Siva drinking World Poison, Nandalal Bose (Photo: National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi)

I have been participating in an ongoing conversation with my friend Supratik Bose about the nature of creativity. Over dinner a while ago he told me he didn’t believe something could be deemed creative unless it demonstrated market value. Bose, trained as an architect and the grandson of India’s most beloved artist of the 20th century, Nandalal Bose, doesn’t make that statement lightly. I on the other hand will argue that point for the rest of my life.

Our debate is lively and robust however, so I don’t want it to come to a “agree to disagree” stalemate. I told Bose to read Lawrence Weschler’s unforgettable account of one man’s mission to transform an artist laboring for years in obscurity to international renown. (“Shapinsky’s Karma” is a chapter included in Weschler’s book, A Wanderer in the Perfect City.) Bose told me to read Nancy Andreasen’s The Creative Brain, which I am currently doing. And this weekend he sent me the link to an article in the New York Times, Charting Creativity: Signposts of a Hazy Territory, by Patricia Cohen, which is full of timely news on this immense, unfathomably complex and provocative topic.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Creativity is kind of like pornography — you know it when you see it,” said Rex Jung, a research scientist at the Mind Research Network in Albuquerque. Dr. Jung, an assistant research professor in the department of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico, said his team was doing the first systematic research on the neurology of the creative process, including its relationship to personality and intelligence.

Like many researchers over the past 30 years or so, Dr. Jung has relied on a common definition of creativity: the ability to combine novelty and usefulness in a particular social context.

As the study of creativity has expanded to include brain neurology, however, some scientists question whether this standard definition and the tests for it still make sense. John Kounios, a psychologist at Drexel University, argues that the standard “has outlived its usefulness.”

“Creativity is a complex concept; it’s not a single thing,” he said, adding that brain researchers needed to break it down into its component parts. Dr. Kounios, who studies the neural basis of insight, defines creativity as the ability to restructure one’s understanding of a situation in a nonobvious way.

Everyone agrees that no single measure for creativity exists. While I.Q. tests, though controversial, are still considered a reliable test of at least a certain kind of intelligence, there is no equivalent when it comes to creativity — no Creativity Quotient, or C.Q.

While Rex Jung and others are doing their scientific level best to come up with some kind of meaningful measure—Jung calls it a “Composite Creativity Index”—I’m going with the naysayers who say it can never be nailed down, dissected or completely comprehended.

I like the description of the difference between creativity and intelligence:

One study of 65 subjects suggests that creativity prefers to take a slower, more meandering path than intelligence.

“The brain appears to be an efficient superhighway that gets you from Point A to Point B” when it comes to intelligence, Dr. Jung explained. “But in the regions of the brain related to creativity, there appears to be lots of little side roads with interesting detours, and meandering little byways.”

Although intelligence and skill are generally associated with the fast and efficient firing of neurons, subjects who tested high in creativity had thinner white matter and connecting axons that have the effect of slowing nerve traffic in the brain. This slowdown in the left frontal cortex, a region where emotional and cognitive abilities are integrated, Dr. Jung suggested, “might allow for the linkage of more disparate ideas, more novelty and more creativity.”

And bless that Bose. One has to be a class act to send along an authoritative collaboration of the opposing point of view since this claim also appeared in the article:

Dr. Kounios…said that Dr. Jung was doing original and interesting work, but he maintained that trying to find a correlation between creativity and a single area of the brain is an “old-fashioned approach.”

“Creativity is a collection of different processes that work in different areas of the brain,” Dr. Kounios said, so the creative act must be broken down into tiny pieces. He also rejects utility as part of the definition, arguing that there can be brilliant and creative failures — what he calls near misses.

I’ll take all of them in—the near misses, the creative failures, the byways and the detours.


A bit of background on Nandalal Bose from the San Diego Museum of Art which mounted a traveling exhibit of Bose’s work for the first time outside Asia in 2008:

Nandalal Bose was born in Bihar, India, in 1882. At the beginning of his career in 1905, he was one of many artists and visionaries who sought to revive the spirituality and cultural authenticity of Indian art after 50 years of colonial rule and westernization. In 1919, Bose became the first director of the art school at the new university founded by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore in rural Bengal. Here, traditional Indian teaching methods were favored over British-style education.

For the following three decades, Bose began to experiment with a variety of indigenous Indian, Japanese, and Chinese techniques. His work consisted more of scenes of nature and tribal and village life, as well as devotional subjects. It was his portrayal of village India without dependence on Western materials or styles that captured the attention of Gandhi and catapulted Bose to the status of national icon as the only artist Gandhi patronized.

Nandalal Bose