Madness and Creativity

Following up on yesterday’s thoughts on cliches, here’s an interesting article from In Character magazine about creativity and madness:

Why Mad Scientists Are Mad: What’s Behind the Creative Mind? by Sharon Begley

Though I think the researcher profiled, Shelley Carson, has a slightly too-mechanistic concept of creativity, defining it as “a bringing together of seemingly unrelated ideas, memories, images, and thoughts”–though, of course, if there’s really nothing new under the sun, then mix-and-match is the best we can hope for–it has some great nuggets in it. The thesis that creative people have fewer cognitive filters, and are thus less likely to discard an odd idea as quickly as “normal” folks, seems right on to me. And that this opens them up to risks of certain kinds of mental illness–depression, mania, obsessive-compulsive behaviors–also seems right.

What I most liked about it, though, was this nice little aside:

Despite the popularity of brainstorming and group problem solving in corporate America, study after study has shown that these techniques produce fewer workable creative ideas than does solitary problem solving. In fact, people working alone generally hit upon better ideas than do the same people working together.

Huzzah! Having sat through more “brainstorming” sessions than I care to remember, I’m glad to hear that their uselessness has been quantified. Recently, I had the misfortune of being pressed into a group presentation about creativity; and though I love my co-workers, these were the most incredibly uncreative folks around. They were frightened by any ideas that seemed at all odd. The only bit of whimsy that I was able to introduce were my “eye puppets” for an activity about the importance of eye exercises (oh yes, don’t forget your eye exercises…). I documented the sorry affair in this gallery, where you can see the eye puppets in action and poor Billy standing at the brainstorming board. Sigh.

So a simple plea, from someone who often has to come up with clever and creative ideas at work: leave us alone. Please. We come up with much better ideas without you hovering over our shoulders. Plus, we’re just barely this side of absolute insanity (c.f. Arnold Ludwig, The Price of Greatness), so we can’t really be held accountable for what might happen if you get too close…

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