Creativity – Born or Bred?

Are we born creative or does our imagination grow over time? And if it blossoms, who plants the seed and nurtures the soil?


Some years ago, I took it upon myself to conduct 1,000 personal interviews with men about woman, love, and life. Note: I had no idea men would be so open to sharing their innermost thoughts and emotions, which proved to be emotionally exhausting for me. After suffering two meltdowns due to information overload, I could listen no further and so by end of the sixth year, I stopped the interviews at 527 men.

I was fortunate to gain access to men who were well known for their creative talents. Award winning movie directors, actors, and writers shared access to the source of their imaginations. Their stories were sometimes bitter and sometimes sweet. Almost to a man they credited the inspiration and encouragement received from their mothers—but not their fathers. Successful men often cited their fathers as the chief discouragers in their pursuit of artistic careers.

One example: the interviewee was an Academy Award nominated director. His popular films expose the human spirit with all its good and bad qualities. “D” shared the source of his creativity:

My father was an attorney. He saw the law as my only career option and allowed me no time for fantasy. My mother adored movies, and often during the week, after school, we might spend an hour or two at the local theater since father was forever working late. I became familiar with the movie stars of the day, but more importantly, my imagination grew with each exposure. Knowing my father’s dislike of comic books, my mother allowed me to keep a secret treasure box under my bed. It was filled with the latest Superman, Green Hornet, and Spiderman adventures. It was her quiet support that granted me the freedom to find my happiness in life. I would have been miserable as a lawyer, but as a director and screenwriter I have found my joy. I would say my mother saw the latent seed in me from birth and cultivated it, risking my father’s displeasure.

My own early imaginative days:

I spent most of my fourth year huddled in the dark in the hall closet, determined to turn myself into a black panther. With my eyes closed, I chanted a spell I had conjured from some unknown source (we did not own a television.) “Now I shut my eyes real tight, and wish and wish with all my might.”

Somewhere in my pre-K imagination I had determine that with the right amount of positive thinking I could shape shift. But where does a television-less tot get the idea she can change into a jungle cat? And how did I learn about panthers without the Internet or the telly? Did my imagination enter the world as part of the infant me but with a separate memory of things I had yet to experience? What stems from our imagination and what is truly memory? Where did I learn about black panthers as this was before Disney’s Jungle Book, and my formative years were spent in a small apartment in the city?


What gives humans their creativity?

In 2013 Dartmouth researchers concluded in a study that creativity lies in a widespread neural network — the brain’s “mental workspace” — that consciously manipulates images, symbols, ideas and theories and gives humans the laser-like mental focus needed to solve complex problems and come up with new ideas. (It reminds me of a shocking haircut.)

imagination pic

“Our findings move us closer to understanding how the organization of our brains sets us apart from other species and provides such a rich internal playground for us to think freely and creatively,” said lead author Alex Schlegel, a graduate student in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. “Understanding these differences will give us insight into where human creativity comes from and possibly allow us to recreate those same creative processes in machines.”

Scholars theorize that human imagination requires a widespread neural network in the brain, but evidence for such a “mental workspace” has been difficult to produce with techniques that mainly study brain activity in isolation. Dartmouth researchers addressed the issue by asking: How does the brain allow us to manipulate mental imagery? For instance, imagining a bumblebee with the head of a bull, a seemingly effortless task but one that requires the brain to construct a totally new image and make it appear in our mind’s eye.

In the Dartmouth study, 15 participants were asked to imagine specific abstract visual shapes and then to mentally combine them into new more complex figures or to mentally dismantle them into their separate parts. Researchers measured the participants’ brain activity with functional MRI and found a cortical and subcortical network over a large part of the brain was responsible for their imagery manipulations. The network closely resembles the “mental workspace” that scholars have theorized might be responsible for much of human conscious experience and for the flexible cognitive abilities that humans have evolved. The theory sounds plausible, but what about my black panther?

Story Source: The above post is reprinted from materials provided by Dartmouth College. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

I continue to wonder how much of our creativity comes from prior life experiences as child protégée’s often remain unexplainable – Click the link below for a mind-boggling performance. Nature or Nurture?

What do you think? Did you enter the world ready to create? Or was it nature, nurture, or a combination of both?

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

With love & laughter,

Barbara Silkstone



17 Responses to Creativity – Born or Bred?

  1. I think we all have the possibility of being creative–we just have to do it! 1,000 interviews–that’s a lot!

  2. We are all born with some ability to be creative but in some the seeds fall on stony ground. In others it is choked out with weeds, with some it has shallow roots and dies easily. In others it grows and is great. My sister believes in reincarnation and that all have a past life. Child Prodigies carry over the talent of a dead person whose spirit now inhabits the child. Those who no longer feel creative often don’t know it and don’t care. They can get by with slight bits of creativity. Far worse is to feel the urge to create– to play the piano, to knit, to sew , to write, and lack some element that keeps one from being able to really accomplish things as one wishes even with practice.

  3. I am surprised no one has commented on the link to the little girl playing the piano. It is absolutely brilliant and I’ll bet you all skipped on by it. 🙂

  4. That was interesting. In my opinion, people…all people…are born creative, just in different ways. What you do with it and how far you go are, I think, dependent on how much you and those around you work to develop it. I saw many examples when I taught at the high school level. I wish now that I had believed that I was a good writer 30 years ago and worked to develop that part of me. 🙂 Thanks for sharing the article, Barbara!

    • Zoe, Thank you for sharing your insights. I think there are a good number of writers who wish they had gotten that early boost of encouragement. Stephen King started writing at the age of seven. Imagine how many marvelous novels we could have produced by now?

  5. I have no idea if it’s born, bred, learned by osmosis or whatever. But I do think creativity is like a muscle that you have to exercise in order to increase. And when you don’t use it, it tends to shrink.

    • Elaine, Thank you. I agree you do have to exercise your creativity, but I think unlike most muscles, it seems to pop back into place with just some mild stretches.

  6. Very interesting article. Thank you for posting! I would agree with others that creativity results from a combination of nature and nurture, but it’s not just something you have or don’t have. I find the more I exercise my creativity (in my case, mostly by writing), the more creative I get. As with everything else, practice helps.

    • Victoria, Thank you! Your creativity sparkles and so one most deduce that you exercise it quite a bit. 🙂

  7. Your comment about information overload was right in line with something I wrote last night: the intro heroine, uncomfortable in a crowded ballroom, explains the intensity of her empathy as “too much animal electricity.” The comment only solidifies that she’s the oddball of the ball; it’s 1809 in Britain, and animal magnetism is mostly something left to those crazy French, and balls, well, everybody is supposed to like them, right?

    As for nature/nurture in the creative process, you might like my case. I was born when my parents were in college. My mother was studying to become an art teacher, and I was her project in about 5 ways (photography, child development, sculpture… yeah, she wanted to make a bas relief of me and didn’t understand why I didn’t want her to cover my head with a warm sheet of wax. This is one of my earliest memories.) Very rich environment to say the least, and largely on the part of my mom. But the creative outlet that stuck with me was writing. That was not something she did. That was Dad. And I didn’t know he wrote until I was in third grade. Go figure that one!

    • Summer, that is fascinating in many ways. Your mother must have been a delightful lady. I chuckled to imagine covering a squirming tot in warm wax.

  8. Great post, Barbara, and food for thought! I always thought I was creative because my dad was an artist and I grew up in a creative environment. Yet my eldest sister is a school principal (a creative job in its own right to be sure!) And then you look at all those sons and daughters of actors and musicians that follow in their parents’ footsteps, but who really knows? A worthy discussion for debate for sure!

    • Georgina, You were so blessed to have a father who was an artist and to grow up in a creative environment. Your childhood gifts show in all your novels of time travel and female heroines.

  9. I’m a firm believer in a nature-nurture combination for pretty much all traits. Now, for some I can see a strong argument for nature only, such as eye color, but I bet digging would find a small nature component. I think our genes provide a window of opportunity and our environment shapes where in that window the end result falls. For each trait, the window is a different size. When you see something easily influenced, the window is large. For my eye color example, I assume the window is quite small.

    As for imagination, I feel there is a large window and, therefore, it is greatly influenced by nurture. Look at lab rats. Remember that group of studies showing that providing them with enriched environments made them, essentially, more flexible in their thinking? Better problem solvers, certainly, which I would argue is a function of both creativity and intelligence. Later, of course, researchers learned they weren’t really creating a ‘better’ rat through enrichment. It was the reality that they’d been creating poor thinkers in the past, by raising them in such limited environments (cages and boxes), that made the enriched rats better at problem solving, by comparison. All the enrichment was doing was permitting the lab rats to reach something closer to the potential a rat on the street would have.

    So, I guess what I’m trying to say is, yes, I feel you can be encouraged to be more creative and that will help, but I also feel you’re born with a minimum and maximum level of creativity. You will always achieve the minimum. With luck, work and encouragement, you will reach the maximum.

    • Summer, I love your reply. It seems to capture the essence of creativity. You can always achieve your minimum, but reaching your maximum takes luck, work, and encouragement. My mother was a person who did not encourage her daughters’s creativity. However, my grandmother enjoyed my early tales of daring and tiger taming. I credit her with allowing me to stretch my imagination.

  10. I am a believer that exercising your imagination is a very apt phrase. The more we practice creativity, the better we become at it. This is true of all kinds of creativity, but I don’t know how much it carries over from one type of creativity to another. For example, the creative writer and the creative cook may both be excellent at what they do, but being a creative at cooking probably does not make one likely to be better at creative writing.

    • Renata, Thank you for commenting. I agree that creativity is a muscle we must exercise to keep it in shape but I wonder if some folks are born with “bigger muscles” than others? And yes, being a creative cook is probably something that develops over time. Every successful meal encourages you to experiment more.

Comments are precious!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.