Are we all “naturally” creative? Or is it a special skill or talent? I think creativity has elements of both, something that can be illustrated by looking at spoken language.

In 1994 psycholinguist Steven Pinker published a landmark book called The Language Instinct which aimed to give scientific teeth to Noam Chomsky’s argument that language is ultimately innate in humans. While Pinker acknowledged the term “instinct” may be loaded with misleading semantic baggage, he went with it as it does a good job of communicating the essence of language, which is that it is just as hardwired as other primal drives like hunger, sexual attraction and fear.

In the 1960s Chomsky had posted the existence of a “Language Acquisition Device” (LAD), a cognitive module endemic to the human species which ensures all normal members of it develop a fully grammatical linguistic capacity without any need for explicit instruction. This last point was key as it had long been held in popular opinion and also in the scientific community (namely, the empiricists and behaviourists) that children are taught how to speak. It seems obvious doesn’t it?

Actually, Chomsky pointed out through a concept he called the “poverty of the stimulus” (POS) that children are not exposed to sufficient linguistic information to account for all the grammatical complexities of language they grow to master. Something else must be powering the acquisition – specifically, an innate structure or set of structures “preloaded” with information.

The information in question Chomsky refers to as Universal Grammar (UG). UG encodes the all the key structural rules independent of sensory experience or learning contexts. This is the abstracted “deep structure” at play behind the “surface structure” of words and sentences we see in any given language.

The evidence for language’s hardwired nature is compelling. After all, everyone speaks it – including those who use sign language, which is grammatical in nature. In contrast, not everyone eats meat or swims.

Now there’s a thought. In fact, we did evolve to eat meat and to be able to swim. You could therefore say we are hardwired to be swimming carnivores. Yet huge numbers of people around the world do only one or neither. So evolutionary basis is no guarantor of manifest behaviour.

Actually, language itself does require a certain specific context in order to develop: exposure to other speakers. The infamous case of Genie, an American girl who suffered severe neglect and abuse in the 1960s and was locked in a room alone for almost all of the time until she about 13 years old, is evidence of this. Not exposed to other speakers of any language (a true case of POS), after rescue she was never able to develop a fully grammatical language capacity. It seems that as with birds, which have a “critical period” during which they must be exposed to birdsong or lose the ability to sing, Genie’s LAD wasn’t properly activated and thus acquire UG.

I have long said that as things stand, most people do not think very creatively because of all sorts of social and cultural barriers along with internal factors like cognitive biases. But that doesn’t mean we are not all endowed with the hardwiring for creative thought. What it means in my view is that most people lack exposure to appropriate stimulus to activate what you could call their Creativity Acquisition Device in adulthood.

Can everyone learn a second language? Undoubtedly, but it won’t happen on its own. You have to be exposed to the right kinds of stimuli and perform the right kinds of mental operation.

The same goes with creativity. You just need to be exposed to the right kind of stimuli and perform the right kinds of mental operation and you will acquire this particular language. It’s simply a case of internalising the Universal Grammar of creative thought.

Creativity is an instinct. But just as with spoken language, it needs learning to develop its remarkable potential.

Originally published at