Cognitive Signatures of Creativity and Genius

Deconstructing the creative feats of Nobelists and Pulitzer winners.

Posted Aug 14, 2015

Nobel laureates in the sciences share more than just bragging rights and the knowledge that they've demonstrably advanced human understanding in their chosen field. Nobelists in medicine, physiology, physics and chemistry tend to have written poetry as teens and to be avid fans of classical music, according to Albert Rothenberg, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard who has conducted extensive studies with 45 Nobel laureates, alongside matched controls. Many also had a same-sex parent with demonstrated aptitude or strong aspirations to work in the prizewinner's area of eminence. Rothenberg's most salient findings, though, are three cognitive processes that are both signatures of breakthrough discoveries and telltale signs of an inventive mind. The paradoxical understanding that a concept can be both true and not-true simultaneously was an epiphany underlying Einstein's discovery of the general theory of relativity. Einstein called his insight that a man could be at rest while falling "the happiest thought of my life." Rothenberg would call this moment an example of the janusian process, in which true-but-antithetical forces are reconciled.

Rothenberg and I discussed his own lifelong quest to operationalize creative processes, first via email and finally in conversation in New York City. 

Can you share a bit about your own background and medical training? What factors spurred your interest in creativity? 

When I was young I wanted to be a novelist but wasn’t sure I had the talent. I have always been enamored with great literature and art and fascinated by their intellectual and emotional gratifications. At Harvard College, I was influenced by the great psychologist Henry Murray, who showed me how I might study creativity empirically. I decided to go to medical school to become a psychiatrist and to pursue this research as well as clinical work. As a psychiatrist, I realized that psychiatry presents understandings of mental illness and disease but had no criteria or systematic understanding of mental health. I believed it was especially important, therefore, to understand and develop scientific knowledge about mental health, adaptation, and creativity.

And in the last decade I have actually published two novels of which I am proud: Living Color, about the slashing of a painting at the modern art museum in Amsterdam; Madness and Glory about the father of modern psychiatry, Philippe Pinel, who struck the chains from the mentally ill during the French Revolution.

How did you initially identify the three creative processes that are the focus of your work, the janusian, homospatial, and sep-con articulation? 

In several phases: the janusian process first through a psychological analysis of Eugene O’Neill’s revisions in writing the play The Iceman Cometh, then interviews with Arthur Miller and John Cheever; the homospatial process from extensive exploratory and weekly interviews with James Merrill, Richard Wilbur, William Styron, and John Cheever; the sep-con articulation process from interview work with other writers such as Robert Penn Warren, John Hersey, Muriel Ruykeyser, Maxine Kumin, and from introspection regarding my own creative writing as well as the early portions of intensive interviewing of Nobel laureate scientists.

Of these three processes, is there one that you yourself use most consistently and can you give an example of its operation in your own investigations? 

Sep-con articulation. I used this consistently in the creation of characters in my two novels. I experienced myself as concomitantly connected and separate from the characters throughout the writing. For example, I found that some of their characteristics and experiences in the novel were related or connected to my own but in all cases they were quite separate and different and the final products resulted from cognitive and emotional interactions between myself and my experiences with the content and behavior of the characters I was creating. I have also directly used the homospatial process to create metaphors for use in my scientific explorations and literary works.

You state that "Creativity does not spring simply from intelligence, spontaneity, special skills, offbeat or extremely unusual ideas and behavior, although all of these may in particular aspects be involved.” What, then, are key elements of creative output in the upbringing, schooling or work habits of the laureates you studied? How do they differ from your controls? 

By Nobel foundation / A.B. Lagrelius & Westphal/Wikimedia Commons
Source: By Nobel foundation / A.B. Lagrelius & Westphal/Wikimedia Commons

In Flight from Wonder I describe two studies of the family backgrounds of all science Nobel laureates and a large number of literary prizewinners of the twentieth and early twenty first centuries. My findings were that a statistically significant number of both types of creators had a same sex parent in the applied/performance equivalent occupation of their offspring e.g. Eugene O’Neill’s father was an actor; Albert Einstein’s father was an engineer. Also, I found that a large number of these same sex parents of the science Nobel laureates had unfulfilled wishes themselves to be scientists or, with the literary prizewinners, creative writers. My conclusions were that this family constellation (with an appreciating mother) produced facilitative training, genetic advantages, and both loving and competitive motivations in the offspring to succeed in related kinds of creative work.

Other factors which I discuss in the book, from my other studies, are the importance of parental acceptance of adolescent oppositional tendencies (janusian process); parental and subject focus on body image and spatial concerns (homospatial process); enhanced development of individuation involving separation and connection between parents and offspring (sep-con articulation process). All my subjects, like most adolescents, wrote poetry, both good and bad, while in high school. Every one of the Nobel scientists had an early mentor who encouraged their exploration of scientific research.

Can you speak more specifically about the lives of specific subjects whom you particularly admire? 

Norwegian Nobel laureate Ivar Gaiever, who discovered tunneling in superconductors, told me that he suffered as a teenager through the deprivations of the Nazi occupation of the Second World War and had to fix everything for himself including bicycles, shoes, and various needed objects. Christiane Nüsslein Volhard, who discovered the processes of genetic embryonic development, was brought up by an architect father and artistic mother who taught her artistic perception early and she later applied that to her work on pairings and design in genes. American Walter Gilbert, who worked diligently on physics and mathematics problems when young became a Nobel biological chemist who discovered the base sequences of nucleic acids. The father of French Nobel chemist and inventor of supramolecular chemistry, Jean-Marie Lehn, was a very accomplished organist and he himself learned to play the organ and piano. Rare in the Nobel group but influential, both Gilbert and Lehn were interested in the creative arts early; Gilbert married a creative poet and musician, and Lehn has written about analogies between artistic matters and his own creative experiences in chemistry.

All of the science Nobel laureates were intensely motivated and passionate about science from an early age and all developed the capacity to recognize important scientific problems. The adolescent development and mentoring, the later motivation, passion, problem finding and defining was less evident in the controls. Mainly, the controls did good rather than creative problem solving. Only one used a cognitive creative process in his inventions. Moreover, almost all of the Nobel laureates loved music, especially classical music, and several played musical instruments. Musical and other artistic interests were largely absent in the controls.

The processes you’ve identified are executed by all creative types and yet you’ve studied them at the highest levels of achievement.  Can you comment on factors that distinguish everyday creative types from creativity that results in eminence: passion, dedication, IQ, facility with the three creative processes you’ve articulated?  

First off: there is no such thing as the popular advice of creativity buffs to “unlock your creativity.” Creativity is not an untapped power in everyone that simply needs the trying of some artistic activity at any level or changing the way you cook or investing in business or meditating or sleeping long hours (I saw a recent article advocating this) or simply “thinking outside the box”. No one creates without intending to create and everyone cannot fully develop or use the capacities or specific knowhow to generate products, thoughts, and procedures that are both new and valuable—the definition of creativity. The other problem for the study of creativity, everyday or high level, is that the word itself is nowadays widely used in media and day to day work simply to describe something positive, a good idea or activity, regardless of whether it contains anything resembling an actual creative activity or event.

Harris & Ewing/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Harris & Ewing/Wikimedia Commons

It is not that I don’t think, or know, that people may create in a very wide variety of settings, occupations, and activities. If what is meant by “everyday creativity” is creativity that is not necessary artistic, scientific, or professional and not even widely recognized, I am absolutely sure that such exists and is practiced “everyday.” In Flight From Wonder, I spell out in detail the creativity of the baseball player Joe Dimaggio in his everyday practice of baseball. I do not, however, describe a mystical talent, as some have attributed to him, but his application of the sep-con articulation process in the centerfield fielding of a baseball. And, in fact, I believe that much of genuine everyday or workday creativity may derive from applications of parts or wholes of the three cognitive creative processes I have discovered. And, although the Nobel laureates and literary prizewinners all manifest passion, dedication, special skills, and high IQ on an intensive daily basis, everyday creators may also possess all or parts of these attributes. In three of my posts here, I spell out how, one or all of the three cognitive creative processes can, in some degree, be used in everyday creativity. I point out, for example, that preparing a dish with kale and veal connected by a creamy caper sauce is an instance of the creative use of the sep-con articulation process (again).

From the beginning of my research career, I have concentrated on creativity in outstanding persons of great creative ability—undisputed producers of both the new and the valuable. This has been because, as a scientist, I wanted to be sure to start with that I was studying the actual phenomenon with high objective validity. I have always sought consensual judgment regarding the creative achievement. If, as I now believe, the creative thinking of literary prizewinners and science Nobel laureates, can be shared, in whole or in part, with thinking by everyday creative persons, it comes from objective consideration of clearcut actual creativity.

When I was working on my first book on creativity, The Emerging Goddess: The Creative Process in Art, Science, and Other Fields, I had a poster above my desk showing a monkey working at a typewriter. The caption, attributed to Thomas Henry Huxley, was: “Given enough time, a hypothetical chimpanzee typing at random would, as part of its output, almost surely produce one of Shakespeare’s plays.” As I wrote, I frequently looked up at this poster when thinking of research difficulties because it reminded me that creativity was not a random process but a completely human form of adaptation. It required objective scientific research to understand.

A problem with so many writings on creativity, both everyday and high level, popular and purportedly scientific, is that they rely heavily on anecdotal information about creators and creations. Also, they often write as if they are the first persons ever to consider the subject. The trouble with anecdotes, including anecdotes about creative events, is that, while they may contain some intuitive truth, they are not empirically or scientifically derived. They may sound like manifestations of everyday creativity, a creative personality, and creative events but, without the objective criteria of both meaningful newness and value, they are often simply positive different approaches and activities. There’s nothing wrong with encouraging people to be flexible or freethinking but, with regard to everyday creativity, the content and methods advocated are idiosyncratic and totally speculative.

Needless to say, the differences between scientific and literary prizewinners are in many ways too legion to catalog. However, can you share a particularly salient difference *and* a similarity (one that is perhaps counterintuitive at first glance) between these two esteemed groups?

When I first started doing experimental work on creativity, I tested a large population of potentially creative subjects from Yale College. My criteria only included being potentially creative in the literary arts. My first results regarding their thought processes indicated, however, that there were no differences between these subjects and the remaining Yale student controls. I was at first disappointed, but it then occurred to me to look at evidence I had for potential scientific creativity in students I had put in the control group. Finding this evidence, I extracted the potential creative scientists from the controls and grouped them together with the potentially creative literary sample--the statistical differential results then soared to significance, i.e., the potential literary and scientific creators together manifested thinking and creativity results differing from the controls. From then on, I have come to believe that literary and scientific creativity have shared attributes. 

C.P. Snow has in the past written about the two worlds of science and the arts, and in many ways that general dichotomy still exists today. What joins them is, as I have tried to show since that early experiment, that they use identical cognitive processes in creating. Also, both the scientists and the writers I have studied were passionate, dedicated, motivated to learn, and they used creative metaphors—either literary or scientific-- in their work. Scientists generally were somewhat higher in intelligence, especially spatial and technical, in all my researches. The most salient difference that I can point to is what I would have to call intellectuality in the writers--a broad interest in literature, visual arts, dance, music, and politics as well as in scientific matters. The creative scientists I have worked with were almost all especially interested in music, including musical performance, but few had interests in the arts or literature in any serious way. A possibly counterintuitive similarity between the prizewinning writers and the Nobel scientists is that both are highly perfectionistic verging on actual compulsiveness. Writers are often considered very free, easy, unconventional, and even impulsive but even those with such characteristics are perfectionistic in their creative work.

Source: OxfordUniversityPress/Amazon

How did authoring Flight From Wonder advance your long-term studies of creativity? 

The empirical controlled study of creativity in Nobel laureate scientists, with whom the value or the usefulness of their creative achievement cannot be questioned, is a culminating proof of my long term findings about the components and operation of all manifestations of creative processes, especially the composition and function in general of the three cognitive creative processes.

What is the most important point or points you’d like to convey to readers of Flight From Wonder? 

Creativity is not mysterious or due to the inspiration or actions of a deity. It is not a matter of born genius nor, on the other hand, is it simply doing things of all types differently or better. It is a complex phenomenon but all aspects are understandable and possibly widely reproducible. Creativity and the creative process is responsible for some of mankind’s greatest achievements and creative activity is exciting, gratifying, often surprising, and is beautiful to observe, trace, and comprehend

What is the most profound insight you’ve obtained in your life's work?

That both aesthetic creators and individual creative scientists are poets of the mind; that all aspects of creativity can be accounted for including the everyday or workday; that interactions within the creative processes are possibly isomorphic with special interactions in synapses between neurons of the human nervous system