The Genius of Play

What happens when geniuses relax? The Polymath at Play. What geniuses do in their spare time, and how off-time can lead to new realizations.

By Kaja Perina, published on January 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Do all great scientists make their best discoveries in the lab? Probably not physicist Richard Feynman, for whom a flying plate in a college cafeteria led to a quick calculation of electron orbits and eventually the Nobel Prize. Certainly not medical researcher Alexander Fleming, who was culturing mold for his hobby, microbe paintings, when he accidentally spawned the moss-colored Penicillium notatum,which yielded the first antibiotic. The annals of science are filled with lunchtime discoveries and productive goofing-off, as geniuses amass disparate elements in service of their craft. But how exactly does play contribute to creativity? For more than a decade, scholars Robert and Michèle Root-Bernstein have sought empirical answers to this highly unempirical question.

Robert Root-Bernstein, Ph.D., a professor of physiology at Michigan State University, recently compared the hobbies of 134 Nobel laureates in chemistry to the hobbies of a control group of scientists in the Sigma Xi society. Root-Bernstein found that the Nobelists were highly accomplished outside the lab. More than half had at least one artistic avocation, and almost all had an enduring hobby, from chess to insect collecting. One-quarter of the Nobelists were musicians, and 18 percent practiced visual arts such as drawing or painting. Writing and poetry were also well represented, especially compared to the Sigma Xi members, among whom less than 1 percent engaged in any hobbies. Root-Bernstein is expanding his survey to include Nobel Prize winners in physics and medicine (he obtains information through biographical studies and interviews with living laureates). Meanwhile, independent scholar Michèle Root-Bernstein, Ph.D., is writing a book about one type of play: the creation of imaginary worlds in childhood.

Psychologists traditionally consider this phenomenon, known as "world-play," to be rare. Yet Michèle Root-Bernstein found evidence of juvenile world-play among 38 percent of MacArthur Fellows who responded to her inquiries. (The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation gives unsolicited "genius" grants to highly accomplished or promising individuals in the arts, sciences and public affairs.) Two-thirds of MacArthur Fellows who acknowledged childhood world-play cited a connection between their kingdoms of yore and their adult work. Of those who never engaged in childhood world-play, half still felt that some type of play prepared them for their current endeavors.

But how do hobbies and imagination help foster professional breakthroughs? "One possibility is that people are geniuses because they are polymaths and have a huge range of talents," says Robert Root-Bernstein. "There's not much the rest of us can learn from that. But another possibility is that an avocation helps you learn skills."

In the Root-Bernsteins' book Sparks of Geniusthey amass evidence of 13 cognitive tools, including imagining, abstracting and, yes, playing, that may contribute to creativity by helping people synthesize knowledge across domains. For instance, Einstein employed "body-thinking," wherein he imagined himself a charged particle. Richard Feynman engaged in "acoustic imaging," expressing his experience of mathematical equations by muttering and pounding. (It probably helped that he was an enthusiastic bongo drummer.) Synaesthesia, the blurring of the senses, is cited again and again by accomplished scientists, artists, writers and musicians who experience writing as music, music as color, or colors as numbers.

The Root-Bernsteins maintain that the key is not to just slave away at the piano or the easel, but to "find the links between everything in your life, the connections that others miss." You may not unlock the origins of the universe, but you'll see the world in a different way.