In this interview, Agustin Fuentes, a University of Notre Dame anthropologist and author of The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional, will talk about how to spark creative intelligence in your children and how parents create responsive environments that allow their children to develop their own unique gifts and talents.
In this interview, you will learn:
- Nature or nurture: Are we born creative?
- How to spark creativity in your child
- What are the constraints to creativity?
- How your culture affects brain development and creativity
- Is potential limited? How much is DNA and social conditioning
- Does use of technology affect your ability to be creative
- Tips to bring out your child’s best and how spark your their creativity and imagination
Full Interview Transcript
Dr. Agustin Fuentes, Professor of Anthropology, University of Notre Dame
Interviewer: Agustin, it’s so great to have you. I was so intrigued by your book The Creative Spark. It is such a big word in education and just the future. creativity is so important so I want to ask you, are people just born creative or is it something that you learn?
Agustin: It’s both. We’re all born with the incredible capacity for creativity. Being human imbues us with this capacity to look at the way the world is, to imagine some other possibility and to make it happen or to at least try to, so we all have the sort of neurobiology, the behaviour, the capacity to do that, but then how we do it, the way we do it, the way we think about it, that’s learned. So it’s both part of us and part we brought out by the way we’re brought up.
Interviewer: when you have a very young child, what are some things that you can do to be more creative?
Agustin: Well, we all have this incredible capacity and it’s sort of beaten out of us as we grow up so I think one of the important things is to facilitate children interaction and engagement but also as adults, to not stop playing and imagining and doing things. We tend to let the stress of the world get to us, so a couple things we can do is hang out with kids sometimes, see what they’re doing but also as adults don’t watch the 24 hour news cycle. Detach yourself every now and then, make a nice meal, hang out with people, do things that let us and let our imaginations run free. That can be really important.
Interviewer: how important is it for people to just to be able to believe that they can create the world that they want to live in?
Agustin: Well, hope is incredibly important and imagination is a big part of hope. We’re all under different kinds of constraints but think about kids. When you tell a kid you can’t do this, their immediate response isn’t usually, “,Oh I can’t do that, it is to try to sort of figure out some way around it, and we should think about creativity in that light. We are all going to be constrained, there is always going to be things pushing against our capacity to sort of live in the best of all possible worlds, but we want to try to do that. We want to imagine possibilities and try to create opportunities in our lives to do that, so there are things that structure and restrain our imagination but that doesn’t mean we should skimp on our imagination.
Interviewer: What kinds of things structure and skimp your imagination?
Agustin: Just think about our lives. We have to work. You need to make a living. You need to pay rent. You need to go and shop for food. You need to take care of your kids. You need to sort of maintain relationships. All of those things are sort of structuring our daily lives, but all of those things too are outlets for creativity. Our relationships with other people are collaborations. Interacting with kids, thinking about how we shop for food, and what we buy and what we cook, how we eat, all of those things are actually expressions or potential expressions of creativity. We don’t have to let the day to day repetition dampen down or push down our ability to create.
Interviewer: So going on that, I mean is potential unlimited? Is it DNA or is it environment? How much is there?
Agustin: We are constrained by a lot of things, so a lot of people kind of think well it’s in my genes, it’s in my DNA, I’m not creative at all. That person is really creative. It depends on what you mean, so obviously there’s variation biologically between individuals, but how that relates to creativity and imagination is hugely variable so we don’t know. It’s not really helpful to think is it in my genes or in my culture. It’s much better to think what do I want to do? How can I do it? What tools do I have? What friends do I have? What can I do in my life with what I have to make something creative, to expand, to try new things or new opportunities?
We have a lot of potential for that, for example I love music. I cannot play the guitar. I have tried years and years and years of lessons and everything but I don’t know what it is, I can’t play guitar. I can listen to guitar music. I can read music and I can understand it, I just can’t play guitar. That doesn’t mean I’m not creative. I have other outlets to do that. Does that make sense?
The culture and the brain development, can you tell me a little bit about how that affects the brain development and creativity in different kinds of culture and environment?
Agustin: Yes, this is one of these really important, wonderful, amazing bits of science but also really scary parts of science. So one thing that’s incredible about humans is that we’re born with only about 40 percent or less of our brain developed, so the brain of an adult is 60-65 percent larger than the brain of the new-born. No other mammal, no other animal grows that much outside of the mom so that’s interesting, and the reason is it’s really hard to be human. It takes a lot of work to figure out how to do this and so your brain is growing, and as you grow the brain is taking everything – all the senses in constantly and reshaping itself, and so let’s just think about the frontal lobes, the front part of the brain, and this is something where humans have more of it than any other animal out there, and the front part of the brain is how you do sort of rational thought, planning for the future, making complex decisions. The whole brain is part of that but this area is where that’s focused.
As you develop things like exposure to the world, hearing different languages, seeing different kinds of faces facilitates particular kinds of patterns, but the flip side to that is kids who don’t get to see much, kids who don’t have good diets, kids who receive extreme stress, all are impacted in the way the brain grows, so it’s not like you can’t fix it but we know that extreme poverty, extreme stress, discrimination, racism and bias all actually shapes and restrict the way the brain grows, and we talk about what is culture do, remember that our brain is a cultural organ. What we experience in the world shapes the way we grow and see the world so I think that’s really important.
Agustin: It’s so amazing – something that’s really important relative to sort of the brain and cultural and all that is the way I like to frame it. Most people talk about you are what you eat. Think about what you put in your body and it sort of affects the way your body works and that’s fascinating. That’s a whole other discussion but what’s equally important is we are who we meet. Those people who we are around, who we interact with…
I love that
Agustin: That is a large part of what shapes us, who we are. So exposure to things help us understand who we are and facilitate the way our brains and bodies grow.
Interviewer: Yes, that is really interesting. I love that too. All of this is so fascinating I think.
Kelly:Are you born with a blank slate? Can you make yourself as intelligent as your environment, or is it determined by genes?
Agustin: Yes and no. We all have different genetic backgrounds and different biologies, and those interact with different environments growing up, so it’s not is it biology or culture? Nature or nurture? Let’s get rid of that. It’s always those two things all mixed up, so what we want to think about is not am I limited by my genes or am I limited by my environment, but what potentials do I have? What can I do? So yes, there’s variation at birth in peoples’ capacity for certain kinds of creative or imaginary activity, but we don’t know what those are in most cases because our environments vary so much and so we want to take advantage of whatever we can.
Get a whole bunch of kids in a room together and give them finger paints and let them go crazy. Different kids will do different things in different ways. That doesn’t mean is one necessarily better than the other. One might do a beautiful painting, the other might do this mess of colour and sound. Another one might do a bunch of stick figures, but what were they trying to do? What do they want to do? How are they creating? What does it mean to them? Those are the better questions I think than is it all in my genes or my culture? More like what do we do and how can we maximize the opportunity to be creative?
Kelly: So how do you maximize that for somebody? You say they have all these different ways of doing it.
Agustin: Well, one of the things that I always say is that we have this real constraint. We have to protect kids and take care of them, but we also want them to push boundaries and to sort of think about exploration and creation and so providing opportunities for what we used to call arts and crafts, providing people the opportunity to do stuff with their hands and their minds, to build stuff, to mess with stuff, to get dirty, to paint, to play, to imagine a whole new world. I think those are really important things, so I’m not at all against video games. I’m not at all against technology and interactions, but how and why do we use them? What’s going on? I think reading books is incredible. Playing video games can be incredible, but there shouldn’t be instead of playing in the mud or finger painting or building a giant Lego landscape. All of those things I think are important but the balance is what’s hard.
Interviewer: That was one of my questions. Do you think that all this technology and you see so many kids like 4 year old in their phones, do you think that squelches the development of creativity? Or what are your views on the technology?
Agustin: It depends on what they’re doing. Now if you’re just only paying attention to your screen and not to what’s around you, that inhibits your creativity because that reshapes the way in which you see the world and what you learn. So by not looking at what’s around you, you don’t actually take advantage and your brain doesn’t sort of bring in all those things and doesn’t grow in the same way. However a lot of kids take the new screen, the smartphone as just part of their environment, so it’s not necessarily negative. Too much screen time is bad. We know that from when we were kids and we just wanted to watch TV all day. That’s not a good thing, but as part of a mixed bag of creative expression of exposure, that’s not that bad because on these smartphones now you can gain access to really cool animations, to all sorts of videos, to all sorts of information so if it’s used in a way that helps you extend into the world, that’s good. If it’s used as a way to cut you off from the world, I would argue that’s damaging to your potential for creativity and also your ability to get along with other people.
Interviewer: So at that younger age is hard to sort of get them to distinguish, maybe until they are older.
Agustin: But it’s also I think what’s amazing when you see 4, 5 year olds with iPhones doing more things than I can figure out and okay, let’s not sell them short. They’re really smart. They are consumers of the different media and manipulation of the screens in ways that many of us who didn’t grow up with these sort of interfaces are, and so let’s not assume this is bad but let’s actually mediate and moderate how much of it they rely on. Don’t just give one of these things to a kid to babysit them. Let the kid it to explore stuff to think through.
Interviewer: I don’t know if you have kids, what kinds of things and we kind of heard after a little bit, but what would you do to spark that?
Agustin: I do not have kids but I have nieces and nephews and teach a lot. One thing that’s incredible that we don’t take enough advantage of, if possible, if you are able to go to parks. You’re in Marin. Some of the most beautiful landscapes are just right there, all around you. Even spending a little bit of time outside watching that fog roll in across from the ocean and over the hills. the whole idea of seeing the world as dynamic, as moving, as sort of different types of ecology and landscapes, that’s inspirational, but even in cities, moving around cities, looking at the different kinds of store fronts. So what I’m saying is being outside and moving through landscapes, whether it’s urban or rural, park or waterfront, all of those things are really important.
So that’s one area because that’s ammunition for the brain. Seeing the world around you is ammunition. Interacting with different kinds of people, not only being around the same people all the time. That’s actually really important for skills for interaction but also just to see what people look like, how they act, how they speak. That again is food for the brain. Our brain expands and lays down those memories, so those things are good.
Another thing I think is really important is adventuresome eating, trying every now and then if you’re lucky enough to be able to go to Florida or you can cook or get the foods, try to introduce kids to some interesting, different kinds of foods and let them participate in meal creation. A lot of kids really enjoy that and the creativity in cooking is really amazing, so there’s many, many different ways and you can see all different sorts of ways you can do this, but my bottom line is creativity in childhood is fostered by experience, so the more kinds of things kids can interact with and see, the more they can take on board for future in life they can draw on when they’re challenged and need to sort of draw on their imagination to deal with something that they face.
Interviewer: I love that.
Interviewer: Is there anything else that you want to add?
[16:00] Agustin: I think one of the things that drives me crazy in conversations about creativity and imagination, people are always like ‘oh, I’m not a creative type. that’s not me’ and so one of the things real creative genius are famous artists, writers, physicists and usually guys – which is always a weird thing – and I had to tell people ‘wait a minute. Think about the single mom who makes the pay check last till the end of the month. Think about the car mechanic who you bring in your Volvo and he’s like Man! Okay, I think I can figure this out.’ That’s really creative. Think about when you get home and you’re starving and you have got a can of beans, some pasta, a bell pepper and a tomato, and you figure something out and create a meal, my bottom line here is that don’t sell yourself short!
Humans are human because of our ability to imagine, to create, and to try to change the world and I think we have much more capacity, every one of us than we give ourselves credit for and people self-censor and so my sort of pitch then is think about all the creativity you’ve expressed in your life and double down on that. Use that when you can. Don’t deny yourself the opportunities to imagine and to at least try to make things better.
[17:17] Interviewer: That is such an important message to especially just the youngest kids to know that they cannot have limitations on them to be able to create.
[17:28] Agustin:Yes. The whole idea for kids, they are constantly ‘that kid draws better than me.’ I can’t draw well at all like the guitar but I draw better than I play guitar, but I love to do comic books and doing comic books as a child writing just whole panels and stories, they looked horrible but it helped me think about and learn about story-telling, which is a large part of what I do as a professor. I research a bunch of stuff and then narrate it and describe it and so that’s creativity. There’s many, many ways to be creative. It’s not all about some famous guy painting a cool picture.
[18:02] Interviewer: This was so interesting and such a great topic and I really appreciate you taking time out of your super busy schedule
[18:20] Agustin: I love to hear examples of peoples’ creativity so I’m always available for contact. If people read the book and want to give me some feedback on it, I appreciate it. [email protected], also follow me on Twitter at @anthrofuentes. I tweet a lot of examples of creativity, and also a bunch of science and accessible public knowledge that people can use when you want to think about this so look for me out there, and I look to hear from readers because every time I do research or publish something, I actually want to know the people who are reading it and what they think about it, whether they like it or not. Otherwise, it’s just out into the vacuum and we can’t make things better the next time round.
About Agustin Fuentes
Agustín Fuentes, trained in Zoology and Anthropology, is the Edmund P. Joyce C.S.C. Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. His research delves into the how and why of being human. Ranging from chasing monkeys in jungles and cities, to exploring the lives of our evolutionary ancestors, to examining what people actually do across the globe, Professor Fuentes is interested in both the big questions and the small details of what makes humans and our closest relatives tick. He has published more than 150 peer reviewed articles and chapters, authored or edited 19 books and a three-volume encyclopedia, and conducted research across four continents and two-million years of human history. His current explorations include the roles of creativity and imagination in human evolution, multispecies anthropology, evolutionary theory, and the structures of race and racism. Fuentes is an active public scientist, a well-known blogger and lecturer, and a writer and explore for National Geographic. Fuentes’ recent books include “Race, Monogamy, and other lies they told you: busting myths about human nature” (U of California), “Conversations on Human Nature(s)” (Routledge) and “The Creative Spark: how imagination made humans exceptional" (Dutton).
Fuentes examines human evolution from several perspectives, and his research sheds light on some of the most common misconceptions about human nature, specifically in the areas of race, sex and aggression. He is the author of “Evolution of Human Behavior,” which examines how and why humans evolved behaviorally, and “Health, Risk and Adversity,” which provides a comparative approach to the analysis of health disparities and human adaptability and focuses on the pathways that lead to unequal health outcomes.