Back to the Renaissance?

Breadth in knowledge and interests may inspire creativity.

Posted Jul 31, 2020

One of the trends we have witnessed during the last few centuries is for specialization and expertise to become increasingly narrow in scope and focus. The “Renaissance person” or the polymath—someone with very broad knowledge and sweeping interests that span many areas—has become somewhat of an endangered species. Not only is there no equivalent of Leonardo da Vinci today (he was quite unique even during the Renaissance), there is not even anyone would resemble Galileo Galilei.

     It is a less known fact that in addition to his breakthrough discoveries in astronomy and mechanics, Galileo was also remarkably knowledgeable in the humanities. He studied drawing (a skill which he later used to present his observations of the Moon), was passionate about the great Italian poets Dante and Ariosto (at age 24 he had already delivered two lectures on Dante’s Inferno) , wrote an essay comparing the art of painting to that of sculpture, and was consulted by contemporary great painters such as Cigoli and Artemisia Gentileschi.

     Is there a need for such “Renaissance people” today?

An examination of research by University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests that perhaps there is. Csikszentmihalyi investigated the nature of human creativity by drawing on nearly a hundred interviews he had conducted with creative people from a range of disciplines. He concluded that while being a prodigy did not appear to be a requirement for later creativity, an unusually intense curiosity did seem to be a prerequisite. In this respect he noted that: “Practically every individual who has made a novel contribution to a domain remembers feeling awe about the mysteries of life and has rich anecdotes to tell about efforts to solve them.”

When you think about it, the fact that curiosity may be a necessary (even if not sufficient) condition for creativity isn’t that surprising. After all, creative acts are often sparked by borrowing ideas from one domain and applying them in another. To be able to achieve that, however, requires familiarity with areas outside your field of expertise. The story of physical chemist and Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine provides a wonderful example of the complex (but fruitful) path through which curiosity can lead to creativity.

Like Galileo, Prigogine’s initial interests were in the humanities. Under pressure from his family he started to study law (Galileo’s father pressured his son to study medicine). This led Prigogine to an interest in the psychology of the criminal mind, which was followed by him immersing himself in neurochemistry, in an attempt to decipher the underlying processes in the brain. Realizing, however, that neuroscience was not yet at a stage where it could either explain or predict human behavior, he decided to start instead with the most fundamental processes — the basic chemistry of self-organizing systems (and that’s where he made his remarkable contributions).

Galileo’s intellectual journey was somewhat similar. Bored by medicine, which at the time required blind acceptance of rules, assertion and opinions of the famous anatomist from ancient Greece, Galen of Pergamum, he recalled that his father (who was a music theorist) often spoke of the wonders of mathematics. After having clandestinely listened to a few lectures in mathematics he was bewitched. Moreover, he became convinced that mathematics was the language in which the universe is written.

     About five years ago, when I interviewed nine individuals known for their insatiable curiosity and extraordinary creativity (people such as the great late physicist Freeman Dyson, and the famous Queen guitarist Brian May) I discovered that all of them demonstrated an openness to tackling challenges in unfamiliar new domains. For example, in addition to his brilliant career in music, and to being a member of NASA’s New Horizons astronomical research team, Brian May is a relentless activist for for the well-being of animals, as well as a world expert in Victorian stereophotography.

     The fact that wide-ranging interests and broad knowledge can inspire prodigious creativity, argues for a renewed shoutout for “Renaissance people” in the modern world.

Does this mean we should give up on specialization? Absolutely not! Great achievements are produced by experts who devote a significant amount of their time to one topic. However, two important developments in recent decades have made it possible for people to be both experts and “Renaissance” characters. One is the fact that we live longer than ever before and hence we have more time. The second is the fact that we now have access to vast amounts of information and knowledge literally at our fingertips.

The point is simply to learn to observe. As the celebrated physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman once put it: “I am always looking, like a child, for the wonders I know I’m going to find—maybe not every time, but every once in awhile.”

Reproduced by permission from Vik Muniz. From the "ink series."
An image of one creative individual (Richard Feynman) created by another (Vik Muniz)
Source: Reproduced by permission from Vik Muniz. From the "ink series."

References

Livio, M. (2020). Galileo and the Science Deniers. New York: Simon & Scuster.

Livio, M. (2017). WHY? What Makes Us Curious. New York: Simon & Schuster.