A Harvard Lecturer Explores the Psychology of Creativity

Faculty Insight

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Shelley H. Carson

Lecturer in Extension, Harvard University

Carson, an expert on psychopathology, has spent much of her career exploring the connection between creativity and behavior.

Psychopathologist Shelley H. Carson became interested in creativity when her doctoral research showed many creative individuals have mental disorders.

She began studying neuroscience to determine the connection between the two, receiving her PhD in experimental psychopathology from Harvard in 2001.

We recently sat down with Dr. Carson for a Q&A on her research and teaching, including her experience as a Harvard Extension School lecturer since 2004. Interview by Jennifer Doody.

Q: Creativity seems to be part of so many academic programs now, particularly in the business world. What can you tell us about the rise of creativity in higher education? 

This is a really interesting phenomenon. Thirty years ago, no one was talking about creativity, and now every business school offers at least one class, if not a full course of study.

We’ve always thought of creativity as being connected to the arts, and even to science, but until recently, we’ve never thought of it being connected to business. Businesses have to be creative and adaptive. Products constantly have to be renewed, refreshed, and revitalized to be current. Every year, you need a new cell phone, and they’re constantly going obsolete. You can’t produce the same old product.

There’s something deeper than just trying to be sleeker, faster, and more powerful. The rules for how corporations are structured are changing, and how we do things are changing. Look at how knowledge is delivered these days: when I go on vacation, I can bring 200 books on my kindle, rather than carrying a dozen books around.

It’s a renovation of delivery systems. Everything is being torn apart and built up again.

Q: Tell us about the courses you teach at Harvard. 

My signature course is titled Creativity: Madmen, Geniuses, and Harvard Students, and I had to fight to teach it when it began in 2002.

The psychology department at the time felt that creativity didn’t have enough science behind it, which is not at all the case today: it’s now a focus of neuroscience and behavioral science. In the course, we examine the research that already exists, we conduct research in the class based on a case study, and we research ourselves through creativity tests, personality tests, and so on. We’re our own sample tests for creativity.

We look at the relationship between intelligence and IQ, family background and creativity, genetic differences, and so on. Creative people seem to have this greater expanse of information floating around in their cognitive workplace and cognitive memory, which is also present in conditions like bipolarism.

Carson discusses the historic links between creativity and depression in this interview with Jenny Attiyeh of ThoughtCast.

Q: How has your research changed your perception of creativity? 

When I started my research, I believe you either were creative or you were not. But I’ve learned that the brain is a creativity machine. Everyone has connections and capacity for enormous creative thinking. We all have the ability. Of course there are some genetic contributions—genetics influence your level of creativity. But your genes don’t make you creative. Some people have to think a little bit harder than others, but everyone has the ability to be creative.

Q: What are some of the benefits of being creative?

There are enormous benefits. It helps you manage your emotions and reduce stress. Studies have shown that people engaged in creative activity have fewer doctor’s visits and higher quality of life experiences. Creative people use the creative outlets to reduce negative emotions.

Putting paint on canvas, or words on a paper, all help to regulate those emotions. Especially in the United States, we have a propensity to avoid dealing with negative emotions or stress. We look for a quick fix; we want to get rid of that emotion. We don’t want to ride it through, as our predecessors had always done. So we have a very low resilience to depression, for example, because we haven’t taught ourselves to deal with stress.

Q: What has your Harvard Extension School experience been like? 

Harvard Extension School students are the most fascinating people in the world. They’re there because they have a burning desire to learn.

Many of them have been out in the world doing interesting things for many years, and highly creative people are very intellectually curious. They never want to stop learning. Some are getting degrees, but a lot of students have an abiding interest in whatever subject you’re teaching.

So there’s automatic engagement, and it’s very exciting to work with them. They also bring such real-world experience to the course, and I always learn as much from them as I hope they’re learning from me. 

In addition, Extension students have been participants in my study. They can participate in the Harvard study pool, and my courses are based in part on psychological study.

So the students get to be part of cutting-edge research and learn about how it’s conducted, and they get to see the methods that are used. It provides participants for psychological researches, but also gives the student a glimpse into that research.

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