Tags: Knowledge

We’re advancing techonologically all right, but why is the world running out of scientific geniuses?

Novelty is generated randomly or strategically? Is creative thought a process of honing or selecting? These are important questions to better understand creativity, discovery and the genesis of Genius. ‘Genius’ researcher Dean Keith Simonton, professor of psychology at the University of California-Davis and author of several books including Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity, has recently asked — Why is the world running out of scientific geniuses?

Simonton’s list of geniuses includes Albert Einstein, Nicolaus Copernicus, Charles Darwin, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton. He thinks the world has stopped producing geniuses. He says that we will not have another Darwin or Einstein. He, however, believes that we need paradigm-shatterers like Darwin or Einstein to shatter the foundations of our beliefs. These ‘paradigm-shatterers’ are needed as there are still many fundamental questions to resolve. Simonton believes, “As you lengthen the required training, you narrow the base of expertise. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to become a polymath beyond the sense of a ‘know it all.’”

For a genius to emerge, some think, the world must fall into some kind of crisis. The good thing is that the world will always have a few unresolved crises, and thus we should always hope for the emergence of geniuses to resolve them. Genius, being “natural endowment, deep, strange, and mysterious”, is difficult to define. It is even difficult for a genius to define genius. For many artists it has been said that they can do but can’t explain how. It is also not very clear how great ideas emerge.

Denis Dutton writes about Picasso —in order to overcome “an indigestion of greenness”, Picasso walked into the woods to “empty this sensation into a picture.” Simonton says that ‘raw genius’ is generally a necessary but not a sufficient condition to make someone creative. He thinks creative geniuses, like Darwin, might not have scored especially high on a conventional IQ test.

Ideas don’t magically appear in a genius’ head from nowhere. They always build on what came before. Psychologist R Keith Sawyer, author of Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation says an idea may seem sudden, but in reality, our minds have actually been working on it all along. It is a chain reaction of many tiny sparks. He says that insight and execution are inextricably woven together. If the executioner is different from the one who first ‘saw’ the idea, chances of its success seem lesser.

The more ideas you have, the better. Sometimes you don’t know which spark is important. One of the advices of Sawyer is to develop a network of colleagues and schedule time for freewheeling, unstructured discussions and there is nothing like a “full-blown moment of inspiration” waiting for you.

“Look at what others in your field are doing. Brainstorm with people in different fields. Research and anecdotal evidence suggest that distant analogies lead to new ideas,” says Sawyer. Our memories have great flexibility and creativity. Though we don’t want to be overwhelmed by irrelevant information, we like to understand things by entering into other’s minds through their eyes and ears. And as Oliver Sacks writes, “Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds”.

Is creativity a trial-and-error process? According to Simonton, creativity requires the generation of a certain amount of ‘blind ideational variants’ which are then selected for development into the finished product. Liane Gabora of the University of British Columbia says that a lack of continuity in the creative work need not reflect a lack of progressive honing in the internal creative process. She says that the creative thoughts are not self-replicating automata.

Creative scientists are different from creative artists. Simonton says, it is because of their training. Scientific creativity requires much more formal training than does artistic creativity. “Indeed, some studies have found a curvilinear inverted-U relation between artistic creativity and formal education levels so that those with higher degrees are at a relative disadvantage,” says Simonton.

The other dimension of difference between an artist and scientist is in the influence of their mentors. “Although the creative development is enhanced by working under notable creators in the same domain, artistic talent is best nurtured by studying under a diversity of artists while scientific talent is better nourished by studying under just one.” zz

(The writer is a biotechnologist and ED, Birla Institute of Scientific Research, Jaipur)


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