Creative people are famously unstable, both emotionally and in their thinking; the artistic temperament is moody, and creators openly tolerate polarities in ideas and viewpoints that others reject, and then try to bury. Oscillations between two distinctly different modes of thinking may account for a lot of this instability and openness. Creators are more skilled in the combined use of two kinds of thought processes: linear thinking, which is verbal, logical, sequential, and analytic; and non-linear thinking, which is associative, more image oriented, non-sequential, and non-logical (but not irrational).
Janusian thinking is the combined use of logical and associative thinking. It can make a creative person appear unstable.
One of the most commonly talked about aspects of the creative process is the phenomenon of having sudden key insights after one has carefully considered the facts and, unable to find a solution, turned to other things – the famous “eureka” experience. There are many entertaining anecdotes revealing how famous creators experienced a sudden flash of insight, often while doing something quite ordinary. Because of three particularly well-known stories, one might call this the bed, bath, and bus scenario.
Rene Descartes had one of his greatest eureka moments while lying in bed idly watching a fly hover in the air. (Image: public domain.)
It all began in Greece. Archimedes supposedly had his eureka moment while relaxing in the public baths and ran home naked shouting “eureka” (I found it) thereby giving the experience its name. The bit about running au naturel through the streets is probably Roman hokum, but it does vividly capture the sense of intense excitement that accompanies the unexpected breakthrough. Henri Poincaré had his seminal insight into non-Euclidean geometry just as he boarded a bus. The idea seemed to come out of nowhere. The French mathematician attributed his insight to “unconscious work” and claimed an ability to ruminate on math problems while engaged in unrelated activities like chatting with a friend on a bus. Descartes suddenly envisioned his Cartesian co-ordinate system while lying in bed idly watching a fly hovering in the air. In all three cases, the insight followed considerable foundation-laying work that had as yet borne no fruit.
Creative people are both more flexible and more selective in the way they think. (Image: public domain.)
Three factors make these creators stand out.
First, such people possess the ability to think profitably by a variety of means. That is, they have at their disposal a range of thinking techniques. There is a characteristic flexibility to their thinking not usually seen in ordinary life. In most cases, they did not consciously acquire this powerful set of thought tools. They picked them up unknowingly as they pursued one interest or another. Often they have explored a series of interests. The primary thinking tools are contradictions, comparisons, images, and metaphors.
What is genius? There is no such thing in the usual usage of the word. Genius is a title we confer on those who do remarkable things in their field. It is like being knighted, made a Commander of the British Empire, or winning a lifetime achievement award. In a way similar to such honours, which persons are awarded the status of genius is largely a matter of circumstance.
Genius combines reason with imagination, a unity most easily seen in the visual arts, but also there in the ground-breaking work of scientists such as Albert Einstein. (Image: public domain.)
What we ultimately label as genius is the product of a highly evolved mind. We are not born with such minds. We acquire them through long effort. To become a genius one must pursue some line of enquiry, or some art, long enough and thoroughly enough to acquire a high degree of sophisticated knowledge. In turn, that accumulating knowledge generates increasingly powerful thinking about the enquiry or art. Creativity research has shown that the mind is self-organizing. The process of becoming skilled enough to earn the title “genius” happens without our conscious awareness.