Psychologists recognize a thin line between creative genius and destructive psychopathy: general intelligence and so-called diversifying experiences that happen in childhood or young-adulthood can keep a good egg from going bad. By diversifying experiences, psychologists mean encounters with different cultures, languages, and economic situations, i.e. conditions that demonstrate the variety of human cultures.

What geniuses and madmen have in common is called cognitive disinhibition: an acute awareness of their surroundings combined with the will to examine what they observe in fine detail. Alexander Fleming, who won the Nobel Prize for discovering penicillin, happened on the beneficial mold from which the medicine is derived entirely by accident.

”Artistic geniuses will often report how the germ for a major creative project came from hearing a tiny piece of casual conversation…”

Dean Keith Simonton, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, says the sciences are not alone when it comes to serendipitous discovery: "Artistic geniuses will often report how the germ for a major creative project came from hearing a tiny piece of casual conversation or seeing a unique but otherwise trivial event during a daily walk. For example, Henry James reported in his preface to The Spoils of Poynton that the germ of the story came from an allusion made by a woman sitting beside him at Christmas Eve dinner."

In his Big Think interview, James Gleick summarizes his research on famed physicist Isaac Newton and 1965 Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman. Both were essentially alone, says Gleick: alone in the work, alone in the thoughts, alone in their visions.

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