Hackernoon logoA New, Scientific Definition of Creativity by@smepals

A New, Scientific Definition of Creativity

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@smepalsDavid Mercer

David contributes to SME Pals, a blog aimed at helping startups and online businesses.

I'll cut a long story short and start by presenting a full, succinct, scientific definition of creativity.

Creativity is a heuristic process of semantic association leading to novel concepts.

That might not mean too much offhand, but it's extremely useful. Once I've shown my working you'll be able to harness the incredible creative capacity that lies untapped in your own mind.

Why is this particular definition important?

Everyone seems to have their own say about what creativity is. A quick search on Google for creativity shows up a plethora of results that all have similar, if somewhat vague, definitions.

Google itself defines creativity as follows:

The use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work.

Meh! It's not wrong; I guess. It's also not really helpful. It doesn't give you any clues as to how to be creative.

A better definition is important because you want to know how to unlock your own creative mind and harness it to produce innovative and elegant solutions to problems that need solving (by problems, I mean anything from finding inspiration, to writing topics ideas, to music, to marketing campaigns, or even solving complex math problems).

Let's start at the beginning.

The Scientific Definition of Creativity

What we need is a definition of creativity that actually tells us something about the nature of creativity itself so that we have an actionable definition that is useful in the real world. To reiterate,

Creativity is a heuristic process of semantic association leading to novel concepts.

There are a few words that are worth defining quickly before we dive right in and begin the practical tutorial.


Our brains are hard-wired with heuristics. Our genes use heuristics. Nature uses heuristics everywhere.

Heuristics are comparative processes used to generate solutions not guaranteed to be perfect.

Consider the problem of catching a ball. We don’t calculate Newton’s laws, factoring in the appropriate Magnus effect, to predict where the ball will be. We compare previously learned scenarios to make the best guess about where the ball will go.

We don’t always get it right - even pros fumble every now and then - but the more we practice (i.e. the more stored scenarios we have to compare) the better our heuristic ball catching gets.

Creativity is like catching a ball. There is no set sequence of steps one can take to arrive at a creative outcome. Otherwise we would be able to write procedural computer programs to solve for creativity.

Creativity is heuristic.


There is a specialized part of our minds that is very good at exploring unusual associations and turning them into coherent stories. It's called the storyteller. In fact:

Our brains can be thought of as engines of association.

The storyteller is best demonstrated by the work of Dr. Michael Gazzaniga who studied the effects of having the corpus collosum severed.

The corpus collosum is a dense bundle of neurons that connect the two halves of our brains. If this is severed it means the two hemispheres can no longer communicate with each other, effectively isolating the functionality of each half. The condition is called split-brain.

Sharing his experiences in an article for Discover Magazine, Dr. Gazzaniga relates this interesting story:

"We showed a split-brain patient two pictures: To his right visual field, a chicken claw, so the left hemisphere saw only the claw picture, and to the left visual field, a snow scene, so the right hemisphere saw only that. He was then asked to choose a picture from an array placed in full view in front of him, which both hemispheres could see. His left hand pointed to a shovel (which was the most appropriate answer for the snow scene) and his right hand pointed to a chicken (the most appropriate answer for the chicken claw).

We asked why he chose those items. His left-hemisphere speech center replied, "Oh, that’s simple. The chicken claw goes with the chicken," easily explaining what it knew. It had seen the chicken claw. Then, looking down at his left hand pointing to the shovel, without missing a beat, he said, "And you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed." Immediately, the left brain, observing the left hand's response without the knowledge of why it had picked that item, put it into a context that would explain it. It knew nothing about the snow scene, but it had to explain the shovel in front of his left hand. Well, chickens do make a mess, and you have to clean it up. Ah, that's it! Makes sense.

What was interesting was that the left hemisphere did not say, "I don't know," which was the correct answer. It made up a post hoc answer that fit the situation. It confabulated, taking cues from what it knew and putting them together in an answer that made sense."

The storyteller is actually specialized mental machinery designed to confabulate random facts or concepts and associate them into a coherent (more or less) story. We use it to help us make sense of the world. 


Semantics is the study of the logic and meaning in linguistics concerned with how the cognitive structure of words, their relationships and their meanings are codified in your brain.

What's really, really interesting about semantics is that we can actually define a type of distance measurement between semantic concepts.

Here's an example:

What is more closely related to a dog?

A) wolf

B) pig

C) submarine

You likely chose A because a wolf is the most closely related to a dog biologically. They are both canines.

What is the next most closely related, pig or submarine? You likely chose B, pig. It's not a canine but it is an animal.

So wolf is closer to dog than pig, but pig is closer to dog than submarine. The semantic distance between dog and submarine is large, while the distance between dog and wolf is small.

Creativity in Action

Something that might not be immediately obvious from the previous section on semantics is that you most likely understood the example perfectly well. It made sense to you. That can only happen if you and I share the same semantic map in our heads

You and I share the same semantic map in our heads if we come with semantics hard-wired.

Our brains are living semantic maps filled with billions of semantic relationships.

This vast network already contains billions of creative and unusual associations and ideas, waiting to be accessed.

Requirements for Creativity

In order to be hyper-creative we need to be able to be able to weave semantic associations into new, unique, innovative and original concepts. Here's our shopping list of requirements:

  1. A semantic map
  2. An engine of association
  3. Concepts to associate

Our brains come with the first two requirements built in, but we almost always neglect to add step 3, Concepts to associate. Instead we try go somewhere quiet and think furiously. Or sit in front of a blank page or screen and wrack our brains. This, as I know all too well, doesn't work. 

Your brain is an engine of association. Like any engine, if you don't give it fuel it won't run.

Now that we know what is required to be truly creative it's pretty easy to take our scientific definition for a test drive.

Being Creative

If I present your brain with these two concepts:

  • How to Make
  • Gelato

You likely associated them into 'How to make Gelato'. That's a valid new concept, but not particularly imaginative. I could add an additional concept to add a bit more semantic space. Like this:

  • How to Make
  • Gelato
  • Flowers

That's a bit harder to associate, but that's where the juicy, juicy nuggets of creativity lie. It takes a bit of practice to get right, but once you have the hang of it, ideating using heuristics and semantics is both fast and effective... on a whole new level.

You might come up with a range of different associations based on these 3 simple concepts. Here are two I came up with:

  • Indulgent Gelato Recipes Using Flowers
  • 5 Ways to Use Flowers for Extra Indulgent Gelato

I came up with these because at the time of writing I was thinking about recipes. So, in my mind, there was a fourth, hidden concept in the above list:

  • How to Make
  • Gelato
  • Flowers
  • Recipes

These ideas might seem creative to you because you probably weren't thinking about the same things as me. By the same token, your ideas would seem creative to me because I can't immediately see the hidden concepts in your list.

Two people can look at the same concepts and associate them in completely different ways because each person is in a unique semantic state. 

One person might be fighting with their spouse. Another might be on a diet. Yet another might be thinking of a weekend away. All three of those people will bring something unique to the table when presented with the same concepts to associate. That's why brainstorming is most effective as a group.

Knowing what we know now, however, it's just as easy to brainstorm fresh new ideas as effectively as if there were 20 creative people in the room (but not in a silent, creepy way). All we need are enough semantically distinct concepts thrown at our brains, in just the right way.

It's easy enough to take your creative brain for a test-drive. Check out these creativity exercises using semantic association on ideate bot.

Creativity using semantic association takes a bit of practice (you need to get used to not trying to brute-force new ideas with your logical brain).

Once you get the hang of it your creativity levels should soar.


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