Creative genius, and other myths

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  • Book Review

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    had them, whereas the big C ideas have wider significanceand, importantly, are socioculturally determined. To be

    advance? As in other fields, scientific discovery has its ownmyths. A famous example is the story of howKekule saw the

    Update TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences Vol.11 No.2 47accepted as creative, it is not enough for ideas simply tobe novel; they must also have appropriateness within theconstraints of the society in which the ideas are expressed.

    Sawyer covers these two sides of creativity in sections ofthe book labelled individualist and contextualist (socio-cultural and historical) approaches. One of hismain aims isto explode what he calls our creativity myths. There aremany ideas surrounding creativity that the scientific

    structure of the benzene ring in a daydream about snakesbiting their own tails. However, Sawyer cites evidence tosuggest that this story is false, or at least exaggerated.Kekule did not report the daydream story until decadesafter he published the paper that proposed the ring struc-ture and, in fact, he got the structure wrong in the paper,substituting hydrogen atoms for the six carbon atoms. Thecorrect structure is retrospectively attributed to Kekule (p.279). The process of discovery in science is much morecollaborative than such stories suggest and studies byRobinDunbar cited by Sawyer have shown that insights that lead

    Corresponding author: Ogilvie, J. (julian.ogilvie@rcplondon.ac.uk).Available online 22 December 2006.

    www.sciencedirect.coma clever argument in conversation. These personal experi-ences and ideas are important only to the individual who

    What about creativity in science? Is it the case that thereare but a few isolated geniuseswho have propelled scientificpublic or socially recognized creativity and the smaller actsof personal creativity that we can all have in everydaysituations. These have been called big C and small c,respectively [1]. Big C creativity refers to the ideas orartefacts that are judged by society to be valuable andhighly significant, such as Picassos paintings or relativitytheory. Examples of small c creativity might include mod-ifying a recipe when you do not have all the ingredients,finding a new solution when mending your bicycle, or evenCreative genius, and otherExplaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation by R. KISBN 0-19-530445-4

    Julian Ogilvie

    Royal College of Physicians, 11 St Andrews Place, Regents Pa

    In a recent issue of that most discerning ofLondonmagazines, Private Eye, there wasan advert for a Creative Writting Work-shop in Thornbury, Gloucestershire.Well, there is being creative and there isjust plain wrong. One of the difficulties forresearch on creativity is in deciding whenit is right to say that something is creative,indeed, in defining just what the wordmeans. In his latest book, Explaining

    Creativity, Keith Sawyer does not shy away from suchdifficulties. The first problem is that one can talk aboutmany different kinds of creativity: artistic creativityincludes writing, visual art, music, dance, and more. Thenthere is scientific creativity, and creativity in business andeconomics. Sawyer covers all these, as well as biologicalfoundations, cognitive models and creativity in machines.Concepts and definitions are likely to vary in these differ-ent fields, and Sawyer begins by exploring some of theconcepts and trying to tie down a working definition ofcreativity, which is essential to make headway in researchon this elusive topic.

    One of the pioneers in the scientific study of creativitywas Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose efforts in creativityresearchmatched his personal passion formountain climb-ing. He and others since have made a distinction betweenythsh Sawyer, Oxford University Press, 2006. 19.99 (pbk) (354 pp.)

    London NW1 4LE, UK

    approach of the second half of the 20th century uncoveredas myths. Some of these ideas are linked to the 19thcentury Romantic movement in Europe, particularlyamong writers. For instance, you might have heard it saidthat the creative process is largely unconscious. In fact,creativity is mostly conscious, hard work and, in all fields,the most creative people also tend to be the most indus-trious. It is rather like the golfer who, when told he waslucky to win, said, And you know, the more I practise, theluckier I am. Another myth is the notion that children aremore creative than adults because they are somehow closerto nature. Although its popularity seems to have beenboosted by the poet Baudelaires dictum that genius isnothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will [2],this is simply romantic twaddle.

    One of the most difficult creativity myths to shake off isthe idea that creativity is linked, perhaps even dependsupon, mental illness. It might be true, as Graham Greeneonce said, that writing is a form of therapy, but earlystudies that purportedly linked many creative artists withmanic-depressive illness exaggerated the case by using anoverly broad definition of mental illness. They also tendedto apply the label to writers who were already dead, andposthumous diagnosis is inaccurate at best. Later studiesfound that the incidence of manic depression and schizo-phrenia among (living) artists and scientists was the sameas that in the general population. The eradication of thesemyths is far from complete and is relatively recent. Onlytwo decades ago, a book entitled Creativity and Diseasestarted with as romantic a premise as you could wish for:There is certainly nothing ordinary about great creators,who generally differ from us common mortals in a varietyof ways. Like curious children, they see everything withinnocent eyes, as though for the first time. . . ([3], p. 38).You see what an uphill struggle Sawyer has.

  • to a scientific breakthrough often occur in laboratory dis-cussions with the whole team of researchers. When Dunbarrecorded laboratory meetings and then interviewed teammembers months later, he found that they had forgottenwhere the ideashad come from.They tended tobeattributedto the laboratory head, but ideas are far more likely to bedistributed, the pooled reasoning of the research teammaking the group smarter than the sum of its individualmembers.

    In a nice touch, Sawyer ends each chapter with a list ofquestions, or what he calls thought experiments. Forinstance, from the chapter on visual creativity, he asks,Are movies art? Are they just as important as fine artpainting? Or, at the end of the chapter on science, thereis this: Youve probably heard of Albert Einstein, but youprobably dont know the details of any of the theories thathes famous for. Then how do you know hes so brilliant?.These thought experiments challenge our own private

    creativity myths and could also be used as points for groupdiscussion. As such, the book might be aimed at under-graduates in psychology but it is sowide-ranging in its scopeand so full of snippets of information as to stimulate almostanyones interest in the topic. As to why you would wantto explain creativity in the first place, Sawyer gives hisown answers, some of which you might be able to guessby now.

    References1 Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999) Implications of a systems perspective forthe study of creativity. In The Handbook of Creativity (Sternberg, R.J.,ed.), pp. 315335, Cambridge University Press

    2 Baudelaire, C. (1863, reprinted 1964) The Painter of Modern Life andOther Essays (transl. Mayne, J.), Phaidon Press

    3 Sandblom, P. (1982) Creativity and Disease, Marion Boyars Publishers

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