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The Five Major Theories of Creativity

There are five major theories of creativity each with its own unique viewpoint on what creates creativity in people. These theories are Psychoanalytical, Mental illness, Psychoticism, Addiction and Humanistic. In my opinion each of these theories has their own merits.

The main focus of these theories is the “Person”. Although to some extent they may branch out into Place (trying to understand the environment that creates these creative people) and to a lesser extent Process.

The Psychoanalytical Theory of Creativity

Main Proponents of this theory: Freud, Jung, Kris, Rank, Adler and Hammer

Major Tenets: The main tenet of this theory is that people become creative as a reaction to difficult circumstances and/or repressed emotions.

It argues that people regress from their surroundings prior to creativity. As situations become difficult or they go through a traumatic event people pull back from their surroundings. They then rely on their creative side to find a solution to the difficult situation or as an outlet for their now repressed emotions.

As such feelings of inferiority also contribute to creativity. Those with feelings of inferiority are already in the regressed state and so use creativity as a way to feel superior and move forward.

It theorises that creativity wells from unconscious drives. Freud said “Unsatisfied wishes are the driving power behind fantasies”. It further explains that creativity is how our pre-conscious and unconscious thoughts are able to materialise. Freud defines creativity as the ability to turn your fantasies into a reality through a form of art that defines creativity itself.

The roots of creativity are mostly unconscious and combine with the conscious in the form of planning and production to produce a creative piece. Creativity also has a social aspect to it through the use of collaborators and naturally its audience.

Freud also argued that creativity is a natural defence we develop to guard against neurosis. It leads to the development of sources of entertainment and pleasure for the public. For the artist though it gives us an outlet for our fantasies and feelings, enabling us to get them out instead of allowing them to fester inside. We are able to condense and displace our feelings.

Theorists of this school point to the countless case studies of psychological patients who have had parents that are controlling or critical and parents that stifle the patient’s emotions, fantasies, spontaneity and childhood play. Patients who have had experiences that leave them with low self-esteem or feelings of rejection or abandonment often experience writers block, stage fright and a fear of failure. This in itself can lead to further depression they argue decreases our ability to be creative. Once these issues are addressed the patient then becomes able to express themselves creatively.

Opposition to this Theory: The main opposition to this theory is that it fails to take into account that people are both biological as well as social beings.


The Mental Illness Theory of Creativity

Main Proponents of this theory: Briggs, Eisenman, Goodwin, Jamison, Richards and Martindale.

Major Tenets: The major tenet of this theory is that for people to become creative some form of mental illness needs to be present. This mental disease can come in many forms and does not have to be severe. In fact severity and levels of creativity do not necessarily go hand in hand.

The most common disorders associated with this theory are bipolar, schizophrenia, manic-depressive disorders or those that where sufferers suffer major mood swings and levels of depression.

One recent study by Verhaeghen and Colleagues show that when a person is in a reflective mode they become more creative, but this also opens us up to depression. If you think about things usually life events and you start thinking about it again and again you begin to spiral into it. This is when a lot of creative people begin work, particularly writers and artists. This however is often the first step towards depression.

Another factor that is common to both depression and creativity is sensitivity to your surroundings. Creative people particularly in the arts are sensitive to the colours, sounds and emotions of their surroundings. This can lead to a depressive state as they dwell on these feelings and other factors of their surrounds. A study by Terence Ketter of Stanford University compared three groups. Bi-polar Patients, depression patients and a control group of grad students. They found the bi-polar patients scored as high as 50% higher than the control group on creativity tests.

A study in 2011 of 300,000 people with schizophrenia, bipolar and depression and their relatives found an overrepresentation of people of with bipolar and schizophrenia and their relatives in creative professions.

Some mood creativity research has shown that we are more likely to be creative when we are in a positive mood. This could be used to argue against the mental illness theory. Depression and schizophrenia would then interfere with creativity however those with bipolar would experience improvements in creativity as they go into a manic state. Periods of reflection and depression coupled with an improvement in mood could be driving their creativity forward.

Those with Bipolar I Disorder usually experience more severe mood swings to the point that their artistic ability may in fact be hampered. Manic episodes can go too far and even paralyse their artistic ability. Those whom suffer from Bipolar II Disorder may have many ideas come forward at once, have a faster thought process and an ability to take in more information than normal. This can then all be expressed artistically.

In addition Bipolar disorders reduce social inhibitions in much the same way as some substance abuse making people more daring and bold. It is many of these character traits of Bipolar disorder that many people associate with the so called mad artist stereotype we are all familiar with.

Opposition to this Theory: On the other hand there are opponents to this theory that argue that mental illness would in-fact impair creativity. Stress for example can impair creativity by distracting us.

Examples of Creative People Linked to this Theory: Robert Schumann (Composer), David Wallace (writer), Sylvia Plath (poet), Ernest Hemmingway (writer), Michelangelo (artist), Beethoven (composer), Isaac Newton (physicist), Judy Garland (actress)

Creative Theory of Psychoticism

Main Proponent of this theory: Eysenck.

Major Tenets: The major tenet of this theory is that all creative people have a disposition for psychotic tendencies. It theorises that these psychotic tendencies form the foundation for creative personalities. Creativity has been viewed by many to be linked to psychosis or madness since the times of ancient Greece.

Psychoticism is seen as a half way area between a “normal” person and the state of psychosis. Although it can be linked strongly to sufferers of schizophrenia and bipolar psychoticism in itself is not insanity or mental illness in itself. While many people with diagnosed with schizophrenia would and do score high on the psychoticism scale this does not mean that a schizophrenic is going to be more creative. It also does not mean that a psychotic could be diagnosed as being schizophrenic.

As psychotics generally reject social, cultural or authoritarian norms they are generally the kind of people we associate with creativity. The open creativity of psychotics is about an anti-traditional, anti-convention form of rebellion.

Psychotic people see the world differently to those around them, see things we cannot and yet relate them to us in a way that we can identify with. They are also seen as having traits such as risk taking, liveliness, impulsiveness, sensation seeking, interpersonal hostility, aggressiveness, recklessness, disregard for common sense and spontaneity which are often associated with creativity. Psychotics tend to have a train of thought others would view as loose and unpredictable, traits we link with creativity.

Opposition to this Theory: The main opposition to this theory is that Eysenck designed the test on which this theory is based specifically to support his theory which by itself would invalidate it.

Many researchers opposed to this theory also argue that his theory was never really a theory at all. It has no clear definition. The entire theory is left open ended and open for discussion. However because it was left open for discussion it did lead to new theories in the field of creative theory.


The Addiction Theory of Creativity

Main Proponents of this theory: Lapp, Collins, Norlander, Gustafson and Wallas.

Major Tenets: The main tenet of this theory is that addiction to substances such as alcohol and illicit drugs contributes to creativity and may even cause creativity in some people. It may be argued however that people with addiction problems are actually the same people that are prone to depression and other mental illness. As such this would lead one to think that addiction does not cause the creativity but rather the problem that lead to the addiction being the cause (depression).

Many artists find that their addictions hamper their creative ability however engaging in the art form helps them with recovery from their addiction. Most of their creativity comes as they try to fight their addiction. As many such artists battle with addiction their whole lives their creative work comes in spurts. It could be argued that their battle with the addiction is what drives their creativity as they try to beat their addiction.

One theory relating to addiction and creativity is the idea that use of recreational drugs and alcohol remove the stress element that inhibits our creative ability. As stated in the humanistic theory the stress of day to day life can inhibit our creative ability. The use of these drugs may be seen to make these stresses disappear, if only for the time being, so that we can be creative.

The use of some recreational drugs can also mimic the sensitivity to our surroundings that is experienced by those with depression. The work of many song writers may appear to be more intense and colourful when influenced by these substances.

While under the influence of alcohol or illicit drugs many people tend to have a train of thought others would view as loose and unpredictable, traits we link with creativity. However excessive amounts of these substances may drive our train of thought to a point which our creativity could be paralysed as our thoughts becoming too uncontrolled and unpredictable.

Opposition to this Theory: This theory is not widely supported by the mainstream research community, it is really only supported by independent researchers. The main argument against this theory is not that addiction causes creativity but rather that those who have creative tendencies are more prone to addiction. The addiction does not cause the creativity.

In one study by Lapp, Collins and Izzo a control group was given water and another group was given vodka to see the effect alcohol had on creativity. They found the creativity of both groups was not affected. However interestingly they did find an improvement in creativity by those who thought they were intoxicated.

Examples of Creative People Linked to this Theory: Johnny Cash (singer, amphetamines), Jimmy Hendrix (singer, alcohol and barbiturates), Eminem (singer), Dr Dre (singer)



The Humanistic Theory of Creativity

Main Proponents of this theory: Maslow, Rogers and Fromm.

Major Tenets: The major tenet of this theory is that humans have six basic needs. These needs need to be met before we can thrive. Once these needs are met we can reach self-actualization and are now free and comfortable enough to express ourselves in a creative manner.

This theory argues that environment is not a factor in creativity. This is because if the person is able to meet the six basic needs they can then choose to be creative. Creativity is central to our growth and learning processes and as such help us to advance ourselves within society. Believers of this theory believe self-actualization allows us to live a meaningful life and break out of social and cultural control becoming an individual rather than just another face in the crowd.

Adler argues that our main motivation for creativity is to compensate for a perceived physical or intellectual disability. Fear of death for example pushes us to create something that will outlive us thereby creating a sense of immortality.

The humanist school of thought leans towards the development of techniques that prevent defensiveness, and developing trust, acceptance, lack of judgement and creating a freedom of expression. Applications of these tenets lead to the use of peer review, brainstorming techniques and focus or encounter groups to aid in the development of creativity.

Maslow divided creativity into three types: Primary creativity, Secondary creativity and Integrated Creativity.

Primary creativity is creativity that allows us to escape from the stress of day to day life. He theorises that we channel this stress into creative art such as painting, drawing, sculpture and writing. It is a more spontaneous form of creativity.

Secondary creativity requires a higher level of thought to achieve. It tends to be more thought out and involved than Primary creativity. These forms of creativity are more thought out prior to commencement.

Integrated creativity on the other hand comes from combining both of the above forms. Although it may be spontaneous when we commence our creative work a lot more thought has gone into what we hope to achieve before we begin. This form is believed to be the basis of most of the great art, philosophy and scientific discoveries or achievements.

There is not much opposition to this theory. This may be because it is widely accepted that we cannot be creative if we are distracted by other things. By meeting the six basic needs most distractions have been dealt with before we begin.

My Evaluation of these Theories

Psychoanalytical Theory of Creativity: 

When I look around me at the various artists I know regardless of their art form I see case after case of people who to me showcase this theory. Most, myself included, have had experiences throughout their past in which our creative energies have been supressed by those around us, deliberately or otherwise. In most cases this is from parents who have discouraged us from pursuing a creative path, and the usual argument being “there is no money to be made from it”.

Many go through periods of depression for various reasons and as they overcome these feelings they come out with their best work. Usually it’s some sort of expression of their feelings.

The more they express these feelings the more creative their work seems to become. They also gradually overcome any fears of rejection or ridicule with each creative piece they come forward with.

To me this appears to be one of the strongest and most realistically grounded theories of those I have examined here.

Mental Illness Theory of Creativity: 

As someone who has suffered depression I identify strongly with the whole notion of the reflective phase we go through. Most of my best work has come from such periods, going over and over things until reaching a point that I must either act upon it in a creative manner to express these feelings, to get them out of our system.

Looking at all the creative people around me I see many that also suffer usually from depression and I see them go through the same cycles I do and see them deal with it the same way.

I don’t believe that extreme cases of mental illness of any kind contribute to creativity. I do however believe that creativity is a good coping mechanism for those of us with mild cases. Our creativity may not necessarily be caused by our condition however it certainly helps us to deal with it on a level that prevents us from sliding deeper into it.

Our strong feelings about the issues facing us are funnelled into our creative works, the stronger these feelings are the more creative our work becomes.

Theory of Psychoticism: 

The more I have dealt with creative people the more I have learnt to accept the whole notion of the mad artist. Not so much because I think we are nuts but more because I identify with the notion that we see the world around us differently to others. Usually in a way many people would consider nuts.

Our personalities are usually the thing that attracts us to each other, the thing that others notice about us first. I believe it is our devil may care attitude that enables us to be creative. Without it many people won’t create for fear of their work being rejected. But it’s not usually an attitude we were born with but more something we have developed over time to allow our creativity to come forth.

But the other thing I do see is a lot of these character traits can also be from an under lying mental illness and so I do see this theory and that of the theory of mental illness being closely linked and very valid theories.

Addiction Theory of Creativity: 

This theory to me holds little value. Most people who suffer from addiction suffer from it because of depression. So for the most part it would be not so much the addiction that helps creativity but the mental illness. So most people who would appear to fall under this theory would in fact fall under the theory of mental illness.

Some use of alcohol or illicit drugs may help creativity by loosening our inhibitions but even this would fall more under the category of Psychoanalytical theory, after all how did we get the inhibitions in the first place to need a substance to help us through it? Most people using drugs to enhance their creativity do so to overcome fear, but how did they get that fear in the first place? Usually this is because of traumatic experiences in their past. So they would fall heavily under Psychoanalytical theory to me.

Most addicts struggle day to day with their addiction and have little energy to expend on creativity.

Humanistic Theory of Creativity: 

Definitely a theory I believe strongly in. I know for myself that if I am distracted by other things it becomes very difficult to be creative. If I am creative when I have other distractions the quality of my work definitely suffers.

Most of the techniques we use in our creative process originate from this theory. Things like brainstorming, constructive critique sessions from our peers etc. all stem from the qualities this theory places its emphasis upon.

In fact it could be argued that this theory negates many of the thoughts of the school of psychoanalytical creativity. They argue that we need to overcome childhood trauma to become creative. We need to overcome the fears that this trauma causes such as the fear of failure. But the humanistic theory pushes that we need to be encouraged to advance creatively, regardless of these challenges. It’s not the suppression of creativity that makes us creative but the encouragement that makes us creative.

For theory on the creative process please visit my other article on this.

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