"Why are some individuals able to generate outstanding creative products despite repeated, frustrating failures?" asks a research team led by Sergio Agnoli of the Marconi Institute for Creativity in Italy. The answer, they propose, lies in "how people experience and regulate their emotions."
Their research suggests that, while many people associate imaginative genius with emotional problems, higher creativity is, in fact, linked to the sort of emotional self-awareness that allows artists and other innovators to ride the ups and downs of the creative process.
The study, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, featured 42 university undergraduates. They began by filling out a questionnaire designed to discern their baseline level of emotional intelligence, commonly defined as the ability to identify and manage emotions (both your own and those of others).
It included such statements as "Expressing my emotions with words is not a problem for me"; "I often find it difficult to see things from another person's viewpoint"; and "On the whole, I'm able to deal with stress." Participants noted on a seven-point scale the degree to which each statement applied to their own lives.
They then took a 35- to 40-minute test in which they were asked to think up as many uses as possible for the common items pictured on a computer screen. Once they came up with as many as they could for one object, they pressed a button and another appeared; they worked their way through 15 items altogether.
The researchers threw in two wrenches to evaluate the effects of emotional intelligence. To discover the participants' distractibility, they placed other common objects on the periphery of the screen, effectively encircling the target object. They used eye-tracking software to record how often each participant glanced at those irrelevant objects.
On top of that, a message periodically flashed on the screen informing participants that the creativity of their answers was either low or high. (These notices were pre-programmed and did not reflect the actual quality of their work.)
The researchers found that, for participants who were under stress—that is, those told their creativity was weak—looking at the peripheral objects had a dramatically different impact, depending on one's level of emotional intelligence.
For those who were low in emotional intelligence, the glancing-around activity "was associated with a decrease in creative performance, both in the number and originality of participants' responses." But for those high in emotional intelligence, the opposite proved true: Their creativity increased.
For them, "irrelevant information did not take cognitive resources away from the thinking process," the researchers report. Rather, they utilized their presence to form "a larger pool of associations" that they could draw upon in their quest for creative uses.
This suggests seemingly irrelevant stimuli can benefit the creative process—but only if you have the emotional intelligence to treat them as potentially helpful, and incorporate them into your thinking. If you are flustered by the prospect of failure, this becomes much more difficult, as such information is perceived as an irritating distraction rather than something you might be able to build upon.
Agnoli and his colleagues point out that Vincent van Gogh created brilliant art in the wake of many missteps and failures. They write that, while we can't measure the master's level of emotional intelligence, "he was able to extract energy from deep frustration to produce some of the most beautiful works of art our world has known."
Looking up to a sky filled with a seemingly infinite number of stars, he wasn't unsettled. He was inspired.