Secrets of the creative brain, from Nancy Andreasen

Reading time: Less than 2 minutes

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss an article written by Nancy Andreasen….

Have you ever wondered about the relationship between creativity and intelligence (as measured by IQ)? Or the relationship between creativity and mental illness?

I recently disovered a fascinating Atlantic article headlined “Secrets of the Creative Brain,” exploring the work of psychiatrist and neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen (pictured above). Andreasen is the Andrew H. Woods Chair of Psychiatry at the University of Iowa medical school and the former editor in chief of The American Journal of Psychiatry. She has worked with such luminary writers as Kurt Vonnegut and Jane Smiley.

Interestingly, Andreasen began her career as a literary scholar at Radcliffe and then at Oxford. She switched to medicine, later, when she wanted to contribute to society in what she regarded as a more “useful” way.

To me, here are the most interesting conclusions she’s been able to reach in her research so far, in her own words:

  • Having a high IQ is not equivalent to being highly creative…. Above a certain level, intelligence doesn’t have much effect on creativity: most creative people are pretty smart, but they don’t have to be that smart, at least as measured by conventional intelligence tests.
  • Creative people work much harder than the average person—and usually that’s because they love their work.
  • [Creative people] 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.”)
  • [Creative people] 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.
  • When eureka moments occur, they tend to be precipitated by long periods of preparation and incubation, and to strike when the mind is relaxed.
  • Many creative people are autodidacts. They like to teach themselves, rather than be spoon-fed information or knowledge in standard educational settings.
  • Many creative people are polymaths.
  • Creative people tend to be very persistent, even when confronted with skepticism or rejection.

If the topic of the creative brain interests you, it’s well worth taking your time to read the entire article.