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March 06, 2011

Page: 22/39

Home > 2011 Issues > March 06, 2011

What makes a genius?
Eureka, not a moment’s glory

Sudden Genius? The Gradual Path to Creative Breakthroughs Andrew Robinson, Oxford University Press, Pp 371(HB), £18.99.

HOW do some become genius and other don’t? Is Eureka a moment of flash? Or is there more to genius than that? The micro analysis of geniuses has been on for a long time, with every conceivable science applied to figure out the secret behind the brain miracles.

Andrew Robinson has chosen to study ten geniuses from varying fields to try and offer some explanation on the phenomena of genius. His book Sudden Genius? The Gradual Path to Creative Breakthroughs explores the lives of these ten great persons and looks for some common threads to arrive at conclusions. The only certain conclusion he reaches is that it always requires at least 10 years for a thought from germination to revelation.

The personalities he has chosen are: Leonardo da Vinci, Christopher Wren, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Jean-Francois Champollion, Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Virginia Woolf, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Satyajit Ray. Each of these people is considered a star in his/her particular domain.

The author says Ray is "by far the most versatile creator" he has known. Robinson’s first biography was on Ray, who trained as a painter and graphic designer. He wrote the screen play for his 30 feature films, cast every actor personally, designed his own sets and costumes and operated the camera, edited each frame and composed his own music, and even drew his posters. He told the author "This whole business of creation, of the ideas that come in a flash, cannot be explained by science. It cannot. I don’t know what can explain it but I know that the best ideas come at moments when you’re not even thinking of it. It’s a very private thing really."

The book discusses several scientific studies done and theories put forth, beginning with the study by psychologist Francis Galton in 1860s. Technological developments like brain mapping and MRI have helped understand the functioning of the brain and facilitated the study of brilliant minds. Works and traits of these ten personalities are analysed in-depth. Robinson then tackles some basic questions on genius and creativity.

"Does mental illness in some way assist creativity, or is it an unwanted by-product of being creative?" he poses. A 1990 survey by the psychiatrist Felix Post based on the biographies of 291 exceptionally creative individuals, came to the conclusion that, judged by modern diagnostic standards, Einstein and Faraday suffered from ‘mild’ psychopathology, Darwin and Pasteur from ‘marked’ psychopathology and Bohr and Galton from severe psychopathology, along with a number of other major scientists. "It seems that the age-old notion that genius is related to madness was not entirely unfounded, even if some invalid explanations have been offered," Ochse said.

According to the book "Among all the patterns observable in exceptional creativity, perhaps the most intriguing is the so-called ten-year rule of breakthroughs. First identified by John Hayes in 1989 and soon endorsed by several psychologists, it states that a person must preserve with learning and practicing a craft or discipline for about ten years before he or she can make a breakthrough. Remarkably few breakthroughs have been achieved in less than this time."

The book also explores the connection between talent and genius. If talent is necessary to be a genius and does a genius need to nurture his/her talents? Vladimir Horowitz, still performing in his eighties underlined the need to nurture the talent when he said: "If I skip practice for one day, I notice. If I skip practice for two days, my wife notices. If I skip for three days, the world notices." It also quotes psychologist R Ochse "no talent is a free gift waiting to be unwrapped."

The author also says that there could be some connection with heredity and exceptional creativity, though it is difficult to be conclusive about it. Yet another interesting common point among the geniuses is that a very high per cent of them suffered parental losses at an early age. Even among the 10 people discussed here, nine had lost either of the parents early. Leonardo though parents were alive was an illegitimate child and was brought up by grandparents. A survey of 699 famous historical personages conducted by psychologist J M Eisenstadt in 1978 revealed that 25 per cent of them had lost at least one parent before the age of ten, 34.5 per cent before the age of 15, 45 per cent before the age of 20 and 52 per cent before the age of 26.

Most of the outstanding minds are from science and arts. While artists are less interested in science than scientists are in arts, says the author. Creative science and artistic creation, at the highest level, are more separate, than similar activities. Similarly formal education and creativity and breakthrough have had an uneasy relationship.

Then there is the five-factor test - extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness an openness. In normal individuals, the scores on each of these remain constant over a period of one week or one year, whereas it fluctuates to the extremes among the genius.

Some of the conclusions reaches by the author are that though creative breakthrough may appear to be example of ‘sudden genius’ but in reality are always the outcome of gradual accumulation of knowledge and experience. Second, many breakthrough involve eureka experience. Third, dogged work leads to creative breakthroughs. "There can be no doubt that geniuses work habitually and continually." Breakthroughs need a ten year period of gestation. Robinson also remarks that "in the early 21st century, talent appears to be on the rise and genius on the decline. It is an engaging book that offers interesting insights into the minds that have influenced generations around the world.

Andrew Robinson has authored 20 books, including biographies of Satyajit Ray, Albert Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore.

(Oxfor University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford, OX2 6DP)
-Dr R Balashankar

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