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Can Psychology Tell Us About Someone’s Essence?

Personality tests can’t tell you how someone will fill a blank canvas.

Key points

  • A person's personality test scores tell us little about the unique feeling we get when we think or dream about them, or spend time with them.
  • The closest psychology gets to revealing something about a person's unique essence is research on individual creative style.
  • During creative practice, people scour and transform their memories and mental models, which realigns them with their essence, or truest self.

A colleague of mine (Bob Belton) once offhandedly remarked that he wouldn’t be impressed by the field of psychology until the day it tells us something about someone’s essence. I pressed him to elaborate. He said, “Two people could live in identical houses, in the same neighbourhood, work at the same company, have similar hobbies, and even identical scores on personality tests. But if they’re each given a blank canvas, they produce completely different paintings. Why? Can psychology explain that?” I had to admit, it couldn’t.

I started thinking about the notion of "essence." When someone crosses your mind, or appears in a dream, what makes it a thought or dream about that person? How do you know it’s them you’re thinking or dreaming about? Are you bringing to mind what the person looks like, or how extraverted, agreeable, or conscientious they are? Perhaps. But quite likely, it’s something more abstract: It’s their core self, that particular feeling that washes over you when you’re in their presence. No personality test I know of even begins to address that. But isn’t that what the human experience is all about, and what psychology should be trying to explain?

It seemed to me that the best way to get at this was by studying people’s creative style: the personal signature that comes through in the books they write, or music they compose. My students and I carried out studies to see if people really do have a signature creative style that enables us to recognize who the creator of a work is.

We found that, sure enough, people do seem to have a recognizable creative style. Creative writing students who were familiar with different writers could recognize above chance which passage of writing was written by which writer, whether the writer was someone famous, or a peer in their creative writing class (Gabora, 2010; Gabora et al., 2012; Ranjan et al., 2013). This was the case even when the passages were specifically chosen in such a way as to eliminate content that was in any way associated with the creator (for example, we did not choose passages about skiing by someone who skis). Thus, we concluded that individual creative style is genuinely recognizable. The grooves that a person’s thought patterns fall into leave their trace on their creative products. Perhaps that is the closest we can get to a tangible residue of someone’s essence.

We then wondered: Is a person’s creative style recognizable even across different domains? For example, if you know someone’s writing style, and you’re shown a bunch of artworks, one of which was done by that person, would you be able to recognize which work of art they had created?

What we were testing for here is the phenomenon of cross-domain transfer. In cross-domain transfer, an inspirational source from one domain (e.g., music) influences a creative work in another (e.g., painting) (Gabora, 2010; Gabora et al., 2012; Ranjan et al., 2010, 2013; Scotney et al., 2019). For example, George Mestral’s invention of Velcro was inspired by an analogy to burdock root seeds which, in turn, inspired “shoelace-less runners” (sneakers). This example illustrates a central feature of cross-domain transfer: With respect to the most obvious techniques for classifying them—e.g., as sculptures, pieces of music, or technological inventions—there is a discontinuity from the inspirational source to the output inspired by it.

We found that, as hypothesized, when participants knew a particular person’s work in one domain (such as creative writing), and they were shown a bunch of works in a different domain (such as art), they could indeed recognize that person’s work in the new domain (i.e., they could recognize which art was done by that writer). They couldn’t recognize the writer’s art as well as they recognized the writer’s writing, but nevertheless, they got it right at significantly above chance. Although the medium of expression was different, something of its creator’s style came through in the new domain as well as the old.

In another cross-domain transfer study, painters were instructed to paint what a particular piece of music would “look like” if it were a painting. Once again, naïve participants were indeed able to correctly identify at significantly above chance which piece of music inspired which painting (Ranjan et al., 2013a,b). They could also correctly identify at significantly above chance which artist created which painting, which meant that we could partition out how much of the final product reflected the inspirational source versus the individual style of the creator. Although the medium of expression was different, something of its essence remained sufficiently intact for people to detect a resemblance between the new creative output and its inspirational source.

In other studies, including one with creative experts, and another with undergraduate students from diverse academic backgrounds, participants listed both their creative outputs and the influences (sources of inspiration) associated with each of these outputs (Gabora & Carbert, 2015; Scotney et al., 2019). For example, they might put that a piece of music was inspired by a technique they learned in a music class, by another piece of music (within-domain), by a walk in the forest, or by a piece of art (cross-domain). In both studies, cross-domain influences on creativity were found to be widespread, and indeed, more frequent than within-domain sources of inspiration. These studies show that even when the creative output lies squarely in one domain, the process giving rise to it may be rooted in another. This result flies in the face of much thinking in psychology which assumed that creativity and problem-solving are fairly domain-specific; by looking not just at the outputs of creative processes but also the inspirational sources that foment those processes, we see that cognition is not so domain-specific after all. When people express themselves creatively they scour their memories and recalibrate their worldviews — their mental models of reality; their way of seeing the world, and being in the world. They intuitively weave together ingredients from all arenas of their lives, as they see fit. As they reflect on the idea it transitions from an ill-defined mental representation that exists only in the imagination (a state of potentiality) to something concrete and well-defined that exists in the physical world (a state of actualization) (Gabora & Saab, 2011; Scotney et al, 2020). Through this process, their relationship to their world is transformed. In my view, this is why immersion in a creative practice can make us more aligned with our true essence, our authentic self, and this is why it can be healing and therapeutic.

It’s still the case that that elusive essence of a person that drifts through you when you think of them probably eludes psychological investigation. However, these studies collectively suggest that we can indirectly get at this notion by studying people’s creative styles and how they get expressed.


Gabora, L. (2010). Recognizability of creative style within and across domains: Preliminary studies. In R. Camtrabone & S. Ohlsson (Eds.), Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 2350-2355). Austin TX: Cognitive Science Society. []

Gabora, L. & Carbert, N. (2015). Cross-domain influences on creative innovation: Preliminary Investigations. In R. Dale, C. Jennings, P. Maglio, T. Matlock, D. Noelle, A. Warlaumont & J. Yashimi (Eds.), Proceedings of the 37th annual meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 758-763). Austin TX: Cognitive Science Society.

Gabora, L., O’Connor, B., & Ranjan, A. (2012). The recognizability of individual creative styles within and across domains. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 6(4), 351-360. []…

Ganesh, K. & Gabora, L. (2022). Modeling discontinuous cultural evolution: The impact of cross-domain transfer. Frontiers in Psychology - Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 13, 786072. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.786072

Ranjan, A. Gabora, L., & O'Connor, B. (2010). The recognizability of individual style in the domains of painting and writing. International Conference on Cognition, Experience, and Creativity.

Ranjan, A., Gabora, L., & O'Connor, B. (2013a). The Cross-domain re-interpretation of artistic ideas. In M. Knauff, M. Pauen, N. Sebanz, & I. Wachsmuth (Eds.), Proceedings of the 35th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 3251-3256). Austin TX: Cognitive Science Society. []

Ranjan, A., Gabora, L., & O'Connor, B. (2013b). Evidence that cross-domain re-interpretations of creative ideas are recognizable. Proceedings of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) Spring Symposium. (Creativity and Cognitive Development: A perspective from Artificial Creativity, Developmental Artificial Intelligence, and Robotics.) Menlo Park, Calif: AAAI Press. []

Scotney, V., Weissmeyer, S., & Gabora, L. (2018). Cross-domain influences on creative processes and products. In (C. Kalish, M. Rau, J. Zhu, & T. Rogers, Eds.) Proceedings of 40th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, pp. 2452-2457. Austin TX: Cognitive Science Society. []

Scotney, V., Weissmeyer, S., Carbert, N., & Gabora, L. (2019). The ubiquity of cross-domain thinking in the early phase of the creative process. Frontiers in Psychology (Section: Cognitive Science, Topic: Creativity from Multiple Cognitive Science Perspectives), 10, 1426. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01426.

Gabora, L., & Saab, A. (2011). Creative interference and states of potentiality in analogy problem solving. In L. Carlson, C. Hőlscher & T. F. Shipley (Eds.), Proceedings of the 33rd Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 3506-3511). Austin TX: Cognitive Science Society. (Held July 20-23, Boston MA.) []

Scotney, V., Schwartz, J., Carbert, C., Adam Saab, A., & Gabora, L. (2020). The form of a ‘half-baked’ creative idea: Empirical explorations into the structure of ill-defined mental representations. Acta Psychologica, 202, 102983. []

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