When Creativity Scientists Don’t Understand What Creativity Is


Some research just published in the British Journal of Psychiatry claims that “creative” people are 90 percent more likely than everyone else to suffer from schizophrenia, 39 percent more likely to go to hospital with depression and 62 percent more likely to do so for bipolar disorder.

There is a glaring error in the study, however. The researchers analysed the health records of almost 4.5 million people in Sweden, looking for evidence of mental health problems. Then they looked at what subject those who did suffer from such problems studied at university, and decided that people who had completed a degree in an artistic subject like art, music or drama were “creative” (whereas law degree students were not).

Fail! Creativity is not coterminous with the arts. Creativity is simply thinking that is new, valuable and "surprising", as Margaret Boden puts it, in any field of human experience. Most creativity happens outside the arts – in business, engineering, design, parenting, you name it – and even more pertinently, most art is not creative.

Take acting in a drama. If you didn’t write the play and your performance is not especially arresting and surprising to the audience, you’ve not really been creative. You’ve been artistic and that’s a wonderful thing – my short-lived acting career felt beautiful and ennobling – but not creative. Perform a piece of Mozart at a live event and you’re proving you are musically highly adept, but it’s Mozart that was the creative one in this little story.

There is a very interesting explanation about why artists are more likely than the average person to suffer from schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder, but please scientists, don’t reinforce this popular misconception about artistry and creativity being one and the same thing.