What do we really know about creativity? Very little. We know that creative genius is not the same thing as intelligence. In fact, beyond a certain minimum IQ threshold – about one standard deviation above average, or an IQ of 115 – there is no correlation at all between intelligence and creativity. We know that creativity is empirically correlated with mood-swing disorders. A couple of decades ago, Harvard researchers found that people showing ‘exceptional creativity’ – which they put at fewer than 1 per cent of the population – were more likely to suffer from manic-depression or to be near relatives of manic-depressives. As for the psychological mechanisms behind creative genius, those remain pretty much a mystery. About the only point generally agreed on is that, as Pinker put it, ‘Geniuses are wonks.’ They work hard; they immerse themselves in their genre.Could this immersion have something to do with stocking the memory? As an instructive case of creative genius, consider the French mathematician Henri Poincaré, who died in 1912. Poincaré’s genius was distinctive in that it embraced nearly the whole of mathematics, from pure (number theory) to applied (celestial mechanics). Along with his German coeval David Hilbert, Poincaré was the last of the universalists. His powers of intuition enabled him to see deep connections between seemingly remote branches of mathematics. He virtually created the modern field of topology, framing the ‘Poincaré conjecture’ for future generations to grapple with, and he beat Einstein to the mathematics of special relativity. Unlike many geniuses, Poincaré was a man of great practical prowess; as a young engineer he conducted on-the-spot diagnoses of mining disasters. He was also a lovely prose stylist who wrote bestselling works on the philosophy of science; he is the only mathematician ever inducted into the literary section of the Institut de France. What makes Poincaré such a compelling case is that his breakthroughs tended to come in moments of sudden illumination. One of the most remarkable of these was described in his essay ‘Mathematical Creation’. Poincaré had been struggling for some weeks with a deep issue in pure mathematics when he was obliged, in his capacity as mine inspector, to make a geological excursion. ‘The changes of travel made me forget my mathematical work,’ he recounted.
Having reached Coutances, we entered an omnibus to go some place or other. At the moment I put my foot on the step the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, that the transformations I had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-Euclidean geometry. I did not verify the idea; I should not have had time, as, upon taking my seat in the omnibus, I went on with a conversation already commenced, but I felt a perfect certainty. On my return to Caen, for conscience’s sake, I verified the result at my leisure.
How to account for the full-blown epiphany that struck Poincaré in the instant that his foot touched the step of the bus? His own conjecture was that it had arisen from unconscious activity in his memory. ‘The role of this unconscious work in mathematical invention appears to me incontestable,’ he wrote. ‘These sudden inspirations … never happen except after some days of voluntary effort which has appeared absolutely fruitless.’ The seemingly fruitless effort fills the memory banks with mathematical ideas – ideas that then become ‘mobilised atoms’ in the unconscious, arranging and rearranging themselves in endless combinations, until finally the ‘most beautiful’ of them makes it through a ‘delicate sieve’ into full consciousness, where it will then be refined and proved.
Poincaré was a modest man, not least about his memory, which he called ‘not bad’ in the essay. In fact, it was prodigious. ‘In retention and recall he exceeded even the fabulous Euler,’ one biographer declared. (Euler, the most prolific mathematician of all – the constant e takes his initial – was reputedly able to recite the Aeneid from memory.) Poincaré read with incredible speed, and his spatial memory was such that he could remember the exact page and line of a book where any particular statement had been made. His auditory memory was just as well developed, perhaps owing to his poor eyesight. In school, he was able to sit back and absorb lectures without taking notes despite being unable to see the blackboard.
It is the connection between memory and creativity, perhaps, which should make us most wary of the web. ‘As our use of the web makes it harder for us to lock information into our biological memory, we’re forced to rely more and more on the net’s capacious and easily searchable artificial memory,’ Carr observes. But conscious manipulation of externally stored information is not enough to yield the deepest of creative breakthroughs: this is what the example of Poincaré suggests. Human memory, unlike machine memory, is dynamic. Through some process we only crudely understand – Poincaré himself saw it as the collision and locking together of ideas into stable combinations – novel patterns are unconsciously detected, novel analogies discovered. And this is the process that Google, by seducing us into using it as a memory prosthesis, threatens to subvert.
Creativity and memory