Why Creativity Is Tanking
Research going back to the 1950s explains why we’re now facing a “creativity crisis”
Last week I wrote about the benefits of boredom, which is something we’re facing less and less of now, thanks to the 11-plus hours a day we spend consuming digital media. But what, exactly, happens to a bored mind without easy access to media? A recent study looked at just that question.
The Canadian neuroscientist James Danckert recruited some volunteers and put them into a neuroimaging scanner. “Then we induced those people into a mood of being bored,” he said. “We had them watch two guys hanging laundry for eight minutes. And … yeah, it succeeds in making people bored shitless.”
When the participants were bored, a part of their brains called the “default mode network” fired on. It’s a network of brain regions that activates when we’re unfocused, when our mind is off and wandering. Mind wandering is a rest state that restores and rebuilds the resources needed to work better and more efficiently when we’re focused on the outside world. Mind wandering is also a key driver of creativity, which is why other studies have found that bored people score significantly higher on creativity tests. Studies going back to the 1950s support this idea.
Ellis Paul Torrance was an American psychologist. In the 1950s he noticed something off target about American classrooms. Teachers tended to prefer the subdued, book-smart kids. They didn’t much care for the kids who had tons of energy and big ideas. Kids who’d think up odd interpretations of readings, inventive excuses for why they didn’t do their homework, and morph into mad scientists every lab day. The system deemed these kids “bad.” But Torrance felt they were misunderstood. Because if a problem comes up in the real world, all the book-smart kids look for an answer in … a book. But what if the answer isn’t in a book? Then a person needs to get creative.
So he devoted his life to studying creativity and what it’s good for. In 1958 he developed the “Torrance Test.” It’s since become the gold standard for gauging creativity. He had a large group of children in the Minnesota public school system take the exam. It includes exercises like showing a kid a toy and asking her, “how would you improve this toy…