The Intersection of Death and Creativity

As the saying goes, “Genius is sorrow’s child.”

mourning

Psychologists Christopher Long and Dara Greenwood recently investigated the connection between death and creativity. They asked a group of undergraduates to write humorous captions for New Yorker cartoons. Some of the students were first primed with subliminal messages of death. These students produced cartoons judged to be more creative and more humorous. The conclusion is that the inability to acknowledge and mourn loss leads to a shutdown of vital creative impulses. On the flip side, the resolution of loss allows for a fresh start and renewed access to sources of creativity.

Mourning, it seems, is not only vital for our mental health but for our creative lives as well.

This might explain why a disproportionately large number of creative geniuses lost a parent, usually a father, at a young age. A study of some 700 historical figures found that 35% lost a parent by age 15, and nearly half by age 20. The list includes Dante, Bach, Darwin, Michelangelo, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf and more. These creative geniuses possessed not only an ability to rebound from suffering but also to transform that suffering into creativity.

Belief: The Intersection of Creativity and Culture

In Western culture, we consider creativity the province of a select few. But that’s not true of all cultures. In primitive societies, for example, most people participate in creative activities. In more “advanced” ones, creativity becomes something special and therefore an option for fewer and fewer people. In the West, we tend to be concerned solely with the outcome of creativity. The product, so to speak. Asian cultures, on the other hand, are about the process of creativity. They care more about the journey than the destination itself.

How do cultures come to such different approaches towards creativity? 

creation

It might boil down to our beliefs, particularly as they relate to creation. In the west, our story of creation begins with this, “In the beginning God created heaven and Earth.” We take this to mean that God created something from nothing, and thus, we humans tend to approach creation in the same way. This line of thought suggests that the creative act is linear. It says that the creator starts at X and advances until he/she reaches Y.

Chinese beliefs

Contrastingly, in Chinese culture, the universe, the Tao, has no beginning. There has always been something and there will always be. For the Chinese, the creative act is not one of invention but of discovery. Confucius himself said, “I transmit but do not create.”

hindu beliefs

The Hindus hold similar beliefs. In Hindu culture, there is nothing to invent, only old truths to rediscover and combine in new, imaginative ways. For Hindus, the creative genius is like a light bulb illuminating a room. The room has always been there and always will. The creative genius doesn’t create or even discover the room. She illuminates it. And this is not insignificant because without illumination, we would remain ignorant of the room’s existence and of the wonders that lie inside.

light bulb

Personally, I think that our Western version of creation, from the very beginning, has been misconstrued and taken out of context. If you continue reading Genesis, God’s story goes on to say that God always has been and always will be…That we are carefully crafted in His image. Thus, our creation story is closely in line with that of the Chinese or Hindu cultures. It has no beginning and no end. What they call the Universe, we call God. This points us to the rightful conclusion that the creative act is, in fact, non linear. The process of creativity is just as important, if not more so, than the outcome. When we begin to approach creativity in this way, not only does it become more accessible, but also significantly more rewarding.

Is Education an Essential Ingredient to Genius?

Bill gates, Steve Jobs, Woody Allen. All college dropouts. Einstein’s PhD dissertation was rejected twice. Thomas Edison dropped out of school at age fourteen. While some geniuses (Marie Curie and Sigmund Freud, for example) were stellar students, most were not.

In a study of some 300 creative geniuses, Dean Simonton found that the majority made it only halfway through what was considered a modern education at the time. Any more, or less, was detrimental. So while some education is essential to creative genius, it seems that beyond a certain point, more education does not increase the chances of genius but instead lowers it.

The deadening effect of formal education manifests itself surprisingly early. Psychologists have identified the exact year when a child’s creative thinking skills plateau: the fourth grade.

What Distinguishes a Good Work of Art from a Work of Genius?

A good work of art, even a great one, speaks to people of a certain time.

However, a work of genius transcends temporal bounds. It is continuously rediscovered anew by successive generations. In other words, a work of genius isn’t static. It bends (and is bent by) each new audience that encounters it.

For example, the art of the Greeks and the Egyptians, is not art of the past. One could even argue that it is more alive today than ever before. As Pablo Picasso once said, “There is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot live always in the present, it must not be considered art at all.”

Works of genius live in the now.

What is Creativity?

“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” – Einstein

creativity

Creativity.

What is it? And how do you know if you’ve got it?

It seems we’ve drawn a somewhat murky line in the sand when it comes to what constitutes creativity and what doesn’t.

In this video, I dive into the elusive nature of Creativity, breaking it down and proving that it’s not as elusive as we like to think.

 

Creativity is what happens when you embrace your natural childlike curiosity and ditch your developed need to act like an “adult” and always do things “right”.

Let me break it down for you because it really is as simple as a first grade math equation:

Add childhood sense of wonder, subtract grown up fear of failure and you’re back to the core: you.

That’s right, you are creative.

Learn more at http://www.whitneyanthony.com