Understanding Creativity

SOE's Dacey says Nature and Nurture Play Roles in Shaping Creative Children

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

Few human qualities have been so widely discussed throughout history, yet so little understood, as the creative process, says Prof. John Dacey (SOE) - and few will be as sorely needed in the coming years.

"If you look at the magnitude, the complexity of issues and problems facing society," said Dacey, "there is no question that we need creative thinking. The ability to produce new knowledge, rather than learn and use existing knowledge, will be our most cherished trait.

"And for that to happen," he added, "it's important we understand what creativity is, and the role it plays in our lives."

Dacey and Framingham State College faculty member Kathleen Lennon seek to accomplish this in the recently published Understanding Creativity: The Interplay of Biological, Psychological and Social Factors . The book, utilizing historical as well as scientific perspectives, examines the major components integral to the creative process - spanning such factors as family and school environment, neuronal and chemical brain functions, and degree of self-control.

Dacey and Lennon reach back some 2,500 years in their brief historical sketch of philosophers' and scholars' views on creativity. The concept of the bicameral mind as suggested by the writings of Homer and the Bible's authors, for example, held that divinity controlled the chamber of the mind in which new thoughts occur, and this inspiration often was accompanied by a form of madness or furor.

Prof. John Dacey (SOE), right, with co-author Kathleen Lennon.
"For many centuries, it was believed human creativity resulted from forces outside the individual's control," said Dacey. "Gradually, the creative source came to be seen as genetically inherited genius, which was just as mysterious as the idea of a supernatural influence. Only in this century have we come to believe that virtually all humans manifest some level of creativity and that the environment, especially childhood experiences, plays a significant role in this manifestation."

Dacey and Lennon then turn to an assessment of these social, psychological and biological factors. Dacey's study of 100 New England adolescents, for example found that creative people's family lives differ from those of people with ordinary ability. The parents of creative children tend to be more nurturing and less discipline-focused, he said, and humor is often a hallmark of their family lives.

In the section on psychological factors, Dacey and Lennon list 10 traits that contribute to the creativity personality, including tolerance of ambiguity, flexibility, risk-taking, delay of gratification and the ability to see beyond the obvious or implied constraints of a given situation.

One critical aspect of creativity is self-control, which the authors define as a set of cognitive and attitudinal skills that may be learned throughout the lifetime. Though creative people are often viewed as wild, uninhibited and impulsive, Dacey says, most exhibit high levels of self-control.

"There may be a stage where the creative person is messy and disorganized," he explained, "but they seek to find order and work hard to achieve it."

These and other misperceptions of creative people represent a serious educational issue, Dacey noted, especially given the current debate over schools' effectiveness in teaching children.

"Schools have a hard enough time dealing with the presence of creative kids, who do not always conform to conventional methods and practices," he said. "Now, one has to be worried about whether teachers will be so concerned about testing and student performance they will not be able to promote creativity in their classrooms. That would be a very unfortunate thing, both for the children and for society."

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