Creativity in Health and Healing- Reetu Jain

Reetu Jain


Creative Movement Therapy Association of India (CMTAI)

New Delhi / USA

Creativity has been a part of health and healing practices for centuries and across cultures (Runco & Albert, 2010). There are numerous empirical studies in the arts and creative art therapies that identify healing and transformation as a common theme or finding (Stuckey & Nobel, 2010). While these may be obvious facts, to better understand the role creativity plays in healing and transformation, and for purposes of this brief discussion, I will define creativity, deconstruct the creative process, describe an example from my practice as a therapeutic movement facilitator, and explore neurobiological processes. For simplicity sake, I will interchangeably be using the terms “creative art therapies” and “expressive art therapies,” including to describe the mechanisms at play within a general therapeutic arts setting.

Definition of Creativity

Creativity is a complex topic that has multiple theories, categorisations, aspects, and contexts which make it difficult to define in a simplistic way. However, contemporary theorists may agree that there are two aspects of creativity that would be included in the definition of creativity, as that which has “originality and effectiveness” (Runco & Jaeger, 2012, p. 92), potentially synonymous to it being “novel and useful” (Plucker et al. as cited in Plucker & Makel, 2010, p. 49), or as Richards (2010) stated the definition of everyday creativity as having “originality and meaningfulness” (Barron as cited in Richards, 2010, p. 189). Since expressive art therapies are focused on new and personal, subjective meaning-making, these definitions can be posited as applicable to the role of creativity in expressive art therapies.

The Creative Process

To understand what the process in creative art therapies entails if looking through the lens of creativity theorists, we can briefly review Wallas’s (as cited in Kozbelt, Beghetto, & Runco, 2010) popular stage theory, which described the creative process as a series of four stages: “preparation,” “incubation,” “illumination,” and “verification” (pp. 30-31). However, it is important to note that contemporary theorists dismiss the linearity of Wallas’s model and suggest that an individual may pass through the stages numerous times and sometimes with overlap. Keeping that in mind, these stages have been described briefly in the context of creative art therapies.

Inspiration occurs when a participant is stimulated to try something new, sometimes as creative problem solving to resolve or treat mental, physical, emotional, or psychological issues. Preparation can be considered from the perspective of the facilitator and the participant and may include information gathering by the participant, an invitation by the facilitator to participate in the activities, the accessibility of materials, rapport-building between the facilitator and the participant, and skills development (Evans, 2007). Important to the preparation stage, the safe, “permissive” (p. 26) space in creative art therapy interventions, similar to other environments in which creativity flourishes (Kozbelt, Beghetto, & Runco, 2010), enables exploration, healing, and transformation. Incubation is allowing unconscious processes to occur in movement, painting, and other artistic modalities, through openness and relaxation. As with the other stages, incubation can happen any time and in conjunction with other stages. Illumination is when insight occurs, that “Aha!” moment in which associations and meaning-making happen. Verification is evaluating or assessing if the insight is valid which could occur for participants even after leaving a session.

Writing, Movement, and Verbalisation

In a session I facilitated with a group of women between the ages of 18 and 60, I asked the women to form a cluster in the middle of the room and blurt out words in response to gender and sexuality-related concepts that I said out loud. I asked them not to think and to say anything and everything that came to their minds and to change body formations with each word. During the post-activity sharing, some of the women stated they were surprised by the words that came out of their mouths and how these might be correlate to their beliefs and ideas. One woman, for example, said she was surprised by the caustic words that came from her in response to men or sexuality. Through the next reflective writing activity, she discovered that her beliefs were directly related to an account of sexual assault that she thought she had put in the past but was now realising that it was still impacting her. She started identifying the ways in which it impacted her in her daily life. Through movement and postures, she embodied her pain, guilt, and insecurities. In one part of the session, she moved across the floor in a fetal position, slowly reaching out to another participant. She described her felt experience to her session partner. In the final group sharing, she stated that the safe space had allowed her to connect to herself, discover something she was unaware of, express herself, and ask others for support which she does not typically do. Her last words of the session were that she felt peaceful, grateful, and empowered.

While this may have been the beginning of a longer therapeutic journey, in this example, the participant stated that she allowed herself to be exploratory and vulnerable because she felt safe in the non-judgmental space held by the other participants. In that preparatory safe space, incubation and illumination began as she allowed her unconscious thoughts to emerge and engaged in the process of putting unconscious and conscious thoughts and emotions into words, writing, and movement. Through her self-expression, the connection between her past trauma and her beliefs, the ways in which it had been impacting her life, and then the embodied experience of still living with that pain and suffering, became moments of cognitive and somatic illumination and an opening for therapeutic change. In the non-linearity of the creative process, she had multiple moments of illumination overlap with the other stages of the creative process of incubation, verification, and even preparation. As Evans (2007) stated “…in the creative process, self-expression is responsible for creating coherence between the person and some aspect of his or her experience” (p. 94). Therefore, through preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification in the creative process in this session, her unconscious movement self-expression and insights brought her coherence and a potential, new pathway for healing from her trauma.

To get a glimpse of what happens in the brain during the creative process of a creative arts therapy intervention, we can look at neurobiological processes.

Neurobiological Processes

As in most daily functions in life, in the creative process, the whole brain is stimulated, and multiple parts of the brain continually interact with each other. In fact, most current theories of creativity in neuroscience oversimplify what is happening in the brain in the creative process (Kaufman et. al, 2010). However, by understanding the interrelated structures and functions of the brain, we can begin to connect how the process in a creative art therapy intervention might lead to self-expression, self-efficacy, and a felt experience of coherence and purpose.

Kaufman et al. (2010; Taylor, 2011) stated that overarching research on hemispheric-asymmetry has found that the right hemisphere of the brain is primarily concerned with big-picture, “holistic processes” (Kaufman et al., 2010, p. 220) whereas the left hemisphere of the brain analyses and organises thoughts; in other words, it can be said that “the processes in the right hemisphere are responsible for the generation of novel ideas” (p. 220) and the communication of those ideas is executed mainly by the left hemisphere. From these abstract concepts, we may be able to extract that the right hemisphere is most active in “defocused attention” in the incubation phase and the left side in the verification phase. While researchers believe that a decrease in cortical activation and a disengagement of the frontal lobes allow other parts of the brain to work where associations and insight happen, it is unclear as to which hemispheres or parts of the brain are doing the meaning-making, with many theorising that it is the interplay of the two hemispheres that causes insight (Kaufman et. al, 2010). Either way, with the frontal lobes not regulating thought control, the disinhibition of the right hemisphere allows unconscious ideas to flow and the subsequent insight results as a part of the illumination phase of the creative process.

In summary, Kaufman et al. (2010), stated that creativity researchers believe that “defocused attention, associative thinking, and the simultaneous generation of multiple mental representations” (p. 218) in the brain are present in the creative process. The continual interplay of the two hemispheres in a creative art therapy session allows for self-expression leading to coherence, competency-building and agency leading to self-efficacy, all through meaning-making.


Through the exploration of creative processes, we have come full circle to the definition of creativity with new somatic, mental, and emotional discoveries and personal meaning-making fulfilling on the criteria of “originality” and “meaningfulness.” As we continue to explore the role of creativity in health, an open, discursive stance, in line with the plurality of creativity (Kozbelt, Beghetto, & Runco, 2010), may reveal new, deeper, and meaningful connections of the mechanisms at play. Ultimately, the role of creativity goes beyond individual health and well-being and can play a significant role as a catalyst for a happier, healthier, and balanced society.



Evans, J. E. (2007). The science of creativity and health. In I. A. Serlin (Ed.), Whole person healthcare (pp. 87-105). San Francisco, CA: Union Street Health Associates Press.

Kaufman, A. B., Kornilov, S. A., Bristol, A. S., Tan, M. Grigorenko, E. L. (2010). The neurobiological foundation of creative cognition. In J. Kaufman & R. J. Sternberg (Eds.), Cambridge handbook of creativity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Kozbelt, A., Beghetto, R. A., & Runco, M. A. (2010). Theories of creativity. In J. Kaufman & R. J. Sternberg (Eds.), Cambridge handbook of creativity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Plucker, J. A. & Makel, M. C. (2010). Assessment of creativity. In J. Kaufman & R. J. Sternberg (Eds.), Cambridge handbook of creativity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Richards, R. (2010). Everyday creativity: Process and way of life – four key issues. In J. Kaufman & R. J. Sternberg (Eds.), Cambridge handbook of creativity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Runco, M. A. & Albert, R. S. (2010). Creativity research: A historical view. In J. Kaufman & R. J. Sternberg (Eds.), Cambridge handbook of creativity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Runco, M. A., & Jaeger, G. J. (2012). The standard definition of creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 24(1), 92-96. doi: 10.1080/10400419.2012.650092

Stuckey, H. L., & Nobel, J. (2010). The connection between art, healing, and public health: A review of current literature. American Journal of Public Health, 100(2), 254-263.

Taylor, J. B. (2011, February). Jill Bolte Taylor: Powerful stroke of insight? [Video file]. Retrieved from http://


Reetu is Co-Founder of CMTAI, a Creative Movement Facilitator, and a dancer/choreographer who has trained and performed internationally for over 30 years. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Expressive Therapies at Lesley University, USA, with her research focus on exploring the role of the arts in sexual violence prevention with youth in India. As a Creative Movement Facilitator, Reetu has primarily worked with transgender and adolescent populations by creating an open, safe platform for self-discovery, dialogue, and expression. She was selected as an ADTA Talks’ speaker at the American Dance Therapy Association’s 50th Annual Conference and has represented India and the field of creative movement therapy at various forums including the DaDaFest International Congress in the UK in 2016, the Ananta Centre (formerly Aspen Institute India) leadership conference on ending sexual violence in 2014, and the Harvard South Asia Institute “Gender Justice, Criminal Law, and Curricular Reforms” conference in 2013.


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