The complexity of human nature is often reduced to a simple dichotomy, nature vs. nurture. Since the 19th century, this exact phrasing has been used to represent the argument between innate ability and the effect of a person’s environment in the resultant personality and “greatness” of an individual. However, this discussion stretches far back into history, and remains one of the seminal mysteries of the human condition. Thinkers, philosophers, writers, poets, politicians, scientists, and a bevy of other well-respected people in wide-ranging fields of study have offered their own interpretation and argument for which is the stronger of the two. Academic and philosophical discourse has come to an impasse, however, and although arguments are perennially offered to strengthen one side against the other, some level of agreement has been reached that in the discussion of individuals, each story of ‘greatness’ has different characteristics and possible causalities that ultimately result in a personality. Extrapolating this into the broader context of our species, we must appreciate that both nature and nurture can influence a person, at any point in their life. Without seeming too antiquated, it seems fitting to summarize this détente of argument with the words of the immortal bard, William Shakespeare; “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
This ultimate struggle between instinct and impact, as well as the effect that those seemingly contrary forces have on the development of an individual is a fascinating field of study, but a proper expansion of the countless theories and arguments could fill a bookshelf, perhaps even a library. For our purposes, their effect on a specific aspect of personality is desired, that of creativity. Obviously, this is far from the first analysis of the nature vs. nurture dilemma in terms of human creativity, but to understand the basic method and means of being creative, an elementary study is required.
At creativity is something that we are born with, evidenced by musical virtuosity in certain children, the untrained ability to paint masterpieces, the profound, yet simplistic problem-solving skills developed by some at a young age, and dozens of other examples of the creative spirit apparently born into a person. Some of the most brilliant and idolized figures in creative history had a seemingly natural penchant for a certain ability, as though their brains had been hard-wired for a certain function, often at the expense of more traditional capacities. Prodigies like Mozart, who wrote his first symphony at the age of eight, Williams Sidis, who lectured on new mathematical theories at Harvard University at the age of nine, and Pablo Picasso, accurately considered a Spanish master by the tender age of fifteen all present powerful arguments for the roots of creativity being inherent, rather than acquired.
However, a rare condition called savant syndrome, which affects some of the most fascinating anomalies of intelligence throughout history would argue a different angle of that theory. Various men and women have been born that can do unbelievable things in their mind, yet they, without exclusion, either suffer from some other debilitating lack of cognitive ability, or suffered a traumatic injury, following which their abilities appeared. These include a boy, Daniel Tammett, who can see numbers as shapes and colors, and has artistically represented what the integer pi (3.14….) actually looks like in his mind. He could also recite the endless integer to more than 22,500 figures by memory. He has a rare form of synesthesia and autism. Stephen Wiltshire does not let his autism stop him from creating photorealistic depictions of entire cities after seeing them a single time; he once drew a 33-ft mural of Tokyo’s layout after a very short helicopter ride. He had never visited Japan before. After a brain injury playing baseball at the age of 10, Orlando Serrell was able to do fascinatingly complex calendar calculations and can describe the weather of every single day since the accident took place. These examples illustrate a different side of the “nature” argument of human creativity and cognition. Some part of the brain can develop in an extraordinary way or be changed in a traumatic way, and the resulting abilities are spectacular and rare.
This begs the question about the malleability of the brain, whether it is derived from cognitive defects/happy miracles, through physical manipulation (i.e. a baseball striking you in the temple), or perhaps through the chemical stimulation of neural receptors that alter the way we act, think, speak, and create. The modern world is loud and proud of its advances in so many fields of study, regarding all aspects of life, and yet the underlying engine behind every step we take and word we speak is still an enigmatic puzzle that continues to ironically mock us with its complexity. The savant syndrome represents a fascinating bridge between the arguments of nature and nurture, because it underlines how incredibly complicated and mysterious the human mind truly is.
When we consider the “nurture” side of the creativity dilemma, there is also an impressive amount of evidence to point towards. The rise of higher education systems throughout the world has coincided with the rapid increase in technological advancement, social order, scientific discovery, and artistic achievement that we have witnessed in the past half millennia; there is very little debate over whether the rate of humanity’s progress has sped up. This embrace of creativity and artistic expression has allowed millions of people around the world to pursue non-traditional careers and passions that would have been forbidden or deemed useless in earlier periods of history. It is much more of stretch to assume that our brains have naturally evolved over a miniscule time period (in terms of evolutionary progress) to spur such advancement and the explosion of creativity that has defined modern times. It is far more likely that given an environment where free thought was allowed and cherished, rather than ostracized, we were able to learn how to be creative, liberated from the traditional demands on our time and energy for survival and reproduction.
Throughout life, the human brain is subject to something called imprinting, and although it slows down considerably as we age, it means that there is some malleability and flexibility of the brain after a person is born. Entire fields of study and commercial industries count on this fact, and urge parents to read to their children, expose them to new languages at a young age, be careful what you say, mind your body language, and show affection. Those are just a few of the thousands of things that could affect the way that a child perceives the world from its nascent steps, but this idea of imprinting is often considered one of the strongest arguments of the “nurture” camp. What if certain brains never stop the imprinting process? What if the process could actually speed up rather than slow down? The mysteries of the brain are such that nothing is inconceivable, and many of the most creative individuals of today often cite their upbringing, education, and childhood passions as the primary motivator for their interest and pursuit of their respective creative outlet.
With the massive leaps forward in technology, stable societal structures, premier educational systems, globalization, and hyper-access to information in the digital age, it seems only natural that the environment around us would be a huge, causative factor in the development of our personality. Without being too reductive, it is a case of “monkey see, monkey do”. Following that line of reasoning, we should be perpetually inspired by others and motivated to do great things, training and developing our own creative spirit because we see that same potential manifested in others. With the right stimuli over the course of our life, our personality should be impressionable, pliable, and able to be sculpted in any number of ways, right?
Unfortunately, the argument for nurture too often comes through a double negative assertion, which isn’t as effective, and tends to sway many people to assume that creativity and genius are ultimately natural gifts that can only be emulated and aspired to, rather than achieved. This double negative approach can be heard in every person that points to a negative aspect of society and tries to explain their behavior due to the environment they grow up in, the influences that they have been under since childhood, or the lack of direction that person or group of people was given by teachers, parents, community members, and role models. That double negative says that when bad nurturing takes place, then bad results are often the outcome. Obviously, I don’t mean to paint with a broad brush in any of these arguments, and there are certainly miraculous stories of bad nurturing resulting in wonderfully uplifting conclusions, but they are the unfortunate and dramatic minority. In general, it is better to argue for one side of a dilemma with positive claims, rather than double negatives, which claim an ipso facto proof about the positive side of the argument. Before we delve any further into intricate discussions of rhetoric, perhaps we should move on.
Despite the vast accessibility of information, knowledge, and inspiration in the world today, we are equally distracted and restricted by societal expectations, responsibilities, and the rat race of becoming “successful”, that shadowy, undefined state of being that urges many to abandon their creative passions in exchange for something more “stable”. Although this is not as bad as having negative role models or a damaging upbringing, it can still work as an environmental factor in a negative way, encouraging the mindset that changing the world should be best left to other people. If every person in the world decided to leave the massive power of creativity in the hands of others, our world would indeed be in a sorry state. Only one question remains; if the nature vs. nurture arguments cannot stand alone as the fundamental cause of personality and creativity, then what balance must be struck between the two?
It should be clear by this point in history that the debate between the two sides will never be settled, but some sort of balance must be struck. The most likely explanation is that the human brain has a nearly limitless capacity for creativity, but there is a key that unlocks that treasure trove of possibility. For some, like the savants and the prodigies of the world, it could be the first time that an infant’s ears hear Beethoven’s 9th or their eyes see a skyscraper rising outside the window of their nursery. For others, it requires a gradual, creative exposure through their environment, upbringing, and education for the tinder of genius to be sparked. For some, their potential might never be unlocked, or it will be manifested in a way that isn’t traditionally viewed as creative, and they will live in relative anonymity by the world at large as an untapped well of unrealized possibility.
It is from this equilibrium point in the age-old argument of nature vs. nurture that we explore the modern application and existence of creativity. The impact that creativity still has in our daily lives and in the inexorable progress of humanity is an essential area of study, particularly for those who want to similarly express themselves or find the key to their own vault of creativity. The figures that we examine in this series of articles are those that have achieved the label of “creative” in a number of diverse ways, and have used their gifts in a myriad number of industries. They have effectively changed the world we live in, and each case study is important to understand within the larger discussion of what creativity really is, what impact it has on all of our lives, and the continuing role it will play in the world, if we can only find a way to release it from the tangled mystery of our minds.
Check out my related book:
Go Nuts: The Art of Creativity and Innovation