Are you more creative abroad?

Is it true that artists, composers and writers who live abroad are more creative?  There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence for it:  Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso, Van Gogh, Gaugin, Stravinsky, Nabokov…  The list just goes on and on.  And of course it’s received wisdom that travel broadens the mind.   A  recent article by Maddux and Galinsky in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology goes beyond individual examples to examine five broader and more systematic studies looking at the link between living abroad and creativity.

Their conclusion is that actually living for extended periods of time in another country and having to adapt to a new culture certainly enhances the ability to ‘think outside the box’, to find novel approaches and solutions to problems, to notice and tolerate differences, to create new insights.  All of these elements are important in the creative process, going far beyond merely artistic creativity.

[You may also like to look at the caveats about the validity of some of these studies posted by other scientists, for example: http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2009/05/creativity_and_living_abroad.php ]

I think these results will not hugely surprise anyone or change your world view dramatically.  It kind of makes intuitive sense, doesn’t it?   The more diversity you experience, the more you are confronted with different values and languages, the richer your personal repository of sounds and pictures with which to decorate your new canvas.  Certainly most global nomads are excited and happy about these findings.  See for instance http://www.articles.totallyexpat.com/living-abroad-proven-to-improve-creativity/

What I find interesting is that the authors claim you do not gain this richness of experience merely through travelling.  This is where I would like to see more research.  Can it be true that superficial impressions, no matter how strong for sensitive artistic types, are not as valuable?  In other words, it’s not all about motion and change, but also about stopping and resting?  Again, an attractive thought, confirming what many of us expats believe to be true.

And yet, I wonder if a well-travelled artist might not achieve a more profound understanding of a particular culture than someone who has lived there a while but never made an effort to understand, connect and integrate.  I can think of some expats who only saw what they expected to find in their host countries.  Does that sound like anyone you know?

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