What science can tell us about the relationship between art, society and the human mind.

By Judith Mildner

Artists use their creative ability to transform an idea into a painting, photograph, song or other artwork. When we look at the resulting piece, we can do more than appreciate the aesthetics and the skill of the artist. We are also able to find meaning in the artwork, perhaps reconstructing the original idea that inspired the artist. In a sense, we attempt to read the artist’s emotions and thoughts through art. While it is easy to recognize the creativity in creating art, it may be less obvious that this interpretation of a work of art is also a creative process.

Psychologists who study creativity have made the distinction between the kind of creativity that’s celebrated in art, music, and science and the kind of creativity that people apply in their everyday lives [1]. Some instances of creativity are easy to recognize: painting a picture, brainstorming solutions to a problem at work, combining foods into a new recipe. Other creative processes are less obvious. For instance, we can use creativity to manage our emotions. In an anger-inducing situation, such as a friend breaking a promise or a roommate not cleaning up after themselves, using creativity to come up with different interpretations of the situation can make people feel less frustrated [2]. There are more ways to be creative than most people realize.

"When looking at a work of art, you need to move beyond the here-and-now, possibly even across different cultural or historical contexts, to understand what it is expressing."

Creativity is often thought of as a quality that must exist for its own sake, but research shows that it serves as a foundation of our social interactions. Creativity allows people to vividly imagine even the things that are far removed from their lived experience, such as what life will be like in 100 years, or what is going on in the mind of a famous person they have never met [3]. This ability to mentally travel away from the present reality could be key to understanding our own thoughts and feelings as well as understanding the thoughts and feelings of other people. When we are trying to predict how a friend will react to a piece of bad news, we may attempt to simulate how they are feeling now and come up with many possible reactions to the news, allowing us to present it in the most tactful way. In this manner, creativity can be useful in social situations to figure out what another person may be thinking or feeling, allowing for more empathy [4].

Looking at a piece of art could elicit a similar creative process. Much like a friend’s facial expression or body language, although much more ambiguous, art expresses emotions and thoughts. When looking at a work of art, you need to move beyond the here-and-now, possibly even across different cultural or historical contexts, to understand what it is expressing. This process engages your creativity. The more creatively you think about this, the more possible interpretations you can come up with, making it more likely that you will find one that resonates with you. The more creatively you think, the easier it will be for you to understand and discuss the interpretations of others who look at the same work. Creativity not only drives artists to create but also helps consumers to experience and appreciate art. The artist’s creativity may have helped create the artwork hanging on the wall in a museum or in your home, but your own creativity helps create that sense of connection you feel with the artist.


  1. Kaufman, J. C., & Beghetto, R. A. (2009). Beyond big and little: The four c model of creativity. Review of general psychology, 13(1), 1-12.
  2. Weber, H., Loureiro de Assunção, V., Martin, C., Westmeyer, H., & Geisler, F. C. (2014). Reappraisal inventiveness: The ability to create different reappraisals of critical situations. Cognition & emotion, 28(2), 345-360.
  3. Meyer, M. L., Hershfield, H. E., Waytz, A. G., Mildner, J. N., & Tamir, D. I. (2019). Creative expertise is associated with transcending the here and now. Journal of personality and social psychology, 116(4), 483.
  4. Mildner, J. N., & Tamir, D. I. (in preparation) Social creativity: Divergent thinking in social cognition.

Judith Mildner is a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology at Princeton University. She studies spontaneous thoughts, like mind wandering and creativity, and their relation to the social world.


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