We’ve all had the experience of disagreeing with someone, perhaps ending the conversation with: “Well, I just don’t see it that way.” When it comes to creative people, that may truly be the case.
The term “creative people” is pretty loose, even by non-scientific standards. But scientists do have a way of measuring something they call openness, which is one of the main personality traits — and openness is a strong proxy for creativity. Why? I’ll let the scientists explain it:
“Among the five major personality traits, it is openness that best predicts performance on divergent thinking tasks. Openness also predicts real-world creative achievements, as well as engagement in everyday creative pursuits,” write psychologists and researchers at the University of Melbourne, Luke Smillie and Anna Antinori, on The Conversation.
The trait of openness is usually found in people who, as you might guess, seek out new experiences and crave variety in life. Perhaps less obviously, they tend to have very active imaginations, are more drawn to beauty in art and nature, are prone to introspection, and are curious (and likely ask a lot of questions).
These links are well-known, as this excerpt from a 2015 research paper on personality makes clear: “Openness/Intellect is the personality domain of the aesthetically sensitive … and is the best predictor of positive aesthetic attitudes and participation in aesthetic activities such as visiting museums, reading literature, and creating art.”
A different perspective
Knowing that openness and creativity go hand-in-hand, scientists could then use this benchmark personality trait to learn more about where creativity comes from. One question they wanted to answer was if creative people had different sensory experiences than others. Were creatives starting at a different point, or did the creativity happen later, after a set of information was learned? Where did creativity start, exactly?
Smillie and Aninori figured one part of the answer out using a relatively simple binocular vision test. The scientists presented visual stimulation to the subjects of the test by showing a red slide close to the subjects’ right eye and a green slide to the left eye. When the brain is presented with different information in this way, it usually flips between them, so the viewer perceives each color in turn, seemingly alternating between them, though the slides aren’t moving. This is called binocular rivalry.
But some people will actually see a visual “mix” of the two colors. The researchers call this “rivalry suppression.” They write, “when both images become consciously accessible at once, it seems almost like a ‘creative’ solution to the problem presented by the two incompatible stimuli.”
Test subjects who had a higher level of openness on personality tests were more likely to experience rivalry suppression, suggesting that creative people do actually see the world differently at a fundamental level.
“Our findings suggest that the creative tendencies of open people extend all the way down to basic visual perception. Open people may have fundamentally different visual experiences to the average person,” write Smillie and Anatiori.
Their experiments aren’t the only ones that have shown this connection. Other studies have shown that creative people listen to music differently, in that they tend to engage more intellectually with what they are hearing rather than letting it wash over them. And ongoing research suggests that some creative people, called tetrachromats, are able to see more colors than most people.
These foundational differences in how creative people experience the world might explain why so many artists choose their creative endeavors over a more stable life or income stream, and why some seem to “march to the beat of a different drum,” as the expression goes. They are, because the world looks — and feels, and sounds — different to them.