London: Great moments of genius—the so-called “Aha!" moments—don’t happen in mere seconds. Instead it takes a great deal of conscious work to come up with a creative solution to a difficult problem, says a new book.
In the lively book, Andrew Robinson says moments of genius are just anecdotal and has offered vignettes of four scientists, a linguist, an architect, a musician, a writer, a film-maker and a photographer
But what still puzzles scientists is how does the moment of creativity occur.
One explanation was proposed a century ago by the great French polymath Henri Poincare, based on his own profound mathematical discovery in 1881.
Some 30 years later, Poincare published an analysis of his own thought process.
After a great deal of conscious work he became stuck and put the problem aside.
But his desire to solve it kept it alive in his unconscious. Illumination occurred beneath the surface, then bubbled into consciousness, reports New Scientist.
From there he was able to check his result and find that it was correct.
Poincare``s four-stage model - conscious thought, unconscious thought (or incubation), illumination and verification - has since been studied in depth and refined.
Robinson discusses the four-stage model at length, then blithely dismisses it on the basis of psychologist Robert Weisberg``s claim that psychological tests on "ordinary subjects" do not reproduce incubation and illumination in problem-solving.
Scientists such as Albert Einstein, Hermann von Helmholtz and Werner Heisenberg described their creative processes in similar terms to Poincare.
Historians of science, along with cognitive scientists and psychologists, take these reports seriously because they offer insights into the minds of extraordinary individuals.
For Robinson, such reports are suspect, since they were made years after the discoveries. However, had he studied the literature on Poincare``s self-analysis (some cited by Weisberg) he would have found that Poincare had been interested in the sources of his creativity for years.
It was found that in 1895, Poincare was analysed face-to-face by psychologist Edouard Toulouse, who studied creativity in science, art and literature.
Toulouse``s analysis of Poincare``s thinking squares with Poincare``s own.
Interestingly, one of Poincare``s colleagues in the 1880s was French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, from whom Sigmund Freud learned much about the unconscious.
The four-stage model is the best creativity model we have.
It is supported by experiments showing that in the unconscious we can activate complexes of information inhibited in our conscious and use these to provide possible solutions to the problem at hand.
These solutions are considered in parallel in the unconscious and the results find their way into conscious thought.
Although we still don``t completely understand unconscious processing in creative thinking, I disagree with Robinson that it is still "fundamentally, an enigma".
On the whole, the book does serve a useful purpose— it highlights the fact that creative people are complex individuals who focus on their work to the exclusion of all else. There is no royal road to creativity.