What Makes Us Creative

Tommy McHugh spent most of his life beating the living shit out of people, injecting heroin and spending time in jail. At age 51 he had a stroke causing two small haemorrhages on both sides of his brain, which doctors managed to repair using a metal clip and coil.

When Tommy returned home from hospital he couldn’t walk. He couldn’t eat. He didn’t recognize his ex-wife who was looking after him. He spoke in an odd rhyming stream of words. His ex-wife recognized that this was his way of trying to communicate, so she gave him a pad and paper to express himself in writing. Tommy started writing poetry and then sketching, painting and sculpting. As he regained his memory and physical functions, a dramatically different personality revealed itself. Gone was the dark aggressive character he had been for half a century. Instead there was a calm, sensitive and thoughtful man. He had also retained this intense compulsion to create art.

No one knows exactly what happened from a medical perspective. All the neuropsychologist could suggest was that the brain damage had disinhibited the neural pathways which were blocking Tommy’s sensitive side and creative tendencies from coming to the fore.

Tommy has said poignantly:

“It’s opened me up to the person I feel I should have been 40 years ago”

As someone who works in the creative industries, I’ve always had a strong belief that creativity is something which can be nurtured, developed and stretched. Cases like Tommy’s inevitably raise the question, how much of creativity is biologically determined?

We know that particular people are born with a greater tendency towards creativity. Openness is an innate personality trait often highly correlated with creativity in both the arts and sciences. There’s also a mixed association with low conscientiousness. Creativity is also linked with higher levels of general intelligence, which has a large genetic component.

But we also know that context (am I in a creative mindset) and physical environment can play a big role in stimulating creativity. And we know that mood can substantially influence creativity. When we are happy, more cognitive processes become available, our attention broadens and our cognitive flexibility increases, so we can associate more elements together which is conducive to creative thinking. Workplace studies have shown that the more positive a person’s mood on a given day, the more creative thinking they evidence that day, and the creative bump carries over into the next day—even if the mood doesn’t last until then.

McHugh has clearly reflected a lot on what has happened to him and why:

“I fight alone to understand the person I am now, the artist that you see, the human being that you see.  It’s a learning lesson for me every day of my life. And it’s valuable.

It’s just difficult for me to get understanding from any other people, to motivate a neural psychologist somewhere, to motivate a man who wants to interpret the clip and the coil in the brain here, to understand that it’s not just me who’s got this. We’ve all got it. In 20 or 30 years time they’ll come out with a mental thinking cap. They’ll plug it on your brain, you’ll be able to be an artist. Or a kook. Or a ballet dancer. Or a rock and roll singer”

Maybe the stroke fundamentally altered Tommy’s brain, or maybe as the psychologist suggested, this creative side was dormant but ready to be released when the brain pathways were damaged.  But perhaps it didn’t have to be physical damage that triggered this release.

Maybe if Tommy had been reached at a younger age. If he had been taught how to control his aggression and given strategies to manage his impulses. If he had grown up in an encouraging home environment or a more open school. If he had lived a happier and more stable life. Tommy’s right when he says “we’ve all got it”. But I don’t believe the answer is a metal thinking cap. Instead of trying to alter people, we need to alter the conditions. And there are  lots of ways we can start to do that. It’s not easy but it is possible. Especially if you believe that everyone has talent which can flourish in the right environment.

  1. As someone whom others label creative I sometimes get frustrated by them labeling themselves not so. I totally agree with you that, given the right space and nourishment, everyone is creative in their own way and I also believe it’s creativity that’s going to get this world out of the mess it’s in – so let’s nourish it wherever we find it!

      • Neasa Cunniffe
      • October 27th, 2012

      Yes I really think creativity is a skill not a trait. Some people may be born with a more natural disposition towards it, but everyone can use and strengthen their creative thinking skills.

    • Margaret
    • January 11th, 2014

    Reblogged this on Not really that creative and commented:
    Here’s an interesting story about someone discovering their creativity in a way that was hard, but ultimately worthwhile.

  2. Thanks for this entry.. Found this very useful as I’m in the early stages of writing a book about a man who had a stroke and underwent similar personality changes and discovered his artistic ability.

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