Wenfu Li, a professor in the school of psychology at Southwest University, and a group of researchers first administered the Williams Scale creativity aptitude test to 246 participants. (Designed by Frank Williams in 1993, the Williams Scale looks at an individual’s curiosity, imagination, complexity of ideas, and risk-taking behaviors in order to assess the participant’s level of creativity.) What they found is that compared to those who score low on creativity, the participants who scored highest tended to have a greater volume of grey matter in the “right posterior middle temporal gyrus” (pMTG), an area of the brain related to the aforementioned creative traits.
Naturally, a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma arises: Is there a high volume of grey matter in the pMTG of creative people’s brains because they were born with it and are therefore creative or have they accumulated it by doing creative things?
Scientists know that creativity can be lost. But can it be learned?
Attempting to answer this question, Li’s team also looked at personality traits that contribute to creativity and found that “openness to experience” is by far the most salient characteristic, as it matched up with both high grey matter in the pMTG and with high creativity as tested by the Williams Scale.
Although it may sound vague, the term “openness to experience” is in fact one of the widely recognized “Big Five Personality Traits,” a concept theorized by Paul T. Costa, Jr., and Robert R McCrae in The Revised NEO Personality Inventory, along with conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Someone who has high “openness” has an active imagination, aesthetic sensitivity, attentiveness to inner feelings, preference for variety, and intellectual curiosity. The trait also closely correlates with intelligence as measured by IQ, according to a study in Learning and Individual Differences.
Most importantly though, “openness to experience” is generally a trait one can willfully improve. Trying new foods, learning foreign languages, meeting new people, giving the Times’ Sunday crossword a go, pondering complex issues and varying viewpoints are all ways one can work to increase their “openness.”
It seems then from this study that creativity, although deeply affected by one’s neurology, can at least be partially learned and improved upon vis-à-vis openness to experience. Yet the other new study is not so optimistic.
Similar to Gladwell’s clarification that practice is necessary but not sufficient for creative success, Frederick Travis, a researcher at Maharishi University, said, “Some people put in long hours and do not excel.” He added, “It's a simple fact that some people stand out, and we're trying to tease out why. We hypothesized that something must be different about the way their brains work, and that's what we're finding.”