No man understands a deep book until he has seen and lived at least part of its contents. ― Ezra Pound
What distinguishes a genius from the merely creative? It's not intelligence, but a cognitive nimbleness with ideas, a capacity to think wide as well as deep according to the neuroscientist and medical doctor Nancy Andreasen.
That capacity for genius, however, may come at a cost. Following decades of work with the mentally ill, she has in more recent years studied the brains of extraordinarily creative people and finds between the two some commonalities.
One possible contributory factor is a personality style shared by many of my creative subjects. These subjects are adventuresome and exploratory. They take risks. Particularly in science, the best work tends to occur in new frontiers. (As a popular saying among scientists goes: “When you work at the cutting edge, you are likely to bleed.”) They have to confront doubt and rejection. And yet they have to persist in spite of that, because they believe strongly in the value of what they do. This can lead to psychic pain, which may manifest itself as depression or anxiety, or lead people to attempt to reduce their discomfort by turning to pain relievers such as alcohol.
I’ve been struck by how many of these people refer to their most creative ideas as 'obvious.' Since these ideas are almost always the opposite of obvious to other people, creative luminaries can face doubt and resistance when advocating for them. As one artist told me, 'The funny thing about [one’s own] talent is that you are blind to it. You just can’t see what it is when you have it… When you have talent and see things in a particular way, you are amazed that other people can’t see it.' Persisting in the face of doubt or rejection, for artists or for scientists, can be a lonely path—one that may also partially explain why some of these people experience mental illness....
Some people see things others cannot, and they are right, and we call them creative geniuses. Some people see things others cannot, and they are wrong, and we call them mentally ill. And some people, like John Nash, are both.
Her piece reminded me of this quote from Arthur Schopenhuer at The Creativity Post: geniuses don't just hit targets that no one else can hit, they hit targets no one else can see. The difference between having visions and being visionary may be of degree, not kind.
Read Secrets of the Creative Brain and decide for yourself.
I hope to see you at IdeaFestival 2014!
Image: IdeaFesival diners on Main St. in Louisville, 2008.