December 7, 2010

Sudden Genius by Andrew Robinson

Sudden Genius by Andrew Robinson
The gradual path to creative breakthrough

[Likewise Howard Gorden’s book, discuss 10 genius cases with respect to their main creativity product and provide steps to work on your creativity in your everyday life
Leonardo da Vinci - The last supper -1498
Christopher Wren - St. Paul Cathedral - 1711
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - The marriage of Figaro - 1786
Jean- Francois Champollion - decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs - 1822
Charles Darwin - Evolution by natural selection 1859
Marie Curie - discovery of radium - 1898
Albert Einstein - Special relativity - 1905
Virginia Wolf - Mrs Dalloway - 1925
Henri Cartier-Bresson - The decisive Moment - 1952
Satyajit Ray - Pather Panchali - 1955

Creativity covering talent, genius, intelligence, memory, dreams, the unconscious, savant syndrome, synaesthesia, and mental illness]

Ray’s (Satyajit) comment on creativity: “ The whole business of creation of the ideas that comes in a flash, cannot be explained by science. It cannot. I don’t know what can explain it but I know that the best ideas come at moments when you are not even thinking of it. It is very private thing really’. ‘Eureka experience?

Winston Fletcher remarks in his ‘Tantrums and talent: How to get the best from creative people: “Just as creative world is crowded with people who have ideas but no talent, it is also crowded with people who have talent, but no ideas”

Archimedes said to have perceived the principles of displacement and flotation jumped out of the tube and run naked by screaming ‘Eureka!
Newton seeing an apple fall from a tree visualized the law of gravitational attraction.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge while reading a passage in a book about the Khan Kubla, fell into an opium induced sleep and when he woke up, immediately produced poem ‘Kubla Khan’.
Dimitri Mendeleev’s had a vision in the dream and when he woke up wrote down the periodic table of the elements.
Alexander Fleming while culturing ‘staphylococcus’ bacteria in a Petri dish, quite accidently spotted the presence of a bacteria-killing mould, Pencillium which became the source of the first antibiotic drug penicillin.

Great ideas like the above ones, are may have seemed to have come ‘out of the blue’ but in every such experience the mind seems to have prepared itself by long study. As Louis Pastor once said, ‘Chance favors the prepared mind’

Kekule once said, “gentlemen, let us learn to dream and perhaps then we tell the truth.... but let us beware not to publish they have been examined by wakened mind”.

A Very English Genius - A BBC TV program on ‘ The man who deciphered linear B - Michael Ventris The last man who knew everything - Thomas Young a Polymath who decipher Egyptian Rosetta Stone. ‘The man who deciphered Linear B’ told the story of the mid-twentieth century decipherment of Europe’s earliest readable writing by Michal Ventris. ‘The last man who knew everything’ narrated by the life and work of Thomas Young, an eighteenth-century child prodigy in languages and an adult polymath who deciphered the Rosetta Stone. in both cases, their decipherment breakthroughs depended on their knowledge of disparate domains. which their scholarly rivals did not have. their ideas arose from their versatility.

The invention of writing might be said to be the ur-breakthrough, since there would be no history no science and no literature without it. Proto-writing - that is signs capable of expressing a limited range of meaning but not the full range of spoken language seems to have existed during the last ice age in the form of enigmatic cave drawings, petroglyphs and notched bones, perhaps 20,000 years old. The break through that transformed proto-writing into full writing was the rebus. Rebus permits spoken words to be written in terms of their constituent parts - vowels, consonants, syllable and so on - that cannot be depicted pictographically. With Rebus principle, the sounds of a language can be made visible in a systematic way and its abstract concepts symbolized. How was rebus conceived? Some scholars believe it resulted from a conscious search by an unknown Sumerian in Uruk (biblical Erech), circa 3300 BC - the place and date of the earliest clay tablets that apparently record full writing. The world’s oldest surviving literature-in Sumerian cuneiform dates from about 2600 BC.

Even the majority of breakthroughs do involve an identifiable pivotal episode of revelation whether one calls it a eureka experience or not. What is absolutely clear in all ten cases is the long lead-up needed for the breakthroughs and the effort required, following the revelation to explore and substantiate the achievement.

Dreams giving access to unconscious processing may or may not have led to celebrated examples of breakthroughs. The creative role of unconscious processing was recognized long before the work of Sigmund Freud perhaps early as the beginning of 18th century. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz said in early 18th century, “ Our clear concepts are like islands which arise above the ocean of obscure ones. Yet it is not easy to conceive that a thing can think and not be conscious that it thinks’.

Talent & Genius

The relationship between inherited ability and long practice is the most contentious aspect of talent. However genius is even more problematic than talent. Although genius has never inherited or passed on, it seems like talent to be partly genetic in origin in many cases. Unlike talent, genius is the result of unique configuration of parental genes and personal circumstances. Since genius never transmits the full complement of his or her genes to offspring, whose personal circumstances inevitably differ from those of the parent genius, this configuration never repeats itself in the offspring.

IQ & Intelligence:

The IQ test created by Lewis Terman does not measure creativity and even failed to discover gifted students by this IQ method (couple of students who got rejected by his IO tests became Nobel winners).

Reading at the age of three - compared with the age of size - is equivalent to an IQ of six divided by three then multiply by 100 (the average or base IQ by definition), which gives an IQ of 200. As part of creating this IQ test, Terman contacted 15 famous experts to define the conception of intelligence. Terman’s definition was ‘the ability to carry on abstract thinking’. Another one favored, “the capacity of knowledge and knowledge possessed’. The other seven answers were (5 of them did not respond).

1. the power of good responses from the point of view of truth or fact
2. having learned or ability to learn to adjust oneself to the environment
3. the ability to adapt oneself adequately to relatively new situations in life
4. the capacity to learn or to profit by experience
5. the capacity to acquire capacity
6. the capacity to inhibit an instinctive adjustment in the light of marginally experienced trial and error and the volitional capacity to realize the modified instinctive adjustments into the overt behavior to the advantage of the individual as a social animal
7. a biological mechanism by which the effects of a complexity of stimuli are brought together and given a somewhat unified effect in behavior.

All the 9 definition involves the capacity to learn from experience and adaption to one’s environment.

James Flynn in his book, “What is intelligence’, says there are three elements - brain’s neural clusters, individual differences in performance and society.

Henri Poincare, book ‘The foundation of Science, Graham Wallace’s The art of Thoughts & Arthur Koestler’s the act of Creation are all agree that creativity emerges from the combination of unconscious and conscious ideas. However the problem is lack of definition for unconscious. - is it dream, daydream, hallucination or reverie?

The word savant originally referred to a learned person, generally a distinguished scientist epitomized by the brilliant and far-ranging scholars. Today, in striking contrast, ‘savant’ is normally applied to individuals of below average IQ who display an amazing untutored talent often involving inexplicable feats of memory in a restricted field such as calenderical or arithmetical calculations, language learning, music art etc. It is usually with autism kids. There is a consensus among autism researchers that mind-blindness lies at the heart of ASC (Autism spectrum condition) because it accounts well for the impaired and the intact social and communicative behavior of autistic individuals. Autism kids may also respond literally to a question like, “can you pass the salt? by saying merely ‘Yes’ without understanding the implied meaning of the question.

There is a much less agreement as to why mind-blindness should predispose autistic individuals to be talented. In a survey published by Happe in 2009 and a collaborator reviewed three possibilities.

1. It might be argued that individuals with ASC free up both mental and time resources that called ‘neurotypicals’ use on tracking and remembering social content and that these may contribute to talent development.
2. Difficulty tracking the mental states of others may contribute to the originally expressed in a developing talent. Peer pressure can stifle original thinking in children (and also in adult world), but people with ASC on the other hand may oblivious to what others think and hence able to keep the originality of their idea.
3. Mind-blindness for one’s own mind may be relevant to talent development. Self-conscious - too great an awareness of one’s working methods - can easily inhibit the production of talented work. That is the reason, why many artists do not like discuss their creativity. - Not merely because they don’t want to give their secrets, but also because they resist reflecting on their talent.

The other proposes that autistic individuals prefer to process information by focusing on details rather than the whole picture. Autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen says, “In the social world there is no benefits to a precise eye for detail, but in the world of mathematics, computing, cataloguing, music, linguistic, engineering and science, such an eye for detail can lead to success rather than failure. The success of Silicon Valley depends on the love of detail among its geeks’ software developers.

With numbers, savant rival or even excels great mathematicians in calculating skill. Some of them are Thomas Fuller, Shakuntala Devi (an Indian). Many have come from humble background and were probably autistic. These auditory calculators ‘hear’ the numbers in their heads when calculating and their calculation is often associated with some verbalization of exaggerated motor activity. By contrast visual calculators ‘see’ the numbers mentally and stay relatively quite while calculating.

The Lunatic, The Lover and the Poet:

“The combination of these three, the one who sees more devils than the vast hell can hold”, Says Theseus. Aristotle is said to have asked,” why is it that all men who are outstanding in philosophy, poetry or arts are melancholic?” There is a link between insanity and genius. In the 20th century, three of the America’s leading figures, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath and Jackson Pollock took their lives because of depression and so, in UK, did Virginia Woolf. Scientists as a group show less mental illness. Einstein Faraday suffered from mild psychopathology, Darwin and Pasteur from ‘marked’ psychopathology and Bohr and Galton from ‘sever’ psychopathology along with number of other major scientists.

To establish a definitive connection between normal illness and creativity is impossible, at present.

Ten breakthrough in art and science:

Leonardo Da Vinci:
Last supper is his best known painting after the Mona Lisa. As per historian E.H. Gombrinch, “The last supper remains one of the great miracles wrought by human genius”. He emphasis on observing nature is so important in both his art and his writing on art. he is equally good in other fields like military engineering. His books show detailed engineering details on creating various military equipments.

Leonardo’s highly probable homosexuality was surely a factor in his developing power to disturb. As for his art, he unquestionably showed a preference for the male over the female nude.

He is infamous in not completing the projects - mainly due to his artistic perfectionism. Following note from his nephew on the power of the monastery.

“He sometimes stayed there from dawn to sundown, never putting down his brush, forgetting to eat and drink, and painting without pause. He would also sometime remain two, three or four days without touching his bush. Although he spent several hours a day standing in front of the work, arms folded, examining and criticizing the figures to himself. I also saw him driven by some sudden urge, at midday when the sun was at its heights leaving the Corte Vecchia where he was working on his marvelous day horse, to come straight to Santa Maria delle Grazie without seeking shade and clamber up onto the scaffolding, pickup the brush put in one or two strokes and then go away again”.

A second story reveals his passion for perfection. Leonardo delayed the last supper to complete and the impatient prior of Santa Maria della Grazie, eventually told duke in exasperation: “There is only the head of Judas still to do and for a over a year now, not only has Leonardo not touched the painting, but he has also only come to see it once”. Duke Ludovico Sforza summoned the artist and an unabashed Leonardo responded that he had in fact spent the year night and morning in a notorious part of Milan studying ruffians searching for the perfect model for Judas. “but I have not able to discover a villain’s face corresponding to what I have in mind. Once I find that face, I will finish the painting in a day. But if my research remains fruitless, I shall take the features of the prior who came to complain about me to your Excellency and who would fit the requirements perfectly”. The Duke laughed, but appreciated the seriousness of the issue and agreed to Leonardo to take more time.

Christopher Wren
“An architect ought to be jealous of Novelties in which fancy blinds the judgment and got think his judges as well those that are to live Five Centuries after him, as those of his time. That which is commendable now for novelty will not have new invention to posterity. when his works are often imitated and when it is unknown which was the original, but the glory that which is good of itself is eternal.’ - Christopher Wren.

Wren architected the St.Paul Cathedral in London- - the design and construction of the Cathedral was groundbreaking in at least three ways which might be regarded as breakthrough in architecture. First, unlike the medieval or Renaissance cathedrals like Westminster Abbey or St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, St. Paul was the work of only one architect and was built in his lifetime. Second, unlike previous architects, Wren was distinguished scientist and a skilled draughtsman who personally conceived and oversaw both the structural and the aesthetic aspects of the building from the foundations to the carvings on the walls. Third, unlike earlier domed buildings, St. Paul was finished with a unique ‘triple’ dome supporting its lantern which had no precedent in the history of architecture and has not been repeated.

Wren’s most basic problem was follows: a dome that looked right to a worshipper inside the cathedral would puny on London skyline. and yet a dome with the right external silhouette would look like a chimney to those standing underneath it. Hence he needed a double dome. There were other double domes structure and he knew that his foundations and piers which were already showing differential settlement in the 1680s could not stand the weight of two brick domes. So while the inner dome could be made of brick, the outer dome could be much lighter, made of wood covered in lead. Yet, a wooden dome could not support the weight of the planned heavy stone lantern visible both from the outside and from the inside while looking up through the oculus at the top of the inner dome. A wooden dome was ruled out as insufficiently impressive and also liable to rot. Wren’s eventual solution was therefore his ingenious triple dome.

Its inner dome is an almost hemispherical shell made of bricks about 18 inches thigh which supports nothing other than its own height. Above it, but not resting on it, is a hollow brick cone between the inner and outer domes, invisible from below, cut off at the top to reveal light streaming through widows Invisible from outside) located just below the lantern. These cones serve two functions: to support the weight of stone lantern (about 700 tones) and to support the timber framework that holds up the timber outer dome and its lead covering. the invisible brick cone is therefore a key structural element.

Like all breakthroughs, it was the perfect of long experience and passionate involvement made possible in Wren’s case by a rare combination of scientific and aesthetic perception.

Skipping the case study of other eight creative geniuses:


One of the most interesting patterns among genius concerns the effect of the early loss of a parent. A remarkably high fraction of our ten individuals - 9 out of 10 - suffered the early loss of a parent. The 10th one - Leonardo - has to dealt with illegitimate issue of his fatherhood and hence his grand-parents brought him up. Another survey of 699 famous historical personages conducted by J.M. Eisenstadt revealed 25% of them had lost at least one parent before the age of 10 and more than half lost patent before the age of 26. This naturally raises the issue of why some children become stronger through the loss of a parent.

Only two of the ten individuals had a equally important partner. Curie’s husband is also a scientist and got Nobel Prize along with Curie. Wolf’s husband was, if anything even more crucial to Virginia Wolf's. A sensitive and hones-tic critic and editor of her work, Leonard saved her from suicide where she was writing her first novel, The Voyage out. In her much quoted last letter, before she drowned herself in the river in 1941, she wrote to him: “What I want to say that I owe the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me, it would have been you. Everything has gone from me, but the certainty of your goodness. I cannot go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have bee, V.”

Exceptional creativity and breakthroughs have long had an uneasy co-existence with formal education. Following from Mihaly Csikszementmihalyi’s Creativity: Flow and Psychology of discovery and invention,” Often one sense that, if anything school threatened to extinguish the interest and curiosity that the child had discovered outside its walks. How much did schools contribute to the accomplishment of Einstein or Picasso or T.S> Eliot? The record is rather grim, esp. considering how much effort, how many resources and how many hopes go into our formal educational system”.

Mark Twin says about his schooling, “ I have never let my schooling interfere with my education”.
Thomas Young, says, “Masters and mistress are very necessary to compensate for want of inclination and exertion; but whoever would arrive at excellence must be self-taught”.

Mihaly Csikszementmihalyi’s interview with many geniuses, showed that their school days were rarely mentioned by any of them as a source of inspiration. Same with BBC broadcaster John Tusa’s interview with 100 people on creativity in 2000-2002; none mentioned the schooling made any difference to them in their path.

As per Edison, ‘Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration” . This quote was misattributed to Einstein in some magazines.

R.Ochse mentioned in his book, ‘Before the gates of Excellence: The determinants of Creative genius’ “These individuals lead one to realize very important fact - these people must have spent the major part of their waking hours and their energy on their work”. Howard Gordon’s 10 year rule of hard dedication says the same.

Several psychologists such as Arthur Koestler , David Perkins and Dean Keith Simonton have attempted to design theories of creativity. None of these has been truly explanatory except for Wallas’s preparation/incubation/illumination/verification model and Csikszementmihalyi’s domain/field/person model.

One of the more useful is Simonton’s theory that creativity arises as a ‘joint product of logic, chance, genius and Zeitgeist. Zeitgeist is a German word that can be translated as ‘spirit of times meaning the trend of thought and feeling in a period. It is a product of the socio-cultural system and therefore the antithesis of the notion that history is made by ideas and actions of great individuals - geniuses- standing outside their society and culture. Good examples of Zeitgeist are the Romanticism of the nineteenth century, and the anti-imperialism of the second-half of the 20th century. Applied to the history of science, the term suggests that a discovery or invention such as the structure of DNA or WWW is determined not by individual scientist but the developments internal to a particular science by emerging social needs. In other words, discoveries and inventions become virtually inevitable when the levels of scientists are focused on solving a problem. It is the Zeitgeist that is said to bring about the phenomenon of more or less simultaneous discovery or invention by two or more independent investigators.

Famous instances of multiple discoveries include: the discovery of sunspots by Galileo in 1610, and other three individuals independently in 1611 and there are more such examples....

Genius is not a myth. However sudden genius is a myth. The ten individuals did not involve magic or miracles. They were the work of human grit, not the product of superhuman grace. From this truth we can surely derive both strength and stimulus for our own life and work.

Musical minded Einstein is reported to have said of Mozart, his favorite composer along with J.S. Bach: Mozart’s music is so pure and beautiful that I see it as a reflection of the inner beauty of the universe”.

PS – Book recommended in this book.
‘Tantrums and talent: How to get the best from creative people: by Winston Fletcher
Lateral Thinking: A textbook of Creativity - Edward Bono
Before the gates of Excellence: the determinants of Creative genius by R. Ochse. (Excellent book as per the author)
The early mental traits of three hundred geniuses by Catherine Cox
Hereditary Genius by Francis Galton (1869)
The foundation of Science by Henri Poincare
Bright Splinters of the Mind by Beate Hermelin (Study on Savant)

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