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Researchers Explore the Nature and Nurture behind Creative Geniuses

Scientists discussed the neurological and environmental influences on developing and nurturing genius or creativity. | Dana Foundation

What makes a genius a genius: genetics, environment, or hard work? Each plays a part, according to three experts who convened 27 October at AAAS Headquarters to explore the nature — and the nurture — of creativity and genius. The researchers spoke at "Creativity, Genius and the Brain," the last presentation of the2015 Neuroscience and Society lecture series, a partnership between AAAS and the Dana Foundation.

"This event described ongoing research into such questions that have led to important insights into what geniuses and creative people have that others do not, and whether those others can acquire some of whatever it is they have," said Mark Frankel, director of the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program.

Can genius be taught? According to Roberta B. Ness, yes.

"Genius is achieved through a thinking process that is less mystical than it is systematic," said Ness, the Rockwell Professor of Public Health and vice president for innovation at the University of Texas School of Public Health. "Even the greatest of innovative minds has used a cognitive toolbox that can be understood."

Geniuses use tools like observation and analogy to recognize — and disrupt — the cognitive patterns known as frames, the "set of assumptions and expectations that we use in interpreting new information and making sense of it," Ness said.

"To be revolutionarily creative, radically creative, to change society, you have to break frames in a fundamental way," she said.

Environment, too, can help foster genius. Nancy Andreasen, the Andrew H. Woods Chair of Psychiatry at the University of Iowa College of Medicine, offered the example of Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo's "inherent but not inherited creativity," she said, was nurtured by the forces of Renaissance Florence, a time and place of intellectual freedom populated by a critical mass of creative people, which allowed his creative nature to become manifest.

"Had Leonardo da Vinci been born 200 years earlier, or later, we probably would not have the body of work that he produced," Andreasen said.

John Kounios, professor of psychology at Drexel University, discussed the role the brain plays in creative problem-solving. Problem-solving styles are partially genetically determined, he said.

"Your cognitive problem-solving style, how you attack the problem, is at least partly determined or influenced by your prior resting-state brain activity," Kounios said, whose research using neuroimaging has identified two different methods of solving a problem, with an "a-ha moment" of insight or with "systematic, deliberate hypothesis testing."

"Creative insight is largely spontaneous and is not a product of conscious strategies," Kounios said. Experts in an area tend to arrive at their ideas using the first method; however, Kounios said the deliberate strategies of the second method — the "conscious, logical, effortful, strategic, inside-the-box thinking" — can help novices reach similar conclusions.