Maybe they’re born with it…

Creativity in the crib: Babies learn languages faster and use them more creatively than adults, but where does this ability come from…?

Psychologists used to believe that humans were ’empty shells’, born without any innate creativity. But new research suggests that babies have surprising abilities to learn languages. Better than adults, in fact…

For about the last 300 years, a debate has raged involving philosophers and poets, scientists and sportsmen, mystics and artists alike about the nature of creativity and intelligence.

One view, that of adherents of a branch of 20th century psychology, known as behaviourism, is that humans are essentially ‘empty shells’, devoid of innate mental faculties or creativity and that all our personality traits are a result of learned behaviour. The famous example is that of the great Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov who trained dogs to salivate simply by associating certain stimuli (whistles or tunings forks, say) with the serving of food by doing the two simultaneously. Both then became associated in the dogs’ minds to the point where simply whistling would cause them to salivate.

Another take comes from this brilliant ten-minute short lecture by Dr. Patricia Kuhl, who contends, from a variety of studies, that creativity and intelligence seem to be inherent in us even in the crib: what goes on babies’ minds is “nothing short of rocket science”, she says. Contrary to our expectations about intelligence and age, children tend to be phenomenally better than adults at acquiring languages, an ability that declines from the age of 7.

Think about how hard is to learn even the rudiments of another language, and deploy your learning effectively in real life. It’s one thing to have an A-level in French and quite another to have the ability to read Proust or order a meal in Paris. Yet, this is effectively what babies do, much better than adults. Babies, according to Dr. Kuhl, are “little scientists” who spend much of their time “taking statistics” and processing the speech patterns of adults around them.

However, despite all these fascinating examples of creative language use and acquisition in toddlers, is the debate anywhere close to being over? Can you become a great artist by studying Picasso or Manet? Or, be a great writer by reading Shakespeare and Shelley? What about writers who wrote the most haunting prose in their second languages, like the great novelist Vladimir Nabokov? Can creativity be learned or were Picasso, Shakespeare and Mozart just born with it?

Tell us what you think about creativity below.

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