Dear Dr. Sacks: A Tribute to Creativity

I was sad to learn of the illness and death of Dr. Oliver Sacks, one of the world’s greatest minds. Dr. Sacks was inspiring for many reasons, but I was always struck by the sensitivity with which he bridged science and humanity. In this post I discuss Gute, et al., (2008) and relate the work to Dr. Sacks’ autobiographical work: Uncle Tungsten. This is a long post, but I hope you enjoy it.

Gute, G., Gute, D., Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008). The early lives of highly creative persons: The influence of the complex family, Creativity Research Journal, 20(4), 343-357.

The goal of this study was to explore how families can contribute to children’s creative achievements later in life. The researchers used the Complex Family Framework, which is a dialectical model of family structure types, to provide a structure and interpretive framework for data coding and analysis.  You may also be familiar with Csikszentmihali’s work from the book Flow or Creativity, which is a qualitative study of 91 gifted/creative adults who have made a major contribution to their field. For this particular analysis, a subset of the data from the same subjects was used.  You may note some similarities between Cszikszentmihalyi’s work and that of Howard Gardner, particularly his qualitative studies of creative people and leaders. I do not think that is an accident, as the two researchers have worked together and they are affiliated through the Good Works project out of Harvard. The link below will take you to the new interactive Good Works Toolkit.

Like Kuhn, Csikszentmihalyi is a systems thinker and a Structuralist. In fact,  he states that creativity results from the interaction of a culture that contains symbolic rules, a person who brings novelty to that system, and a “field of experts” who recognize and value the potentiality of that novelty (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996, p.6).  As he states in this article, his theory of complexity is also a systems model that borrows heavily from chaos theory and the idea that there is an underlying order (structure) to all behavior, nature, and science. Systems simultaneously seek change, by taking on new parts or functions; and integration, by imposing order. In other words, the model is a “complexity dialectical”. Note again the similarities to Kuhn and other systems thinkers:

Sustained over long periods of time, the person’s talent, skill, knowledge, and expertise, if channeled and accepted by established gatekeepers, might result in ‘breakthroughs’, significant creative contributions to the culture or a specific domain…”

For this study, the researchers used the Experience Sampling Method (participant coding of subjective affective states on various dimensions in context), semi-structured interviews, and a factor analysis of the 24-item Complex Family Questionnaire. Analysis indicated that complex families had high relationships to both support and stimulation. The Complex Family Framework was applied to systematic analysis of transcripts of creative adults’ recollections of their early family experiences. The transcripts were coded on dimensions of Integration and Differentiation, and categories became more refined as they went along. For example, analysis of the patterns in the data allowed them to identify the following indicators of Integration and Differentiation:


-Supporting aptitudes and interests

-spending time together

-teaching core values

-demonstrating tolerance of failure


Coping with difficult circumstances

-Stimulating new interests

-Modeling habits of creativity

-Building a demographically and psychologically diverse family unit

The researchers provide a description of each of their nine subjects, as well as clear descriptions of what the dimensions above look like in a family context. Two themes emerged in the analysis: Warm caring parents with consistent values, and unconditional support for their children’s personal interests and aptitudes. All of these families provided both material and emotional support for their children’s interests, and economic status did not seem to be a determining factor. Many of the subjects had grown up during the Depression, and families had supported their interests in a variety of ways.

The last part of this study is a series of questions the researchers attempt to answer using the framework as a guide. Interestingly, Csikszentmihalyi used personality theory (though the model was still an analysis of simultaneous opposing forces) in his first analysis of these people, but shifts to a systems model when evaluating the data within the context of a family.

I decided to look at the writings of two creative people myself to see if I could see evidence of Integration and Differentiation . My first “subject” is John Medina:  molecular biologist , Professor of Bioengineering, and director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University. Much of his work centers on the functional application of brain research to work and school settings. Here is what he has to say about his childhood:

“I remember, when I was three years old, obtaining a sudden interest in dinosaurs. I had no idea that my mother had been waiting for it. That very day, the house began its transformation into all things Jurassic. And Triassic. And Cretaceous….and then, suddenly, I would lose interest….Extraordinarily, my mother was waiting. Just as quickly as my whim changed, the house would begin its transformation….This happened over and over again in my childhood…” (p. 272).

Even when confronted with a serious threat to her own values, his mother’s reaction is one of unconditional support:

“One day, around age 14, I declared to my mother that I was an atheist. She was a devoutly religious person, and I thought this announcement would crush her…..The next day, she sat me down by the kitchen table, a wrapped package in her lap…..She placed the package in my hands. ‘The man’s name is Freirich Nietzsche, and the book is called ‘Twilight of the Idols’, she said. ‘If you are going to be an atheist, be the best one out there’….” (p. 273).

My second subject is one of my favorite authors, Oliver Sacks. In his wonderfully creative autobiographical account of his entrance into science, he describes a complex family system that simultaneously promoted strong rules and values and unconditional support for exploration:

“I later commandeered the kitchen table to make a ‘chemical garden’ sowing a syrupy solution of sodium silicate, or water-glass, with differently colored salts of iron and copper and chromium and manganese. This produced not crystals but twisted, plantlike growths in the water-glass, distending, budding, bursting, continually reshaping themselves….” (p.68).

The kitchen table nightmare was just the beginning. Eventually Sacks collects enough equipment and dangerous substances from relatives and local suppliers to set up his own lab—in the house:

“…And so I set up a little lab of my own at home. There was an unused back room I took over, originally a laundry room, which had running water and a sink and drain and various cupboards and shelves. Conveniently, the room led out to the garden, so that if I had concocted something that caught fire, or boiled over, or emitted noxious fumes, I could rush outside with it and fling it on the lawn. The lawn soon developed charred and discolored patches, but this, my parents felt, was a small price to pay for my safety…..But seeing occasional flaming globules rushing through the air, and the general turbulence and abandon with which I did things, they were alarmed, and urged me to plan experiments and to be prepared to deal with fires and explosions…” (p. 69).

Even when Sacks did get into trouble, the response was to improve the lab rather than to curtail his activities:

“I had smelled a bit of hydrogen sulfide in Uncle Dave’s lab…..The ferrous sulfide bubbled when I poured hydrochloric acid on it, and instantly emitted a huge quantity of stinking, choking hydrogen sulfide. I threw open the doors into the garden and staggered out, feeling very queer and ill….Meanwhile, the infernal sulfide (I had made a lot of it) was still giving off clouds of toxic gas, and this soon permeated the house. My parents were, by and large, amazingly tolerant of my experiments but they insisted, at this point, on having a fume cupboard installed and on my using, for such experiments, less generous quantities of reagents..” (p. 90).

As a side note, very few of the original 91 participants from which this data was collected pointed to a special teacher as their source of inspiration. Rather, school was often referenced as something that had to be overcome, or something that got in the way of the “real” learning that occurred in their homes and communities….(Csikszentmihalyi, 1996, p. 274). What are your thoughts on creativity? Creativity in America’s schools?


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