Sudden Genius? The Gradual Path to Creative Breakthroughs

By Andrew Robinson

Reviewed by Michael Appollionio

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That question mark in the title is all-important as author Andrew Robinson attempts to provide answers to many questions about extreme intelligence we call genius. What Robinson wants the reader to understand is that the most creative ideas appear to come unexpectedly, what we refer to as the term “eureka!” He is convinced they are not as unpredictable as they seem. The author states that these “eureka” moments do not appear suddenly, but only after several years of hard work, labor and study.

The first part of the book carefully surveys the scientific study of creativity, covering talent, genius, intelligence, memory, dreams, the unconscious, savant syndrome, and mental illness. The second part tells the fascinating stories of five breakthroughs by artists — Leonardo da Vinci, Mozart, Virginia Woolf, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Satyajit Ray — and five by scientists — Christopher Wren, Jean Francois Champollion, Charles Darwin, Marie Curie and Albert Einstein. They were chosen for the significance of their achievements and the diversity of their domains. Part III of the book tackles three basic questions: “What do highly creative people have in common?” “Is there a pattern? “And do they involve imaginary leaps?”

Despite this diversity, spanning cinema, languages and literature, archaeology, physics and medicine, Robinson then looks for key elements that might be held in common in these careers, and whether they follow patterns such as the intriguing ‘ten-year rule’ — first identified by the psychologist John Hayes in 1989 – that it takes a person a certain amount of time of trial and error to come across these creative moments or breakthroughs as we call it. After applying the “rule” to all ten of the individuals mentioned in Part II of the book, Robinson is able to show that all ten individuals meet the criteria of the “ten-year rule” somewhat.

Collaboration and teamwork tend not to be a feature of the lives of the exceptionally creative — this could be for a variety of reasons, such as possible mental illnesses (Virginia Woolf), denouncing of family members (Mozart) and uncommon backgrounds (Champollion & Young). The greatest poetry, novels, paintings, music and even films are almost always the vision of one person, although research in science is collaborative, especially in recent decades. This is proven with Einstein’s theory of relativity, after reading several publications on atomic energy.

One thing that I think is important to mention is earlier experiences. According to Robinson, almost all of the creative minds mentioned throughout the book have one common denominator, which is earlier experiences. For example, Woolf grew up around literature, Mozart’s father introduced him to music and Leonardo da Vinci was trained early on in his life by another artist.

In the 21st century, talent appears to be on the increase, and genius in decline. Where today is the Darwin, Einstein, Beethoven, Chekhov or Shaw, the Cezanne or Picasso? Even in popular music, genius of the quality of Bob Dylan, the Beatles or Jimi Hendrix is a thing of the past.

Why should this be? Robinson puts it down to the ever-increasing professionalization and specialization of domains, especially in the sciences — the breadth that feeds genius is harder to achieve nowadays. That is because there are so many obstacles to overcome. For example, in order to publish research today many scientists must be working on their doctorates; also, for many artists to be recognized, it will take several years for their work to be published due to commercialization.

Also on the rise is technology, which is taking much of the credit given to musicians, scientists and even painters. As mentioned before in the book, Robinson mentions that many of the geniuses of yesterday put in several years of hard work and labor into their creativity, whereas with the technology we have today as well as research teams in scientific study, it is taking less time to come across major breakthroughs.

After reading Sudden Genius I feel Robinson is convinced that genius is not a myth per se, but that sudden genius is simply as he mentioned in the book ‘the work of human grit, not the product of superhuman grace’.. Also as we study the psychological backgrounds, the family history, environmental surroundings and measure IQs we will see no correlation among the ten geniuses. The only correlation is hard work, time and patience among these artists and scientists.

Overall, after completing Andrew Robinson’s book, I feel that he made some convincing arguments as to what we should consider when acknowledging an artist or a scientist as a genius. I think the author did accomplish the goal of breaking down the chapters to explain and give some background information on the ten subjects he wanted the readers to recognize as early geniuses. I was able to understand several points that Robinson makes in this book about correlations between these artists   and scientists, such as earlier experiences, the “ten-year rule” and the labor involved in their exceptional breakthroughs.

Sudden Genius? The Gradual Path to Creative Breakthroughs
By Andrew Robinson
Oxford University Press USA: October 2, 2010
Hardcover, 352 pages
$34.95

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APA Reference
Appollionio, M. (2011). Sudden Genius? The Gradual Path to Creative Breakthroughs. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 28, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/sudden-genius-the-gradual-path-to-creative-breakthroughs/0006240
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    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
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