The Creative Process of a Nobel Laureate

A psychological test and a Nobel laureate's work indicate high creativity.

Posted May 13, 2020

Assessing both creative potential and achievement, I carried out a word association janusian process creativity assessment experiment, based on two types of opposite evoking word stimuli: Oral responses to single opposite evoking stimuli such as “input" and "hopeful" (opposites = "output” and “hopeless”) and double opposite evoking stimulus words such as "hard and dry” and "old sorrows" (opposites = "soft and wet” and “new joys”} were measured, because the latter doubles more closely signify tendencies and abilities to conceive and use multiple opposites.  Gender specificity was measured in a test group of IQ equivalent successful company executives (male = 18; female = 19).

Results were that male and female subjects did not differ in total opposite responding but there was a significantly higher amount of double opposite responding among the females. This suggests that creative capacity — specifically, the capacity or tendency to use the janusian process of actively conceiving multiple opposites simultaneously — is equivalent or greater among females.

In extensive research focused on creativity in Nobel laureates in the sciences, I carried out an in-depth interview with the German biologist Christiane Nusslein-Volhard, one of 12 women who have ever won a science Nobel Prize. Nusslein-Volhard was awarded the prize for discoveries concerning the genetic control of early embryonic development.

With a tall, sturdy presence and spiraling diffusely curled hair, her voice was mellifluous, and her manner frank and straightforward. She emphasized her own strong aesthetic orientations and values and related them at several points to her thinking in science. Her father was a successful architect, her maternal grandmother a painter, and each of her parents played a musical instrument and painted as well. Although Nusslein-Volhard herself did no artwork, she was an art enthusiast and a serious flute player. Her scientific work involved the identification and classification of genes that governed early embryonic development.

Nusslein-Vohard first primarily investigated the embryos of the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, and later on the zebrafish. The work has had a widespread application for the understanding of general embryogenesis as well as specific advances in the development of vertebrates.

"I think," she said, "the creativity came after we had the material, established the method, found all these mutations, and then made a picture out of what we had seen. Interpreting the patterns was the creative step."

She went on to describe that the Drosophila fly larvae normally has three thoracic and eight abdominal segments. When she discovered that every other segment was absent, she interpreted it as a regularity indicating that gene expression arose from a pairing of the remaining segments present. "It was necessary," she said, "to recognize the individual segment types. This was creative. The gene was called 'paired' because pairs of segments, both even and odd, were connected.

The naming of the pairs was simple but it was interpretative in the sense that it was derived from the type of regular segment skipping and expression, that is: paired, even-skipped, and odd-skipped segmentation. The pair-wise connection of segments was in the back of my head when I [in collaboration with co-Nobel laureate Eric Wieschaus] named them. For each gene type, there were several independent mutations."  From her observation of the phenomenon of absent genes, Nusslein-Volhard was able to postulate, in a self-conscious process of creative discovery, the presence of functionally separate and opposing segments paired and concomitantly connected with other segments in either an even or odd distribution. Both even and odd connected segments, she believed, produced opposing and interacting genetic pairs which introduced mutations.

These extensions of her creative discovery led to an understanding of the step-wise embyonic development of Drosophila melanogaster fly body segments. One of her discoveries also has led to the development of an anti-cancer drug. A gene pair that she and Weisshaus named “hedgehog” — when mutated the resulting flies had a coat of spines all over their undersides — was identified by other researchers in humans and vertebrates. Investigative work regarding this gene pair widely called “Hedgehog Research” has produced the specific anti-cancer drug named visinodegit or “vismo.”  This drug has been an effective modifier of a number of types of cancers.