New Ideas about New Ideas

Considerable work has been done on creativity across a wide-range of disciplines, including business, cognitive neuro-science, economics, history, psychology, and sociology, but until recently there has been little cross-disciplinary interaction. On March 10 and 11, 2006 fifteen experts on innovation and creativity from these disciplines  – both established senior scholars and emerging younger researchers – met at the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts with support from the Alfred Sloan Foundation. The purpose of the conference was to foster cross-disciplinary dialogue on creativity and innovation.

As the conference demonstrated, the time is ripe for this interaction, with a critical mass for a science of creativity and innovation emerging. While there is some tradition of work on creativity in history, sociology, and psychology, economists, including those in business schools, are increasingly studying creativity. Moreover, cognitive neuro-science has provided a new set of tools for analyzing the creative process at a finer level than has ever been possible.

Given the varied group and the nature of scientific papers, one might have been concerned about the ability to communicate across disciplinary lines, let alone to find common interest (and as a co-organizer, I will readily concede that this was a real concern!), but soon cognitive neuro-scientists were discussing history; psychologists were talking about economics; and everyone was poring over images of the brain. And, after close to 20 hours of discussions, some during an informal stroll along the Charles River , a set of themes emerged quite clearly along with policy implications and directions for future research.

Indeed the timing was also fortuitous from a policy perspective. As the most recent State of the Union Address indicated, the United States increasingly sees its economic position challenged, and creativity and innovation are viewed as the most promising direction for us to maintain our position. On the other hand, this increased interest in creativity and innovation may conflict with demographics – the workforce has been aging and creativity and innovation have traditionally been regarded as linked to youth.

I. The Idiosyncrasy of Innovation

With innovation viewed as a way for the United States to maintain its economic position, it is natural to ask what can be done to foster innovation. As discussed by Daniel Goroff, a mathematician and the Dean of Faculty at Harvey Mudd College , colleges and universities are increasingly prioritizing creativity and the Mills Commission is recommending systematic testing of higher education outcomes.

Our working definition of creativity was the production of novel and useful ideas or artifacts and the discussion touched on the arts, industry, and sciences. Perhaps the single point on which there was the widest agreement was that while there are recognizable patterns in creativity, the motivations of creators and the processes by which creative ideas arise are frequently specific to the individual or idiosyncratic. The idiosyncratic nature of innovation showed up in brain images; in problem-solving experiments, and in analyses of historical and contemporary innovations and innovators. Participants were optimistic about our ability to fostering creativity. However, we agreed that, to be successful, efforts will have to confront the idiosyncratic nature of creativity.

It is also noteworthy that the conference was organized in this spirit. Conference attendees were “putting their money where their mouths were” by attending a meeting with an exceptionally wide range of people and they did so because they firmly believed in the value of drawing connections between seemingly disparate lines of work.

The Idiosyncratic Nature of the Creative Brain

At the finest level, the cognitive neuroscientists at the conference showed the idiosyncratic nature of creativity in brain functioning. Mark Jung-Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, showed that distinct brain areas contribute when people solve problems with insight, i.e., when solutions are accompanied by “Aha” moments. The patterns of brain activity suggest an increase in “top-down” processing, and increased contributions from the brain’s right hemisphere. He attributed the latter effect to the more diffuse links in the right brain, which allow for novel or idiosyncratic connections across distantly related concepts.

John Kounious, a cognitive neuro-scientist at Drexel University , showed that, although the final moment of insight is sudden, there are substantial changes in brain activity leading up to insight solutions to problems, such as a quieting of the sensory areas of the brain in the seconds before the solution reaches consciousness. He interpreted these results as the unconscious brain searching for solutions, but having to quiet down external inputs to bring a candidate solution into consciousness. Moreover, patterns of brain activity before people even see a problem predict whether they will solve that problem with insight, or more analytically. Finally, he also reports that moderate rates of arousal are best for problem solving, with the optimal amount of arousal being lower as problems become more difficult.

Sohee Park , a cognitive neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University , discussed the link between psychosis and creativity. She showed that while psychosis itself may interfere with creativity, the more idiosyncratic associations among people who are psychosis-prone (but clinically normal) enhance creativity. She interpreted these results by arguing that psychosis increases the novelty of associations, but interferes with memory and other processes that are essential for creativity. Healthy but psychosis-probe people also show increased use of their right frontal lobe when they are generating novel ideas.

Teresa Amabile, a psychologist at Harvard Business School , discussed how emotion can influence the creative process. Although research on psychopathology has found a connection between depression and creativity among artists and writers, the emotion-creativity connection has been virtually unexamined among adults working in business organizations. Amabile discussed results from an extensive study that found a consistent, positive relationship between positive emotion and creativity. Exploiting the longitudinal nature of the data, she showed that positive affect preceded creativity in the coming days. She also found that getting a new idea or having an insight can evoke immediate (though short-lived) feelings of elation – even when the idea is a relatively minor one. Thus, the study revealed bi-directional causality in the connection between positive emotion and creativity at work, and it also suggested an incubation effect whereby positive emotion on one day can stimulate new cognitive associations that bear fruit in the coming days. Given the different domains studied, these results are not inconsistent with those of Park and others studying the link between psychosis and creativity.

Perhaps the most extreme statement of the view of innovation as idiosyncratic is the chance permutation model of Dean Keith Simonton, a psychologist at the University of California , Davis . In this model important contributions are the result of purely random combinations of ideas. He discussed a broad range of evidence supporting his approach.

The Idiosyncratic Nature of Creative Motivations

The motivations of innovators also are idiosyncratic, and this is particularly true in the initial development of an innovation. Josh Lerner, an economist at Harvard Business School , showed that many of the early developers of open-source code were hackers who contributed to open source code for the stimulation of programming, the recognition of their peers, or to oppose commercial software manufacturers. Companies only contribute to open source code once a large body of code has been developed and the commercial benefits are clear.

David Galenson and Bruce Weinberg (a co-organizer of the conference), economists at the University of Chicago and Ohio State University, find that early phases of revolutions in the arts, industry, and science are more likely to arise from individuals pursuing their aesthetic goals or from serendipity. As revolutions develop, market factors become more important. In physics for instance, many of the discoveries that lead to the development of quantum mechanics arose accidentally, but later contributions were self-conscious attempts to explain earlier results.

Consistent with these findings, Teresa Amabile’s research has revealed an intrinsic motivation principle of creativity: People will be most creative when they are motivated primarily by the interest, enjoyment, satisfaction, meaningfulness, and personal challenge of the work itself, rather than by extrinsic inducements or constraints. This principle is best understood within a social-psychological view of creativity. Although a person’s production of creative (novel and appropriate) work certainly depends on both their domain expertise and their creative thinking skills, it also depends on their level of intrinsic motivation for the work, which can be strongly influenced by the inducements and constraints in their social environment. Experimental and non-experimental research has revealed several aspects of work environments, such as a primary focus on tangible rewards or critical evaluation, that can undermine intrinsic motivation and creativity. It has also revealed several aspects of work environments, such as autonomy and optimal challenge in the work, that can support intrinsic motivation and creativity. For example, using their diary database, Amabile and her colleagues have discovered a number of specific leader behaviors in the everyday work environment that have positive or negative effects on daily perceptions of leader support for creativity and, thus, on creativity itself.

Richard Freeman, an economist at Harvard University and a co-organizer of the conference, sought to understand gender differences in involvement in the sciences in terms of gender differences in the response to incentives. He noted that incentives for innovation often take the form of tournaments, where the first person who succeeds receives most or all of the returns. Evidence indicates that women shy away from these situations, providing an explanation for the underrepresentation of women in the sciences.

Gerald Holton, a physicist and historian of science, discussed the role of thema – unquestioned principles held by individuals that guide their creativity. For instance, Newton ’s view of the universe as being designed by God shaped the questions he asked and the answers he gave. Thus, thema are individual influences that shape a person’s creative work.

David Kaiser, a physicist and historian at MIT, presented a cautionary tale from the rapid, post-war expansion of physics. He showed how the expansion led teachers to emphasize the most mechanical sides of quantum mechanics, which were easier to teach, while shying away from more qualitative questions of interpretation – the "What does it all mean?" musings that had so exercised the discipline's leaders before the war.  In this way, concrete pedagogical pressures helped to change how modern physics was handled in the classroom, and, indeed, what would count as "creative" among the younger generation.

Thus, cognitive neuro-scientists, economists, historians, and psychologists all see creativity as being idiosyncratic in terms of the processes through which it develops and the motivations of creators. Given this view, there was great concern about efforts to test outcomes in higher education. Similarly, the group was concerned about the ability to identify areas for innovation and target support to them, as opposed to supporting innovation more broadly. Nevertheless, the Unites States must strive for excellence in education and support scientific research that will provide the basis for future economic growth in a flexible way.

II. The Geography of Creativity

Technological centers such as Silicon Valley and the Route 128 Corridor outside of Boston have been attributed to knowledge spillovers arising among innovators. The presence of many others working on related problems leads to informal interactions that foster creativity. This phenomenon can operate at the level of cities and even nations, and is an important motivation for public investment in research.

Perhaps the finest grained evidence here comes from the work of David Kaiser who has traced the flow of ideas among physicists, looking at the development, mutations, and spread of Feynman diagrams. Using these diagrams, which illustrate interactions between particles, he shows how interacting communities modify and define techniques.

Weinberg has shown that geography affects the probability of contributing to a scientific revolution. People who went to graduate school at a place where they were exposed to the people who pioneered the new paradigm were more likely to make contributions to the paradigm than people who attended other schools. The nature of their work was also affected.

Lynne Zucker and Michael Darby, a sociologist and economist at the University of California , Los Angeles , have studied the flow of knowledge from academia to industry. For a variety of leading technologies, including semiconductors, biotechnology, and nano-technology, startup firms are more likely to develop in cities where there are more star academic researchers. Their work provides an important, direct link between academic research and industrial innovation.

While there was considerable optimism about the future of the United States as a leader in creativity and innovation, there was a general view that the distance between the United States and other countries would likely shrink. As other countries develop their research capabilities, scientific breakthroughs and their commercial applications will likely shift overseas at least to some extent. For us to maintain a strong position, we will have to invest in our scientific and industrial innovative communities.

III. Innovation and an Aging Workforce

Work on the effect of age on creativity dates back at least to Harvey Lehmann’s Age and Achievement, published in 1953. The relationship between age and creativity is particularly important today with new technologies developing rapidly and the workforce aging, driven by the large baby boom generation. Will our ability to innovate and take advantage of innovations be affected by the aging workforce? How can companies that need to innovate adapt to an aging workforce?

While there seems to be a presumption that creativity is associated with youth, there was a consensus that older individuals can, and frequently are highly creative. David Galenson outlined a distinction between experimental and conceptual innovators. Conceptual innovators work deductively and frequently make their most important contributions early in their careers. Experimental innovators work inductively, accumulating knowledge from trial-and-error experiments, and tend to do their most important work later in their careers. These experimental innovators may be entering their peak years of creativity.

Dean Keith Simonton discussed a different approach, one that focuses on disciplines rather than the styles of individual innovators. In his view creativity varies across disciplines depending on the rate at which ideas can be developed and elaborated. He argued that in many fields creativity increases for much of the life and that even in fields where creativity is greatest at early ages, older individuals make important contributions at the same rate as younger individuals after controlling for their lower rate of publication.

Regardless of the approach, and there was an active, scholarly discussion of the relative merits of the two approaches, it is clear that older individuals are often highly creative. Both approaches imply that there will be differences across fields in the age at which people are most creative – in Galenson’s approach the shares of conceptual innovators, who tend to be most creative when young, and experimental innovators, who tend to be most creative later in their careers, vary across fields. One wonders whether the development of information technology was due at least in part to the relative youth of the workforce and if technological progress may shift to other areas as the workforce ages.

Ben Jones, an economist at Northwestern University ’s Kellogg School of Management, and Bruce Weinberg took another view of the relationship between age and creativity. Jones argued that the accumulation of knowledge over time generates a burden of knowledge. In his words, while later generations have the advantage of being able to see further by standing on the shoulders of giants, they suffer from having longer climbs. He showed that the age at which innovators in the sciences and industry do important work has been increasing over the 20th century. While his view is pessimistic at some level – it implies that innovators will spend more of their careers getting to the knowledge frontier and less time innovating – now we may have the advantage of having a population that has reached an age where they are largely done climbing.

Weinberg’s work has shown that people who make contributions to new scientific paradigms tend to have been exposed to them in their formative professional years. While this result would suggest that younger individuals are more involved with important innovations, he has also found that older individuals often make the contributions that set off innovative revolutions. Thus, older individuals have a crucial role to play in the innovative process.

IV. Future Work

Many directions for future work emerged from the meeting. There was considerable interest in using the emerging tools of cognitive neuro-science to test the foundations of other theories. Among the possibilities would be probing the effect of age on creativity and receptivity to new ideas by looking at changes in cognition over the life cycle. Another area in which links could be made was the relationship between affect and psychosis and creativity across domains. There was also interest in linking observational data on the creative output of scientists or industrial innovators to information about cognitive functioning. Similarly, it would be valuable to study cognition under various incentives and other aspects of the social environment. Work is also necessary to reconcile differences in views of creativity that have emerged across the various disciplines.


Bruce A. Weinberg

Ohio State University , NBER, and IZA

May 2006



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Amabile, Teresa M. – Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration; Unit Head, Entrepreneurial Management; Harvard Business School

Darby, Michael R. – Professor of Policy, Director of the John M. Olin Center for Policy, Anderson School of Management, University of California, Los Angeles

Freeman, Richard B. – Herbert Asherman Professor of Economics, Harvard University ; Director of Labor Studies Program, National Bureau of Economic Research

Galenson, David W. – Professor of Economics, University of Chicago

Goroff, Daniel – Vice President and Dean of Faculty, Harvey Mudd College

Holton, Gerald - Mallinckrodt Research Professor of Physics and Research Professor of the History of Science

Jones, Benjamin F. – Assistant Professor, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University

Jung-Beeman, Mark – Associate Professor of Psychology, Northwestern University

Kaiser, David – Associate Professor of the History of Science and Lecturer, Department of Physics, MIT

Kounios, John – Professor of Psychology, Drexel University

Lerner, Joshua – Jacob H. Schiff Professor of Investment Banking, Harvard Business School

Park, Sohee – Professor of Psychology and the Center for Integrative and Cognitive Neuroscience, Vanderbilt University

Saha, Subhra B. – Graduate Student of Economics, Ohio State University

Sehl, Andrea N. – The Varian Group

Simonton, Dean Keith – Distinguished Professor of Psychology, University of California , Davis

Weinberg, Bruce A. – Associate Professor of Economics, Ohio State University

Zucker, Lynne G. – Professor of Sociology, University of California , Los Angeles