Is it true that artists, composers and writers who live abroad are more creative? There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence for it: Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso, Van Gogh, Gaugin, Stravinsky, Nabokov… The list just goes on and on. And of course it’s received wisdom that travel broadens the mind.
In 2008-2009 a flurry of articles appeared, mostly co-authored by Maddux and Galinsky, examining the links between living abroad and creativity. They talk about the dangers of allowing yourself to be limited by a single culture or worldview:
To the extent that culture consists of a set of preexisting, routinized, and chronically accessible ideas, it
may limit the generation of creative thoughts.
Multicultural living experience, meanwhile – and by that they mean not just a tourist briefly visiting a place, but actual immersion for extended periods of time in another country – has the following consequences:
1) it exposes you to many new ideas and concepts – the larger your pool of ideas, the more likely you are to come up with new combinations of ideas
2) you recognise that the same form or appearance can have different meanings in different contexts – sensitivity and ability to distinguish between surface and depth
3) even when you go back to your own culture, you may be more curious and willing to access unconventional knowledge
4) you become more comfortable with addressing contradictory thoughts, values and beliefs, become able to integrate them into your own worldview
In other words, living abroad enhances the ability to ‘think outside the box’, to find novel approaches and solutions to problems, to notice and tolerate differences, to create new insights. All of these elements are important in the creative process, going far beyond merely artistic creativity.These findings are unlikely to surprise us: they make intuitive sense. The more diversity you experience, the more you are confronted with different values and languages, the richer your personal repository of sounds and pictures with which to decorate your new canvas.
Of course, there are some methodological and conceptual problems with the way this research was conducted. The first, most obvious caveat is that correlation does not prove causation. Perhaps more creative people are naturally more drawn towards living abroad. Perhaps they have a hard time fitting into their own culture and feel its limitations all too acutely. Secondly, it is difficult to measure creativity – the tests the researchers used had more to do with creative problem-solving rather than real-life artistic performance.
What I did find interesting is that the authors claim you do not gain this richness of experience merely through travelling. This is where I would like to see more research. Can it be true that superficial impressions, no matter how strong for sensitive artistic types, are not as valuable? In other words, it’s not all about motion and change, but also about stopping, digesting and resting. About allowing those changes to trickle through and forever change your interior landscape.
And yet, I wonder if a well-travelled artist might not achieve a more profound understanding of a particular culture than someone who has lived there a while but never made an effort to understand, connect and integrate. I can think of some expats who only saw what they expected to find in their host countries. I can think of people who never stepped outside their bubble, and for whom living abroad only served to reconfirm their own beliefs and values.
- Does living abroad boost creativity? (internationalmanofmystery.typepad.com)
- What is Creativity? (exploringtheunexplored.wordpress.com)
- Week 1- What is creativity? Who is Creative? (prideofclouds.wordpress.com)