7 Signs You Have a Creative Brain

What is it that sets a creative thinker apart from the everyday individual? My obsession with that question led me to drive across the United States so I could interview artists about their creativity; that in turn led to my forthcoming memoir.

But Dr. Nancy Andreasen’s obsession far predates mine. Armed with a PhD in English as well as a medical degree in psychiatry, Andreasen has for decades studied writers–including Iowa Writers’ Workshop luminaries such as Kurt Vonnegut and John Cheever–and many other artists and inventors, including Nobel Prize winners in multiple scientific fields.

I had a lot of time for "random episodic silent thought" on my cross-country road trip, particularly in open expanses such as eastern Oregon.

I had a lot of time for “random episodic silent thought” on my cross-country road trip, particularly in open expanses such as eastern Oregon.

Andreasen’s longitudinal study is ongoing, but she recently shared some of her findings in a fascinating article in Atlantic Monthly. You might also enjoy a short interview with her from PBS Newshour (below). I found so much in this article that resonated with my own observation of creatives.

You think you might have a creative brain? Then many of these characteristics may seem familiar:

  • You see multiple possibilities. This is often referred to as “divergent thinking,” where the creative perceives multiple solutions to a problem or uses for an object. It also involves whole-brain thinking (the left and right brains). But Andreasen points out that convergent thinking–focusing on a single answer–can be creative as well; take Einstein’s distillation of E=MC2.
  • You generate new creative output through free association. This is that spark of genius in the shower, or that subconscious voice speaking to you shortly after you wake. It’s that muse on your shoulder guiding your writing or painting. Creative minds maximize these moments when your brain is in what Andreasen calls REST–random episodic silent thought–to conduct divergent thinking.
  • You have multiple passions. Creatives are polymaths. One of Andreasen’s subjects, Star Wars creator George Lucas, is a winner both of the National Medal of the Arts and the National Medal of Technology. It would appear a divergent thinker seeks multiple avenues to engage in creative activity.
  • You seek out new knowledge and skill sets. Many of the artists I interviewed on my road trip were self-taught, but they all put time and effort into advancing their craft. Call it intellectual curiosity, call it perfectionism, or call it persistence, but this drive to improve is commonplace among creatives.
  • This ominous sky in eastern Nebraska is not conducive to healthy thinking in someone with a mood disorder.

    This ominous sky in eastern Nebraska is not conducive to healthy thinking in someone with a mood disorder.

    You view your creative output as unsurprising. “I’ve been struck by how many of these people refer to their most creative ideas as “obvious,'” Andreasen writes. This is in part a reflection of how natural the creative’s divergent thinking and maximization of their brain’s REST is to them.

  • You come from a family of creative thinkers. We are all capable of creative thinking, so some resist the notion that one can inherit creativity. Most of my interview subjects came from creative families, however, and this is more common than not. It could be that as children these creatives were encouraged to foster creative thinking, but science tells us there are biological factors as well.
  • You know what it’s like to suffer a mood disorder. This is the major theme of Andreasen’s article. Decades ago Andreasen detected a trend among artists such as James Joyce and Albert Einstein; they had close family members suffering schizophrenia. She began interviewing Iowa Writers’ Workshop authors searching for a connection between schizophrenia and creative writing and failed to do so. She did find, however, a strong commonality with mood disorders, both with the writers themselves and also in their family history.

You certainly don’t have to suffer from a mood disorder–think depression or bipolar disorder–to be creative. But Andreasen’s research coincides with others in the field such as Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison. Andreasen notes that “Jamison looked at 47 famous writers and artists in Great Britain, she found that more than 38 percent had been treated for a mood disorder; the highest rates occurred among playwrights, and the second-highest among poets.” Of course Jamison herself is a creative polymath, as a researcher and author, and also suffers from bipolar disorder. She shares her struggle with that condition in her powerful memoir An Unquiet Mind.

It just so happens that this last bullet–a family history of mental illness and bipolar disorder–is a major theme of my forthcoming book Committed: A Memoir of the Artist’s Road. I’ll leave it at that for now.

Do you see yourself in any of these bullets? What have I left out? Readers of The Artist’s Road are predominantly creative thinkers, so I value your perspective.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

44 Responses to “7 Signs You Have a Creative Brain”

  1. I guess I’d add ‘likely to be an insomniac’ to the list! I’ve stopped worrying about chronic insomnia, because I’ve ‘suffered’ from it since childhood. My mother (an artist, though she didn’t achieve the financial independence & leisure to pursue her art seriously until very late in life) was exactly the same, as is one of my sons. But I don”t feel any ill-effects, and indeed my night-time/bedside notebook (I lie down in a darkened room – I just don’t SLEEP much!) is usually the most productive in terms of triggers for fresh work on whatever I’m writing at the moment. I’ve also observed that many creative people are cat-owners, or at least have a great affinity for cats.

    • Hmm. I’m more of a dog person myself!🙂

      My MFA mentor Sue William Silverman has had a lifetime struggle with insomnia. She’s writing a new memoir based on her experience with that condition.

  2. Love this – though I definitely don’t come from a family of creative folks!! I agree with Fiona about the insomnia.

  3. It’s unsurprising that she says creative types suffer from mood disorders, though I can’t pinpoint why. I have suffered from mild depression, and I can think of two other writer/artist friends who suffer from major mental illness. Does she say why this is? Any theories?

    • Perhaps it is that those writer/artists engage their creativity more often because a mood dis-order triggers multiple possibilities, due to frequent internal problems, to solve and activates that creativity within… or alternatively, dealing with such a personal problem sets the person to expand their creativity with when they go about trying to cope or solve it and once creativity is expanded, it can never fully go back to the state it was before. #atheory

      • That’s a definite possibility. The imagination can foresee so many possible scenarios that the mind can become overwhelmed.

        • Yup. It is actually human nature, not just art. In one of the Gladwell books (Blink, I think) he cites a study that found supermarket shoppers were happy to stop by a table and sample jam when there were only a handful of choices, but when they were offered forty or so they just kept walking. Too much to process.

      • Yes to the multiple possibilities. That is also why some creative but mood-disordered artists struggle with completing their works, because they keep seeing more possibilities. I find very interesting your alternative hypothesis about the expanding creative state. I need to reflect on that.

    • She cites observational theories as well as brain imaging data, but also acknowledges that it’s a difficult question to answer. One thing I’ve seen frequently is that divergent thinking is far more common among those with mental disorders; that can be good (creativity) but also bad. Here’s an excerpt from the piece in Andreasen’s own words:

      So why do these highly gifted people experience mental illness at a higher-than-average rate? Given that (as a group) their family members have higher rates than those that occur in the general population or in the matched comparison group, we must suspect that nature plays a role—that Francis Galton and others were right about the role of hereditary factors in people’s predisposition to both creativity and mental illness. We can only speculate about what those factors might be, but there are some clues in how these people describe themselves and their lifestyles.

      One possible contributory factor is a personality style shared by many of my creative subjects. These subjects are adventuresome and exploratory. They take risks. Particularly in science, the best work tends to occur in new frontiers. (As a popular saying among scientists goes: “When you work at the cutting edge, you are likely to bleed.”) They have to confront doubt and rejection. And yet they have to persist in spite of that, because they believe strongly in the value of what they do. This can lead to psychic pain, which may manifest itself as depression or anxiety, or lead people to attempt to reduce their discomfort by turning to pain relievers such as alcohol.

  4. I would add optimism, but that seems in opposition with mood disorder.

    • They’re not mutually exclusive concepts. Whenever I’m depressed, it’s my optimistic belief that my depression won’t last forever that keeps my from killing myself. And when I’m not depressed I consider myself to be a rather positive person.

    • I would disagree with that a bit. Certainly someone in a manic state is highly (perhaps unreasonably) optimistic. But yes, in a clinical depression, optimism is fleeting at best. Yet while we hear of great artists like Hemingway who suffered from mood disorders and then took their own lives, far more do not. They persevere, they keep living, and they keep producing art. There has to be a seed of optimism there for them to keep pushing forward.

  5. Whatever it takes for a person to wake up to the fact that they are not the body. In some way we creatives have learned — often painfully (mood disorders?) — that real life exists beyond the everyday mind and the body. And so our lives are all about “escape.” Our art is about escape. Every good story is about escape. We have to blast out and away from the gravity field of conventional thinking and belief. Artists know this at some level… and so we are forever exploring ways to express it, recreate it, live it. What say ye about that?

    • Very existential. I like it. We need to escape Plato’s cave, to stop watching the shadow dancers. The problem comes when you realize you’re in a cave watching shadows; that can certainly be depressing and deflating. Artists also learn you can never truly escape the cave, but they persist in trying to capture moments of actual sunlight.

      Okay, I need a nap now.

  6. looking forward to digesting this post! thanks

  7. When my Atlantic arrived, this was the first article I read. A couple other passages I underlined:

    “Having a high IQ is not equivalent to being highly creative… most creative people are pretty smart, but they don’t have to be that smart.”

    “…creative people work much harder than the average person–and usually that’s because they love their work.”

    “Having too many ideas can be dangerous. Part of what comes with seeing connections no one else sees is that not all of these connections actually exist.”

    It’s an interesting topic, which leads me to believe I’m going to like your book.

    • Thank you for your interest in the forthcoming book!🙂

      Those are good pull quotes. The last one reminds me of her example with John Nash (I’ll let folks read the article). And the IQ part was interesting, that artists are a bit smarter than average, but that there isn’t a correlation between very smart and very creative.

  8. Well, I can attest to the first 6 bullet points, but not the 7th—for me, personally, that is. I’m curious as to how her stats compare to the general public. So many people suffer from mood disorders (a loved one, not blood-related, is a bipolar paranoid schizophrenic and he is not unusually creative), I wonder what the percentage is in the general population. Anti-depressants are commonly prescribed and taken by a lot of people who aren’t necessarily creative, so I can’t help but be skeptical about the correlation in trying to connect the two. Quite often (in my experience, most times) doctors diagnose within their realm of knowledge or specialty and say “THIS is your problem” because it’s their focus. I can’t help but be skeptical about the correlation.

    And, of course, some of that could be related to the person’s personality. If a creative thinker has unreasonably high expectations as far as what they achieve and doesn’t achieve it easily, or at all, they may become depressed because of that, not necessarily due to a chemical imbalance. A writer may not be able to handle writer’s block, or the fear of failure and can become depressed. Not everyone can cope. I know quite a few people who can’t cope and it’s not just creative people. Actually, when I think of all my writer/illustrator pals, most of them seem pretty balanced!

    • Thanks for this thoughtful comment. A lot to digest here. As to the schizophrenic relative, based on her article and others I’ve read, schizophrenia (which is not a mood disorder) can present a lot of challenges to one’s ability to create. Andreasen did not find a correlation between that condition and creativity.

      As to data, she herself acknowledges it is difficult. You raise the question of accuracy of diagnosis. She notes it’s very difficult to identify exactly what creativity is, and thus who is creative. She also has conducted her science with select individuals over a long time. The advantages of a longitudinal study are that you can map things over time and filter out outlying data; the downside is you have a very small, self-selected sample size.

  9. Great post, Patrick (and not just because I see myself more as a creative thinker now). I think one thing I’d add is self doubt and questioning one’s true calling or abilities (as evidenced by my fear as I read your list, fearing I wouldn’t see myself). Part of this for me was growing up in a family that discouraged creative endeavors like writing or art as a full-time life vocation, leading to a life time of wondering if I’ll ever be good enough or have the right to try. But I do think that self doubt — closely related to “imposter syndrome” — seems prevalent among most of the writers (and other creative people) I know. Thanks for a thoughtful post — I’m really looking forward to your book!

  10. This was SO interesting -look forward to the book! I’m an artist and a writer, have a creative family, some mental illnesses in my family (including schizophrenia) and a love of cats!
    I think being creative does require optimism. Depression can completely rob a person of optimism but creativity can help with the treatment of depression and mental illness generally. If it’s of any interest, when I’m low or depressed, I cannot paint but I can write through any mood. I think I started writing more seriously in my 30s because of depression – my creative brain was looking for a way to help myself, to reach that spark of smothered optimism.

    • Thank you for this thoughtful comment, Elena, and for sharing your own personal perspective. I’m fascinated by how your creativity channels differently when depressed; writing then is almost like a form of treatment for you.

      I must say that I’ve been thinking about Robin Williams today, who had not yet passed when I wrote this. He struggled with clinical depression for most of his life as well as substance abuse–Andreasen notes those often go hand in hand–and it did not end well for him. But oh what a creative legacy he left.

      • I, too, have been thinking about Robin a lot today (and someone very precious in my life here), and have to say I find the disclosure by the coroner, of the explicit details of his death to be abhorrent. I find it completely thoughtless, disrespectful and unnecessary. We did not need to know this. Simply to state he hanged himself (vs. shot, etc.) is as much/more than any of us need to know. Even his own family wasn’t spared, and they may have wanted to be.

        Sorry, but I really get tired of the media and general lack of discretion. I just feel he and his family deserved more respect😦

  11. I find the worst bouts of depression are the ones that accompany (trigger?) the feeling that everything I’ve written thus far in a current project is unrelieved piffle (usually my internal critic uses a MUCH ruder expression). I’ve never found that having a writing buddy, or belonging to a writing group helps at these times – or perhaps I’ve just never found the right buddy/group. I suspect the reason for that lies in my temperament rather than any lack of serendipity. What I find DOES help is hiring the services of an editor I can trust to tell it like it is. My experience, and that of fellow writers I’ve discussed it with, is that this is a relationship every bit as unpredictable and subjective as any other: it’s likely that you’ll have to sample a few editors before finding one who inspires the level of trust that’s required. So I’d say to my current editor: thank you, Helen!

    • Yay Helen!

      I hear you, Fiona, on the writing buddy. I’ve found that peers/friends are never as direct as I’d like them to be. The low-residency MFA program was great for me because I’d let me semester advisor know up front they could be frank, and my oh my they were. I know one very successful writer who years ago connected with a fellow writer he greatly admires, and they read each others’ work. Joan Didion did the same thing with her husband John Donne (so she writes in The Year of Magical Thinking). At some point I’d love finding someone like that. My problem right now is I’m not generating a lot of new material (although I want to change that).

  12. Hi Patrick,
    I can’t help but wonder if, in the case of the creative Andreasen studied in Great Britain, say, the mood disorder was there prior to getting work ‘accepted’, or if it came about as a result of being rejected. Does she say, in her study? I guess what I am suggesting is that perhaps the lifestyle (competition, rejection, money issues, etc. – the very un-stability of the life) leads to the mood disorder, rather than that creatives tend to have mood disorder at the outset.
    What do you think?

    • Hi Cynthia,

      You raise a good point about how depressing the writing life can be!

      Both Andreasen and Jamison are psychologists, medical doctors who research people diagnosed with mood disorders, including neurological and genetic research. Their focus isn’t on the situational depression any of us can experience, but depression, mania, etc., that may correlate with life events but are not caused by them. Someone with clinical depression, for example, can suffer crippling depression when, by all metrics, their life is going great. Mood disorders are considered incurable but are treatable by medicine and therapy. There is strong evidence of a genetic role in mood disorders because of the commonality in certain families, but one could come from such a family and not have one, or have one and not be aware of any family members with one.

      Now one curious factor would be determining when someone with a mood disorder chose to pursue an art-committed life. I raise that question because as Jamison documents in her research, most mood disorders surface during adolescence. If a child decides at age six that she wants to be a painter–and I’ve interviewed plenty of artists who said they had always wanted to be an artist–and her condition manifests ten years later, did her inclination to art hint at her future diagnosis, or are they not in fact linked? Lots to think about.

  13. And this goes way back in history if you read the personal biographies of writers, poets, painters, many of whom died of suicicde or melancholia related illnesses and treatments. Personally, while I am not diagnosed with any depressive or personality disorder, I do experience extreme emontional highs and lows which of course enhance the urge to express myself. I thank my Dad for the ability to pull myself out of such low times by being the practical, get things done kind of person he always has been but not being cold or walled off.

    • I’m glad to hear you’ve found ways to cope with emotional swings and had a role model to learn from.

      As to your first point, I considered doing some “name dropping” of people we associate with certain illnesses (Hemingway = bipolar, etc.). My resistance there is that we are of course diagnosing them after the fact. But there’s no question that throughout history the connection occurs more than one would expect with pure randomness.

  14. Hi Patrick!

    I got a tick in the box of most of them – and a very definite one in box number seven. I remember a fellow sufferer saying once that the people who suffer from mental illnesses do so because they think about everything on a much deeper level than others, which is what leads to the mental distress. Kind of like a tree; people who aren’t troubled by mental illness see the trunk and maybe some of the branches, but those who are prone carry on looking along the branches and see the twigs sprouting off it and then the leaves at the end of the twigs and then the veins on the leaves… more to notice means more to think (and worry) about. That could also describe the mechanism for creativity. The combination of being able to use your five senses on a deeper level and then react to them with deeper emotions is what drives both creativity and mental illness, I think.

    The recently departed Robin Williams was definitely a powerhouse of creative thinking – his ability to spontaneously improvise was astounding, not to mention his genius for bringing pathos to his characters as well as comedy. And yet behind all of that he was a deeply troubled man who battled his inner demons for years before they finally overcame him.

    • Thank you, Wendy, for your insight and your honesty. That’s an interesting perspective on mental illness. It also is appealing because it’s almost, well, romantic; a contrast to the at-times clinical rendering by researchers.

      I feel I should write something about my thoughts on Williams’ passing, but I haven’t been able to reconcile my thoughts sufficient to say anything of use to anyone. That is a difficult one.

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