Here’s an interesting article with a stupid and misleading title on the role of what the author calls “cognitive disinhibition” – a fancy term for “allowing oneself to notice what others miss” – in enabling creative genius.
While in many ways I could be a poster child for Simonton’s thesis (and I’ll get to those) I also think there are some important things missing from his discussion, which is why I’m blogging about it. The most crucial problem is that his category of “madness” is not sharp enough. I know how to fine it down in a way that I think sheds considerable light on what he is trying to analyze.
First let’s get through the easy stuff. Go read the article. It’s short.
I was especially struck, in a positive way, by Simonton’s discussion of childhood factors that promote the ability to disinhibit cognition. He mentions “bilingualism” – ding ding ding, been there and done that and I have always thought it helped free me from over-dependence on fixed linguistic categories. It’s easier to bear in mind that the map is not the territory when you have two different maps.
Also, under “various forms of developmental adversity, such as parental loss, economic hardship, and minority status”, yeah, I think congenital cerebral palsy qualifies not just as developmental adversity but as the right kind. It’s not news to anyone who has studied or dealt with CP kids that they are disproportionately gifted and bright. Rage against the limitations of the body can lead to a sharper mind.
More things he gets right: I think it is correct that geniuses are distingished from madmen in part by higher general intelligence. The brightest people I have known are hyper-sane. I can be precise about that: elsewhere I have defined sanity as the process by which you continually adjust your beliefs so they are predictively sound. Extremely intelligent people tend to be extremely good at this; it’s the half-bright and merely gifted that are more likely, in my experience, to be unsane or insane (that is, poor at maintaining predictive beliefs).
Now we get to what he’s missed. First, Simonton writes as though he believes that only cognitive disinhibition can produce genius-level conceptual breakthrough. I think this is mistaken; there’s an alternate path through plain hard work, climbing the mountain foot by foot rather than teleporting to the peak in a flash of lightning Zen insight.
For an instructive study in the contrast I like to cite two instances from the history of chemistry: Kekulé’s discovery of the benzene ring versus the elucidation of the double-helix structure of DNA. Kekule’s breakthrough was a sudden insight, an eruption from his unsconscious. By contrast, there does not seem to have been any large aha moment in the discovery of the structure of DNA. That was done by painstaking collection of data, meticulous analysis, and the gradual elimination of competing possibilities.
There’s a kind of romanticism in many people that wants to see genius only in the sudden lightning flashes. I think I know better; I have a lot more lightning Zen insights than most people but even for me they’re comparatively rare. Most of the time, when I pull off something that looks like creative genius it’s because I’ve worked very hard at getting up the mountain.
Matters are confused by the fact that the kind of immersive effort that gets you “genius” by hard work is also an important enabler, a setup condition, for the lightning Zen insight. But having experienced both I believe they are different processes. Possibly related to the distinction between “theory one” and “theory two” thinking that’s fashionable lately.
Most importantly, I think Simonton’s category of “madness” is de-focused in a way that harms his thesis. The most important truth about human psychology that I have learned in many years is that psychosis (which is what Simonton is identifying as madness) is a very specific thing, not merely “cognitive disinhibition” but a loss of the ability to maintain an integrated sense of the self. As I have put it elsewhere, the delusional psychotic frantically spins his theory-building wheels because he cannot identify the fragments of his disassociated mentation as “self” and must therefore attribute them to external agency.
Armed with that insight, I think we can improve on Simonton’s thesis in a major way. I propose that cognitive disinhibition is not a primary feature of madness but a secondary effect of the dissassociation of the self, the society of mind cracking up into Babel. Conversely, the key trait that distinguishes functional geniuses (especially the cohort in the hard sciences that Simonton notes are unusually sane) is the combination of cognitive disinhibition with an exceptionally well-developed ability to distinguish self from other in perception – anti-insanity, as it were.
Again, this is partly informed by my own experience. I have always had a very firm grasp on who I am. It wasn’t until well into adulthood that I realized that “identity crisis” isn’t just a literary conceit or self-indulgent silliness. People really get those! I sort of understand that now, intellectually, but the possibility of having an “identity crisis” myself…no. It would take drugs or brain damage to do that to me.
I think there are hints about the neurology involved from the study of how the brain acts during meditation. It’s been found (can’t track down a source, alas) that some kind of meditation temporarily shut down portions of the right parietal lobe that are responsible for maintaining our representation of the physical self-other distinction. The meditator feels “one with everything” for exactly as long as the wiring that tells him he isn’t remains switched off. This isn’t quite like madness – the meditator’s sense of self is unitary and extended rather than fragmented – but I think it is instructively similar.
All this has some functional implications. It tells us we needn’t fear cognitive disinhibition in itself – it’s not causative of madness, it’s a near-accidental side effect of same. What it means for how we cultivate more genius is less clear. Probably the best strategy would be a combination of intelligence-enhancing nootropics with training to enhance the self-other distinction, if we had any real clue how to do the latter.