Sparks of Genius: The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World's Most Creative People

Sparks of Genius: The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World's Most Creative People

by Robert S. Root-Bernstein

ISBN: 9780618127450

Publisher Mariner Books

Published in Self-Help/Creativity, Science/Behavioral Sciences

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Sample Chapter


Chapter 1
Rethinking Thinking
Everyone thinks. But not everyone thinks equally
well. For real intellectual feasts we depend on
master chefs who have learned to mix and blend and
savor an entire range of mental ingredients. It's not
that what they do in the kitchen is any different
from what we do, they just do it better. We like to
suppose master chefs were born that way, yet even the
most promising individuals spend years in training.
It follows that we, too, can learn the tools of the
trade and thereby improve our own mental cooking.
This process, however, requires us to rethink what
gourmet intellection is all about. And rethinking
shifts our educational focus from what to think to
how to think in the most productive ways possible.
Our tour of mental cookery begins in the
kitchen of the mind, where ideas are marinated,
stewed, braised, beaten, baked, and whipped into
shape. Just as real chefs surprise us by throwing in
a pinch of this and a handful of something else, the
kitchens of the creative imagination are full of
unexpected practices. Great ideas arise in the
strangest ways and are blended from the oddest
ingredients. What goes into the recipes often bears
no resemblance to the finished dish. Sometimes the
master mental chef can't even explain how she knows
that her dish will be tasty. She just has a gut
feeling that this imagined mixture of ingredients
will yield a delicious surprise.
Gut feelings don't make obvious sense.
Consider, for example, the experience of young
Barbara McClintock, who would later earn a Nobel
Prize in genetics. One day in 1930 she stood with a
group of scientists in the cornfields around Cornell
University, pondering the results of a genetics
experiment. The researchers had expected that half of
the corn would produce sterile pollen, but less than
a third of it actually had. The difference was
significant, and McClintock was so disturbed that she
left the cornfield and climbed the hill to her
laboratory, where she could sit alone and think.
Half an hour later, she "jumped up and ran
down to the field. At the top of the field (everyone
else was down at the bottom) I shouted, 'Eureka, I
have it! I have the answer! I know what this 30
percent sterility is.' " Her colleagues naturally
said, "Prove it." Then she found she had no idea how
to explain her insight. Many decades later,
McClintock said, "When you suddenly see the problem,
something happens that you have the answer - before
you are able to put it into words. It is all done
subconsciously. This has happened many times to me,
and I know when to take it seriously. I'm so
absolutely sure. I don't talk about it, I don't have
to tell anybody about it, I'm just sure this is it."
This feeling of knowing without being able to
say how one knows is common. The French philosopher
and mathematician Blaise Pascal is famous for his
aphorism "The heart has its reasons that reason
cannot know." The great nineteenth-century
mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss admitted that
intuition often led him to ideas he could not
immediately prove. "I have had my results for a long
time; but I do not yet know how I am to arrive at
them." Claude Bernard, the founder of modern
physiology, wrote that everything purposeful in
scientific thinking began with feeling. "Feeling
alone," he wrote, "guides the mind." Painter Pablo
Picasso confessed to a friend, "I don't know in
advance what I am going to put on canvas any more
than I decide beforehand what colors I am going to
use. . . . Each time I undertake to paint a picture I
have a sensation of leaping into space. I never know
whether I shall fall on my feet. It is only later
that I begin to estimate more exactly the effect of
my work." Composer Igor Stravinsky
also found that imaginative activity began with some
inexplicable appetite, some "intuitive grasp of an
unknown entity already possessed but not yet
intelligible." The Latin American novelist Isabel
Allende has described a similarly vague sense
propelling her work: "Somehow inside me - I can say
this after having written five books - I know that I
know where I am going. I know that I know the end of
the book even though I don't know it. It's so
difficult to explain."
Knowing in such ambiguous, inarticulate ways
raises an important question. McClintock put it this
way: "It had all been done fast. The answer came, and
I'd run. Now I worked it out step by step - it was an
intricate series of steps - and I came out with what
it was. . . . It worked out exactly as I'd diagrammed
it. Now, why did I know, without having done a thing
on paper? Why was I so sure that I could tell them
with such excitement and just say, 'Eureka, I solved
it'?" McClintock's query strikes at the heart of
understanding creative thinking, as do the
experiences of Picasso and Gauss, of composers and
physiologists. Where do sudden illuminations or
insights come from? How can we know things that we
cannot yet say, draw, or write? How do gut feelings
and intuitions function in imaginative thinking? How
do we translate from feeling to word, emotion to
number? Lastly, can we understand this creative
imagination and, understanding it, can we exercise,
train, and educate it?
Philosophers and psychologists have pondered
these and related questions for hundreds of years.
Neurobiologists have sought the answers in the
structures of the brain and the connections between
nerve synapses. Full answers still elude us. But one
source of insight into creative thinking has been
greatly undervalued and underused: the reports of
eminent thinkers, creators, and inventors themselves.
Their introspective reports cannot answer all our
questions about thinking, but they certainly provide
important and surprising new avenues to explore.
Above all, they tell us that conventional notions of
thinking are at best incomplete, for they leave out
nonlogical forms of thinking that can't be verbalized.
Take the testimony of physicist Albert
Einstein, for instance. Most people would expect
Einstein to have described himself as solving his
physics problems using mathematical formulas,
numbers, complex theories, and logic. In fact, a
recent book by Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner,
Creating Minds, portrays Einstein as the epitome of
the "logico-mathematical mind." His peers, however,
knew that Einstein was relatively weak in
mathematics, often needing to collaborate with
mathematicians to push his work forward. In fact,
Einstein wrote to one correspondent, "Do not worry
about your difficulties in mathematics. I can assure
you that mine are still greater."
Einstein's mental strengths were quite
different, as he revealed to his colleague Jacques
Hadamard. "The words of the language, as they are
written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my
mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which
seem to serve as elements in thought are certain
signs and more or less clear images which can
be 'voluntarily' reproduced and combined. . . . The
above mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual
and some of muscular type." In a kind of thought
experiment that could not be articulated, he
pretended to be a photon moving at the speed of
light, imagining what he saw and how he felt. Then he
became a second photon and tried to imagine what he
could experience of the first one. As Einstein
explained to Max Wertheimer, a psychologist, he only
vaguely understood where his visual and muscular
thinking would take him. His "feeling of direction,"
he said, was "very hard to express."
McClintock, for her part, talked about
developing a "feeling for the organism" quite like
Einstein's feeling for a beam of light. She got to
know every one of her corn plants so intimately that
when she studied their chromosomes, she could truly
identify with them: "I found that the more I worked
with them the bigger and bigger [they] got, and when
I was really working with them I wasn't outside, I
was down there. I was part of the system. I even was
able to see the internal parts of the chromosomes -
actually everything was there. It surprised me
because I actually felt as if I were right down there
and these were my friends. . . . As you look at these
things, they become part of you. And you forget
yourself. The main thing about it is you forget
yourself." A similar emotional involvement played a
critical role in the prelogical scientific thinking
of Claude Bernard, who wrote, "Just as in other human
activities, feeling releases an act by putting forth
the idea which gives a motive to action." For Wolfgang
Pauli, a mathematical physicist, emotional response
functioned in the place of ideas that had not yet
been articulated. Within the "unconscious region of
the human soul," he wrote, "the place of clear
concepts is taken by images of powerful emotional
content, which are not thought, but are seen
pictorially, as it were, before the mind's eye."
Some scientists insist that thinking in
feelings and mental images can be rationally
manipulated. Einstein suggested "a certain
connection" between "the psychical entities which
seem to serve as elements in thought" and "relevant
logical concepts." Mathematician Stanislaw Ulam made
the argument even more strongly. He experienced
abstract mathematical notions in visual terms, so the
idea of "'an infinity of spheres or an infinity of
sets'" became "a picture with such almost real
objects, getting smaller, vanishing on some horizon."
Such thinking is "not in terms of words or syllogisms
or signs" but in terms of some "visual algorithm"
having a "sort of meta- or super-logic with its own
rules." For William Lipscomb, a Nobel laureate in
chemistry and, not incidentally, a fine musician,
this kind of thinking is a synthetic and aesthetic
experience. In his research into the chemistry of
boron he found himself thinking not only inductively
and deductively but also intuitively. "I felt a
focusing of intellect and em
otions which was surely an aesthetic response," he
wrote. "It was followed by a flood of predictions
coming from my mind as if I were a bystander watching
it happen. Only later was I able to begin to
formulate a systematic theory of structure, bonding
and reactions for these unusual molecules. . . . Was
it science? Our later tests showed it was. But the
processes that I used and the responses that I felt
were more like those of an artist." Gut feelings,
emotions, and imaginative images do make sense in
science, but, like the meaning of a dance or a
musical theme, that sense is felt rather than defined.
"Intuition or mathematics?" asks inventor and
science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. "Do we use
models to help us find the truth? Or do we know the
truth first, and then develop the mathematics to
explain it?" There is no doubt about the answer: gut
feelings and intuitions, an "essential feature in
productive thought," as Einstein put it, occur well
before their meaning can be expressed in words or
numbers. In his own work, mathematics and formal
logic were secondary steps: "Conventional words or
other signs [presumably mathematical ones] have to be
sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage,
when the associative play already referred to is
sufficiently established and can be reproduced at
will." To Wertheimer he explained, "No really
productive man thinks in such a paper fashion. The
way the two triple sets of axioms are contrasted in
[Einstein's physics book with collaborator Leopold
Infeld] is not at all the way things happened in the
process of actual thinking. This was merely a later
of the subject matter, just a question of how the
thing could best be written . . . but in this process
they [the ideas] did not grow out of any manipulation
of axioms." As he told Infeld, "No scientist thinks
in formulae."
Scientists may not think in mathematical
terms, but the need to express intuitive insight in a
form comprehensible to others compels them, in
McClintock's words, to "work with so-called
scientific methods to put it into their frame after
you know." Other scientists confirm the two-part
process of intuitive, imaginative understanding
followed, necessarily, by logical expression.
Metallurgist Cyril Stanley Smith of the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology (MIT) has said, "The stage of
discovery was entirely sensual and mathematics was
only necessary to be able to communicate with other
people." Werner Heisenberg, who formulated the
uncertainty principle, wrote that "mathematics . . .
played only a subordinate, secondary role" in the
revolution in physics he helped to
create. "Mathematics is the form in which we express
our understanding of nature; but it is not the
content of that understanding." Nobel Prize-winning
physicist Richard Feynman, who also saw and felt
things intuitively, noted, "In certain problems that
I have done, it was necessary to continue the
development of the picture as the method, before the
mathematics could really be done."
So much for the myth that scientists think
more logically than others. To think creatively is
first to feel. The desire to understand must be
whipped together with sensual and emotional feelings
and blended with intellect to yield imaginative
insight. Indeed, the intimate connections between
thinking, emotions, and feelings are the subject of a
startling book called Descartes' Error (1994), which
revisits the famous philosopher's separation of mind
(and thinking) from body (and being or feeling) more
than three hundred years ago. The author, neurologist
Antonio Damasio, finds that neurological patients
whose emotional affect is grossly altered due to
strokes, accidents, or tumors lose the ability to
make rational plans. Because they are unable to
become emotionally involved in their decisions, they
fail to make good ones. Our feelings - our
intuitions - are not impediments to rational
thinking, they form its origin and bases. For
Damasio, body and mind, emotion and intellect are
inseparable. We agree. Not on
ly do scientists feel their way toward logical ideas,
but creative thinking and expression in every
discipline are born of intuition and emotion.
For many people this may come as something of
a surprise.


Excerpted from "Sparks of Genius: The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World's Most Creative People" by Robert S. Root-Bernstein. Copyright © 2001 by Robert S. Root-Bernstein. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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