Major support for MindShift comes from
Landmark College
upper waypoint

Rethinking Intelligence: How Does Imagination Measure Up?

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

 (Thomas Hawk/Flickr)

Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman’s personal education story may sound familiar to many families struggling against a system that doesn’t tend to value qualities in students that make them different from a predetermined “average” learner. When he was young, Kaufman had central auditory processing disorder, which made it hard for him to process verbal information in real time. He was asked to repeat third grade because he was considered a “slow” learner. That started him down a path of special education classes until high school.

“I felt on the one hand that I was capable of more intellectual challenges,” Kaufman told an audience at the Creativity Forum hosted by the Bay Area Discovery Museum, “but on the other hand I thought, ‘Who am I to question authority?’ ” So he didn’t, and since school wasn’t challenging him, Kaufman spent a lot of time in his own internal world, daydreaming.

“In the school system no one sees your inner stream of consciousness, your imagination. They only see how slow you are,” Kaufman said. That would have been true for Kaufman throughout school, except one perceptive teacher recognized his simmering frustration and was willing to look past his long history in special education classes. She gave him an untimed test, which ultimately showed he was likely capable of participating in general education classes.

“No one had ever tried to break out of special ed before at my high school,” Kaufman said. Initially, school administrators clearly didn’t think he could manage the speed of his new courses. Kaufman was allowed to try them on a provisional basis, which he said didn’t inspire much confidence. But he was determined to prove them all wrong and was inspired by his new freedom. He wanted to experience everything school had to offer.

“I was curious for the first time in my life to see what I was capable of,” Kaufman said. In his first semester outside special education classes, Kaufman went from a C-average to almost all A's. “I do love learning in general and I’m very curious. I was excited. I felt like a kid in a candy shop. I felt like, wow, for the first time I’m free.”


Even though Kaufman proved himself capable of excelling in general education high school classes, when he applied to Carnegie Mellon University -- writing that he wanted to study psychology so he could redefine intelligence -- he was rejected because his SAT scores were too low. The irony of that rejection doesn’t escape Kaufman but he was undaunted, applying to the college’s opera program instead because it didn’t require SATs.* He got in and slowly started taking classes in psychology, eventually changing majors.

Kaufman is now a professor of positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the scientific director of its Imagination Institute. He got his master's from Cambridge and a doctorate from Yale, where he wrote his dissertation on a new theory of intelligence. Kaufman is clearly capable of deep scholarship when he’s passionate about his work. But where would he be if that teacher hadn't recognized his frustration, or if he’d accepted Carnegie Mellon’s initial rejection?


Kaufman’s own experience and deep curiosity have led him to question the entire premise of the education system, which is based on IQ as the single measure of intelligence and cognitive ability. Kaufman thinks the traditional IQ test does a good job of measuring general cognitive ability, but says it misses all the ways that ability interacts with engagement. An individual’s goals within the learning classroom and excitement about a topic affect how he or she pursues learning, none of which is captured on IQ tests. Worse, those tests are often used to filter people in or out of special programs.

Rather than using this singular definition of intelligence, Kaufman’s work focuses on identifying characteristics of highly creative people. The Imagination Institute funds projects in a variety of disciplines that examine the role of imagination in different domains. Together these researchers are working to define an “imagination quotient,” which takes into account all the ways imagination functions in people’s work and maps what’s going on in their brains.

Kaufman and others working in this area have slowly been mapping out what’s called the default mode network, or what Kaufman likes to call the “imagination network.” This brain network is largely ignored by cognitive scientists because it is off when a person is being asked to focus externally. When executive functioning is required, the imagination network is largely quiet.

But this network is extremely important for internal reflection and the process of meaning-making. It is associated with daydreaming, retrieving deeply personal memories and moderating emotional space. “The second you make a personal connection to anything, this network lights up,” Kaufman said. “When you do the reading comprehension section of the SAT, this network is completely silent,” he added.

Most of the time the brain toggles between the default mode network and the more outward-focused attention network. But neuroscientists like Rex Jung and colleagues are beginning to map out an understanding of creative cognition. They're finding that very creative people actually have stronger connections between the networks.

“People who scored really highly on our imaginative test show greater brain connectivity between these brain networks that are talked about a lot in the literature as being at odds,” Kaufman said. He believes this is because imaginative, creative people are good at disconnecting the attention network in order to enter a flow state when they generate ideas, but can then key back into executive functioning in order to focus, sort and make sense of that generative time.

“People who are really creative are really good activating and deactivating these neural networks,” Kaufman said. They also tend to be open to experiences and score highly on divergent thinking tests. Since both attention and imagination networks are located in the brain, Kaufman believes it is a misnomer to call the qualities arising from the default mode network "non-cognitive.”

“It’s so important that we appreciate all of the cognitive functions coming from the imaginative brain network,” he said.


Despite the primacy of the attention network and executive functioning in education, Kaufman says there are several ways parents and educators can nurture creativity in young people and in adults.

1. Kaufman recommends allowing more solitary reflective time in kids’ schedules. Whether it’s the constant demands on attention at school or in after-school activities, there often isn’t enough time in a child’s day when she can switch off the executive functioning network and tap into the imagination network.

“I think executive function and self-control alone are nothing,” Kaufman said. “It’s just duty. Executive function for what?” He believes educators need to do more to couple executive function with imagination so learning comes alive with personal meaning. Then when the teacher demands attention, it is worthwhile to the learner.

2. “We support obsessive passion, but not harmonious passion,” Kaufman said. He defines harmonious passion as a core part of people's identity that makes them feel good about themselves. Harmonious passion is characterized by flexible engagement, where a child can abandon the pursuit if it isn’t paying dividends. And the passion often reflects qualities a person likes about himself and is easily integrated with the rest of his identity.

This type of passion is correlated with physical health, psychological well-being, work stamina (less burnout), concentration, self-esteem and work satisfaction, among other things. Harmonious passion differs from obsessive passion or motivation because it is a core part of a person.

“We need to be on the lookout for the twinkle in the eye and cultivate that harmonious passion,” Kaufman said.

3. Kaufman also says it’s important to give young kids a diverse set of experiences in order to increase the chances of inspiration. “Lots of things add meaning to our lives,” he said.

4. Lastly, Kaufman believes educators, parents, and policymakers need to reset their mindsets around student ability. “Kids who think differently are not appreciated in our school system at all,” Kaufman said. “There is so much we could build on with kids who think differently.” Rather than trying to shoehorn every child into one mold, Kaufman hopes educators from the top of the system down to individual classrooms will someday value the individual qualities that make each child uniquely gifted.

“The goal is to really stimulate this field,” Kaufman said. “It’s been dominated by the same tests for 50 years. It’s time to look at things like inspiration and daydreaming or musical skills. We can be more imaginative in how we measure imagination.”

Some have wondered if it’s even worth measuring imagination, but Kaufman believes that measurement is important so researchers can see how changing behavior affects creative achievement. But he hopes the measurements are never used as another sorting mechanism.

“The key here is to assume there are a key set of skills that can be developed in everyone,” he said.


*A previous version of this story indicated Kaufman had no voice training when he applied to the opera program. In fact, he had voice lessons in high school and sang in the choir. We regret the error.

lower waypoint
next waypoint