Is creativity something we're born with or something we learn from our environment? We speak to researcher Mei Tan to learn what position science has.

Ever wondered if your lack of artistic ability was due to your parents’ mathematical-minded genetics or their refusal to sign you up for after-school art classes? Or how your friend was a piano prodigy despite her dad barely being able to play a note? Some believe that hereditary factors are responsible for one family producing generations of musical virtuosos, while others suggest that our cultural and environmental surroundings play a larger role than genetics. Mei Tan, a researcher at Yale’s Child Study Center, investigates the development of cognitive skills and abilities that contribute to fostering creativity and intelligence in kids. She offers us some tips on how we can all maximize our creative capacities.

Is creativity an inherent part of human nature?

Human nature is a broad term that encompasses many qualities. Creativity is less a general or amorphous quality and more a very specific capacity to exercise a specific set of skills. Is everyone born with the potential to develop these skills? I’d say yes. How these skills are called into service and developed depend on the interaction of many factors, such as personality, the family environment and often the educational environment. Creativity emerges from a complex soup of genes and situations that change as we grow and move from one stage of life to another.

How do you scientifically define creativity?

We define it as a set of skills that allow an individual to produce something that’s both novel [original] and task-appropriate [useful]. It can be argued that originality and usefulness may vary depending on situations and cultures, so therefore a universal measuring stick for creativity would be impossible.

How does culture impact creativity’s social value?

Culture enables creativity to be recognized in society. What is recognized as creative genius is within the hands of cultural institutions, which recognize and acknowledge creativity by giving awards, calling attention to work or affixing large dollar values to various creative productions within the arts and the sciences. So culture is what ultimately defines what’s valued as creative.

Ogilvy and Mather advertising executive Tham Khai Meng once wrote, “We are all born creative. We just got it educated out of us.” Do you agree or disagree?

It’s true that in some environments, the practice of creative skills isn’t encouraged and may be actively discouraged. In some places, schools may present such environments. A child’s immediate environment can play an important role in fostering creativity, since creativity requires opportunities to explore, experience new things and create in open-ended situations. If parents can provide more opportunities for this, that would help.

What personality traits encourage creative behavior?

The literature on creativity suggests that there are at least a few personality traits that promote creative behavior, such as openness, a willingness to take risks and an ability to tolerate ambiguity and cope with novel situations.

How did your parents influence your career path?

They were both Chinese immigrants to America—my father was a mechanic and my mother took care of the family. They taught me to work hard, take opportunities, accept responsibility and eschew cowardice, less by explicit direction and more by implicit influence.

Can we become creative by putting our minds to it?

People who have a difficult time differentiating one musical note from another may have a hard time singing on key. However, there are ways of overcoming or compensating for this. The plasticity of the brain is quite amazing. Necessity is indeed an effective mother of invention—motivation and exercising a clever and concentrated approach are needed to succeed at something that’s difficult. It’s not enough to try to draw a tree every day; figuring out what makes the tree hard to draw and tackling that persistently—perhaps by finding a new way to draw it or see it differently—is more the core of the problem. We generally develop skills as we need them. And being creative is sometimes what a person needs to be.