Creative Cognition

Creativity is an aspect of personality that is characterized by novel and appropriate ideas and processes. Linda Neiman, founder of Creativity at Work, a consulting, coaching and training alliance, relates that creativity is the act of turning new and imaginative ideas into reality and involves thinking and producing. “If you have ideas and don’t act on them,” says Neiman, “then you are imaginative but not creative.”

Rollo May, an influential existential psychologist, defines creativity in his book Courage to Create as a process of bringing something new into being. Daniel Pink, at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State University, writes in A Whole New Mind that creativity involves artistry, empathy and emotion.

Jim Million, psychosocial-drama co-creator, addressed creativity as the ability to freely jump from one thought or “feeling pool” to the other, unencumbered by doctrine or ideas of others yet influenced by what has been read, observed and/or experienced.

My Personal Experience with Creativity
Over 30 years ago, when teaching in the sixth grade at a middle school on the East Coast, I was asked by a supervisor, “Can you teach creativity to your students?” Having been told that I was a creative person since my early childhood, and considering this creativity and use of my imagination a gift, my response was an empathic “No.” My supervisor then told me my answer was incorrect and that I should think about how to enhance and/or develop the student learners’ more imaginative sides of their brains.

Interestingly, this question got me to wondering if it was actually possible to teach creativity and develop students’ cognitive skills simultaneously. It took a year or two to realize that my original no was off-base. In fact, I’d been doing this creative cognition—or cognitive development through creativity, and vice versa—for some time, and just hadn’t labeled it as such.
I had been giving assignments that were project- and performance-based. This means that the students needed to be interactively involved in the learning process through educational games. Today these are called interactive instructional resources, or hands-on learning. Such devices are part of the national Common Core standards that are being emphasized in schools at all levels, and even in business and all sorts of occupations.
This “engaged in learning” concept is supported by Neiman, who believes that creativity skills can be learned—not from sitting in a lecture, but by learning and applying such creative thinking processes as storytelling and educational gaming, with the focus on development of cognitive skills and the heuristics involved in skill application, and using realistic exercises appropriate to the domain at hand.

Defining Cognition
Cognition is thinking, and, in a finite sense, it is the ability of the brain to process, store, retrieve and retain information. The use of memory is involved when calling forth information to use in the present or address a future situation. Recalling or remembering occurs in three ways, which are attention, orientation and decision-making. These areas of cognition/thinking move from and between levels of complexity simultaneously, and seemingly without reason or even awareness.
The most advanced level of complexity is meta-cognition, which involves the knowledge and control people have over their own thinking and learning activities. Cognition and meta-cognition ultimately lead to comprehension, which is to have knowledge about a topic demonstrated through things said and/or actions and behaviors which are either fact-based or implied.

Cognitive Development
In looking at our thinking more closely, we understand that we have thoughts, ideas, opinions, judgments and feelings which impact our lives on a daily basis—sometimes moment to moment. These, in turn, influence our cognitive development and creativity, for to create something or be innovative, one needs to think consciously; or even sometimes, thinking occurs unconsciously.

Reciprocity of Thinking
The Reciprocal Thinking Phases include cognitive and meta-cognitive skills addressing Beginning Awareness and Acknowledging, Critical and Creative Thinking, and the Meta-cognitive Processes. Examples of cognitive skills in each phase are provided to explain that knowing what one is thinking results in possibilities for being creative, as creativity relies on understandings gained from past experiences with memory application for the formation of new conceptualizations. Most importantly, development of thinking/cognition is happening simultaneously.

Explaining Creativity
Synonyms for the word creative explode from the computer’s Thesaurus with words like original, imaginative, inspired, artistic, inventive, resourceful, ingenious, innovative and productive. Those are a good deal of cognitive skills to convey the meaning of just one word, and this can cause confusion, as each word has a meaning of its own. However, cognition/thinking-development, in terms of one’s being creative, revolves around using imagination and being inventive, which in turn requires thinking about what one is thinking—meta-cognition.

Defining Creativity
At one time, creativity was considered to be the function of the right brain hemisphere. This supported the concept that left-brain-dominant people were more analytical and less emotional. Emotion is considered to be an important factor in creativity, as is memory, or, really, the lack of it, when being creative. In 2010, in an article on the anatomy of the creative brain at, author TraceyR related that the anatomy of creativity is a pattern of activation and suppression of communication pathways within the brain that allows for the emergence of novel thought. Ingredients for creative innovation include divergent thinking—the ability to see things differently in a way that improves upon convention.

A Practical Example of Divergent Thinking
A creative person is often referred to as a person who thinks out of the box. What that really means is one thinks differently from others. A simple example I often use is that of a customer in a restaurant asking to get “extra hot fudge on his ice cream hot-fudge sundae.” The waitress responds with, “We only have one temperature of hot fudge.” Most people think the man wants more hot fudge on his sundae, but the out-of-the-box thinker has posed a new interpretation of the man’s request. Divergent thinking is merely a different perspective on the same topic, with there being, most frequently, few persons having that different perspective. (Interestingly, when making this comparison, those who were known to be creative persons continually thought the temperature was the correct response.)

The Brain, Cognitive Development with Creativity
According to Daniel Pink, “Today the left brain capabilities that powered the information age are necessary but no longer sufficient. The ‘right brain’ qualities of inventiveness, empathy, joyfulness and meaning—increasingly determine who flourishes and who flounders.…[P]rofessional success and personal fulfillment now requires a whole new mind.” This concept is supported by the following statements, although the “new mind” is referred to as “the whole brain”:

Ryan Hurd, a consciousness-studies researcher living in California, explains in the article “Parts of the Brain That Influence Creativity” that many parts of the brain do this, and surprisingly, just as important are the parts of the brain that are not active during creative reverie. However, Rita Carter, author of Mapping the Mind, believes that more important to the creative drive is the level of communication between the two lobes of the brain. The corpus callosum, the part of the brain that connects the two lobes, is thicker in diameter in people who score highly on creativity tests. So, what it comes down to is the thicker the corpus callosum, the more efficiently the brain synchronizes activities. This idea, related by Joseph and Glenda Bogen in the Journal for Psychiatric Clinics in North America, in 1988, is increasingly supported by recent brain-imaging technology. In other words, creativity is enhanced by an increased use of the whole brain.

The Role of Norepinephrine in Creativity and Cognition
Creativity is not determined by brain lateralization alone. Dr. Kenneth M. Heilman, professor of neurology at the University of Florida, notes that during creative thought, the neurotransmitter norepinephrine is greatly reduced. Norepinephrine is associated with long-term memory retrieval, so its reduction during creative thinking helps the brain to forget what it already knows. In this way, novel connections and new ideas are more likely to be discovered. Charles Limb and Allen Braud, who performed brain-imagery scans on jazz musicians when the musicians made spontaneous compositions, reported that the limbic centers of the brain are unregulated during creative improvising, providing neurological support for the role of heightened emotion during creative pursuits. Subsequently, creativity is reflected in the brain as increased lateralization, as a reduction in critical thinking, as long-term memory and as heightened emotionality.

Creativity and Cognition and Vice Versa
The idea of thought-suppression during creative times and/or limiting communication pathways to permit new thoughts posits that one is not thinking so much when being creative. If this is true, then the concept of whether cognition develops creativity or creativity develops cognition comes down to these words being interchangeable when referring to the impact of one on the other. What is most important is to know that cognition, which is thinking, and creativity, which some research evidences as there being a lack of cognitive awareness and/or cognitive functions during periods of creativity, may be exemplified as follows:

As one who has, since childhood, been labeled “highly creative,” I have found that there is an extensive amount of cognitive and meta-cognitive skill disbursement during creativity, but not necessarily on the topic at hand. One might recognize a lack of focus when actually a good deal of deep thinking is occurring on the part of the creative person. For example, a moment of creativity or creation of something may occur when in a classroom, talking with a friend or being in a small group or alone. In all but the last of these situations, the topic of a historic event is being discussed with a few questions to follow. The individual in the state of being creative is thinking most seriously about something other than the questions being presented. This may be thinking about music to be composed relating to the event, with a melody running through one’s mind, or a poem and rhyming verse having to do with that topic, or emotion about going swimming, or a painting just begun and how it’s to be completed. So, there is thinking, but not necessarily on the subject being presented.

Another example, given by artist Maritza Garcia, about what happens to her when painting: “My mind stops. Well, it doesn’t really stop, as it is concentrating solely on the painting and nothing else.” David Bunting, a teacher from Skien, Norway, explains that when he’s being creative in teaching, “I think of ways to make the project interesting, so students may explore their imaginations in inventing. I do that when I’m being creative. I’m thinking about a different way to do something, and I use my memory to do that—to create. The students then use their brains to develop ideas and thoughts upon which they’ll take action when doing a project or sharing opinions on a selected topic.”


3 thoughts on “Creative Cognition

  • September 8, 2012 at 9:55 pm

    May I have permission to use the profile palette portrait and paint faucete images for powerpoints, and flipcharts for teaching? They are ed-quisit! (MY word meaning full of educational opportunities in a saturated exquisite way.)

    Thank you so much for your time.

    • September 14, 2012 at 11:37 pm


      Yes, as long as you keep it to teaching and don’t go too public with it. Otherwise, for copyright reasons, you will have to buy the images from shutterstock. Please, when possible, cite Brain World Magazine! Thanks for your interest in Brain World Magazine!

  • September 29, 2012 at 5:31 pm

    Fascinating article. I am presenting to my graduate class on creativity in education. I am planning on providing a powerpoint presentation and would also love to include the photograph. If I cite Brain World magazine, may I use it? Thank you.

    I have enjoyed the articles so much, I think I will have to subscribe! :o)


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