Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Creative Gene, My Aunt Phyllis, and the Bergy Slouchy Hat

My aunt, C. Phyllis Olson
I had a wonderful aunt, her name was Phyllis, and she taught me to crochet when I was seven. I don't remember if I tortured her to teach me, or if she decided one afternoon to show me to get me out of her and my grandmother's hair so they could have 30 minutes peace. I suspect it was a little of both.  I didn't hold the hook correctly, and I fed the yarn with the wrong hand, (I still do both of those things to this day), but the stitches came out the way they should, so she let me happily churn out rows and rows of crocheted fabric in my own unique way. 

Phyllis spent her days as a bank executive during a time when women didn't become bank executives. She started as a teller at the Bank of Boston after she graduated from high school in 1943 and was a vice president by the time she retired. My grandmother was Boston Irish and my grandfather was Swedish, bestowing upon their descendants a Scandinavian name and a Celtic mentality. Phyllis and my father grew up in Dorchester in a triple decker (a three story apartment building) not far from where I live today. 

My Aunt Phyllis was an intelligent, perceptive, creative woman who had a spine of steel. I vividly recall the chair she always sat in, by the fireplace, in the home she shared with my grandmother. She usually had needles or a hook in hand, transforming a simple skein of yarn into a warm, wearable piece of art. For me it was magical, and it still is. Learning to knit and crochet was a way I could bond with an adored aunt, and one of my fondest memories from childhood. 

I am a lot like my aunt in many ways. My love of all things crafty is one of those. So I have often wondered if my creativity is an inherited trait. Is my addiction to yarn a result of nature or nurture? 
Me in a poncho Aunt Phyllis made
I have been spending a lot of my time thinking about the creative process. I am somewhat obsessed at the moment, and my research on the subject of creativity has led to more questions, fewer answers and a lot of reading. The study of creativity is fairly new by most standards and relatively few scientists have shown an interest in the subject. Most serious analysis in the modern era began in the 1950s and 1960s. It is easy to find self-help titles written by self-professed gurus that promise to unleash your creativity or teach you to use your untapped creativity to succeed. Typing "creativity" into the amazon search engine will confirm the plethora of books available if you find yourself creatively constipated, but there is very limited scientific material available.  

Recent economic trends and societal demands have shifted the focus on creativity. Technological advances have resulted in people having more free time and turning to artistic pursuits to fill that time. The resurgence of crafts is one example of this. At one time sewing your own clothing wasn't seen as creative, it was viewed, rightly so, as a necessity. You either made your own clothes, or, if you were wealthy, you paid someone to make your clothes, in order to survive against the elements. Now, in most cases, non-professionals design and sew clothing solely as an artistic expression.  

Fueled by social media and websites dedicated to any pastime imaginable, creativity is emerging from the shadows of science. As more businesses look for ways to meet the recreational demands of the general public, one of the results will inevitably be more funding being directed towards the study of creativity. Human beings are closer to an explanation, but there is still a lot of data to be sorted and questions to be resolved. 

Which leads to the question I posed earlier. Is my addiction to yarn a result of nature or nurture? Does a creative gene exist? Perhaps because of the constant bombardment of news regarding gene research by the scientific media, American culture has become obsessed with using genetics to explain away every behavioral trait, good, bad or indifferent. We like to think that we are the way we were coded and that there is a gene for everything. For example, it's much easier to blame our genetics for being overweight than to admit we need to eat less and exercise more. So despite the fact that it may seem like I inherited my craft skills from my aunt via a genetic link, in the opinion of some researchers, there is no scientific proof of this. According to R. Keith Sawyer in his fascinating book Explaining Creativity, the research shows that creativity is based on the same mental abilities we use in non-creative activities. It originates in the everyday cognitive process.  
The answer is not quite so simplistic however. Some recent studies demonstrate that there may be more of a hereditary link than scientists originally believed. In a superlative Notes and Theories blog post by David Cox from The Guardian Newspaper in September of 2013, he noted recent findings arguing that the explanation for creativity may indeed lie in human DNA. Kenneth Heilman,a behavioral neurologist, along with his research team at Cornell University, discovered that creative personality types had smaller corpus callosum, a network of fibers that join the two halves of the brain. Dr. Heilman suggests that this creates a critical component of divergent thinking, a process necessary for creativity. Creative individuals don't just rely on the right side of the brain, highly artistic individuals are able to successfully use both sides of the brain in their creative endeavors.  

Cox also mentions the work of Szabolcs Keri, MD, PhD, at the National Institute of Psychiatry and Addictions in Budapest. Dr. Keri states: "Creativity is related to the connectivity of large-scale brain networks. How brain areas talk to each other is critical when it comes to originality, fluency and flexibility." The way the brain connects to other areas is theorized to be more widespread in creative individuals, and genes and DNA are thought to play a major role in the formation of those pathways. The advances in technology in regards to neuroscience, and the ability to scan the brain, have lead to these breakthroughs. Researchers can visually study what areas of the brain "light up" during creative endeavors. 

In her excellent August 15, 2014 piece for The New Yorker website, What Makes a Family of Artists?, Maria Konnikova pointed out that for now, most current research studies result in a draw. The conclusion is usually that nature and nurture both play a part in the development of creativity. Most of us possess the aptitude for creativity, it just expresses itself differently in each individual. I was exposed to crafting experiences at a young age and perhaps the pathways in my brain allow me to process creative tasks more quickly than I would a calculus problem. Without my aunt's patient teaching and encouragement I may have abandoned crocheting, or possibly never discovered my talent for it. If her guidance never occurred would those pathways in my brain have become dormant? Do I have those pathways because my DNA passed on by my paternal genes was hard wired for creative thinking? 

Why does it have to come down to nature vs. nurture anyway? Could it be as simple as nature needs to be nurtured to flourish? 

If there is a gene for creativity there might be one for hockey fanaticism as well. Like my aunt I am a diehard fan of the Boston Bruins. This week's free pattern is a slouchy hat, Bergy, named for the Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron. If Phyllis was still with us she would adore Bergeron, for his skills and conduct on the ice, and his charitable accomplishments off the ice. Stitched entirely in single crochet, it is simple, stylish, versatile and unisex. It is available for download on Ravelry & Craftsy. 
Bergy Slouchy hat


1. Sawyer, R. Keith. Explaining Creativity, The Science of Human Innovation. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). 
2.  Retrieved 9/20/14
Retrieved 9/20/14


  1. That was a really fascinating and interesting read. My grandmother was a beader and she always had tins of beads and sequins in her NY apt. and brought them to me on the Cape. She worked in a bead shop, hand sewing them onto clothes that would be sold at high end boutiques in Manhattan. She would buy me souvenir beaded Native American necklaces. When I was about 2, I shoved beads up my nose so far my mom had to get help to get them out. I always remember being around beads. My mom and aunt could both draw really well....I didn't inherit that talent, but mom did rug hooking and needlepoint and I started doing needlepoint in high school.

    On top of that, as an only child raised in a rural part of town with no other children my age, I was given craft kits of all kinds for my Nov. birthday and Christmas, to occupy my time during the cold winter, and summer vacation meant activity books, new crayons/poster paints, paint by numbers and Makit Bakit. Crafts took a back seat during high school and college, but I still found time to do colouring books and recreate fave album/45 covers out of construction paper. After college I played around with tie dye, painting designs on tshirts and jackets, and beading. That only increased during the last 25 years now I'm a craftaholic with no signs of stopping. Both nature and nurture played a huge role in it.

  2. Thanks Jo. I appreciate your thoughtful comments. It's a fascinating concept, and one I hope to continue to explore on the blog. It's really interesting too when you factor in the only child angle. I'll have to see if there is data on only children being more creative than those with siblings. Thanks again for the inspiration!

  3. Hi Kristina,
    Many of us would've thrown the towel in if it hadn't been for that one special
    patient person. I'm hearing you loud and clear. My mum was so patient to teach
    me to knit at the young age of 5yrs. At one stage I'd held my pigtail for ransom
    and was going to cut it off I was that frustrated!!! lol Mum just sat there and said let's see what's going on. With that my temper calmed down and away I went. I still knit to this day.....addicted would be the correct term. lol
    Cheers, Anita.

  4. Do you know where can I find the pattern for this hat?

    1. It is on Ravelry,

  5. In the hat pattern, do you cut the yarn at each color change or carry it up?

    Thank you.