The U.S. Creativity Crisis

I don’t know that I would call it exactly a “crisis” myself, at least not as described in Po Bronson’s and Ashley Merriman’s Newsweek article, The Creativity Crisis.  New research looking at American’s creativity quotient (like IQ, except it measures an individual’s ability to create something original and useful) shows that CQ scores in the U.S. had been rising steadily up until 1990, when they began to consistently drop.

It’s too early to determine conclusively why U.S. creativity scores are declining. One likely culprit is the number of hours kids now spend in front of the TV and playing videogames rather than engaging in creative activities. Another is the lack of creativity development in our schools. In effect, it’s left to the luck of the draw who becomes creative: there’s no concerted effort to nurture the creativity of all children.

I would argue that TV and video games are a lot more complex than the authors give credit.  Many of today’s TV shows require fans to follow very complex plots that arc over years of episodes with characters and events influencing shows seasons later.  Video games today are equally complicated and not like traditional games, where the rules are established and learned from the beginning.  In a video game you learn what to do by probing and figuring out what you’re supposed to do to play the game.  You have to learn to think creatively in order to probe the game and work out how to play it.

As far as creativity development in schools, there are some interesting points raised in the Newsweek article. Perhaps the decline is due in part to the increased emphasis on standardized tests and rote learning.  I would agree that the decline in arts education, while troubling to me, aren’t so much a factor.  Creativity tasks given to both engineering majors and music majors both came out on identical spectrums.

However, I do wonder about how creativity is being evaluated in these studies and whether or not scientists are looking at accurate measures of creativity.

A fine example of this emerged in January of this year, with release of a study by University of Western Ontario neuroscientist Daniel Ansari and Harvard’s Aaron Berkowitz, who studies music cognition. They put Dartmouth music majors and nonmusicians in an fMRI scanner, giving participants a one-handed fiber-optic keyboard to play melodies on. Sometimes melodies were rehearsed; other times they were creatively improvised. During improvisation, the highly trained music majors used their brains in a way the nonmusicians could not: they deactivated their right-temporoparietal junction. Normally, the r-TPJ reads incoming stimuli, sorting the stream for relevance. By turning that off, the musicians blocked out all distraction. They hit an extra gear of concentration, allowing them to work with the notes and create music spontaneously.

It really doesn’t surprise me that the trained music majors would show different ways of thinking while improvising than non-music majors.  We know that our habits, practice, and experiences change the brain’s physiology.  But this isn’t really measuring creativity and is something of a red herring.

The followup article, How Creative Are You? shows some drawings by some of the test subjects taking the Torrence Test of Creative Thinking.  Best as I can tell, in the Torrence Test subjects are asked to complete specific drawing tasks and then are rated on their originality and communication abilities.  The drawing on the left is my favorite example.

I wonder, however, whether testing someone’s creativity by asking them to draw is a true measure of creativity.  Much like the non-musicians who are asked to improvise on a keyboard, wouldn’t experience or aptitude with drawing make an individual better able to realize a creative vision through that particular medium?  I wouldn’t think it would be accurate to judge a non-musician’s creativity by asking him or her to compose a musical phrase and comparing the results with other non-musicians.  There’s just too much variability in an individual’s aptitude in the technique of music, or drawing for that matter.  Even if you’re not evaluating how skillful a subject is drawing, I would think that the subject’s personal perception about their drawing abilities would directly influence the results.

As far as the decline in CQ scores, I wonder if perhaps they are due in some part to the changing ways in which American students engage with their peers and interact in the world at large.  This is a generation of people who express themselves in ways that past generations haven’t had access to.  They have invented the mashup and their own written dialect.  They’re playing MMORPGs that require players to interact and work together in novel ways to solve game problems that have lots of different solutions.  I wonder if the methodology used to evaluate the CQ since 1990 was reconsidered and altered (e.g., tasks using a computer, rather than paper and pencil, etc.) we would find different results.

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