One of the archetypes I like to challenge is the idea of the “mad genius”. It’s not that many creative geniuses are not “mad” in some way, either suffering from a true mental and/or emotional disorder (e.g. Vincent Van Gogh) or just eccentric, quirky or odd (Igor Stravinsky, Nikola Tesla et al). It’s that, on closer inspection, any correlation between madness and creativity can represent a misleading characterisation of creativity itself.
The first problem is that most “mad” types aren’t creative. Just being crazy, unbalanced or a bit weird is no guarantor of doing or making or saying anything imaginative or inventive. If it were true, about 20 percent of your family (and mine) would be geniuses.
Second, a great many highly creative people just aren’t remotely crazy. If you try hard you’ll find torment or anxiety or strangeness in anyone’s life, but stories abound of creative thinkers who do not fit the crazy archetype, from modern luminaries like JK Rowling and George Lucas to historic influencers like Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein (despite that photo of him sticking his tongue out).
Yes, “irrational” thought and behaviour can correlate with creativity — Salvador Dalí’s quixotic ways and work being a famous case in point. But it’s also true that extremely rational minds can be among the most creative. How is this so?
It all comes down to the natural ways our minds work and, more specifically in this case, so-called cognitive biases. These are tendencies which arise from our categorising brains which may help us in general to think more efficiently but which can often cause significance problems or errors in how we decide, perceive things, remember things and reason about things. They often lead us, ultimately, to irrational conclusions.
Take the cognitive bias called the Semmelweis reflex. It describes the tendency to reject (as if by reflex) new ideas or new evidence because they contradict established beliefs, conventions or paradigms. Ignaz Semmelweis was a Hungarian physician who in 1847 discovered that when doctors washed their hands between seeing patients — many of whom would die — childbed fever mortality rates among birthing women fell tenfold. Yet his findings were rejected by fellow doctors, some of whom felt a “gentleman’s hands” simply could not transmit disease. Others just viewed the idea as not fitting the theories of the day, and thus as plain wrong.
This effect finds echoes in another called the confirmation bias, which has risen in public consciousness in recent times. It involves seeking and validating information that fits your pre-existing beliefs while ignoring or downplaying information that does not. It’s a big reason conspiracy theories have such baffling power over so many people’s minds.
A common cause or exacerbating factor in disasters of various kinds is the normalcy bias. This is the refusal to adequately plan for, or react to, a disaster because it hasn’t happened before — it’s not normal. The Titanic’s sinking in 1912 was almost literally inconceivable, which led to inadequate planning by White Star Line and ill-judged behaviour on the day by many of those on board.
Such biases are interesting because they are both irrational and intuitive — by which I mean natural, automatic, instinctive or default. They guide our assessment, decision making and recall to such an extent that often it makes little or no difference whether we consciously apprehend their effects or not.
Therefore, being rational very often means overcoming what feels and seems right or intuitive to us even when it’s wrong; in other words, it means thinking in a counterintuitive way. How does this relate to creativity? Because it too is based on counterintuitive thinking.
Three of the most pertinent examples of cognitive biases for creativity are those I referred to — the Semmelweis reflex, the confirmation bias and the normalcy bias. To challenge orthodoxy, to seek contradictory evidence and to explore the abnormal, as creative minds must do, means overriding our natural tendency to do otherwise.
A great example of rationality going hand in hand with creativity comes in the form of counterintuitive chess moves which work. Latvian grandmaster and one-time world champion Mikhail Tal was famed for his daring, bold and imaginative attacking play. Check out this video summarising his apparently crazy decision to sacrifice his queen which won him the game. Note that what seemed irrational because it went against the intuitive reading that you must hold your queen almost at all costs was in fact rational because it afforded him a superior position and, in the end, victory.
That’s the thing: when you try to overcome cognitive biases and/or to think creatively, people will typically think you’re the one being crazy or irrational when in fact it’s they who are being so. Look at the history of many revolutionary inventions and you’ll see the pattern clearly. The computer was infamously dismissed in 1943 by Thomas Watson, president of IBM, who said, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers”, and also in 1977 by Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, who flatly stated: “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home”. Both times it turned out to be rational to believe in the potential of computers and computing despite the fact that this (correct) reading probably violated most people’s intuitive understanding at the time of the world and our place in it.
So if you are a rational type, given to sober analysis and fact-based reality, fear not! You may well be better placed to be creative than the average person in thrall to their various irrational biases, or to good old fashioned fruitcakes disconnected from reality. I’m looking at you Aunt Maud.