On the nature of genius

September 8, 2009 at 2:00 am 6 comments

Earlier this year, I read Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. I’d read a review in some magazine and, although I’m not usually into this type of book (which I’d describe as a New Age journey with God and lots of self-absorption thrown into the mix), I found it quite a good read. I did find the bit about talking to God whilst on her knees in the bathroom floor irritating (and a tad unbelievable) but there were portions of her book filled with lyrical prose, lovely turns of phrase and good movement throughout.

I told a great friend of mine about the book and, the other day, she told me about a TED video of Elizabeth Gilbert talking about the nature of genius and the nurturing of creativity. I did think it might be some New Age fluffy bunny stuff but no, it’s really a great video. So I want you to watch it and then come back to me.

A lot of what she says reminds me of Rupert Sheldrake’s notion of morphic resonance, which I can best describe as the influence of previous activity and thought patterns on social groups and animals. Sheldrake proposed telepathic connections between organisms based on collective memories within species. So for example, a particular species can “tune in” to a morphic field that will have been established by the actions and memories of previous members of the species. Shared patterns of information and archetypes could be transmitted and a member of a species can tap into the collective unconscious (I’ve always found Sheldrake’s theories to have Jungian undertones).  His books are great – if you’re interested, go here.  For me, his work explains why you often find different people have come up with inventions or theories at the same time.

Anyway, back to Gilbert. In the video, she talks about how the creativity of artists was perceived in the world of classical antiquity and how the Ancient Greeks, for example, collaborated with a daemon (or helper spirit). She mentioned speaking with a poet who, when toiling in a field, would literally hear a fully formed-poem rushing towards her on the wind. She would have to run to the house and pick up pen and paper in time to catch the poem as it whooshed past her.

So in the ancient world, there was no issue with believing that creativity emanated not from individuals, but from divine helper spirits. If your novel was crap; the helper spirit carried some of the blame. But the Renaissance placed Man at the centre of the universe and creative types started to be called geniuses because the notion of “genius” became a human phenomenon and not one associated with divine helper spirits. And so this is why many “geniuses” are tortured, suicidal, angst-ridden – because they carry the weight of genius alone.

I think this is a really interesting notion and one I want to contemplate further. I have no reason to doubt that there is a collective unconscious or morphic resonance field hovering somewhere up there. It’s just that my helper spirits keep deserting me every time I put pen to paper to begin my novel or when I tap into the collective unconscious it’s suffering amnesia!

What do you think of Gilbert’s ideas?


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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Andrew Mitchell  |  September 8, 2009 at 2:33 am


    You said, “I have no reason to doubt that there is a collective unconscious or morphic resonance field hovering somewhere up there.”

    You have EVERY reason to doubt. You’re typically a skeptical person. I think that the people making extraordinary claims need to present extraordinary evidence. You make this book sound like it’s got an interesting and engaging story but that hardly qualifies as extraordinary evidence.

    In the absence of evidence, Occam’s Razor would suggest that the simplest explaination – that our creativity lies entirely within us – is probably true.


    P.S. If imagining “helper spirits” is going to help unlock your creativity for this project then, by all means, imagine away. Whatever works. Just remember that it’s imagination.

  • 2. Baoman  |  September 8, 2009 at 4:03 am

    I haven’t read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat, Pray, Love but I like what she proposes here. The anquish of the creative process has become a cliche – here is at least a more rational explanation – “a spirit helped me do this”. Of course, we should remember that sometimes terrible acts of violence are explained in this same way – “a spirit made me do this”. The human mind is not rational and to explain it in rational terms frequently seems to miss out on a resonable explanation on how or why someone would write a poem, a song, a story. Her explanation is as resonable as any that I’ve heard.

  • 3. creativespark  |  September 8, 2009 at 7:43 am

    I loved her talk. Loved it, loved it.

    For all kinds of reasons… just the fact that she seems like a lovely person and she gives a great talk would be enough.

    But also it’s a side of creativity that’s not talked about much. Perhaps because it’s mysterious and spooky to someone on the outside and not understood. We need to understand everything, right? If we don’t understand it then it’s probably wrong or doesn’t exist or should be ignored.

    I’ve known some amazingly creative people who draw from some mysterious source that I don’t understand. They really do. It’s not the same as my creativity, which is the duck gliding on water while the little legs kick like mad underneath variety. These people go into trances while they work, or the world shifts a little sideways and changes colour, or some force comes out of the floor and travels up their legs… or something.

    What really interested me about it is that I’m really intensely interested in (actually, thinking of rolling on to a thesis in…) where creativity comes from and whether it can be nurtured, grown or taught. I’m interested in it on a big macro level… why some countries seem better at it than others, whether changes in policy, urban planning, reward systems etc might help.

    We’ve grown to believe that everything is science now. That creativity can be taught. That we can form individuals and communities by manipulating the elements.

    To an extent perhaps that is true.

    But I think her talk is a great reminder that we’re just great rationalists… and actually there could be things seen and unseen at play.

  • 4. thinkingshift  |  September 8, 2009 at 9:22 am

    oh Andrew!! I have read all of Sheldrake’s books and he presents some pretty good evidence (I know that hard-core scientists dismiss him though). But before science – we believed in spirits and magic. Then along came science and took that all away. But maybe because our world is stuffed, many of us are prepared to say ok why not helper spirits? why not a collective unconsciousness? why not a morphic resonance field?
    True Andrew, I am pretty skeptical but a little part of me wonders about stuff like this. I am also a great fan of Jung.
    So I’m prepared to contemplate it all!

    • 5. Andrew Mitchell  |  September 8, 2009 at 11:30 am

      Oh Kim! 🙂

      I’ve watched the video now and I find I can agree with most of it. If, as Elizabeth describes it (just after she talks about the greeks and romans) this is a “useful psycological construct” that relieves suffering and enhances creativity then so be it. That’s fine, that’s valid, that’s useful. But that does not make it true.

      You ask “why not a morphic resonance field”, and I’ll turn that around and ask “what is this” and “how might it work” and and “how can we test this”. If we test it and it gets a positive result, that’s good. And in we repeat the test tomorrow and get another positive result then that’s better. And if someone else tests it next week and gets the same positive result then that’s really good. And if many people test it many times around the world then we can start to understand and believe in “morphic resonance” – but only until the evidence starts to show something different because our understanding wasn’t quite right. That’s the power and process of science – it does help find objective, repeatable truth.

      Until we construct a hypothesis consistent with current evidence, develop a sound method to test the theory, and get repeatable results then everything remains subjective and tentative including “helper spirits”.

      I’m not claiming that science can answer all questions now, or even that science ever will be able to answer all questions. But it is absolutely the best process we have for understanding the world, including physical laws and our experience.

      Yes, the “world is stuffed” and the more creative, more even tempered, more rational, more wise and more able to act effectively we can be both individually and collectively the better. Whatever can futher these results is fine by me, even “helper spirits”. I don’t care if not everything is double-blind, placebo control tested. Just don’t label it “truth” until it is.


  • 6. thinkingshift  |  September 8, 2009 at 9:28 am

    Hey Bill, I’ll be checking out your blog and I’ll be linking to it. And Marc – I’m with you guys. I have no evidence but I wonder if there are unseen, unknown things at play.
    My great-aunt (a great influence of me as I spent lots of time with her) – she was one of these spooky people – we’d be talking or whatever and suddenly she would stop….have an odd look on her face and then whip out her notebook. She would write in a flurry, usually a poem, sometimes sketches (great artist). And wham: there would be a fully formed poem or whatever. She always told me that she just heard the words or saw the shapes. I always wondered if she was nuts.
    But listening to Gilbert (who I thought was extremely articulate) reminded me of my aunt.
    I’m like you Marc, the duck on the water with the feet furiously paddling away.
    Interestingly, New Zealand is followed a Creative New Zealand path – actively encouraging creativity, innovation, design. Can creativity be taught??
    Gilbert’s talk has me really thinking – expect a post!!


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