Art Works Blog

What Makes a Scientist a Creative Scientist?

“These thoughts did not come in any verbal formulation. I rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I may try to express it in words afterward.” -- Albert Einstein (Quoted in H Eves Mathematical Circles Adieu – Boston 1977)

What makes a scientist a creative scientist? In the arts it is “relatively” easy to determine who is more or less creative by whose work we see hung up in museums, whose operas we see showing at the Met, or the latest winner of the Man Booker Prize. These folks have earned the appreciation of a public who find their creative products to be both novel and useful--the definition of creativity.

In science it is a bit more difficult. Certainly, you can check the Nobel list for physics, or chemistry, or medicine, although this list numbers in the mere hundreds across these three STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) disciplines. In mathematics there is the Fields medal for outstanding achievement; again, there are only 18 medalists in existence. These are all “Big C” creative types--those rare souls at the top of the heap--the 99.9th percentile of human experience in creative endeavors. How do we measure creativity in the rest of us poor saps, known (in less than flattering terms) as “little c”? We have embarked on a study of “little c” creativity in our laboratory, with funding from the John Templeton Foundation, designed to uncover what behaviors and brain attributes are important to the expression of creativity in young adults (16 – 39). But where to start?

One attempt at determining precursors of scientific creativity has been to identify “exceptional talent” in children and follow them to adulthood to see how things turn out. One such exceptional talent, well known to predict success in STEM fields, is mathematic ability. At Johns Hopkins University in the 1970s, Julian Stanley tested children younger than age 13 on the math portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT)--the college boards. Even at this very young age, some children scored a perfect 800 on this test, performance that would occur as rarely as once in every 10,000 students. The beauty of this design was that researchers could follow these “profoundly gifted youth” to see how things turn out. Turns out, these youth do quite well in life, and Camilla Benbow, David Lubinski, and others (at the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth – SMPYshow that those youngsters extremely talented in math become extremely talented adults across a wide range of endeavors: they are more likely to possess advanced degrees, work for Fortune 500 companies, author peer-reviewed papers, and possess patents. Alas, we are a bit “late in the game” to identify such exceptional talent in our study; however, we recognize that math ability is important to STEM creativity and administer a standard version of the Graduate Record under standard time limits to all our subjects. So far so good.

A second talent that might predict scientific creativity is visualization ability--the ability to imagine reality in time and space with no external representation--also called “imaginability.” Einstein spoke often of his ability to imagine experiments taking place in his mind: his most famous “thought experiment” being at the tender age of 16, leading to the special theory of relativity.

This ability to visualize, imagine, and think of things that aren’t literally in front of your eyes might seem easy (think of what you ate for breakfast for example). However, the ability to perform increasingly complex operations in one’s “minds eye” is not a gift that everyone has (now imagine your breakfast, driving a Porsche, on a trip through Yosemite National Park). It might seem a bit silly, but the ability to “make things happen” in your mind’s eye (my breakfast’s excellent adventure) is not as natural as recalling what has already happened (my excellent breakfast). Again, it is difficult to measure such “imaginability”; however, in our study we measure mental rotation ability, paper-folding ability, and other abilities related to manipulation of objects in the mind’s eye. Check.

Finally, musical talent might be an interesting and overlooked precursor to scientific creativity. There are innumerable stories regarding famous scientists (including Einstein) and their avid interest in music. Similarly, many famous musicians are also rather accomplished scientists in their own right: Hector Berlioz studied to be a physician; Edward Elgar was a chemist; Camille St. Saens was an astronomer. Might there be something about playing a musical instrument and the development of creativity in the scientific brain? Researchers are beginning to take notice of the role of music in the creative process, particularly the notion that music and science both represent “ tools for thinking"--relying heavily upon symbolic structures. Our subjects also fill out a musical questionnaire that asks detailed and quantified questions regarding individual music exposure, ability, and talents.

What do math, imaginability, and music have in common with respect to scientific creativity? We believe these abilities represent exquisitely well-developed capacities to abstract, to use symbolic structures, and to embark upon mental simulations. Not all imaginations are created equal, of course, and the silly vision of my breakfast on the road is neither novel nor useful. All of us have the ability to imagine such silly things. However the ability to train our imagination to do greater things, to run thought experiments that simulate outcomes in our minds--well that is a powerful capacity that saves a huge amount of time and effort out in the real world. It is clear that math, incredible imaginability, and music are often present together in the minds of “Big C” scientists. It is possible, and a hypothesis that we are currently testing in our laboratory, that “early and often” exposure to music--playing an instrument, composing music and the like--has downstream effects on the ability to use this powerful visualization and math ability in “little c” creativity as well. We shall see.

See our lab and current research on creativity at

Rex E. Jung, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the department of Neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico. You can mear more from Dr. Jung during our free November 12 webinar on the neuroscience of creativity and the arts.

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