Thursday, February 9, 2012

Sudden Genius?

In Sudden Genius; the gradual path to creative breakthroughs,  Robinson explores the lives of ten geniuses; five scientists and five artists, to see if he can find any common threads to how, why and what makes a genius.

He starts by spending some time explaining his definition of 'genius', which  isn't easy.  He settled on the ten in his book as they are all considered geniuses even if what a genius is is not clear.

"An individual is judged to be 'creative', psychometrically speaking, if he or she can consistently produce a spectrum of divergent responses to a request, of which a proportion are markedly different from the responses of other individuals.  but not too different, otherwise they are not recognizable as answers to the request." (page 24)

He briefly looked at creativity tests, and I have linked to some in the past on this blog.  His research showed that they were measuring something, but it wasn't precisely creativity.  He wrote that subjects who took the test years apart typically scored the same but that a high score on the test did not make the subject particularly creative in real life.  They are quite similar to IQ tests, which have the same characteristics.

Turns out, geniuses don't have much in common.

"If creativity researchers have proved anything about 'a' creative personality, it is that beneath a huge variety of external behaviors, often unconventional, all highly creative people preserve a steely, autonomous determination." (5% - Kindle provided page numbers for my other quotes but not this one.)

Geniuses were driven people, who worked long hours, entirely by choice.

Oh, and many geniuses suffered the death of a parent or other traumatic family experience in their youth:

"Various explanations have been proposed by psychologists.  One suggestion is that creative achievement, delinquency, and suicide should all be viewed as dissatisfied responses to the society that took away the life of the parent. By criticizing or attacking existing social beliefs and practices, creative achievement enables an individual to develop in an independent, nonconformist way, rejecting society's rules and regulations." (Page 258)

This reminds me a researcher discussing why orangutan orphans began catching and eating fish, but wild ones did not.  I cannot find a link and the researcher was only offering an opinion, but he felt that these orphaned orangutans were not held back or meddled with by adults as they grew up.

Although many scientific breakthroughs necessarily come from collaboration, creative breakthroughs generally do not:

"Thus collaboration and teamwork tend not to be a feature of the lives of the exceptionally creative - inconvenient though this fact may be for advocates of 'brainstorming' and 'group creativity' in commercial companies and other institutions." (Page 265)

And where does formal education fit in?  Darwin hated school and Mozart was home-schooled.

"Can formal education ever instill this kind of exceptional creativity?  Not on the evidence of past geniuses.  In Professor Eysenck's parting shot at the academic system at the end of his study Genius, he writes, "The best service we can do to creativity is to let it bloom unhindered, to remove all impediments, and cherish it whenever we encounter it.  We probably cannot train it, but we can prevent it from being suffocated by rules, regulations, and envious mediocrity." (Page 278)

The book offered few suggestions on how to turn my son into a genius, but at the same time it did let me know what would be a waste of time.

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