13 Ways of Thinking about Creativity

Anthony Brandt, photo by Tommy LaVergne

If you know where to listen, you can hear the creative process unfold right before your ears. That’s especially so if you have a guide like composer Anthony Brandt, a professor at Rice’s Shepherd School of Music.

Along with neuroscientist David Eagleman ’93, a former Rice colleague who is now at Stanford, Brandt researched and published a book about the neuroscience of creativity called “The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World.” Charmingly illustrated, the book is full of head-spinning examples of humans’ drive to create and the cognitive strategies underlying the creative impulse.

In fact, one of the basic tenets of their research is that imaginative leaps do not spring from eureka moments, but are “the latest branches on the family tree of invention,” they wrote.  “Humans are continually creative: Whether the raw material is words or sounds or sights, we are food processors into which the world is fed, and out of which something new emerges.”

This year, Brandt has served as a maestro of creativity in classrooms at the Glasscock School of Continuing Studies and the Moody Center for the Arts, as well as through planning and participating in the annual Scientia Lecture Series. In fact, in Scientia’s kickoff lecture, Brandt took his audience through a tour de force explanation of how humans imagine and create new ideas.  

“Imagination can be thought of as predicting something that has never happened before and creativity as making it come true,” he said to a packed auditorium. So where do new ideas come from? “They evolve from prior experience,” Brandt said. “Creativity is a process of derivation and extrapolation. We remodel what we know.”

Brandt and Eagleman propose an elegant framework for how the brain evolves new ideas — in just three basic cognitive strategies: bending, breaking and blending.

In bending what we know, “an original is twisted out of shape or transformed in some way.” A simple example: fonts.

In breaking, “a whole is taken apart and something new is made out of some or all of the pieces,” Brandt said.  Imagine Julian Schnabel’s plate paintings.

And in blending, “two or more sources are merged,” like in the imaginative superhero, the Wasp. 

To more fully illustrate “the three B’s” of cognitive strategies, Brandt enlisted musical accompaniment — and a fourth “B.” In Beethoven’s genius, Brandt explained, we can see and hear the strategies of bending, breaking and blending. “And that’s where his creativity is most exposed — and we can all hear it.” 

The radical notion of this theory is that the same elements available to Beethoven are available to everyone. Creativity can be taught and learned — or at least practiced. This has become a core tenet of Brandt’s teaching, especially in courses like MUSI 379: Creativity Up Close, which he taught this spring in both the Glasscock School and for Rice undergraduates. To help Brandt explore creativity as a “universal feature of human cognition,” guest lecturers from engineering, history, business, psychology and the arts brought their own examples of imagination at work to the classrooms.  

Back to music, and Brandt’s home turf. “We all have a bit of Beethoven in us. In our daily lives, we bend, break and blend what we say and do, to engage each other and keep ourselves alert,” Brandt reminded the audience. “Beethoven’s music is a distilled version of all that. That’s one of the reasons why we feel we get wisdom or insight from listening to it. It helps us understand ourselves and how we relate to the world.”


“Beethoven’s inventiveness is amplified by the need to hold our attention. He’ll deploy strategies we’ve just heard and many others to keep us involved. And from one work to the next, he’ll constantly switch up how he applies these strategies, because of course if his means of holding our attention become too predictable … that defeats the whole point,” Brandt said.

“Let’s listen to the first movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet Opus 59, No. 1. He’ll spend the first part of the movement introducing a series of themes, which he’ll then remodel in front of our ears. ”

Listen here.

Special thanks to Shepherd School of Music students Samuel Park and Jacqueline Audas, violin; Sergin Yap, viola; Katherine Audas, cello.