Contradiction and Creativity Make Good Bedfellows

The ‘good bedfellow’ relationship between contradiction and creativity can be gleaned from recent neuroscience findings. I got interested in neuroscience after attending the ‘science of learning’ track at the annual Association for Talent Development (ATD) meeting in Orlando Florida last month ( I was impressed with the overall high quality of the neuroscience presentations at the ATD annual meeting and with how neuroscience findings support my 25 years of corporate experience in many ways.

This post explores the role of contradiction in the traits observed for highly creative people, in the processes used to generate highly creative solutions, and in the sources of highly creative innovation.

Let’s look first at the role of contradiction in the traits observed for highly creative people. Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman reports that highly creative people tend to have paradoxes in their personalities (see Kaufman explains that highly creative people score high on the schizotypal test ( but not so high as to be prone to psychosis. An individual who scores high on the schizotypal test has an active imagination and fantasizes a great deal. It is a contradiction to fantasize a great deal and be of sound mind, however, this is the type of personality contradiction typical of a highly creative person. Another example of a contradiction in personality traits observed for highly creative people is scoring high on both narcissm and compassion. Looking more closely at the data, it can be seen that the highly creative person scores high on the adaptive traits of narcissm such as confidence and leadership but not on the maladaptive traits of narcissm such as entitlement. The highly creative person has the ability to be flexible and adapt the personality trait when it is needed and appropriate in a given situation.

Let’s now look at the role of contradiction in the processes used to generate highly creative solutions. Let’s first look at the different brain processes involved. According to research by Baba Shiv, a marketing professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, creativity results at the intersection of two neurochemical processes in the brain ( One process is the level of the neurotransmitter serotonin which governs whether you are operating from a sense of calm and contentment or from a position of anxiety and fear. The other process is the level of dopamine which moves you from boredom or apathy to excitement and engagement. According to Shiv, the right neurochemical mix for your best creative work is a high level of both serotonin and dopamine. Shiv describes this optimal state for high creativity as ‘a condition in which you are calm but energized.’ Being both calm and energized is a state of contradiction.

The brain processes associated with creativity have been tied to a region of the brain called the Default Mode Network. According to Buckner and colleagues (see, the Default Mode Network is associated with internally-focused cognition such as imagining the future, understanding the perspectives of others, autobiographical memory retrievel, stream-of-consciousness thinking, simulations of social interactions and events, and so on. In other words, the Default Mode Network is about simulations to be able to prepare for upcoming “self-relevant” events. Therefore, a necessary trigger for creativity is to understand how the results impact you, the infamous ‘what’s in it for me.’ However, high creativity is not only about internally-focused cognition but a balance between internally focused cognition and processing some external stimuli. For example, neuroscientist Dr. Heather Berlin describes the highly creative activity of freestyle rap as a balance between unconscious flow of information from the Default Mode Network and a structured consciousness which is reaction to the audience feedback to the improv: there is a back and forth between these two states (see

The theory of creativity that Dr. Scott Barry Kaufmann advocates is called BVSR (see BVSR is an acronym for two thought processes called blind variation and selective retention. In fact, BVSR forms the basis for the ‘heartbeat’ (see in the creative problem solving process. The ‘heartbeat’ is the incorporation of both generating processes in which judgement is deferred and focusing processes in which affirmative judgment is used. The generating processes of creative problem solving come from the ‘blind variation’ portion of the theory and the focusing processes of creative problem solving come from the ‘selective retention’ portion of the theory. Specifically, blind variation is the generation of many ideas regardless of their utility value. Selective retention is the selection of ideas for further refinement and consideration of audience reception. Therefore, the creative problem solving process requires both the ability to defer judgment and to exercise judgment at the appropriate time and in the appropriate way.

Finally, let’s look at the role of contradiction in the sources of highly creative innovation. Baba Shiv ( notes that creativity is enhanced by engaging people in other disciplines and reading widely outside your field. Engaging with content outside your perview enables you to develop what Shiv calls “knowledge nodes.” Knowledge nodes are tidbits of unrelated information that can come together in random patterns to produce an unexpected solution. Shiv describes that this is how Steve Jobs came up with innovation after innovation:

His wide-ranging interests allowed for a creative lifetime of connecting the dots.

This observation is reinforced by cognitive psychologist Steven Smith of Texas A & M University who told “Forbes” magazine ( that ‘creative ideas often come from unusual combinations.’ However, creativity that leads to innovation does also require subject-matter expertise. So while one way generate unusual combinations is to put experts from unrelated fields together, there are likely perspectives that would be helpful and not helpful for creativity that will lead to viable innovation. In ‘For the Most Creative Ideas Look Outside Your Industry,’ (, Rebecca Borison sites a group of European business school professors who wrote in Harvard Business Review:

We’ve found that there’s great power in bringing together people who work in fields that are different from one another yet that are analogous on a deep structural level. Such as makeup and surgical infections, surprisingly. Or inventory management and robot games. Or malls and mines.

There are many examples of contradiction when it comes to creativity. For example, creative people tend to have contradictive personality traits that they are able to apply flexibly to different situations to optimize conditions for creativity. In addition, high levels of both serotonin for calm and dopamime for excitement in the brain lead to a highly creative state. Furthermore, the most creative tasks involve alternating between the internal cognition processes of the Default Mode Network in the brain and the external cognition processes in the brain. Consistent with the thought process components of the BVSR theory for creativity, triggering processes for both deferring judgement and exercising judgement are needed in creative problem solving. Finally, the right mix of subject-matter expertise and perspective from outside the subject-matter is needed for creativity that leads to innovation.

If you would like to learn more about managing the contradictions od creativity to help your organization or project team put creativity to work to address challenges and realize opportunities, then contact Valerie Patrick at Fulcrum Connection LLC (412-742-9675 or Ask about the first-time client offer.