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Q&A With Dr. Shelley Carson

Guitarists (36″ x 36″) by Pierro Manrique, acrylic painting

We interviewed Dr. Shelley Carson, a psychopathologist, a professor at Harvard University, and author of Your Creative Brain to discuss the unifying creativity encoded into the human brain.

In this special Q&A, we explore the relationship between aging and creativity and the increasing desire to remain grounded in the physical world. 

Tell me a bit about yourself and Your Creative Brain. How did you begin get started in studying the relationship between psychology and creativity?

I am actually a psychopathologist (one who studies mental illness) by training. I originally became interested in the field of creativity by reading biographies of creative luminaries and noticing that many had struggles with inner demons – including artists such as van Gogh, Michelangelo, Jackson Pollack, writers like Hemingway and Virginia Woolf, and composers such as Robert Schumann, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky. 

I wanted to know if there were aspects of mental illness that enhanced creative work, and that led me to become interested in the neuroscience of creativity. I truly believe, after over 20 years of studying the brain and creativity, that we are all in possession of a wonderful creativity machine – our amazing human brains! 

The book Your Creative Brain is my effort to explain what we know about creativity and the brain (or knew about it in 2010 when I wrote the book – we continue to learn more about this of course!) and how we can use this knowledge to enhance our natural creative endowments.

Many of the artists in our gallery are in their 60s and 70s. From your research, have you found that there is any connection between age, psychology, and creativity?

There are a number of reasons that the 60s and 70s are a fertile time in the lifespan for the artist. First, of course, is the time element itself. A creative individual in their 60s and 70s at last has leisure time to devote to exploration of the domain and honing their skills – without the daily responsibilities of office deadlines and childrearing. Throughout the course of history, we have seen that cultures and individuals with leisure time are those that produce the most creative work.

Second, allow me to offer my definition of creativity. It is the ability to combine elements (or bits of information that may be stored in your unique repository of memories, knowledge, skills, and experiences) in novel or original ways to produce ideas or products that are useful or in some way adaptive. The artist in his or her 60s and 70s has an increased store of what I refer to as “bits of information.” This is crystalized intelligence or wisdom that can be embedded into artwork often without conscious intent, but that adds meaning and depth to the work that you just don’t see with the younger artist.

Thus, in my opinion, what the artist in their 60s or 70s “sees” when they create work has more richness, and the work embodies more of the human experience.

We have found that our collectors typically buy UGallery art for emotional fulfillment, rather than investment opportunities. In what ways does keeping art around the home or office benefit the creativity and mental health of viewers?

Art is a way that we are able to share something of the human experience with others. When we view art, we are not just looking at color and form, but at the interpretation of another human of some facet of our existence. 

Viewing art is a shared connection with the subject matter and with the artist. Art is a way that we communicate with each other – sometimes across centuries, across continents, and across ideologies to find that shared element of human experience. We thrive on those connections with others, even when we do not consciously think about them or recognize them.

Look But Still Leap (16“ x 16“) by Gwen Gunter, acrylic painting

At UGallery, we have a hypothesis that the rise of sales and popularity of original art is a reaction to an increasingly digital and virtual world. Do you think there is any truth behind our theory? 

Yes. And thank you for bringing that to my attention. I think a lot about the effects of the digital world on creativity, but this is one aspect that I hadn’t thought about until you asked.

As our interactions with others become more digital and virtual, we will naturally seek out, perhaps crave, ways to connect with others through physical objects and experiences. Having an original artwork in our home or office is one way to make that connection - with the artist who is sharing their interpretation of some corner of existence with us in a personal way.

Special thanks to Shelley Carson!