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Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein
Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein

The Collection Connection to Creativity

Collecting can exercise and reflect creative thinking.

Do you collect anything? Coins? Stamps? Butterflies? Fine wines? Could your hobby potentially make you more creative? We think so!

It is a poorly recognized fact that many creative people are collectors. Scientist Charles Darwin became interested in studying nature when he became a collector of bugs. David M. Lee, a Nobel laureate in Physics not only collected bugs but also railway time tables and meteorological charts. Novelist Vladimir Nabokov was a passionate collector of butterflies. Nobel laureate (Literature) Giorgos Seferis collected sea shells. Artist Joan Miró collected siurells, clay whistles from Mallorca, Spain. And the list goes on.

Collecting often goes hand in hand with a growing passion for knowledge, as in Darwin's case. Japanese Nobel prize winner in Chemistry, Hideki Shirakawa, relates that collecting developed his interest as a boy in science, "I spent my days enthusiastically collecting insects and plants, and making radios. My affinity for science was awakened and grew during these ten years" (Shirakawa, Thomas Cech (Nobel Prize, Chemistry) writes similarly that, "I discovered science for myself in fourth grade, collecting rocks and minerals and worrying about how they were formed" (Cech,

Collections can also be sources of creative inspiration. Miró amassed a huge collection of siurells during his lifetime, filling his studio and house with them. For Miró, siurells were more than just clay whistles; they were also memories of some of his happiest moments as a child. They are brightly painted and almost always playfully shaped to represent people or animals. So when he wanted to imbue his paintings with playful happiness, Miró often borrowed both the colors and the shapes of siurells (Watkins, 1990).

From Nabokov's collection of butterflies.Nabokov was similarly inspired by butterflies. His desire to collect butterflies has been described by many of his biographers as a passion bordering on obsession. Early in his career, he spent several years in Harvard's Museum of Natural History as an entomologist, producing breakthroughs in our understanding of the evolution of a group of butterflies called the "blues". But butterflies, the process of collecting and organizing them, and even the subject of the collector himself, were also consistent themes in his novels and short stories. Indeed, his last short story is entitled "The Admirable Anglewing" and combines all these themes (Nabokov, 2000).

Sometimes it's the process of collecting itself that holds lessons for future success, since collecting is an essential part of many creative endeavors. As Nobel laureate Carol Grieder notes, the scientist is always "collecting more pieces of the puzzle," often by experimentation (Grieder, Social scientists similarly collect data on behaviors and opinions, while social activists may collect signatures for legislation. Learning how to collect the right kinds of things, to be selective, to order the material accumulated, to compare its qualities, to think about what remains to be found and to make sense of the importance and meaning of a collection are all useful skills.

A mineral collection.The fact is collecting exercises a number of important mental tools necessary for creative thinking. The collector learns to observe acutely, to make fine distinctions and comparisons, to recognize patterns within her collection. These patterns include not only the elements that make up the collection, but the gaps in it as well. Learning how to perceive what isn't there is as important as knowing what is! And the collector also knows the surprise of finding something that doesn't fit the collection pattern: Is the mismatch a fake? An exception? Something that belongs in another collection? Broken patterns are often the ones that teach us the most by challenging our preconceptions and expectations.

Because collecting exercises so many tools, it also teaches aesthetics. A wonderful example can be found in the methods of Georg von Bekesy, the Nobel laureate who unveiled the mechanisms by which the ear works. His interest in hearing began because he was a musician, but he found that he could not forget a song once he heard it, which became a painful distraction. So he took up collecting art instead. His biographer, Floyd Ratliff, notes that "Bekesy studied art not only for the great pleasure it gave him, but also for an effect that he believed it would have on his mind. Comparing one art object with another to determine quality and authenticity, he thought, greatly improved his ability to make judgments about the quality of scientific work too" (Ratliff, 1976). Who would even have imagined that collecting art and collecting data were two manifestations of the same process!? Bekesy took a risky, but creative leap-and it paid off.

In short, making a collection-a collection of just about anything-can provide the intellectual and sensual stimulation necessary to inspire your personal creativity. As with much creative endeavor, the key is to use collecting to develop skills and knowledge, and then to propel you from what you know to what you do not. So try to imagine how collecting stamps might provide insights into biology, sea shells into physics, wines into economics and who knows what kinds of enlightening leaps you may take!

Collect well and may the creative connection be yours.

© 2011 Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein


Nabokov, V. 2000. Nabokov's Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected. Beacon Press. contains biographies of all of the Nobel prize winners from 1901 to the present:

Ratliff, F. Georg von Bekesy, 1899-1972. Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences. 1976, pp. 31-32.; see also

Watkins, N. 1990. Miró and the "Siurells". Burlington Magazine 132 (1043): 90-95.

About the Author
Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein

Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein are co-authors of Sparks of Genius, The 13 Thinking Tools of the World's Most Creative People.

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