Creativity: The path to identity

By Phyllis Hanlon
July 1st, 2017

Museums house innumerable works from masters such as Renoir, Monet, Rodin and Jackson Pollock. But creativity doesn’t stop there. The family refrigerator might feature the creative renderings of a three-year old mind. And the fields of technology, science, health, education and more have produced their share of creative geniuses and innovation. Area psychologists helped to unravel the underpinnings of creativity and how it shapes a person’s identity.

The research community defines creativity as something new or novel, original and task-appropriate, according to James Kaufman, Ph.D., professor of educational psychology at the NEAG School of Education at the University of Connecticut.

He explained that researchers in the field examine different aspects of creativity: product, person, process or press (environment). “One might be looking at how we evaluate creative new products or what makes one story more creative than another. Another might be looking at what happens in the brain while being creative. And yet another could look at how a teacher supports the creative student,” he said.

To better grasp the concept, Kaufman co-created the idea of the Four Cs, a developmental trajectory related to creativity that goes through many stages as a person gains “domain knowledge” and experience.

He explained that Big C pertains to genius; Mozart, Beethoven and other great masters fall into this category. “Little C is everything else, anything from a person playing in a garage band to someone currently reasonably successful who might not be remembered forever,” he said.

Mini-C relates to personal creativity, according to Kaufman. “This is something meaningful to you, personal insight that other people don’t think is particularly creative,” he said. “Pro-C is the expert level of creativity, someone who is a professional, at the top of the field.” He pointed out that the legacy of the Pro-C individual is based on changing trends and the relevance of the work years later.

For instance, conditions at the time of the Industrial Revolution enabled Eli Whitney and Samuel B. Morse to invent devices that significantly impacted society. Such creative individuals tend to have intrinsic motivation, passion and meaning, said Kaufman. “At a larger level, creativity is behind most innovation.”

“Creativity is often associated with the performing arts, but the concept is much broader,” said Zorana Ivcevic, Ph.D., research scientist at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. “[This thinking] could exclude other areas of human endeavor. Someone interested in science or technology might think it’s not creative and not go into the field. In everyday life, we can be creative.”

Another common thought is that creativity involves merely coming up with ideas. “That is an important part of creativity, but not the only one,” said Ivcevic. “Imagine if someone comes up with ideas but doesn’t do anything with them.”

To execute creativity and achieve potential, a person needs emotional regulation skills, which is tied to emotional intelligence (EI), an ability to solve problems related to emotions.

“We found in one study, those who have the potential to be creative are open to experiences, flexible in thinking and have abilities to regulate emotions in everyday life that helps them persist in what they’re doing and maintain passion for their interest,” she said.

EI includes the ability to accurately perceive emotion in self and others; to use emotions to help thinking and problem solving; and to understand and regulate emotions, she added.

As people mature, they can develop their creative abilities “…and become who they’re capable of becoming,” reported Orin C. Davis, Ph.D., principal investigator at Quality of Life Laboratory, adjunct assistant professor at New York Institute of Technology and former adjunct assistant professor at Brandeis.

He explained that creatives embody a mix of traits: playful, yet disciplined; rebellious and domain-oriented; and blended masculinity and femininity.

These different energies need to be managed to channel creativity, according to Davis. “It’s the ability to hit two sides of the dialectic. [A person has to] be lazy when it’s time to be lazy and pour it on when it’s time to pour it on,” he said.

In many cases, individuals often fail to realize the creative impact they make. “It’s easy for others to see how incredible you are and hard for us to see it,” Davis said. “Many of us have high standards and think we should be better. Finding the place where we are creative in our lives can help us realize that we are creating value,” he said.

An artist who has been creating value for decades is Bruce Springsteen, whose work has been the research subject of Lorraine Mangione, Ph.D., professor at Antioch University New England in Keene, New Hampshire.
Deeply knowledgeable about his music, she pointed out that Springsteen “taps into” everyday experiences and calls him “an existential philosopher on stage.”

“He talks about lost love, relationships, social justice, lost groups. He has been a voice for those with no voice for many years and speaks for and with the disenfranchised,” she said. “There is a big overlap between psychology, psychotherapy and Springsteen’s work. We would hope fans find some healing or new understanding in his work and also have fun at his concerts.”

Creativity helps create an identity, according to Mangione, and in Springsteen’s case, a guitar “saved his life.”

“Words flowed and helped create who he became,” she explained. For those who are sensitive or experienced hardships growing up, finding a creative outlet can help answer “…burning questions they need to respond to with regard to identity,” she said.

Mangione teaches graduate students who will become clinical psychologists and uses Springsteen’s music as well as film to highlight the importance and relevance of these creative endeavors in capturing big emotional issues. “The Breakfast Club” and “Twelve Angry Men” are especially relevant for teaching about group process, she noted.

Mangione also conducts some small women’s groups, where she incorporates creative activity. “We always use drawing. It gets to a different side of their brain. We might use guided imagery and then ask them to draw what they saw,” she said. “We also use metaphor, which is part of creativity.”

Mangione emphasized that “creative people can express things that resonate with us” and help us make meaning of our lives on a societal, personal and spiritual level. When the “act of doing” comes from somewhere deep inside, “…it gives you capacity to step back and look at it,” she said. “Art can help us see the world differently.”

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