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Genius: The Natural History of Creativity


Defining genius in a psychological manner. Genius, defined as supreme creative achievement, socially recognized over the centuries, is the product of many different components acting synergistically, i.e., multiplying with each other, rather than simply adding one to the other. Among the components are high intelligence, persistence, and creativity, regarded as a trait. Trait creativity may or may not issue in creative achievement, depending on the presence of the many other qualifications and situational conditions. Prominent among these additional qualifications are certain personality traits, such as ego-strength (the inner strength to function autonomously), to resist popular pressure, and to persist in endeavor in spite of negative reinforcement…Chief among these cognitive features is a tendency to overinclusiveness, an inclination not to limit one’s associations to relevant ideas, memories, images.

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Key Takeaways

  1. Genius and Psychoticism
    1. Genius is linked to but not full psychosis. Psychoticism may hold key to better understanding of genius
    2. Psychosis not correlated to genius as commonly thought; high pathology short of psychosis is helpful, as is ego-strength (emotional stability)
    3. Schizophrenics have ‘over inclusive’ thinking – filter mechanism breaks down and everything is important and related all at once. This looseness of thinking also found in the most creative, but doesn’t become psychosis
  2. Talent vs. Genius
    1. Talent works, genius creates – argues talent and genius lie on a continuum, not discrete
    2. Talent clusters in families, genius does not
      1. Necessary characteristics needed too are unlikely to cluster
      2. Despite Galton’s hypothesis of ’eminence’ being normally distributed, the evidence from creativity as achievement shows it to be very abnormally distributed
  3. Intelligence vs. Genius
    1. The distinction between a dispositional variable and what we might call an achievement variable (school success, production of a work of genius) is absolutely vital in understanding psychological analyses of abilities and traits. The distinction currently made between trait and state, say of anxiety, embodies the distinction. The dispositional hypothesis states that some people are more likely than others to react with anxiety to situations perceived as dangerous, and to perceive as dangerous situations which to others may not appear to be so. But a state of anxiety may be induced even in non-anxious persons by presenting them with a very real danger, while even those high on trait anxiety may be quire relaxed up on occasion when no trace danger looms
  4. IQ
    1. IQ tests very predictive of success, seems to be about 70% biological
    2. High IQ does not equate to genius, necessary but not sufficient (ambitious, chunking, training, perseverance)
    3. Achievement tends to be higher in nearly every category, contra to the common perception of the idiot savant
    4. Personality correlates with higher achievement as well
    5. We may incorporate Galton’s view as follows: Capacity (intelligence, special abilities) x Zeal (persistence, hard work) x Striving (motivation, fighting spirit) –> Reputation –> Genius
    6. Cognitive variables (intelligence, knowledge, technical skills, special talent) x environmental variables (political-religious, cultural, socioeconomic, education) x personality variables (internal motivation, confidence, non-conformity) –> Creative Achievement
  5. Creativity
    1. Often, the most creative act is the selection of the problem. Such a selection takes into account the importance of the problem, how much is known about it, previous attempts, possible remote sources of information not previously considered, probability that the problem is soluble at the present time, and many more
      1. Poincare – Invention is discernment, choice
    2. All cognitive endeavors require new associations to be made, or old ones to be reviewed. There are marked differences between individuals in the speed with which associations are formed. Speed in the formation of associations is the foundation of individual differences in intelligence. Only a sub-sample of associations is relevant in a given problem. Individuals differ in the range of associations considered in problem-solving. Wideness of range is the foundation of individual differences in creativity. Wideness of range is in principle independent of speed of forming associations suggesting that intelligence and creativity are essentially independent. However, speed of forming associations leads to faster learning, and hence greater number of elements with which to form associations. The range of associations considered for problem-solving is so wide that a critical evaluation is needed to eliminate unsuitable associations. Genuine creativity requires a) a large pool of elements to form associations, b) speed in producing associations, and c) a well-functioning comparator to eliminate false solutions.
    3. Mark Kac on Ramanujan: An ordinary genius is a fellow that you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what he has done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it. It is different with magicians. They are, to use mathematical jargon, in the orthogonal complement of where we are and the working of their minds is for all intents and purposes incomprehensible. Even after we understand what they have done, the process by which they have done it is completely dark.
    4. Key factors for creativity – resourceful, insightful, individualistic, reflective, intelligent, interests (wide), humorous, clever, inventive, self-confident, original, interests (narrow), confident, egotistical, unconventional
    5. Novelty emerges from an individual mind, when it is judged by a committee, orthodoxy will usually prevail
    6. Difficulty in scaling innovation – government entities try to by research and innovation the way they buy potatoes (committee, forms, etc..) and then a top-down approach where they give preference to areas that the government indicates are useful
    7. Fluency – Flexibility – Creativity
      1. Fluency – total number of responses
      2. Flexibility – various categories of response
      3. Originality – unusual, clever, or original responses
      4. Elaboration – how elaborate the response is, in terms of multiple details given
        1. Want originality (unique) + Fluency (number of ideas)
    8. High, but not the highest intelligence, combined with the greatest degree of persistence, will achieve greater eminence than the highest degree of intelligence with somewhat less persistence
    9. Training creativity does little – genetic and synergistic multiplier of right traits
  6. Personality
    1. Independence in attitude and social behavior, dominance, introversion, openness to stimuli, wide interests, self-acceptance, intuitiveness, flexibility, social presence and praise, an asocial attitude, concern for social norms, radicalism, rejection of external constraints
    2. The single trait that rates highest among geniuses is the desire to excel
    3. Some common traits – Middle/upper-middle class, Jewish or Protestant, educated, loss of one or both parents before 15
    4. 20-40 are the peak ages, slow decline after that
    5. It is possible that an excess of dopamine creates work-addicted geniuses that get positive reinforcement through their labors
  7. Intuition
    1. Simonton says that by ‘intuitive’ he means behavioral adaptations to the environment which are unconscious, ineffable (impossible to verbalize), and essentially probabilistic in character
    2. General Intelligence + Associations
    3. Intuition for complex tasks, analysis for the simple
    4. Great genius, the most creative, have the hardest time fitting in – they do not abide by social norms, so typically just get ignored
  8. Other
    1. Major innovations tend to come from outside the given field
    2. Clusters of genius in time may be due to great teachers
    3. Sudden illumination is a manifest sign of long, unconscious prior work
      1. There is the preliminary labor, the incubation period, the sudden integration, owing its existence to inspiration rather than conscious logical thought, and finally the verification or proof, perfectly conscious

What I got out of it

  1. An incredibly fun and deep dive into genius. Love the multiplier analogy – Capacity (intelligence, special abilities) x Zeal (persistence, hard work) x Striving (motivation, fighting spirit) –> Reputation –> Genius

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