Arts and Crafts: Keys to Scientific Creativity
The secret is out: arts and crafts make good scientists.
Posted March 6, 2009
Over the course of a career, what makes one scientist more successful than another? The Scientist Project, a longitudinal study of a diverse set of scientists, revealed an unsuspected secret: arts and crafts hobbies.
In 1958, UCLA psychologist Bernice Eiduson recruited forty young scientists from the Los Angeles area, mainly at UCLA and CalTech, who agreed to undergo a battery of psychological and IQ tests every five years for an indefinite period. The scientists also agreed to interviews about their work habits, career aspirations, successes and failures, cultural activities, and so forth. Statistics on their publications and citations were gathered as well.
Within twenty years it was clear that the Scientist Project might indeed reveal some secrets of great science. By 1978, four members of the study group had won Nobel Prizes (including Linus Pauling and Richard Feynman); two more had been nominated for the award several times each; and eleven had been elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Measured in terms of publications and citations, most of the remaining scientists had quite average careers. And at the bottom end of the spectrum, several failed to obtain tenure as scientists and moved into non-academic jobs. By comparing these groups Eiduson and her researchers expected to find clues to scientific success.
Extracting those clues from the data, however, proved difficult. After Eiduson's death in the mid 1980s, we (meaning Bob and, in this case, his mother, Maurine Bernstein) took over the project. Along with statistician Helen Garnier, we ran every possible permutation of the various psychological and IQ tests with various measures of scientific success. We came up empty handed. Very successful scientists, it turned out, are difficult to differentiate psychologically from their less successful colleagues.
We decided to have one more go at the scientists in 1988, this time concentrating on aspects of their arts and crafts avocations, their recreational habits, time management techniques, and the mental "tools" they used to solve their scientific problems. This time statistically significant differences between highly successful, average, and below-average scientists popped out of the data. The Nobel laureates and National Academy members were much more likely to:
• have one or more avocations (some as many as a dozen!) than their less successful colleagues (here we show Feynman at the drums, Pauling at the guitar);
• believe that knowledge of art, poetry, music, etc. was part-and-parcel of being an educated scientist;
• cite ways in which their avocations promoted their scientific work; and
• use a much wider range of mental "tools" during problem solving than their less successful colleagues, including various forms of two-, three-, and four-dimensional visual imaging, kinesthetic imaging, acoustic imaging, verbal and written forms, diagrams, and so forth.
This last finding particularly intrigued us. The greater the number of mental "tools" the scientists used, the greater their probability of being unusually successful. The number, type, and range of mental "tools" used by scientists also correlated with their avocations: poets tended to be verbal thinkers; painters and musicians tended to be visual thinkers; sculptors tended to be kinesthetic thinkers; and those who enjoyed electronic avocations tended to use the widest range of mental tools, perhaps because of the need to translate abstract diagrams through manual skills into three-dimensional, functional apparatuses.
These avocation results correlated further with the time management practices of the different groups of scientists. Very successful scientists universally claimed to be "lazy" (though they all worked very long hours!) because they valued relaxation as a way to refresh their minds. They also limited the amount of time devoted to recalcitrant projects before turning to something more promising. Successful scientists tended to have more projects of shorter duration and greater diversity than their less successful colleagues.
In contrast, less successful scientists almost all believed that if they only spent more time in the lab and worked harder and longer at their (usually single) project, they would be more successful. Consequently, they undertook significantly less projects at any given time and over the course of their careers than their more successful colleagues. Moreover, the least successful scientists had the fewest avocations and universally expressed the opinion that these avocations took valuable time and energy away from their scientific work.
How scientists perceived their avocations also proved critical. There is a difference between the polymath (who masters the knowledge and skills of several subjects) and the dilettante (who dabbles without depth in many fields). There is also a difference between knowing many unconnected things and understanding the connections among many things. Scientific creativity depends not only on a well-oiled imagination coupled to habits of hard work but, more importantly, on the ability to integrate in functional ways a wider range of ideas, concepts and skills than is usual.
Consider this: for many 19th century biophysicists there was a direct correlation between number of avocations and range of discoveries made (Cranefield). Helmholtz, for instance, played the piano in his spare time and also pioneered the biophysical study of music, applying his insights to both physics (resonators) and psychology (perception of harmony). Similarly, Charles Darwin brilliantly linked diverse interests in geography, geology, paleontology, zoology, botany, agriculture, anthropology, and economics into the breakthrough theory of evolution by natural selection (Gruber).
The historian of science Howard Gruber called this and other fertile combinations of avocation and vocation "networks of enterprise." The philosopher John Dewey called them "integrated activity sets." We have called them "correlative talents" (Root-Bernstein, 1989). No matter what term you use, it all means the same thing. Creative people find ways of integrating unusual amounts of what they know; their professional and personal activities synergize, rather than compete.
In fact, the historian of polymathy Minor Meyers has argued that creativity is inherently combinatorial. The more diverse knowledge one understands and actively juxtaposes, the greater the probability of finding useful and novel combinations. The Scientist Project demonstrated that the arts and crafts are essential components in that creative mix.
Cranefield, P. (1966) The Philosophical and Cultural Interests of the Biophysics Movement of 1847. Journal of the History of Medicine 21, 1-7.
Dewey, J. (1934) Art as Experience. New York: Balch.
Eiduson B. (1962) Scientists: Their Psychological World. New York: Basic Books.
Root-Bernstein, R.S. (1989) Discovering. Cambridge, M. A.: Harvard University Press.
Root Bernstein, R.S., Bernstein, M., Garnier, H.W. (1993) Identification of scientists making long-term, high-impact contributions, with notes on their methods of working. Creativity Research Journal 6: 329-343.
Root Bernstein, R.S., Bernstein, M., Garnier, H.W. (1995) Correlations between avocations, scientific style, and professional impact of thirty eight scientists of the Eiduson Study, Creativity Research Journal 8, 115 137.