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Learn creativity? Yes we can

What is creativity? We all know that creativity can lead to the generation of novel and worthwhile solutions to a given problem or situation. It includes the generation of unique but appropriate content, as in the case of music and the arts.

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What is creativity? We all know that creativity can lead to the generation of novel and worthwhile solutions to a given problem or situation. It includes the generation of unique but appropriate content, as in the case of music and the arts.

Without creativity as the driver, there would be no progress and evolution of our lives on this planet.

Creativity plays a role in our entrepreneurial activities and long-term economic growth. To fill the best jobs available in today’s knowledge- and information-based societies, we would need people who are creative and equipped with innovative thinking.

How often have we heard it said that creativity is a “god-given” talent one is born with? Indeed, heredity and genetics have some part to play. Almost everyone is born to be creative — the pertinent question is, what can be done to enhance this creativity?

Sustained effort and training are part of the creative process, but there is more to creativity than work. There is a general association between varied life experiences and enhanced creativity. It appears that creativity is higher among first- or second-generation immigrants and among those who are bilingual. Many experiments reveal that the more time people spend living abroad, and not just visiting, the more likely they are to find creative and innovative solutions to problems.

Training can help develop more creativity, as more than 70 studies have shown, and there are specific strategies that help. Let me outline a few.


The first and often underrated element is necessity. As the cliche goes, necessity is the mother of invention.

This has implications for how to enhance creativity in school. Research suggests that posing difficult problems leads to enhanced creativity. So introducing tough problems for students to solve in class (but not for examination) will make them think harder.

Another way to enhance creativity is to insert an element of absurdity during a problem-solving session. This is well illustrated in a small study with 20 college students who were required to read an absurd short story based on Franz Kafka’s short story A Country Doctor.

Afterward, the students were given a test. They were twice as accurate and better on the test than another group of 20 students who had read a different but coherent story. So, we can assume that the first group’s unconscious ability to access hidden patterns had been enhanced by their having read “unexpected absurdity”.


A third and well-recognised approach is to think of a problem by re-conceptualising it. Just looking at the problem from another angle leads to better and innovative solutions. This demonstrates that people can create higher-quality concepts when compelled to reconceive a problem in different ways before trying to solve it.

Another way is to use opposites. Bringing opposing ideas together at the same time before evaluating their interactions leads to integrative ideas that are novel and valuable.

A similar approach is to use what is commonly referred to as “what if” thinking. Whenever individuals contemplate how something in the past might have turned out, they are engaging in counter-factual thinking. This is something we all do at times. But when we engage in this process just like thinking in opposite ways or re-conceptualising, it plays a role in enhancing creativity.

Another more novel approach is changing time or place with regards to thinking about an event. Focusing on a distant future compared to a near time-frame can enhance creative insight into problem-solving tasks. In a similar vein, taking a break while trying to solve complex problems can also help.

All these methods have one common aspect: Looking from a different perspective enhances creativity. But the most important element is that creativity is not just something we are born with — it is something we can learn and enhance. As a society, that is the key to economic and social progress.


K Ranga Krishnan is Dean of the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School Singapore. A clinician-scientist and psychiatrist, he chaired the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Duke University Medical Center from 1998 to 2009.

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