Clarifying Creative Cognition

Creativity is an aspect of personality that is characterized by novel and appropriate ideas and processes. Linda Neiman, founder of Creativity at Work, a consulting, coaching and training alliance, relates that creativity is the act of turning new and imaginative ideas into reality and involves thinking and producing. “If you have ideas and don’t act on them,” says Neiman, “then you are imaginative but not creative.”

Rollo May, an influential existential psychologist, defines creativity in his book “Courage to Create” as a process of bringing something new into being. Daniel Pink, at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State University, writes in “A Whole New Mind” that creativity involves artistry, empathy, and emotion.

Jim Million, psychosocial-drama co-creator, addressed creativity as the ability to freely jump from one thought or “feeling pool” to the other, unencumbered by doctrine or ideas of others yet influenced by what has been read, observed and/or experienced.

My Personal Experience with Creativity

Over 30 years ago, when teaching in the sixth grade at a middle school on the East Coast, I was asked by a supervisor, “Can you teach creativity to your students?” Having been told that I was a creative person since my early childhood, and considering this creativity and use of my imagination a gift, my response was an empathic “No.” My supervisor then told me my answer was incorrect and that I should think about how to enhance and/or develop the student learners’ more imaginative sides of their brains.

Interestingly, this question got me to wondering if it was actually possible to teach creativity and develop students’ cognitive skills simultaneously. It took a year or two to realize that my original no was off-base. In fact, I’d been doing this creative cognition — or cognitive development through creativity, and vice versa — for some time, and just hadn’t labeled it as such.

I had been giving assignments that were project- and performance-based. This means that the students needed to be interactively involved in the learning process through educational games. Today these are called interactive instructional resources, or hands-on learning. Such devices are part of the national Common Core standards that are being emphasized in schools at all levels, and even in business and all sorts of occupations.

This “engaged in learning” concept is supported by Neiman, who believes that creativity skills can be learned — not from sitting in a lecture, but by learning and applying such creative thinking processes as storytelling and educational gaming, with the focus on development of cognitive skills and the heuristics involved in skill application, and using realistic exercises appropriate to the domain at hand.

Defining Cognition

Cognition is thinking, and, in a finite sense, it is the ability of the brain to process, store, retrieve and retain information. The use of memory is involved when calling forth information to use in the present or address a future situation. Recalling or remembering occurs in three ways, which are attention, orientation, and decision-making. These areas of cognition/thinking move from and between levels of complexity simultaneously, and seemingly without reason or even awareness.

The most advanced level of complexity is meta-cognition, which involves the knowledge and control people have over their own thinking and learning activities. Cognition and meta-cognition ultimately lead to comprehension, which is to have knowledge about a topic demonstrated through things said and/or actions and behaviors which are either fact-based or implied.

Cognitive Development

In looking at our thinking more closely, we understand that we have thoughts, ideas, opinions, judgments and feelings which impact our lives on a daily basis — sometimes moment to moment. These, in turn, influence our cognitive development and creativity, for to create something or be innovative, one needs to think consciously; or even sometimes, thinking occurs unconsciously.

Reciprocity of Thinking

The “reciprocal thinking” phases include cognitive and meta-cognitive skills addressing beginning awareness and acknowledging, critical and creative thinking, and the meta-cognitive processes. Examples of cognitive skills in each phase are provided to explain that knowing what one is thinking results in possibilities for being creative, as creativity relies on understandings gained from past experiences with memory application for the formation of new conceptualizations. Most importantly, development of thinking/cognition is happening simultaneously.

Explaining Creativity

Synonyms for the word creative explode from the thesaurus with words like “original,” “imaginative,” “inspired,” “artistic,” “inventive,” “resourceful,” “ingenious,” “innovative,” and “productive.” Those are a good deal of cognitive skills to convey the meaning of just one word, and this can cause confusion, as each word has a meaning of its own. However, cognition/thinking-development, in terms of one’s being creative, revolves around using imagination and being inventive, which in turn requires thinking about what one is thinking — meta-cognition.

Defining Creativity

At one time, creativity was considered to be the function of the right brain hemisphere. This supported the concept that left-brain-dominant people were more analytical and less emotional. Emotion is considered to be an important factor in creativity, as is memory, or, really, the lack of it, when being creative. In an article on the anatomy of the creative brain at, author TraceyR related that the anatomy of creativity is a pattern of activation and suppression of communication pathways within the brain that allows for the emergence of novel thought. Ingredients for creative innovation include divergent thinking — the ability to see things differently in a way that improves upon convention.

A Practical Example of Divergent Thinking

A creative person is often referred to as a person who thinks out of the box. What that really means is one thinks differently from others. A simple example I often use is that of a customer in a restaurant asking to get “extra hot fudge on his ice cream hot-fudge sundae.” The waitress responds with, “We only have one temperature of hot fudge.” Most people think the man wants more hot fudge on his sundae, but the out-of-the-box thinker has posed a new interpretation of the man’s request. Divergent thinking is merely a different perspective on the same topic, with there being, most frequently, few persons having that different perspective. (Interestingly, when making this comparison, those who were known to be creative persons continually thought the temperature was the correct response.)



  1. As a credential Career Technical Educator and patent design engineer, this article has enhanced my study of creative cognition, in efforts to educate learners on creativity and innovation to sustain workforce development in 21st century.

  2. I am so flattered that you used my article in your graduate class. It is so wonderful to read that you are using it. I am overjoyed!!! Check out Summer 2014 for my latest article: The Brain on Ecosystems and Sustainability. You will love it!

  3. Fascinating article. I am presenting to my graduate class on creativity in education. I am planning on providing a powerpoint presentation and would also love to include the photograph. If I cite Brain World magazine, may I use it? Thank you.

    I have enjoyed the articles so much, I think I will have to subscribe! :o)

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