In Britain, the creative subjects are being squeezed from the curriculum. They are considered ‘soft’, merely an escape from the rigours of real life. But as Tolkien asked, aren’t the people most hostile to the idea of escape, jailers? (1) Now, more than ever, creativity is key, not just to our well-being but to our humanity, and increasingly we need to fight for it.
Have you ever wondered where creativity comes from? Is it learned or are we born with it? In 1968, George Land asked himself these questions. He had already devised a test for NASA to measure the creative potential of their rocket scientists and engineers. The test looked at the ability to come up with innovative ideas to problems. It proved so effective that he decided to give the test to 1600 children between the ages of 4 and 5. The results astonished him.
98% of children fell into the category of creative genius.
He decided to do a longitudinal study. He retested the children at aged 10. Only 30% now fell into the genius category. At 15 years old, the number had dropped to 12%. As adults? 2 %.
“What we have concluded,” said Land, “is that non-creative behaviour is learned.” (2)
The research is both uplifting and devastating. We are born creative geniuses and the chances are, we will lose that ability in the process of growing up. So, what is happening to our beautiful, wild, playful, solution-finding selves?
NASA blames the education system since it favours the convergent rather than the divergent brain, where the convergent makes judgements, is critical and evaluates, and the divergent is the imaginative, intuitive creator of new possibilities. In 1979, Betty Edwardes, (Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain) observed a similar phenomenon: that in our modern schools we approach all subjects from a left-brained perspective which is logical, structured, linear and analytical. This means that even the artistic subjects are approached as if they are sciences and in English, for example, young children are expected to dissect sentences and identify clauses and, (the vaguely obscene sounding), frontal adverbials.
But, is our left-brained education system a symptom of a deeper imbalance? Has society overall shifted from the Imaginative/Mythic to the Rational? (3) Our scientific narrative tells us that our ‘primitive’ ancestors used myths as a way to understand a world they had no answers for. Now that science has provided answers, the myths are irrelevant. The argument runs that the God Apollo was merely a way of understanding the movement of the sun. Now we understand the spinning cosmos, we have no need of him or his chariot.
And yet, without imagination we would not make the scientific advances we make today. China, famously, was forced to become more approving of science fiction (which has a worrying tendency to challenge political systems) because they realised they had stopped moving forward technologically.(4) The inventions of Star Trek spring to mind: sliding doors and handheld communicators. It is often in science fiction that science finds its ideas. Albert Einstein valued imagination over science saying, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress.” (5)
And at a more intuitive level, is it not the mythic that gives meaning to our lives? An imaginative awareness of myth allows us to become the heroes of our own stories, accepting, or often, refusing the call to adventure, facing down demons, making allies, seeking the elixir that will give wings to our weary spirits. Myths express what is beyond, what is ineffable, indescribable. Apollo is not merely a way of understanding the sun; the sun is ‘merely’ one of the faces of Apollo. (6)
There are other, sometimes devastating, consequences for our well-being if our imaginative self is dormant and the left brain is allowed to rule supreme, for it is in the left brain that the internal critic lives.
In a world where left and right brain are balanced, the critic is your friend. For a writer, for example, the critic will point out the lumpy sentence and the holes in your plot. However, if the left brain is not balanced with the more intuitive, explorative right brain, the critic can get out of control. Here is the child sat in tears in front of a blank piece of paper saying, ‘I’m no good; there’s no point; it will be rubbish,’ and underlying all that, ‘I don’t want to risk trying because I’m afraid to fail.’
Is it coincidence that in surveys done by the Children’s Society across 15 countries the UK was found to have some of the unhappiest children in the world? (7) The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence reports that 80,000 children in the UK are estimated to suffer from severe depression, including 8,000 under the age of 10.(8) Bullying is often cited as a cause along with excessive testing in schools. Significantly, both of these are symptoms of left brain dominance. Excessive testing is the left brain gone mad, shouting, ‘evaluate, evaluate, evaluate!’ Focus on exam success, on top grades, on the outcome, rather than the process, these are all left brain ideals, favoured by left brained politicians who may, (ironically), lack the imagination to realise the importance of the imagination. Empathy and compassion are born in the right brain. And aren’t lack of empathy and compassion factors that lead to bullying? We ignore and undermine the right brain at our peril.
Compassion and empathy reveal to us an undeniable truth: that we are all equal. What would happen if we truly understood that we are all the same: frail and brilliant, confused and heroic? Would we realise that we are all deserving of our common care?
Many people would say that this kind of change would take a miracle. So let’s expect one. Let us actively imagine, and then fight for, a healthier curriculum where play is valued as essential to creative, emotional and intellectual development; where children are encouraged to question and allowed to be wrong; where the experience of stories and art, music and drama are recognised as essential elements of emotional literacy; where teachers have freedom to teach what is interesting and not just what appears on the test.
Since we all create our life, and therefore our world, moment by moment, don’t we owe it to ourselves and our children to strengthen our creative muscle and create the conditions for the right brain to flourish? To re-imagine a mythology where the planet and those that share it are sacred? Perhaps then, we will have the confidence, the compassion and the imagination to go out and create the joyful lives our hearts desire.
We change the world if we imagine it different.
2 George Land and Beth Jarman, Breaking Point and Beyond. San Francisco: HarperBusiness, (1993)
3 Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth, Canongate, p6 (2005)
5 A. Einstein, Cosmic Religion: With Other Opinions and Aphorisms, p. 97 (1931)
6 Ursula Le Guin, The Language of the Night, ‘Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction’, Harper Collins p 69 (1979)