage in behavior because our brain chooses that behavior which it predicts will provide the greatest emotional rewards in a given situation. Perhaps just suggesting that we are someone who we are not can temporarily release us from a range of emotional drivers that we have accumulated as part of our identity as we mature. Most artists I know, those in music as well as the visual arts, seem to have nurtured their playfulness and value it as part of their personality (emotional identity). As an amateur guitarist it seems my greatest obstacle is letting go of the executive and just listening to what my fingers are doing.

By Ray in Seattle (not verified) on 25 Mar 2010 #permalink

Is it an actual regaining of creativity or simply the removal of "learned" inhibitions? Or perhaps both except that the form of curiosity that drove creativity originally has to be to some extent "relearned."

Jennifer; I believe the book to which you are referring is "Chi Running" by Danny Dreyer. There's a whole movement in the running community towards running "barefoot" in that running shoes were only invented in the 1970's, and the support they offer actually weakens the muscles of the ankles and feet and is what causes premature collapse of the arch, improper running technique, impact to the heel, pronation, knee injuries, etc. The natural tendency to absorb the shock of a stride with the calf muscle and achilles tendon is forgotten in a pair of modern running shoes, and the sensitivity and reflexes are all lost, and the result is painful injuries and degeneration. The theory goes. . . this natural gait and set of reflexes and balance needs to be retrained, in order to get back to a way of running that naturally supports the arch, keeps impact off the heel, keeps the fibia and tibula properly oriented, and pressure across the cartiledge of the knee (and hips, and lower-back) even through the stride.

As far as creativity and children goes -
as a parent, and a trained artist, I pondered this, watching my children grow up. They made a lot of experiments in creativity, but they were often pretty blocked by technique issues, and lack of confidence. Our culture conditions them for competition very early. Even as early as age 4, in their Montissori program. They would try this or that; paper mache, drawing, painting, clay, music, and quit because there was no little burst of satisfaction from success felt.

I know that my daughter explored some very strange stuff at age 5, in a sketch book; a combination of a cartoon she watched, and hearing her best friend telling her about watching her little sister's birth. . . (pretty scary stuff for a 5 year old girl, a lot of scary feelings expressed, very creatively).

My son's creativity became very frozen, early-on. I don't know why. He didn't draw, or write. He played piano, but just struggled along with technique and lessons. We got him lego building sets, and he meticulously built EXACTLY what the instructions said to build, and he absolutely refused to diverge from those instructions. fear? We were not disciplinarians. It wasn't until about age 13-14 (older than average, for lego?) when he started trying to duplicate designs of other things he saw, like Star Wars ships. (synthesis), then, he went through a period of creating his own designs. It was about this time he started playing electric guitar, and THAT is when he found a technique he could easily master so that it wouldn't get in the way of expressing his creativity. Mastery of technique just really matters to him, and maybe that's just an individual personality thing. More versatility as an artist? More tools at his disposal? More confidence? All of those can be factors, I guess.

So my theory on this is that it had to do with physical maturity, development of coordination, even hand-strength, and even just a breadth of experience, exposure to a certain amount of existing art that finally triggered him to create. It played out with legos on a smaller scale first. Then guitar.

With my daughter; I gave her every opportunity to learn whatever drawing or painting technique I could teach her. (I have a BFA). She's pretty stubborn, and really just wanted to not have to have it taught. So I didn't push, and I showed her my books, gave her access to tools and materials, and told her she could experiment whenever she wanted. And she chose mainly to stick to pencil and paper, and didn't really use any kind of traditional, formal method of training in drawing. And she didn't achieve much skill, and never really took to it. But she still does draw for fun.
Her real talent and passion is for singing and music, and writing. She showed creativity there right around age 6 or 7 when we encouraged her to try - and we took the same approach there, offered her formal lessons if she wanted (through school programs). If there's support for a theory that "we train the creativity out of them" - then that was it.

But I don't think it's the training that does it.
I believe that if there is a talent that a child has, and a drive to create, then giving the child an opportunity to learn skills and theory behind that mode of art, can only help them. It gives them more tools, more confidence. This element can't hurt. It can only help. Are there exceptions? Are there "bad" curricula that curtail creativity, maybe because of some philosophical or metaphysical agenda? Is it possible that the state-of-the-art in some fields is just plain wrong, (take the example of running-shoes, for instance, if the theory of barefoot-running proves to be true. . . )? Could be. But our culture of modern sports education has produced some really amazing athletes too; modern running shoes are doing something right, clearly.

Where formal cultural indoctrination can hurt them (as far as 'training creativity out of them'), is when they learn to fear failure, and give up trying. And I think the origins lie in our competition-oriented culture. And this happens in the Montissori environment, it happens in the Home Schooling environment, and it happens in our Institutionalized Schools too. I really don't know the answer to that one.

(An entirely different introspective discussion is: why did I seek a BFA degree, then not pursue a career in art, why did I, 20 years later, return to my hobbies of playing music and singing? Answer: at different times, I've begun to re-explore my interests when I was a child, that I have suppressed or set-aside, at various times, very much because I was told, by teachers, parents, etc., that these interests were not practical, would not make money, etc. People dealing with this kind of lifelong dysfunction know what this study is all about.)

Fantastic! I lead a similar activity in workshops and on webinars--one you can do anytime, anyplace.

1. Look around right where you are. Just notice what you notice, see what you see, hear what you hear.

2. Imagine you're a little kid. Maybe five or six or seven. Maybe a little older, ten or twelve. Become that little kid.

3. Now look around. What do you see? As a little kid, what would you be doing right here, right now? Feel it! And, better yet, go do it!

It's amazing how this completely changes people's perception and internal state. One-on-one it's fun to watch a person light up. In a group of 250 adults, the shift in energy in the room is outrageous and fun!

I love reading everyone's pet theories!

However, in keeping with the research described above - that the development of executive function dampens ones creativity - I was reminded of the "Marijuana and Divergent Thinking" entry made not too long ago.

When someone is "high" and their inhibitions are lowered, the creative, child-like associations begin to flow and get expressed in whatever medium their using.

Good stuff. :)

Love this blog.
Just some thoughts on the above article...

My children are home-educated and I have noticed among home educated children (not just my own) that their tendency towards creativity and imaginative play is less inhibited than that I have observed in school children. In many cases there are HE children of 11, 12, 13 years still eagerly engaging in imaginative play (witches, castles, den-making etc).

I'm not sure if HE children tend towards this because they have so much more free time/unstructured time to play, or because they are generally exposed to less peer pressure about age-appropriate play behaviour, or less exposed to disapproval from authoritative adults. Also HE children learn within mixed-age groups, either in families or in groups of other families, so there are no age boundaries to creative play. My 11-yr-old son thinks nothing of playing tea parties with his 6-yr-old sister and her soft toys, and will then quite easily switch to creating animations with 12 and 13 year olds or to using power tools to make a construction with an adult.

Today at an HE group a school child attended with one HE family. As they arrived the school child asked 'Will there be any play time?' It was difficult not to laugh because the idea of a prescribed 'play time' is so alien to most home educating families' lives - all the time is play time!
But if play time is seen as something structured and timetabled it is no wonder that children fast learn that imaginative play and creativity must also fit into an externally-controlled space and even that is restricted by rules.

I find that when my children attend museum or 'school' workshops they often reject prescribed methods of doing things - e.g. 'make this viking ship out of these printed out pieces' - and opt for their own interpretations, or creative urges. I'm guessing in a classroom of 20-30 children, there would be little opportunity for a child to do this - everyone has to do the same thing in the same way at the same time, or the school day just couldn't work.

Ok, rambled enough.

reminds me of when I lectured in art - for many students my advice would be "Censor your work after you make it, not before"

By greg hooper (not verified) on 25 Mar 2010 #permalink

NDP; Thank you for expanding/explaining about the running thing - that's EXACTLY the book I was talking about! Unfortunately, my running skills are poor (from now on I'll just blame it on the shoes ;) ) and the Chi Running techniques aren't very useful on the stairmaster, but thank you for both teaching me something (well, re-teaching!) and showing the other commenters that I'm not crazy.

To everyone else - I love hearing about your (and your children's) creativity - thank you for sharing :)

It always best to be carefull with creativity in any field - art, science or business, because more often than not, most people will not tolerate it. This is a fact. It's not to say don't be creative, quite the opposite, but to say that if you are, make sure you dress it up in everyday life if you present it seriously to others, like in your job, in what ever form you choose. Don't shove creativity, or creative ideas in peoples faces - opposite etfect will result. A bit like testing the temperature of very hot bath water before getting in, let them poke a toe in it first to see how things go.

I'm a high school Drama teacher, and I definitely notice a major difference in my students' creative output when we start the class with children's games. This is true even when we're dealing with intellectually or emotionally difficult subjects.

One of the best things about my job is that I get to play a lot. One of the worst is that some of my students have already lost the ability to join in. Some of this is caused by peer pressure, of course, but I think parents and teachers have to take a lot of responsibility for the drop off in creativity. Unfortunately, most adults just don't respect the importance of play.

Play is all about being free of egocentric constraints of accomplishment and performance. We become "human doings" as opposed to children who usually are allowed to just "be" - at least until they're socialized. Put your ego on the shelf, and see what happens!

By Pete Smillie (not verified) on 27 Mar 2010 #permalink

I'm afraid I disagree. If you watch children play I think it can be quite egocentric and may often be associated with accomplishment and performance, particularly when the play is among a group of children. Many children's games are competitive - even those that are not bound by traditional rules - and therefore about performance. I'm not just thinking of playground games - if you've ever watched two groups of children build dens in close viccinity to one another then you'll know what I mean lol.

I don't think this always has such a bad effect on creativity, in some children it may do the opposite, encouraging them to come up with new ideas and problem solving skills.
However when you add adults into the mix - e.g. those who don't like their children making mess, or playing rough, or demand play to be tidy and structured, or those who expect every creative activity to have a product or to reach predetermined targets - then you are on the way to stifling creativity. The National Curriculum and the tick-box culture of education has a lot to answer for.

I am glad you brought up jazz improvisation, because often it seems that musical training inhibits creativity through rigorous structure. When i sit at the piano, I am like the undergrads in your study. I tell myself I have no knowledge of the instrument, and that I am a 5 year old. I really do this, even though I have played my whole life. I must be preparing my brain to ignore its education.

"The effect was especially pronounced among "introverts," who exert more mental energy suppressing their "spontaneous associations"."

I highly doubt this stereotypical assumption about introverts is true; in fact, I find it offensive (as a very creative, rather eccentric introvert) and believe it shows a lack of understanding of what it means to be introverted. On the contrary, it's more likely that the effect is more pronounced because they are NOT suppressing their "spontaneous associations" as deeply so that the effects are easily triggered.

If the question is how we remain an artist once we grow up, could the answer can be found in the tension between intuition and rationality? In other words, is there a similarity between the cognitive battle between intuition and rationality and the cognitive battle between uninhibited creativity and rationality?

This is all mostly supposition and
many comments display a total lack
of understanding of the creative process
especially the mostly nonsense by Mr.
Lehrer . The quote by Picasso opens
many doors for psychologists to prattle on the creativie process without
understanding the comment of a genius
and equating the scribbling of a childs' work to that comment .

Having had a think about what I wrote in my recent comment here, it sounds really negative, but it's not. It might be an evolutionary advantage to actually tame creativity in order to keep chaos from going berserk and thus creating mayhem. So its proportion is important. It's obvious that creativity is extremely usefull when handled right - as its a driving force for nature and humankind and possibly for non organic matter.

Regarding childhood and creativity.....I guess that's why only the children inherit the kingdom of heaven.

By Katherine Olivetti (not verified) on 05 Apr 2010 #permalink

I have always believed there is a switch that's flipped off in second grade for so many kids. How is it that some of us (the cretive ones) have control over that swich to get it on again or never switch off in the first place. Is is he ones with a more active right brain than left brain who are less inhibited- more creative? I know in speaking with Mitchell, the artist whom I represent (he has left temporal lobe epilepsy) I am certain the lesion in the left brain forces the right brain to compensate making him very inuitive and astonishingly sightful. This right brain aciuity makes way for not only the creative process but a hyper focus and proliferation the likes I have not seen often in an artist.

"Censor your work after you make it, not before"

I couldn't agree more. Play is all about trying stuff with no fear of failure. Education aims us exclusively towards 'excellence' and thus snuffs out any chance of creativity.

As an Inventor, every day I get myself in a child-having-fun mindset and let rip!

Great comments. I have been an art teacher for 50 years and have taught every level from p-K thru adult and graduate level. The most valueble things I learned about being an effective teacher I learned from my students.
I'm going to add a scientific perspective comments. Educationally the most important creative process that needs to be understood is the self-creation process that takes place from birth to 8 1/2 to 10. This is an important underlying aspect of the previous comments. From that perspective the educational goal is to provide a positive environment that naturally aids the self-creation process for each child. All of the Arts: dance, drama, music and visual arts have an important roll in that natural development process that is not understood. It is this Arts position in the natural communication and problem solving process that needs objective understanding. I call it the baby signs to reading sequence. The natural sequence is sign language, oral language, all of the Arts,and writing that naturally leads to reading.
At 2 1/2 to 3 we were all The perfect non-objective artist. At that point it is a pure unconscious to the beginning of conciousness experience. It happens most effectivly thru enviromental choice. In this self creation process all humans develop a natural affinity for at least one of the Arts. This perspective has a human evolutionary dimention for education in general.

By James Mac Shane (not verified) on 25 Apr 2010 #permalink

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