“Creativity” may be one of the most widely used and least understood words in the English language. Whenever I try to define it — or whenever I ask someone else to define it — it never quite feels right.

But the tide is shifting, and research is slowly revealing the creative process and developing better ways of measuring it. Here’s a look at some of that evolving evidence along with a link to a fascinating new test that quickly tells you how creative you are.

Creativity in the brain

Creativity is a special kind of problem-solving. You don’t need it to solve problems with a single solution (e.g. 5+5=10), but you do need it to solve problems with many solutions (e.g. “How do I convey love in a painting?”).

When you think of creativity in this way, you notice a common core to different types of creative activity. Although music, visual art, and writing seem like very different activities, all of them are open-ended problems. There’s no “best painting” or “best novel” or “best song”. It all depends on your preference and interpretation, which is what makes creativity so wonderful.

Researchers recently pulled together brain imaging data from all available studies on musical, literary, and visual creativity. They found a huge amount of overlap in how the brain responds to these tasks. Despite the differences between making music, writing, and drawing, there are widespread brain activity patterns that cut across these activities.

Creativity produces astounding diversity and beauty in human behavior. And yet, underlying this diversity may be a surprisingly general method of problem-solving.

Practicing the creative process

Some people are more creative than others, and creative ability is explained by a complex host of genetic and environmental influences. But that doesn’t negate the role of hard work in polishing your creative toolbox. If there’s a general method to creativity — as the brain imaging above might suggest — then you could potentially practice and improve it.

In 2020, a research team from the Netherlands tested whether they could boost creativity among a group of ~200 university students. In an intensive 140-hour course, they helped students learn and practice six key creativity principles:

  1. Understand your goals: Focus on clearly defining your questions to properly set the scene for your creative impulses.
  2. Convergent thinking: Use logical reasoning whenever you need to answer well-defined questions such as “what is 3+3?”.
  3. Divergent thinking: Use free association and exploratory thinking whenever you need to answer ill-defined or abstract questions such as “What is 6?”.
  4. Detached thinking: Practice an open mind and allow yourself to find unusual perspectives without emotion or judgment.
  5. Stop thinking: Relax when you can’t find a good solution so that unconscious processes in your brain have a chance to surface a “eureka” insight.
  6. Sleeping: During sleep, the brain processes much of what you learned during the day, and this can generate new ideas. Allow yourself to sleep on complicated questions and make notes on any ideas you have during the night.

Compared to students who didn’t receive the training program, trainees showed stronger growth in their creative skills. They came up with more new ideas when tested on divergent thinking questions, and they showed greater cognitive flexibility in how they came up with those ideas. They had a less rigid and more exploratory mindset for creative problems.

So even in the vast landscape of creativity where there are no wrong answers, practice makes perfect. Or since there’s no such thing as perfect for creative problems, practice at least makes progress.

“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”

~ Maya Angelou

Measure your creativity

Historically, creativity measures have been tricky to use and even trickier to grade. They involve a lot of subjectivity and often take a lot of time, which limits how widely you can use them. But now, there’s a new test that overcomes these problems.

In June 2021, Jay Olson and his colleagues published a paper on what they call the “Divergent Association Task” (DAT). It’s remarkably simple: You come up with 10 words that differ in their meaning as much as possible, and a scoring algorithm automatically analyzes how closely related your words are. The greater the “semantic distance” between your words (i.e. the more different they are), the higher your creativity score.

While being quick and easy to run, the DAT predicts performance in creativity tasks as well as any other traditional measure. So we now have a simple, reliable, and widely applicable test that removes subjectivity and bias from scoring.

The best part? You can try the test for yourself at this link. After reading the rules, just input your words and immediately get your score. Then have fun comparing scores with friends!

Takeaway tips

  • You can measure your creativity: The Divergent Association Task is a fun tool for understanding your current creativity level.
  • Practice, practice, practice: Evidence suggests you can boost your creative skills to some degree. Here are some training principles: Understand your goals, practice convergent thinking, practice divergent thinking, practice detached thinking, and when it seems like you’re hitting a creative block, relax and get some sleep.
  • Do your favorite creative activities regularly: Instead of using a more formal training system, you could just practice the creative activities you most enjoy. We often lose track of our hobbies, so try a regular schedule for the writing, painting, or music creation that you love.