It’s a common belief that geniuses are born, not made. That they’re a rare breed. One — or two — in a million. Seriously, how often do geniuses like Albert Einstein and Marie Curie come along?
But, in actuality, behind the magic and aha moments, there are specific cognitive processes at work – processes that both you and I can learn.
In her book Genius Unmasked, Roberta B. Ness, MD, MPH, the dean of the School of Public Health and vice president of innovation at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, reveals the systematic tools that geniuses like Einstein and Curie used to make their incredible discoveries.
For instance, geniuses ask the right questions, such as questions built on past theories and big questions like “what is the nature of matter?” They keenly observe their environments. They apply lessons from one situation to another like American engineer Paul Baran did when he “related a web of computers to neuronal pathways in the brain,” Ness writes in Genius Unmasked.
Geniuses also try on different points of view. Darwin imagined he was a plant. Einstein imagined he was traveling at the speed of light. “The more alien the alternative viewpoint, the greater the insight,” Ness writes.
They recombine and reorganize. According to Ness, Thomas Edison was a master at this. His phonograph was actually a combination of his previous invention, the telegraph repeater, and Leon Scott’s phonautograph, the earliest known device for recording sound.
According to Ness, frame shifting is probably the most powerful tool. “Frames are expectations through which we interpret new information.” Geniuses regularly shatter frames. For instance, Darwin’s theory of evolution shattered the pre-existing belief system of creationism, she said.
Stanley Milgram’s infamous obedience experiments shattered our views of humanity. “We have this belief that humanity equates to some level of altruism. What this [experiment] showed was that authority will trump those moral imperatives.”
Again, geniuses are expert observers. This is unique because “by definition, human beings become complacent observers,” Ness said. It’s “a hardwired phenomenon amongst all animal species.” When we become exposed, over and over, to the same environment, we simply stop paying attention to it. But when things change, we focus on our surroundings. Think of what happens when you stay at a hotel room. “Suddenly, you’re extremely aware of every little aspect, the sights, sounds and smells.”
We also bring expectations and assumptions to observations, which can sabotage our ability to see what’s actually there. For instance, today, we know that bacteria causes most stomach ulcers, thanks to the work of Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, who observed abnormalities in biopsy material.
Prior to their discovery, however, “the notion that ulcers were bacterial was completely crazy,” Ness said. That’s because at the time it was believed that bacteria couldn’t grow in the low pH environment of the stomach, she said. In other words, other scientists probably didn’t make the discovery because of their (erroneous) assumptions.
Through keen observation, Maria Montessori, Italy’s first female physician, discovered that children actually teach themselves, Ness said. (At the time, it was believed that kids exclusively learned from their parents.) She spent weeks watching how children interacted with their environment.
For instance, she observed a 6-month-old dropping a rattle over and over. Instead of focusing on the rattle she was dropping, the baby girl was actually focused on her hands. She also changed things up, and opened a different finger every time. Montessori realized that she was doing this in order to learn what her hands could do. In short, she was teaching herself.
Exercises to Try
Ness, who teaches a course in innovative thinking, shared a few of the exercises she assigns to her students. She’s also co-written Creativity in the Sciences with Michael L. Goodman and Aisha S. Dickerson. It’s a workbook companion to her first book, Innovation Generation.
Practice contour drawing.
Draw a picture of an object (or an image you find online or in a magazine). But instead of looking at your own paper, look at the object you’re drawing. “You’re simply following the outline of exactly what you’re seeing…This forces you to look carefully at what you’re doing.” It sharpens your observational skills.
Be mindful of your surroundings.
Practice being really present in the moment using all your senses, Ness said. She tries to do this on her daily runs. She carefully observes the structure of the clouds and the wildflowers she passes. She feels the breeze and smells the air. She also ponders questions about her surroundings, such as why clouds end and what creates their color.
Shift your frames.
Think of how you can approach a problem from an unexpected angle. How can you shatter current expectations? Ness gave the example of a group of students, who were assigned the conundrum of getting more people to write living wills.
The frames around death, of course, are anything but pleasant. Death is scary, and it’s not something we want to talk or think about, Ness said. Just think of the metaphors surrounding death: the grim reaper and six feet under, she said.
Her students brainstormed an alternative metaphor: nothing in life is certain except death and taxes. They decided to make death bureaucratic rather than emotional. The living will would look like another tax document, which lets you check off your elections. You’d submit this every year, get a little rebate and it’d be linked to your health record, she said.
Brainstorm absurd ideas.
According to Ness, Goodman and Dickerson in Creativity in the Sciences, “Sometimes in order to really achieve one’s aims, or produce novelty that is radical enough to make progress, one must risk being crazy…really crazy.”
They give the example of Niels Bohr’s response of the nuclear physics community to Wolfgang Pauli’s 1958 presentation: “We are all agreed that your theory is crazy. The question that divides us is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct.”
They suggest the following:
- “Generate a list of crazy ideas about a problem, making the next idea more absurd than the one before.
- Select one of the crazy ideas.
- Extract the basic premise of the idea – what makes that idea unique?
- List the component parts or features of that idea.
Take one of the component parts of that idea and use it to generate a practical idea.”
Geniuses use a variety of cognitive tools to make their incredible discoveries. Fortunately, we can harness these tools for our own creations.