When Albert Einstein came across a cigarette butt, he would often pick it up—fuel for the ol' tobacco pipe. When Charles Dickens walked around London, he would often be wielding his umbrella—the best defense for imaginary street urchins. When Björk goes to an awards show, she might dress like a swan—what could be more genius? Or beautiful? Or weird?
As more than a decade's research is showing, genius and madness are basically best friends. What's interesting is why.
A lot of it has to do with the aperture through which you receive information. Our sense organs are constantly sending tons of information to our minds—which interact with memories and images from the past—creating a ton of work for our minds as they filter relevant from irrelevant data. Having a super strong filter can be awesome, as it provides for feats of attention. However, having less of a filter is linked with mental illness—and creativity.
While most have us have a fair amount of latent inhibition helping us to filter out irrelevant data, creative (and maybe also psychotic) people aren't quite so ordered, making for what Harvard psychologist Shelley Carson calls cognitive disinhibition. She defines it as "the failure to ignore information that is irrelevant to current goals or to survival." In other words, it's allowing for more info to come in than seems immediately beneficial.
A person with low latent inhibitions would not only see a yellow desk lamp, they may also think of bananas, Spongebob Squarepants, or Spongebob Squarepants eating a banana, or possibly concoct a whole dissertation in their head about whether or not Spongebob likes to eat bananas, or how he could get them down in the ocean
In a 2003 study, Carson found that eminent creative achievers were seven times more likely to to have low rather than high latent intelligence scores. That insight prompted her to form a hypothesis: that cognitive disinhibiting allows for way more info to enter into your conscious mind—which you can then tinker with and recombine. The result: creative ideas.
Carson's research gives us another angle for unpacking the nature of creativity: while we see the outputs in the form of a gorgeous painting, a masterful novel, or a "disruptive" business, that only comes as the result of recombining inputs—the experiences that you soak your mind in.
Which is why you might want to stay open.
Hat tip: Farnam Street
[Image: Flickr user Pulicciano]