The Creativity-Empathy Revolution

While many heart-wrenching situations demand our attention, underlying our most complex problems and festering challenges is often a sheer lack of creativity or empathy. Urgent is the need to democratize creativity and develop empathy universally. This Creativity-Empathy Revolution can advance human civilization and ensure the very survival of our species.

Creativity and empathy are key attributes that distinguish us from animals and these two are correlated and codependent. Both require that you think anew. Creativity alone is ‘morally neutral’ and can be a destructive force, which has profound implications in our interconnected world where new technologies can uplift humankind (eLearning for remote villagers, for example) or destroy what exists (for instance, weaponization of Artificial Intelligence or machine learning). What makes creativity ‘positive’? Empathy—the mother of all emotions. Empathy alone can be just a feeling and no more, but in unison with creativity leads to creative expressions and innovative actions. Hope for humanity springs from creativity which can be learned and from empathy which can be taught.

The consequences of globalization have rekindled nativism that can shroud us in a synthetic empathy which masks our most heartfelt compassion reserved for our own tribe. To have empathy becomes a weakness in a dog-eat-dog world. Creativity, on the other hand, is often viewed as a domain of a few—coders in Silicon Valley, creatives on Madison Avenue, financial engineers at hedge funds, and the artists and performers on Broadway or in Hollywood. So how can we democratize creativity and develop empathy universally in our bitterly divided country and conflicted world? We must start with the children and change the fundamentals.

Children are innately creative but can grow up as noncreative adults. Some creativity experts such as Ken Robinson claim that schoolchildren are educated out of their creativity. The influence of certain developmental stages in the creative lives of children and adults is well documented in the creativity literature. Within this body of data, a so-called “4th-grade slump” in creativity has been documented by E. Paul Torrance, widely regarded as the “father of creativity.” Torrance found that when children begin school, their level of creativity is evident and often flourishing. However, by the time they reach the 4th-grade they are less likely to take risks and less playful or spontaneous than in earlier years. This creativity slump, once it makes a foothold, can linger into adulthood. College of William & Mary professor KH Kim warns that “In 'The Creativity Crisis (2011)', I reported that American creativity declined from the 1990s to 2008. My new research reveals that the Creativity Crisis has grown worse since 2008.”

Using fMRI scans of 7- to 12-year olds, University of Chicago's neuroscientist Jean Decety and his colleagues have found children to be prone to empathy. Research on the neural underpinnings of empathy suggests that we infer the emotional state of our enemy using the same neural structures as our feelings for a beloved. Empathy creates a resonance in which energy and information flow across two supposed enemies, engaging, healing, and exhilarating both. Why do children soon abandon empathy and become mean and selfish? “We live in a culture that discourages empathy. A culture that too often tells us our principal goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained. A culture where those in power too often encourage these selfish impulses,” stated then-Senator Barack Obama in his 2006 commencement address at Northwestern University.

In November 2017, US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos aptly described four areas in which student skillsets must develop to meet the challenges of the new economy: “critical-thinking skills; the ability to collaborate and work well with others, as we do in all of the rest of life, but not so much in school; the ability to communicate well both orally and in written communications; and then creativity.” Note that none of these four skillsets relate to STEM disciplines that fuel the new economy but are reductionist in nature, overlooking the nuances of creativity and empathy. Art and sport gain prominence instead because art can foster creativity and enrich self-expression while sport can build team spirit and improve teamwork.

The International Child Art Foundation (ICAF) has pioneered and practices STEAMS education which integrates STEM disciplines with Art and Sport for children’s holistic development. The benefit of this approach is not just creative education but also reduction in childhood obesity, which has become an epidemic according to the World Health Organization. ICAF’s flagship program, the Arts Olympiad, has grown into the world’s largest initiative that empowers 8- to 12-year olds to overcome the “4th-grade slump” in their creativity and to avert the obesity risk.

The Arts Olympiad winners convene on the National Mall every four years at their World Children’s Festival (WCF), an Olympics of children’s imagination. Educational workshops and training at the three-day festival instill cross-cultural and interracial empathy. Plans for the 6th WCF to be held in June 2019 include collaborative production by the world’s children of the “Children’s Earth Flag” for the first human mission to Mars.

The self-taught psychologist Erik Erikson coined the term “generativity” to denote concern for future generations. As generativity shapes your actions, it becomes your muse and provides spiritual satisfaction. Freed of the limitations of looking at the world strictly through myopic perspectives, you can finally see the full trajectory of the human experience and the arc of our collective journey from the viewpoint of the divine.

Joy Paul Guilford, an American psychologist best remembered for his distinction between divergent thinking and convergent thinking, said that “a world population of creative problem solvers should be more productive and happy as well as more self-confident and more tolerant and, therefore, more peaceful."

Help ICAF transform this dream into a reality.