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Understanding Creativity: A Journey Through Art, Science, and the Soul

Matt Richtel

  1. 400 pages
  2. English
  3. ePUB (mobile friendly)
  4. Available on iOS & Android
eBook - ePub


Understanding Creativity: A Journey Through Art, Science, and the Soul

Matt Richtel

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About This Book

The New York Times 's Pulitzer Prize-winning science reporter "unpacks the myths and mysteries of the creative process" (Salon).

How does creativity work? Where does inspiration come from? What are the secrets of our most revered creators? How can we maximize our creative potential?

Creativity defines the human experience. It sparks achievement and innovation in art, science, technology, business, sports, and virtually every activity. It has fueled human progress on a global level, but it equally is the source of profound personal satisfaction for individual creators. And yet the origins of creative inspiration and the methods by which great creators tap into it have long been a source of mystery, spoken of in esoteric terms, our rational understanding shrouded in complex jargon. Until now.

Inspired is a book about the science of creativity, distilling an explosion of exciting new research from across the world. Through narrative storytelling, Richtel marries these findings with timeless insight from some of the world's great creators as he deconstructs the authentic nature of creativity, its biological and evolutionary origins, its deep connection to religion and spirituality, the way it bubbles in each of us, urgent and essential, waiting to be tapped.

Many of the questions Richtel addresses are practical: What are the traits of successfulcreators? Under which conditions does creativity thrive? How can we move past creative blocks? The ultimate message of Inspired is that creativity is more accessible than many might imagine, as necessary, beautiful, and fulfilling as any essential part of human nature.

Porchlight Business Book Award Winner (Innovation & Creativity)

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Mariner Books

Book I

From Cradle to Muse

Wherein a visit to Jerusalem and a chance meeting with the Kangaroo Man provides a profile of a creator but reveals creativity’s mortal foe, doubt.


“King Herod was the Steve Jobs of his time.”
The day after Thanksgiving 2019, I stood in the Jewish quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. One week earlier, in Wuhan, China—4,500 miles away—the first known human being became infected with the virus caused by COVID-19. But that morning for me had a blessed feel, sun-bathed, unusually temperate. The “city of peace” felt calm, subverting an underlying turmoil of the world poised to surface and explode.
The square hummed with a throng of tourists, city dwellers, the pious. Devout Jews and Christians coursed across the cobbled stones to holy places. Around only a few narrow corners hustled too the Arabs and Armenians who also consider this place a portal to the heavens.
Where better to consider the source of human creativity than in a city many believe central to all of creation itself?
My guide, Amy, pointed to stones beneath our feet that the king laid more than 2,000 years ago. They were part of an empire-building mania led by this Roman-appointed ruler, streets that led to ports, fortresses, new ideas for gates and military defenses. Amy tells me he was “a man who thought larger than life”: Herod the Great.
He could also have fairly been called Herod the Vicious Paranoid Killer. He was a terrible person, a madman who ordered the murder of children and his own allies. It was all part of his conniving effort to hold on to power, his inspirations yielding the great and the evil.
His prolific creation was doubtless inspired by his surroundings and his peers. Judea around the year zero thrived with restless energy, competing ideas, cultures clashing. It drew half a million people, a significant population by even today’s standards. This is key, it turns out. Throughout history, there have been outposts of explosive innovation, hot spots of creativity, cooperation, and fierce competition: Florence, Harlem, Athens, Morocco, Paris, extraordinary periods in Russia, Mali, Japan, China, India, Mexico, and Egypt, in Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and, certainly, Jerusalem. It was the ultimate company town, and the industry was religion.
A mythology has developed surrounding the image of the antisocial, isolated creative genius. It is among many misconceptions I began to see, little heresies, shorthand fables and narrative conveniences baked into the story of creativity. This book seeks to clarify the record, and this opening chapter is an overview into, and a down payment on, the science and story I will use to support a different view.
Population-level research, for instance, tells us that what gets created appears to come through a collective energy. Picture the teeming hub of ancient Jerusalem—Jews, early Christians, Romans—gathering, sharing, arguing; the ideas and energy gaining steam, then being poured out through an individual. Some person became a portal, a wellspring, a channeler, a veritable winged sage transcending the monotony of learned behavior and accepted technology.
Created here, the greatest stories ever told, if readership numbers are any guide.
A mere stone’s throw from where I stood with the tour guide are rooted the origin stories of Judaism, Christianity, Islam. Here, we learn from the New Testament, Christ carried a cross to his death, and burial at the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The golden mosque that looms over the city houses the Dome of the Rock, among the holiest sites for Muslims, where Mohammed in a dream flew on a white steed named Burāq to a spot that Muslims—and Jews and Christians—consider the “foundation rock” of the Earth. It was on this jagged opening, the beloved narratives have it, that our human story began.
And just below the Dome of the Rock stands the Wailing Wall, as holy a remembrance as there is in all of Judeo-Christian storytelling. The wall, reaching skyward as men and women bow before it, was the western edge of a temple which, the stories tell us, held the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark has been lost, last seen thousands of years ago.
As I looked around the square, I could see one extraordinary creation after the next. Like the Bible, the city has stood a rugged test of time—and seemingly every image testifies to the underlying force of creativity to, in fact, define the human experience.
Clothing, cameras, Gucci bags, North Face backpacks, and knockoffs galore, Israeli soldiers in green fatigues shouldering M4 semi-automatic machine guns, sewage grates, vehicles of various shapes and sizes designed to manage the narrow streets and alleyways carrying trinkets, bags of refined cumin and turmeric bound for the Arab Quarter.
I pulled out my iPhone, itself a wonder I held in my hand: a camera nearly as powerful as any that has ever existed, attached to a computer processor to rival those that took up entire rooms only several decades ago (the “supercomputers” that we marveled at because they could play a solid game of tic-tac-toe against a human foe). This phone would become an enabler of my own invention, helping me to remember, many months later, what I would write here. Material creations like these serve us as tools, emboldening creation and helping us create the building blocks and stones of the next innovation. In some ways, the even more powerful creations are the spiritual ideas that emerged in places like Jerusalem—and at sites in India, China, France, Germany, and on and on. They have a virtually cosmic role: They shape our reality.
Such is the power of creativity that it forms and re-forms our very understanding of the world. Creativity is, in this way, the true first wonder of the world. From it springs everything else.
This makes creativity seem so grand, elusive, the stuff of legendary thinkers in historic places. But King Herod didn’t build Jerusalem any more than Steve Jobs built the iPhone. Their creative contributions and ideas resulted from centuries of innovation, made in increments by the inspired. This shouldn’t seem particularly revelatory. More compelling, though, is why this is so: Creativity lives inside each of us and, collectively, we create our world.
It is not, as many have come to believe, the province of the few, another well-traveled misconception. Creativity is, in fact, part of our more primitive physiology. It comes from the cellular level, part of our most essential survival machinery. We are creativity machines.
When a fish first crawled onto the land, it did not do so in a single aha! moment, a sudden burst of inspiration, adaptation, or evolution. When a bird-like creature first took flight, it did not magically sprout wings. Rather, the ability to crawl onto land, or to first fly, built on one prior creation after the next, changes to anatomy over millennia, incremental transformations laying groundwork. These happened by the accident of evolution.
Random changes in genetics altered in tiny ways the programming of an organism. Some changes had no particular impact. Many actually led to the organism’s death because the change left the new creation unfit for the environment. Some changes gave the organism a slight survival advantage, changing, for instance, how well it metabolized energy or protected itself against threat.
Bit by bit, small changes could add up. Eventually, they might lead to the anatomy that became the basis for a wing, or webbed feet. In rare cases, a profound mutation led to a clear survival advantage, and that genetic change—or creation—took over and made the prior genetic version of that organism obsolete. It was creativity, but mindless, unconscious, random.
Then, as animals became more advanced and complex, some were creative in ways that might feel more familiar to the way human beings create. For instance, animals like birds and monkeys, even some insects, display versions of creativity recognizable to our eye, like the singing of songs, or the building of tools or nests. New mutations come about, confer survival advantage, take hold. Nature endures through the powerful, relentless machinery of regular and consistent creation, but it does so without conscious direction.
Human beings bring to this process an almost Godlike twist. We can create at will. We were born to create.
In fertile brains, we make random connections among ideas. These are highly similar to the emergence of mutations in the genetic coding of more primitive organisms. Ideas materialize, draw one another, connect, rearrange, like new genetic material made of imagination. Then, in other parts of the brain, we scrutinize these ideas, vetting them almost instantaneously for their viability. Can they survive in the world? Should they?
In short, ideas bubble and rise, accidents of connection, mutations, some bold and relevant, most destined to die in the ruthless terrain of reality. Even for the most creative.
Once, a creativity scholar told me, Albert Einstein felt overcome by a creative spark. He felt certain he’d discovered a unified field theory to explain the whole of existence. He confided in a colleague.
“Interesting,” the colleague answered, “but under that theory the universe can’t exist.”
A tight parallel exists linking the fact that a fish crawls onto land, or a reptile takes flight, and the trial-and-error way in which the Theory of Relativity ultimately came to Einstein, or how modern astronomy sprang from Galileo’s brain, or sounds of glory and ennui emanate from the trumpeting lips of Miles Dewey Davis III. The machinery of change, the factories of creativity that live inside each of us, are directly analogous to the machinery that exists inside cells to replicate and mutate genes.
This means that creativity is not mere habit. It is as natural as reproduction itself, the mating, combination, and recombination of ideas. As with mating, though, we can choose to create. This is where the analogy with nature departs. Our discoveries are not completely accidental or random.
Creations can be pursued. How creators do it has become the source of a growing body of scholarship. We are learning, through creative research—powered by innovative technology—how to wield our creative power with greater precision.
These are among the subjects I hope to illuminate:
  • NEUROSCIENTISTS HAVE begun to use imaging to map the brains of creators and understand the regions where ideas get generated and where they are assessed. Spoiler alert: there is yet a long way to go.
  • PSYCHOLOGISTS HAVE increasingly refined personality models to discover prevailing traits in creators, including the critical insight that creativity doesn’t require one to be of particularly high intellect. It’s good news for many of us: Average intelligence will do! Raw talent counts, to a point. Of equal importance, if not greater, are qualities that can be developed, like openness and curiosity.
When it comes to intellect and creativity, I’d boil the relationship down to this:
An intelligent person answers a question.
A creative person comes up with the question in the first place, and then answers it.
  • I HAVE learned too from astrophysicists who liken creativity to the birth of a new universe—and the aha! moment as happening at the “edge of chaos” where stability collides with disorder. In this case, instead of an idea falling into an infinite abyss of failure, it becomes a new foundation for the human experience.
  • THEOLOGIANS DESCRIBED to me human creation as an outgrowth of the divine. These religious ideas, remarkably enough, tie closely with the way creativity takes place in Constitutional Law—and the decision-making of high courts across the world, including the United States Supreme Court. New research also shows that deeply religious people can struggle to be creative because they subvert their ideas to the wisdom of an all-knowing God.
  • POWERFUL INSIGHT into creativity also comes from the field of visual sciences. What people create depends in large part on what they see. Literally. A creator’s toolbox grows through travel, new experience, emotion, and veering outside everyday comfort. It is often said that creators connect dots among ideas, and so it is worth noting that creators can connect only dots that they have seen, felt, experienced.
  • CREATIVE PEOPLE, science tells us, not only see more material but tend to be willing to consider a greater pool of information as relevant than do less creative people. In other words, creators aren’t so quick to dismiss information as irrelevant or unworthy just because it doesn’t conform to existing beliefs. By considering more information, creators have more raw material to process, more dots to connect.
It is almost impossible to overstate the significance of the idea that a person’s creativity depends on obtaining these inputs of information—seen, felt, heard, experienced. I think of this as the Spice Rack Theory of Creativity (a cheap name of my own invention). A mind rich with raw cooking spices—joy, agony, empathy, intellect, and openness—can more ably mix and match. A handful of scientists, as you’ll read, have developed simple tactics to help people be aware of their internal spice racks, side-tracked as they can be by distraction, fear, lack of training.
  • SCIENCE HELPS illuminate the obstacles that inhibit creativity. Some obstacles are taught to us at an early age, but the most basic reason we resist creative impulses is more primal: New ideas scare the heck out of us. This research explains our subconscious bias against creativity, and that ...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Title Page
  3. Dedication
  4. Contents
  5. Author’s Note
  6. Prologue
  7. Book I: From Cradle to Muse
  8. Book II: Laws of Nature
  9. Book III: Neurology, Physiology, Personality, Chronology, and (The New) Geography
  10. Book IV: Salvation
  11. Book V: Creativity in the Time of Chaos
  12. Acknowledgments
  13. Index
  14. About the Author
  15. Also by Matt Richtel
  16. Copyright
  17. About the Publisher
Citation styles for Inspired

APA 6 Citation

Richtel, M. (2022). Inspired ([edition unavailable]). HarperCollins. Retrieved from (Original work published 2022)

Chicago Citation

Richtel, Matt. (2022) 2022. Inspired. [Edition unavailable]. HarperCollins.

Harvard Citation

Richtel, M. (2022) Inspired. [edition unavailable]. HarperCollins. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Richtel, Matt. Inspired. [edition unavailable]. HarperCollins, 2022. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.