The Creative Architect Study

In 1949, the psychologist Donald MacKinnon started a research center at UC Berkeley called “The Institute for Personality Assessment and Research (IPAR).” During World War II, Dr. MacKinnon had developed personality and ability tests for the U.S. military. The purpose of the IPAR was to extend this research into civilian life. One of its priorities was to scientifically determine the traits of the creative personality.

Their most important research study was an analysis of creative architects. Forty of the top architects in the U.S. flew to Berkeley and lived together in an old fraternity house for a weekend. Psychologists gave them a battery of tests, and observed them while they had dinner, lunch, and cocktails. The most famous architects agreed to participate, including Louis Kahn, Philip Johnson, I. M. Pei, Richard Neutra, and Eero Saarinen. It’s a legendary story among creativity researchers. And now, there’s a new book that tells the story: The Creative Architect (by Pierluigi Serraino, and reviewed in the Wall Street Journal here).

Unfortunately, the study didn’t result in any strong or surprising findings–other than observing that the architects didn’t fit the stereotype of a creative person. The study found no evidence that creative people fit the widespread image of “an eccentric not only in thinking but in appearance, dress, and behavior; a Bohemian, an egghead, a longhair…a true neurotic, withdrawn from society, inept in his relations with others” (MacKinnon, 1962/1978, p. 178). The architects seemed to be pretty normal and successful professionals.

What’s more, they had remarkably ordinary childhoods: When they recalled their childhoods, they described the classic upper-middle-class, educated, American lifestyle: fathers were effective in their demanding careers, mothers were autonomous and often had their own careers, religion was important but not central or doctrinaire, families emphasized the development of a personal code of ethics, parents were not overly judgmental but encouraged the child’s ideas and expressions, and the family moved frequently (paraphrasing from MacKinnon’s book).

I recommend reading the WSJ review, and getting the book!

McKinnon, D. W. (1962/1978). In search of human effectiveness. Buffalo, NY: Creative Education Foundation.

Creativity is not Localized in the Brain

If you’ve read the chapter on brain imaging in my book Explaining Creativity, you’ll know that the technology has limitations. Specifically: There’s no way to use this research to claim that creativity is located in a particular part of the brain. To their credit, the researchers who do this work would never say that. However, the media tend to hear about these cautious and limited findings, and publish articles with titles like “Now we know where creativity is!”

A new article in The Economist describes these limitations:

The technology has its critics. Many worry that dramatic conclusions are being drawn from small samples (the faff involved in fMRI makes large studies hard). Others fret about over-interpreting the tiny changes the technique picks up. A deliberately provocative paper published in 2009, for example, found apparent activity in the brain of a dead salmon.

The Economist article is about a new study that identifies a serious problem with fMRI methodology. The new study’s findings suggest that the statistics programs that interpret the fMRI results are “seriously flawed.” (And there’s a lot of statistics involved; take a look at my chapter for a quick summary.) The researchers used these fMRI algorithms to compare 499 subjects who were lying in the scanner while not thinking about anything in particular. With the standard fMRI statistical software, they divided this subject pool in half in 3 million different ways, and did comparisons each time. There shouldn’t have been any findings at all. But in fact, 70 percent of the 3 million comparisons resulted in false positives. That means, in 70 percent of these comparisons, there was a statistically significant finding of elevated brain activity, in half of the 499 subjects, in some part of the brain.

Because this study was just published, we can’t yet be sure what it really means. But my advice is: Be skeptical if you read an article claiming that creativity is located in a particular brain region. Creativity is a function of the entire brain, working together.