Two profile outlines of humans with scientific and artistic images overlaid.
Two profile outlines of humans with scientific and artistic images overlaid

Science needs creativity

The pursuit of scientific knowledge relies on analytical thinking, but creativity also plays an essential role.

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Test tubes, white coats, microscopes... Many of the objects associated with science evoke an image of a world that is analytical and logical, with scientists following an orderly process to collect and examine data and make conclusions. However, this cliché perception leaves out a crucial scientific ingredient that emerges from within the grooves of a scientist’s mind: creativity. 

Creative thinking is more commonly associated with the arts, and is underappreciated in science. In today’s fast-paced research environment, success is increasingly measured in quantity over quality: the amount of data and number of papers, grants, citations, and so forth. The call to churn out more and more work isn’t always conducive to a highly creative environment. Yet, prioritizing creativity can itself lead to tangible advances. Many of the most famous scientific discoveries never would have happened without it.

Einstein’s theory of relativity came about through a series of thought experiments in which he pushed the boundaries on new ways to consider time and space. The discovery itself was borne out of creative thinking, specifically a type that has been coined as “janusian thinking” by Albert Rothenberg, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School who studies the creative process. The theory describes the creative psychological process in which someone actively and intentionally conceives ideas that are opposite to one other at the same time (1). Later in life, Einstein praised the importance of thinking creatively in science. In 1931, he wrote, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research” (2).

The invention of the stethoscope offers another example of the payoffs of creativity. In 1816, the physician Rene Theophile Hyacinthe Laënnec came up with the idea to roll up a sheet of paper and place it on a patient’s heart. He thought of the idea by recalling a game he had recently observed where children sent sounds to one another across a long tube of wood (3).

Today, fostering creativity in the lab may require decreasing stress and workloads. A recent survey found that 70 percent of scientists feel stressed on an average work day (4). Unfortunately, studies show that stress can decrease creative thinking processes like cognitive flexibility (5). However, scientists may not need to set aside hours of free time to encourage creative thinking. Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara showed that working on a nondemanding task and letting the mind wander can lead to more creative solutions when someone returns to the original task (6). University of Pennsylvania researchers showed a similar effect after participants procrastinated a task by watching funny videos (7). 

These results may relate to an incubation period of the creative thinking process where the brain may process the task subconsciously (8). So, taking a break or allowing the mind to wander during a task may lead to a scientific breakthrough.


  1. Rothenberg, A. Einstein, Bohr, and Creative Thinking in Science. Hist Sci  25, 147–166 (1987).
  2. Einstein, A. & Shaw, G. B. Einstein on Cosmic Religion and Other Opinions and Aphorisms. (Dover Publications, 2012).
  3. Roguin, A. Rene Theophile Hyacinthe Laënnec (1781–1826): The Man Behind the Stethoscope. Clin Med Res  4, 230–235 (2006).
  4. Understanding Research Culture: What ... | Wellcome Open Research. at <>
  5. Vartanian, O., Saint, S. A., Herz, N. & Suedfeld, P. The Creative Brain Under Stress: Considerations for Performance in Extreme Environments. Frontiers in Psychology  11, (2020).
  6. Baird, B. et al. Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation. Psychol Sci  23, 1117–1122 (2012).
  7. Shin, J. & Grant, A. M. When Putting Work Off Pays Off: The Curvilinear Relationship between Procrastination and Creativity. AMJ  64, 772–798 (2021).
  8. Ritter, S. M. & Dijksterhuis, A. Creativity—the unconscious foundations of the incubation period. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience  8, (2014).

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Many famous breakthroughs came about through creative thinking.
Top Image:
Many famous breakthroughs came about through creative thinking.
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