In 1963, Nancy Andreasen was the first female tenure-tracked English professor at the University of Iowa. Soon after, her first book about the poet John Donne was accepted by a publisher. Her career was off to a smashing start, but she had a nagging feeling.
"Who would this book help?" she couldn't stop herself from thinking. "What if I channeled the effort and energy I’d invested in it into a career that might save people’s lives?"
Within a month, she enrolled in the medical school at the University of Iowa. Today she is a leading neuroscientist, marrying her love for literature and the arts with her fascination in how the brain works. Andreasen studies what some call "the science of genius"—trying to unpack the elements that make up the brightest creative minds. It's not a high IQ that indicates creative genius, she's found. In her research, Andreasen has explored the link between mental illness and creativity, finding a strong connection between the two.
In her latest study, which she recently wrote about for the Atlantic, Andreasen scanned the brains of 13 of the most famous scientists, mathematicians, artists, and writers alive today. Her subjects included Fields Medalists, Pulitzer Prize winners, and six Nobel laureates. Among them are filmmaker George Lucas, mathematician William Thurston, and novelist Jane Smiley. Andreasen delved into their family and personal histories, also studying the structural and functional characteristics of their brains using neuroimaging.
The study was challenging given how hard it is to pin down the creative process. "Creativity, of course, cannot be distilled into a single mental process, and it cannot be captured in a snapshot—nor can people produce a creative insight or thought on demand," she writes.
Andreasen had to find a way to study these creative minds at work. She hooked them up to an MRI scan and gave them different word association, picture association, and pattern recognition tasks. "You cannot force creativity to happen—every creative person can attest to that," writes Andreasen. "But the essence of creativity is making connections and solving puzzles."
In her findings she has distilled some key patterns in the minds of creative geniuses. They include:
Think of all the creative geniuses who were high school drop-outs—Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg. Andreasen found that her subjects were autodidacts—they preferred figuring things out independently, rather than being spoon-fed information.
"Because their thinking is different, my subjects often express the idea that standard ways of learning and teaching are not always helpful and may even be distracting, and that they prefer to learn on their own," she writes.
There's a mentality out there that you have to choose between either the arts or the sciences in your studies and career. But Andreasen found that some of the greatest creative minds are polymaths, sharing a love for both.
"The arts and the sciences are seen as separate tracks, and students are encouraged to specialize in one or the other," writes Andreasen. "If we wish to nurture creative students, this may be a serious error."
When you're coming up with new unheard-of ideas, you're pushing against the status quo. Rejection and skepticism are inevitable. It's what you do in the face of those that matters most.
Andreasen found that creative geniuses are resilient when presented with such skepticism. "They have to confront doubt and rejection," she writes. "And yet they have to persist in spite of that, because they believe strongly in the value of what they do."
What this persistence might breed, however, is psychic pain, says Andreasen, which can manifest as depression or anxiety.
Creative people have lots of ideas, but that doesn't mean all of them are worth pursuing. "Part of what comes with seeing connections no one else sees is that not all these connections actually exist," writes Andreasen. Still, a willingness to go after those ideas—to try them out, to resist the skepticism of others around you in order to find out if they are great, is essential.
As one of Andreasen's subjects, a scientist, told her: "Part of creativity is picking the little bubbles that come up to your conscious mind, and picking which one to let grow and which one to give access to more of your mind . . . then have that translate into action."