Artists and scientists throughout history have remarked on the bliss that accompanies a sudden creative insight. Einstein described his realization of the general theory of relativity as the happiest moment of his life. More poetically, Virginia Woolf once observed, “Odd how the creative power brings the whole universe at once to order.”
But what about before such moments of creative insight? What emotions actually fuel creativity?
The long-standing view in psychology is that positive emotions are conducive to creativity because they broaden the mind, whereas negative emotions are detrimental to creativity because they narrow one’s focus. But this view is too simplistic for a number of reasons.
It’s true that attentional focus does have important effects on creative thinking: a broad scope of attention is associated with the free-floating colliding of ideas, and a narrow scope of attention is more conducive to linear, step-by-step goal attainment. However, emerging research suggests that the positive vs. negative emotions distinction may not be the most important contrast for understanding attentional focus. Over the past seven years, research conducted by psychologist Eddie Harmon-Jones and his colleagues suggests that the critical variable influencing one’s scope of attention is not emotional valence (positive vs. negative emotions) but motivational intensity, or how strongly you feel compelled to either approach or avoid something. For example, pleasant is a positive emotion, but it has low motivational intensity. In contrast, desire is a positive emotion with high motivational intensity.
The researchers showed participants funny video clips of cats (triggering emotions of low motivational intensity) and clips of delicious-looking desserts (bringing out high motivational intensity). Even though both evoked positive emotions, the cat videos, which were simply amusing, broadened the mind (measured by subjects making more holistic matches to a target stimulus), whereas the dessert clips that carried higher motivational intensity narrowed subjects’ scope of attention (subjects made more detail-oriented matches to a target stimulus). And it was similar when looking at video clips that tapped into negative emotions: sadness (a state of low motivational intensity) broadened attentional focus, whereas disgust (a state of high motivational intensity for avoidance) narrowed focus.
Motivational intensity, they concluded, was a more important variable affecting scope of attention than the mere experience of positive or negative emotions. Presumably, this is because low motivational states facilitate the search for new goals to pursue, whereas high motivational states focus us on completing a specific goal. So next time you want to keep an open mind and see the big picture, it’s probably best if you’re just in a pleasant (or even sad) mood. If you are too passionate about the activity, you may miss the forest for the trees. If, however, you really need to buckle down and focus on making a new idea practical, high motivational intensity can be just the ticket.
At the end of the day, the ability to broaden attention and the ability to narrow attention are both key contributors to creativity. A recent neuroscience study led by Roger Beaty (and which I was a collaborator on) suggests that creative people have greater connections between two areas of the brain that are typically at odds: the brain network of regions associated with focus and attentional control, and the brain network of regions associated with imagination and spontaneity. Indeed, the entire creative process—not just the moments of deep insight— involves states of euphoria and inspiration as well as states of calm, rational focus. Creative people aren’t characterized by any one of these states alone; they are characterized by their adaptability and their ability to mix seemingly incompatible states of being depending on the task, whether it’s open attention with a focused drive, mindfulness with daydreaming, intuition with rationality, intense rebelliousness with respect for tradition, etc. In other words, creative people have messy minds.
Other research has also found that people who reported experiencing extreme or intense emotions on a regular basis scored higher on measures of creative capacity than those who simply reported feeling positive or negative emotions. There’s something about living life with passion and intensity, including the full depth of human experience, that is conducive to creativity. In my own research, I found that “affective engagement”— the extent to which people are open to the full breadth and depth of their emotions— was a better predictor of artistic creativity than IQ or intellectual engagement.
We are also rarely purely happy or purely sad— we tend to experience mixed emotions. Research scientist Christina Fong at Carnegie Mellon University has investigated the effects of “emotional ambivalence”— the simultaneous experience of positive and negative emotions— on creativity. Fong’s research suggests that simultaneously experiencing multiple emotions that are not typically experienced together (e.g., excitement and frustration) signals “that one is in an unusual environment where other unusual relationships might also exist.” This increased sensitivity to unusual associations is another important contributor to creativity.
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Here is a direct link to the complete article.
Scott Barry Kaufman is scientific director of the Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. He is author of Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined and co-author of the upcoming book Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind (with Carolyn Gregoire). Kaufman is also co-founder of The Creativity Post and he hosts The Psychology Podcast.