Monday, October 3, 2011

Animals and Creativity: Can Animals Be Creative?

This Wednesday is a poster presentation on a selected topic in my Theories of Creativity class. Instead of going my normal route and creating a beautiful, glitter-decorated poster, I have decided to make a podcast on my topic. I chose to learn and present information about animals and creativity.

You can download my podcast for free here. [I know it looks sketchy, but blogger doesn't host mp3 files. It's totally safe.]

Below is the transcript from the podcast. Enjoy!

Hi this is Katie Bush and today we are asking the question, “are animals creative”?

This seems to be a hot topic among cognitive scientists. On the one hand, some argue that we are ourselves animals. And yes, we can create.

But when we’re not talking about humans, what do we consider to be creative?

Is creativity defined by problem solving, art-making, or, from an evolutionary standpoint, can it be advantageous for mating?

Take Australian bowerbirds, for instance. Males create elaborate nests in order to attract females. The more colorful, elaborate, and eye-catching the nest, the more success a male has in carrying on his genes.

Does this make bowerbirds creative? Or does the continuation of their species depend on their creativity in constructing nests? If the males are motivated to create because of the prospect of mating, can’t we at least argue that females display aesthetic sensibilities when choosing a mate?

One thing that is unique to humans is our higher order thinking skills. Only a few animals come close to our cognitive function. In 1927, Kohler researched the thinking strategies exhibited by primates. When challenged with a problem, the primates would sit until they reached their “aha!” moment. In this respect, animals that exhibit creativity are adept at transfer. Transfer is when you take previous knowledge and apply it in a new and innovative way. However, in order to be creative, you must have this previous knowledge in your repertoire.

Animals are often trained using a stimulus response method called behaviorism. Pavlov’s dogs, for instance. Divergent thinking, or innovation, is most important when considering animal creativity. In 1953, some scientists studied macaws. They observed a female parrot washing potatoes in water. No other birds in her troop did this. This is an instance where creativity is defined as “effective novelty”- a unique instance of creativity that affects others. Macaws have a problem with grinding their beaks on sand from the potatoes. The female parrot found a way to counter this problem, and it was subsequently adopted by ¾ of the parrots on that island within five years.

There is no Torrence test for animals. In fact, the only way to measure animal creativity is by researching incidents of creativity in that species and calculating an innovation rate. This can be highly misleading since many factors can be controlled. James and Alison Kaufman have done extensive research on animal creativity and have developed a three-step pyramid.

One article that I found explained that animals find enough outlets through play that makes it unnecessary for them to find expression elsewhere. Animals who make art, often with human tools and human intervention, attach no meaning to it themselves. It is therefore humans who attach value to something that is meaningless to the maker. Perhaps artistic and creative values are established and important because of social conditioning.

Dave Soldier is a Columbia cognitive neuroscientist who works with elephants. These elephants make music, and Soldier even says that some of them do solos. Are they really creating or are they just making noise? Take a listen.

In an interview on NPR, Soldier questioned the motives for animals to “create”. When domesticated, as many “creative” animals are, it could just be boredom that makes them want to do things. Soldier said, “If [animals] were living a more natural life, they wouldn’t need to [create].” Sean Cole, his interviewer, later questioned if human creativity is also fueled by boredom. Creating is not necessary for our survival as humans. For songbirds and bowerbirds, however, it is absolutely necessary to carry on their species. For domesticated elephants and penguins, creating is probably just a way to pass the time.

So, can animals be creative? I think it is important to look at motivation. When it comes down to the survival of the species, yes, creativity can be very important. Evolution favors creativity because it is simply the ability to adapt. From a self-expressionist perspective, animals might have the capacity to be creative, but choose not to. At this point, I think we need to wonder if science will ever really be able to answer these questions.

Thanks for listening!


Cole, S. (n.d.). Are animals creative? from Sean Cole. Station showcase with PRX. Retrieved from

Cropley, A. (1999). Creativity and cognition: Producing effective novelty. Roeper Review, 21.

Hirschfield, E. (2008). Marxist theory of art: Can animals create art? Retrieved from

Kaufman, A., Butt, A., Kaufman, J., & Colbert-White, E. (2011). Towards a neurobiology of creativity in nonhuman animals. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 125(3), 255-272.

Kaufman, J. & Kaufman, A. (2004). Applying a creativity framework to animal cognition. New Ideas in Psychology, 22(2), 143-155.

Root-Bernstein, M. & Root-Bernstein, R. (2008, July 6). Creativity on the wild side: animal innovation. Psychology Today, Retrieved from

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