Creativity and Mysticism

from Creativity 101 by James C. Kaufman, PhD

Posted 6/1/09 | Updated 5/6/23

Many of the earliest ideas about creativity were mystical and relied on divine inspiration (see a review of these ideas in Sternberg & Lubart, 1999).

It's hard to claim that something is scientific or that it can be measured when the first people to talk about it were also talking about muses and demons. It's a little hard to take people's thoughts on the creative process seriously when they also may have believed that volcanic eruptions were caused by a trapped immortal sneezing fire (okay, I made that one up, but you get my gist).

Yet, creativity researchers often like using these mystical kinds of words in their article titles. I'm guilty of doing exactly this; I've used words such as genius, lunatics, and madness in my article titles, and I named one effect after Sylvia Plath (indeed, to the irate members of the Sylvia Plath Forum, I remain almost sorry).

Why am I discussing my own use of these words, other than to illustrate my own hypocrisy? Because I know why I do it — it sounds cool. Creativity feels like a "grand" and "melodramatic" topic, and sometimes it's tempting to give in to the grandeur. But my guess is that agencies that fund grants are more impressed with titles such as, "Neural Interactions in Incremental and Episodic Memory" (a real NIMH grant title, in fact). And you know what? I would be, too. That grant sounds like the scientists know what they're doing.

However, the history of creativity research started with mysticism and continues on the mystical path to this day. A quick look on Amazon finds many bestsellers that focus on finding spiritual paths to creativity, gaining inspiration for discovering artistic confidence, reclaiming your creativity and dreams, unleashing creative forces within, and so on. These books may help some people, but they're not science by any stretch. There's nothing to back them up. Most fields within psychology don't have this problem; I don't see many books called Tapping Your Inner Measurement Expert or Finding Peace and Love with Your Hippocampus.

If you go beyond the creativity-mysticism work, what else is left? There's a lot on the role of creativity in Freudian theory and psychoanalysis. Again, there's nothing wrong with that — but we're not talking heavy-duty psychological science, either.

I ended up studying more Freud in an undergraduate English class than I did in my entire graduate program in psychology. It's also a particularly negative way to look at creativity; much of the Freudian conceptions of creativity center around the idea that people are imaginative or create things as a way to sublimate their sexual desires. It's a little ironic that recent research indicates that creative people tend to have more sex than less creative people (Nettle & Clegg, 2006).

©2009 James C. Kaufman. All rights reserved.

Creativity 101

This series is based on "Defining Creativity" from Creativity 101 by James C. Kaufman, PhD. Excerpts reprinted with permission of Springer Publishing Company www.springerpub.com.

James C. Kaufman is a Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Connecticut. ...