Is Copying What One Sees Analogous to Creativity? An Insight Using Neuroscience and the Personal Side of Creativity

Evolution of man: Not necessarily a “larger brain” but a more efficient brain. Surface area is greater in a brain with more “wrinkles” as seen here when looking at the present day human (right side). This increased surface area allowed for greater neuron density and problem solving, it also made way for the birth of creativity.
Relief Sculpture of a Horse (15,000 BCE) A masterpiece of Franco-Cantabrian cave art, from the Magdalenian period. It is now in the collection of the Musee d’Archeologie Nationale, Paris, France.

One would argue that the ability for abstract thought, namely creativity, is what distinguishes humans from all other species. Evolution of man from homo-erectus to our present state of superior mental ability was possible via a specialized brain difference. This difference was increased complex cognition and social interactions, observed in a larger prefrontal cortex and a “wrinklier brain”. What this meant was greater ability to think and develop subsistence activities, which ultimately created free time.  With more time to think and ponder about the world around them, human kind saw the birth of creative thought, some paleontologists believe as early as 40,000-10,000 BCE, with the first art pieces being made 700,000 years ago!  This ability to create beyond what daily life chores demanded resulted in an explosion of creative pursuits, which ultimately lead to flourishing civilizations.

Greater cognitive capacity = subsistence living, which resulted in creative pursuits during times of rest

Creativity is seen everywhere in our daily lives, take the screen you are looking right now; no doubt developed by very creative people. Creative thinking has been linked to many great inventions such as Einstein’s theory of relativity or Thomas Edison’s development of electronic communication. These individuals had the capacity for combining multiple thoughts and imagination to make breakthroughs. This “thinking outside the box” requires the brain to work in novel ways, even deviating from the typical patterns seen in brain science research.

Combining dyed antique papers to create abstract art that tells a narrative story. Two ideas put together in a novel way. Artist: Melissa Burgher For more information on this piece see Reclaimed Memories

Creativity is defined as the ability to make something that is both novel and meaningful. In art it becomes more complex, as novel can be the combinations of different elements or the “style” that is particular to that artist. However, for today’s purposes I want to just focus on creativity. If the parameters for creativity are meaningfulness and novelty, then one would surmise that merely replicating photos to make “art” is not inherently creative. It may be beautiful, aesthetic yes, but not creative or outside the box. This is not meant to be a jab at the realist artist, I myself often paint realistically. However, I think it is important for people to understand how art that is somehow “different” is exceptional to the case of mere replication of photos. Moreover, I am not saying making strange things and proclaiming its art makes it art. Or that making art and being weird or different for the sake of being weird or different does not make someone an artist. What makes them creative is the ability to combine different elements to make something novel. This ability to break the rules and challenge mainstream thinking helps progress design in many industries, not just art. The novice art collector will all too often fall into buying realistic art, because they understand it and its more comfortable to spend money on something we understand. It is also aesthetically appealing, falling into the realm of home decor, but it may not offer much as a conversation piece or prove to be a good investment.

Oil painting – from a photo (replication/realism i.e. copying) Artist: Melissa Burgher

Of course there is a great level of skill involved in copying, but it is not the same as creating. Scientists have found that people who reproduce (copy) imagery have superior visual memory, ability to draw proportions and great attention to detail (Chamberlain, Riley, McManus, Rankin, & Brunswick, 2011). However, the creative mind is exceptionally different in how it works.


Figure A: Pianists asked to play song using specific keys; dorsal pre-motor area and the pre-supplementary motor area light up (executive functions). Figure B: Pianists asked to improvise with emotions, bottom up process involving both the executive and default processes (front and hind brain for simplicity purposes) (Beaty, Benedek, Silvia, Schacter, 2016)

In the last few years there has been an explosion of research into the creative brain and its distinct patterns. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) researchers have found those who think creatively use both their default and executive control networks. What makes this interesting is that these brain networks are antagonistic, they rarely work at the same time, with the exception of creative thought (Beaty, Benedek, Silvia, Schacter, 2016). Sorry, what!?!? That’s correct, creativity is produced in a rather unique way! Your default network is the resting state of your brain, what I call your day dreaming brain. The executive network is involved in selecting and modifying behaviors that facilitate and maintain goals. These processes come together and voilà! Your thinking brain helps direct your dreaming brain, beautiful and strange things ensue. Crazy and magical!

Salvador Dali, known for being extreme and unpredictable. Marketing ploy, or personality?

Moreover, the personalities of creative artists differ from the general population in one of the big five personality traits: Openness to experience. People with this trait have active imagination (fantasy), attentiveness to inner feelings, aesthetic sensitivity, preference for variety and intellectual curiosity. Let me guess, you now have an image of the eccentric over emotional artist in your mind? Here’s a picture of Dali….


Creative people also have greater cognitive flexibility, the ability to simultaneously think about multiple concepts at once. So yes, creative people often appear to be day dreaming when you are talking to them but can still often grasp what you are saying, ask my boyfriend, he knows this all too well!


Science & Charity, painted by 15 year old Picasso in 1897

Just like their art, the brains of the creative artist and the replicating artist are vastly different. The majority of creatives often start out as the replica artist to understand shading, perspective, tones etc. What happens is the creative person likes novelty, so why keep copying photo’s? Lets make it different! Even Picasso studied classical art and painted realistically. It wasn’t till after his formal training he allowed his creative mind to explode into the abstract works we know today.


Picasso’s Guernica, completed in 1937

RELATED: What You Pay For When You Buy Art

I challenge artists and buyers to step outside the comfortable realm of realism. Speak to artists about their process, what materials did they use, how did they develop their concept, what is the message? How is this a novel piece and not just another paint from a photo painting?

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As always, from your (not so) struggling artist,

Melissa Burgher xo


Me and my fellow SAGA board members at The Surrey Art Gallery. I have some very exiting news coming about future art programming. Stay tuned!






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