Genius Thinking (Part 2) : Romanticising Madness

All significant leaps are made through a mixture of talent and technique. These two components are not some mysterious and unexplainable part of the creative process, but the result of hard work coupled with an ability to see things from different perspectives. I’ve outlined some thoughts on creative thinking in an earlier post, but here I would like to concentrate on the romantic idea of artistic inspiration. In particular, the romanticised belief we seem to hold that madness in some way heightens creative genius. We can see this in popular portrayals of the ‘mad scientist’ figure or from popular perceptions of artists such as Van Gogh.

However, this belittles the dogged persistence and discipline that artists and scientists undertake. Sure, intuition plays a role in creative expression, but intuition is often followed by endurance. These words ‘persistence’, ‘doggedness’, ‘endurance’ are anything but romantic and despite the seemingly carefree attitude that many creative individuals affect, most work hard and persist through a process of trial and error where less driven individuals would not. Having ideas, then, takes a great deal of discipline, a word that is not synonymous with those in the throes of emotional distress.

Nevertheless, the image of emotional distress tends to be more commonly placed on artists, musicians, writers and others in this vein. Artists are more likely to ruminate, a thinking style that is commonly linked with depression and many struggle against difficult conditions. Added to this is the pressure of feeling the need to live up to earlier success. Some may even play to up to these stereotypes, allowing others to mistake eccentricity for ‘madness’. Whatever the case, leading an unconventional or more ‘creative’ lifestyle does not automatically mean that there is a lack of emotional stability. Recent studies have found the genetic overlap between creativity and mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder to be weak.

According to a new study in Nature Neuroscience, although there is evidence for a shared biology linking psychosis and creativity, the correlation is not particularly strong. By looking at variants in over 1,000 people who work in creative occupations in Iceland, the analysis showed that those who belong to artistic communities were more likely to carry variants that increased a person’s risk of developing mental illness than people in other occupations. However, these results can be misleading and using the results as a predictive tool is not only a weak measure but also harmful.

One criticism of the report suggests that this limited correlation stems from our inability to provide a good definition of creativity. Moreover, defining creativity by occupation is misleading. Individuals who work in jobs outside of the creative industries may not earn a living through painting or dancing, but they may still partake in creative activity outside of work and, indeed, define themselves as being creative.

But the perpetuation of this stereotype is not only down to defining a robust measure for creativity. In some sense, it has to be down to those in the scientific and creative communities to share their working processes with others. In doing so, they demystify the idea of the ‘mad genius’ and promote the qualities needed for creative thinking – making sense of the world in a way relevant to all occupations in all walks of life.




Genius Thinking (Part 1) : Have Brain, Will Travel…the makings of a genius

Drive, adaptability, and a willingness to take chances…these are some of the things that struck me from my last post about self-employment. As it turns out, these are also considered some of the characteristics of genius.

Of course, one of the first people I think of when the word ‘genius’ comes up is Einstein, however it looks like I will have to save Albert for another time. After a quick google search I found that he doesn’t even appear as one of the top 10 geniuses in Listverse. So what makes a genius?

In many ways we can suggest that this is down to a certain degree of creative thinking and not much to do with the size of ones IQ. For example, we can be far more ‘creative’ than we are ‘intelligent’ and vice versa. Intelligence is not the same as creativity.

Let’s think about how we might solve a problem. Typically, this is done on the basis of similar experiences we’ve had in the past. In this sense, we infer how things will turn out, selecting the most promising approach based on how we might have solved a similar problem in the past. We ‘learn from experience’ – a term I find amusing as I imagine us all with lab coats and bunson burners, systematically forming and testing hypotheses to help plan and predict our all too rational future.


But let’s think about this for a second. Does this really lead to acquiring original and novel ideas? Can our past experiences really guarantee how things will be in the future? I would say no, hypotheses cannot be guaranteed to be correct, for even empirical evidence may later turn out to be wrong. This gets us into a whole other problem – induction. For now, let’s get back to the geniuses.

I would propose that a common feature of genius behaviour is the ability to find a new perspective; one that no one else has taken. This contradicts our example of how we approach problem-solving. Looking at and re-structuring problems by utilising multiple perspectives requires us to abandon the approach that stems from past experience and prepare ourselves for chance occurrences. When we do this, we are not only solving existing problems, but identifying new ones along the way.

One aspect of thinking that I would identify as helping us achieve these multiple perspectives is the ability to think metaphorically. Not only that, but to visualise our thinking in ways that help us make sense of abstract concepts. Drawings, maps and diagrams together with a mixture of the more traditionally recognised verbal and mathematical approaches to problem-solving give us the flexibility to present and display information in different ways and link abstract principles with everyday occurrences.

Like playful children, the figures we identify as genius – the Galileos, Einsteins and da Vincis of this world – constantly allowed images, ideas and thoughts to randomly combine and recombine until the ‘accidental’ discovery arises. A mixture of talent and technique they are geniuses because they know not ‘what’ to think but ‘how’ to think.