Are some people born creative?
Or to say it another way, are some people born not creative?
I hear this myth all the time. That someone thinks that they are not creative because they see other people who have more talent or skill than they do, and by comparing themselves to these “geniuses”, they believe they do not have the ability to do great creative things.
But how do we find out whether someone can be born with or without creative ability?
Do we inherit creativity from our parents? Or can we develop it at any stage?
In psychology, this is part of the great Nature vs Nurture debate. How much of our lives, our abilities, our beliefs is down to the genes we are born with and which cannot be changed (that “nature” gave us), and how much is down to the environment around us as we grew up, which can change over time (the “nurture” in which we developed).
For example, research into certain mental conditions like Schizophrenia show that it has a strong genetic component and runs in families. In this case, the risk of Schizophrenia is heritable, in that someone can inherit it from their parents.
But what about creativity? Is that genetic and heritable, or not?
Well, fortunately over the past few decades there has been a lot of research into whether creativity is genetic, whether it is heritable, or whether it is more to do with our surroundings and development.
One of the most indicative ways to study whether genetics plays a role in a certain behaviour is to find a group of people who are genetically similar as possible (to assess the “nature” aspect), and who also have the same surroundings and upbringing (to control the “nurture” aspect).
Fortunately, there is a perfect natural way to test this: Human twins.
Some twins are identical twins, meaning they grew from the same fertilised sperm and egg to form two children with the exact same genetics. Other twins result from two separate eggs being fertilised by different sperm, resulting in non-identical or fraternal twins. And in most cases, these sets of twins will have grown up at the same time in the same household, so the “nurture” aspect will be relatively similar.
So by comparing the performance on creativity tests between twins who are either identical or non-identical can show us which aspects of behaviour are more likely to result from genetics, and which from nurture.
One of the first sets of tests was performed by Barron in 1972, where he studied100 pairs of twins and looked at a variety of factors thought to contribute to creativity. Only two traits showed heritability: adaptive flexibility and aesthetic judgement of visual displays. However, the traits most closely associated with creative performance: divergent thinking and originality, showed no evidence of heritability.
This means two identical twins could have very different creative abilities, and therefore it was not being driven by their having the same genes.
Finally, a more recent twins study by Velázquez 2015 indicates that only about 23–26% of the variance in creative drawing ability was explained by genetic factors.
So it appears that from studying twins, creativity has very little to do with genes. It is therefore much more strongly driven by nurture than nature.
But what about the genes we all have? Are there specific genes which are actually responsible for our creative abilities?
In the past 20 years, scientists have been able to find and study specific genes in the human genome. One recent target has been to try and find out whether there are specific genes responsible for our creativity. In this case, would there be genes in one individual making them creative, and genes missing from other people making them uncreative?
After all, by comparing our genome to those of recent evolutionary relatives like chimps and neanderthals, scientists found genetic differences related to brain growth which evolved in us around 100,000 years ago, which is roughly in line with when humans began showing more creativity in the fossil record.
One set of genes which scientists wanted to study was related to the neurotransmitter Dopamine, which is involved in everything from reward anticipation, memory, movement, motivation, mood, attention and more. Interestingly, a number of scientific studies have also indicated that Dopamine and the way it is processed in our brains is related to the creativity of an individual. Higher density of dopamine receptors in the Thalmus brain region is correlated with lower creativity. Higher dopamine levels have also been correlated with lower convergent thinking scores. The theory is that higher dopamine levels may result in the brain being more inhibited, resulting in fewer new associations between ideas as the brain self-censors itself.
A number of Dopamine Receptor (DR) genes have been identified, so scientists looked at those in relation to the creative performance of the individual to see if there is a link. Reuter 2005 suggests that one particular dopamine receptor gene DRD2 may manifest itself in the creative potential of an individual, albeit weakly. The TPH1 gene related to serotonin (another neurotransmitter) might also be involved in creative thinking.
However, the results of other studies showed that the DRD2 gene and the TPH gene were both only weakly associated with total creativity, explaining only 9% of the variance in performance.
Runco et al 2011 also found mild correlations between DRD2 and DRD4 dopamine receptor genes and creativity, but correlations were much stronger for fluency than originality.
Mayseless 2013 research indicates that damage to the DRD4 gene could negatively impact someone’s ability to perform well on divergent thinking tasks.
However, in all of these tests, the correlation between the genetic component and the individual’s creative ability was also very weak. This would also indicate that between the genes driven by nature and the other variables driven by nurture, nurture was again more impactful.
A 2008 meta-analysis performed by Prof DK Simonton estimated that performance related to creativity and talent had a basis that was no more than 10% – 20% genetic. However, aspects of personality which are related to higher levels of creativity, like openness to new experiences, are apparently more hereditary.
Simonton also noted that what your genes will do is to influence which development activities you spend time performing. If you have a genetic predisposition to liking music, such as by having perfect pitch, you may enjoy spending time around music, and practicing music. This would in turn impact how you choose to spend time in your development phase and which opportunities to pursue.
However, as with the twins study, genetics research indicate that nurture is more important to creativity than nature. There are no “genes for creativity”.
And this also means that nobody is missing the “genes for creativity”. We are all born able to be creative.
Creativity is not heritable and has no unique genetic basis.
At most, twin studies suggest that only about 22% of creative performance is related to the genetics we are born with. This is Nature, and it is the minority.
The rest, which is the greater majority, is down to our Nurture.
Amazingly, this is great news for all of us. It means that no matter what age we are, if nurture is more important than nature for creativity, then the genes we are born with do not determine our creative ability throughout our lives. And we can therefore continue to nurture and develop our creativity if we actively practice, and do the sorts of activities that promote creativity and creative development.
Research shows that when it comes to creativity, nurture is more important than nature. Nobody is born uncreative. We can all enhance our creativity through continuing to actively develop and train it.
However, on the flip side this also means that we are all at risk of losing our creativity if we believe it is not important or appropriate. External pressure from society, parents, work or a myriad of other places may make us believe that we are not or should not be creative. This is the downside of creativity being driven by nurture. It requires ongoing effort to keep it alive and growing.
This is why it is so important, especially during the periods of childhood where the brain is rapidly growing and learning from its surroundings, to foster and support creative thinking at periods when it is changing most.
For example, around the ages of 9-10, many children begin to become more aware of societal “norms” and are less willing to perform behaviours that make them stand out from the group. They want to fit in. And as a result, they often learn that doing different, “creative” things is more risky than doing what everyone else is doing.
Teachers and parents also have a huge impact. While teachers often think that they support creativity in their classrooms, in fact they often dislike and punish the most creative students.
One of the best things you can do for yourself and your children is to develop a growth mindset. If you believe you can continue to grow, then science backs this up.
Continue to work on being more creative over time, and this will become more likely to happen.
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