A whole lot of “no duh”: The role of curiosity in creativity

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So lately I’ve been reading about the role of curiosity in creativity. While most of what I’m finding relates to things like creative problem solving, there does seem to be some general consensus that curiosity is positively associated with creativity. Meaning if you’re a creative person, chances are you’re also a curious person.

Which to a lot of people probably sounds like a whole lot of “no duh” but I think this is a really important clue when it comes to thinking about the role of research in creative writing. A clue we have to rely on because there are so few systematic investigations into the creative process, which leaves us with only writers’ self-reports for knowledge about what they do and how they do it. As we’ve seen, there tends to be very little information in those self-reports about the research that goes into a creative work.

In other words, it’s easy to guess that research plays a role in the creative process but there’s not a lot of proof. Connecting the dots between curiosity, creativity, and information-seeking doesn’t get us that proof but it does help make a case.

There are a lot of definitions of creativity but generally speaking no one needs to be convinced that creative writers are creative people. It is, after all, right there in the title. There are also lots of different types of curiosity and different personality traits that correlate with different types of curiosity in different ways. It’s a lot. But in an empirical study, Maciej Karwowski found that “curiosity is an essential component of the creative self.”(1)

Now, the important thing to understand about curiosity, no matter what type you’re talking about, is that the main behavioral manifestation of curiosity is…wait for it…seeking information. So sometimes a curious person seeks information to solve a problem. Sometimes they seek information because they get pleasure from the accumulation of knowledge. Either way, if your curiosity is piqued, it’s likely that you are going to seek information to address that curiosity.

So when a creative person encounters a gap in their knowledge in the course of the creative process, their curiosity will likely lead them to seek information to close that gap.

Ta-da!

It should probably be noted that, at least in the library and information science field, “research” and “information-seeking” are not quite the same thing. To me, this is more of a matter of semantics than anything else. Information-seeking is basically research that takes place outside of academic or scholarly contexts. It’s research when it’s at home with its pajamas on.

And in the case of curiosity research, it seems like “information seeking” can mean a lot of different things. It can mean pushing a button to see what happens.(2) Whether or not that would be considered research(3), the “information seeking” umbrella used in curiosity research certainly encompasses the type of information seeking that would be considered research even if it includes other things as well.

What’s interesting about curiosity is that curiosity tends to beget more curiosity. And the more you follow your curiosity in new directions, the more information you accumulate, and the better your chances of making creative connections.(4)

This, oddly enough, is exactly the type of information seeking that does get discussed in writing advice books, much more so than more traditional research. Creative writers might not talk a lot about what they do when they stumble upon a gap in their knowledge, but they talk endlessly about the value of reading widely as a way of cultivating inspiration and creative fodder. This is a way in which the research process, which is typically thought of as boring or a form of procrastination, can be just as exciting and creative as the writing process. You wouldn’t be able to make those inspiring connections without following your curiosity by seeking information.

So that’s what I get when I try to connect the dots between these areas. These connections don’t necessarily tell us much about the role of research in creative writing but they support the notion that it does, in fact, play a role, even if writers don’t often talk about it.

*

(1) Karwowski, M. (2012). Did curiosity kill the cat? Relationship between trait curiosity, creative self-efficacy and creative personal identity. Europe’s Journal of Psychology8(4), 547–558. https://doi.org/10.5964/ejop.v8i4.513

(2) For fellow Doctor Who fans: A big red THREATENING button.

(3) Gap in knowledge: What does this button do? Source of information: The button. Result: New knowledge of what button does. Research!

(4) Like when you’re doing research on the role of research in creative writing and you randomly read a scholarly article about curiosity and it opens up a whole world of connections you wouldn’t have thought of before.

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