The University of Sussex

What is Creativity?

Margaret A. Boden

How should we define creativity? One new idea may be creative, while another is merely new: what's the difference? And can one distinguish psychological creativity from historical creativity? If someone has an idea which surprises them, but which has already arisen in their own or some other culture, are they being creative? Even if these questions of definition are answered, the problem of explanation remains. How is creativity possible? Artists and scientists rarely know how their original ideas come about. They mention intuition, but cannot say how it works. Most psychologists cannot tell us much about it, either. What's more, many people assume that there will never be a scientific theory of creativity -- for how could science possibly explain fundamental novelties? The very notion seems to be a contradiction in terms. Creativity involves the exploration of conceptual spaces in people's minds. These correspond to different styles of thinking, including artistic genres and scientific theories. There are various musical spaces, chemical spaces, and so on. And there are many ways -- some general, some domain-specific -- of exploring and changing them. Conceptual spaces, and ways of transforming them to produce new ones, can be precisely described by using computational concepts. These concepts are drawn from artificial intelligence (the study of how to make computers do what real minds can do), and they enable us to do psychology in a new way. The human mind is vastly richer, and more subtle, than the most powerful computers. But computational ideas are helping us to understand how human originality is possible. We can now say something specific about how intuition works -- and how the human mind can seem to surpass itself. The ascription of creativity always assumes reference to some relevant conceptual space. These spaces are complex and hierarchically structured, with some features lying deeper than others. It follows that to "measure" creativity, we cannot rely on a simple scalar metric, referring only to a few dimensions of equivalent importance. Rather, we must take these structural features into account.

This paper is not available online