Creativity and Irrational Forces: Eccentric Artists and Mad Scientists
"Men have called me mad, but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence--whether much that is glorious--whether all that is profound--does not spring from disease of thought--from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect. Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night"
- Edgar Allen Poe
"Imagination is more important than knowledge"
- Albert Einstein
Is creative genius somehow woven together with "madness"? According to the dictionary, "to create" is "to bring into being or form out of nothing." Such a powerful, mysterious, and seemingly impossible act must surely be beyond the scope of scientific inquiry. No wonder creativity has for so long been "explained" as the expression of an irrational, intuitive psychic "underground" teaming with forces (perhaps divine) that are unknown and unknowable (at least to the "sane," rational mind). The ancient Greeks believed creative inspiration was achieved through altered states of mind such as "divine madness." Socrates said: "If a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane compositions never reach perfection, but are utterly eclipsed by the inspired madman" (8). Creative inspiration - particularly artistic inspiration -- has often been thought to require the sampling of dark "depths" of irrationality while maintaining at least some connection to everyday reality. This dive into underground forces "reminds one of a skin-diver with a breathing tube" wrote Arthur Koestler in his influential book, The act of creation (9).According to Koestler, "the creative act always involves a regression to earlier, more primitive levels on the mental hierarchy, while other processes continue simultaneously on the rational surface." Using similar themes, the chemist, Kekule described a visionary moment leading to his groundbreaking discovery that the benzene molecule is a ring. His creative break with the prevailing assumption that all molecules were based on two-ended strings of atoms came in a blazing flash of insight:
"I turned my chair to the fire and dozed. Again the atoms were gamboling before my eyes.... [My mental eye] could distinguish larger structures, of manifold conformation; long rows, sometimes more closely fitted together; all twining and twisting in snakelike motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning I awoke." (2).
Like Kekule, people recognized for their creative genius often depict moments of inspiration as an electrifying convergence of rational and irrational thought. If creativity is to be found between the rational and the irrational; between the known and the unknown; between...