Creativity Is A Language


What is creativity? I think it can be thought of as a language.

We tend to think of language as a means of communication, which of course it is. But it’s also a means of organising thought in a systematic and hierarchical fashion, as pioneering linguist Noam Chomsky has consistently argued.

Language has inherently creative potential, enabling anyone to generate novel streams of valuable information – words and sentences – whether in conversion, during speeches, in artistic settings or in the written form.

But it goes the other way too:  creativity has many of the hallmarks of language. A special language, to be sure, but a language nonetheless.

Some people seem to ‘speak’ it fluently. For others, it’s like a ‘foreign language’ that baffles and frustrates, or just feels irrelevant. Our creative outpourings are usually communicated to others, just as linguistic utterings typically are. Actually, unless they are somehow transmitted to others it’s hard to determine whether they’re creative or not, since social judgement is an undeniable aspect of assessing if something has any value or use outside of the mind that hatches the would-be creative idea.

And creative ideas possess a hidden component – an abstract dimension constructed in the brain, largely unconsciously. I think of these hidden processual and structural aspects as creativity’s ‘grammar’: the abstract rules governing how things are configured cognitively to produce meaningful and effective creative ideas. By this logic, just as words and sentences are the ‘surface’ manifestations of our ‘deep’ generative language faculty, so actual creative ideas are merely surface-level products of some deep-level creative faculty – one not yet fully known to science.

So how can you learn to speak this special language of Creative? Well how do you learn a language normally? You practise. You immerse yourself in conversation. You speak to yourself. You try – and fail – to express yourself. You try, try and try again. You process the information in context. You experiment with different contexts. You improvise. You do drills. You bang your head against a wall. You rinse and repeat. And rinse and repeat.

Consciously learning the technical side of a language, in essence its grammatical rules, can help, but clearly that’s not the key. If I told you all the core grammatical rules of Mandarin in a one-day or even one-week workshop how much do you think that would help you to speak Mandarin? Hardly at all. Yet many a person has learned a new language without consciously apprehending any of the formal rules whatsoever, let alone being taught them.

To learn to speak Creative, or to speak better Creative, you need to practise. Frankly, any kind of creative thought which stretches your brain in unexpected directions would help, but ideally you’d want to undertake exercises which combines all of the essential ingredients that science and history show us to be at play in the cultivation of creative ideas.