The Frontal Cortex

David Galenson

In my recent WSJ article on age and creativity, I didn’t have space to discuss the fascinating research of David Galenson, an economist at the University of Chicago who brings together a vast array of evidence to better understand the nature of creative production over time. Galenson divides creators into two distinct categories: conceptual innovators and experimental innovators. In general, conceptual innovators make sudden and radical breakthroughs by formulating new ideas, often at an early age. In contrast, experimental innovators work by trial and error, and typically require decades of tinkering before they produce a major work. For an excellent summary of Galenson’s work, check out this Gladwell article.

Pablo Picasso is the cliched conceptual innovator. He painted his first masterpiece, Evocation: The Burial of Casagemas, at the tender age of twenty. By the time he was twenty-six, an age when most painters are just completing their MFA programs, Picasso was putting the finishing touches on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which is one of most influential works of art ever created. It’s as if Picasso was born an old master.

In a rare interview, done in 1923, Picasso explained his artistic method:

“I have never made trials or experiments. Whenever I had something to say, I have said it in the manner in which I needed to be said…I can hardly understand the importance given to the word research in connection with modern painting. In my opinion to search means nothing in painting. To find is the thing.”

This is how geniuses are supposed to work: They are epiphany machines, pulling breakthroughs from thin air. Once the epiphany arrives, the artist immediately recognizes its importance, and rushes the idea into paint or verse or melody. That’s why Herman Melville wrote a novel every year throughout his late twenties, before completing Moby Dick at thirty-two. When critics savaged the epic fishing story – an influential critic for the London Atheneum called it “an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact” – Melville wasn’t discouraged. “Not one man in five cycles, who is wise, will expect appreciative recognition from his fellows,” Melville wrote in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, shortly after Moby Dick was published. “But I have written a wicked book…I would sit down and dine with all the gods in old Rome’s Pantheon.”

But here’s the thing about conceptual innovators: they tend to get less productive with age, as they exhaust their store of revolutionary ideas. (Galenson focuses on artists, but I wonder if a similar framework might also apply to scientists. Just look at Einstein…) One of my favorite Galenson papers is his analysis of 20th century songwriters, in which he compares Irving Berlin and Cole Porter (experimental innovators) with Bob Dylan and John Lennon, who greatly expanded the conceptual possibilities of their field. (In his autobiography, Dylan confesses to a very grand ambition: “Picasso had fractured the art world and cracked it wide open. He was revolutionary. I wanted to be like that.”) Here’s Galenson on Dylan and the Beatles:

This shift, which transformed popular music from an experimental into a conceptual art, produced a distinct change in the creative life cycles of songwriters. Golden Era songwriters were generally at their best during their 30s and 40s, whereas since the mid-’60s popular songwriters have consistently done their best work during their 20s.

In other words, different circumstances call for different kinds of creativity. The patient craftsmanship of Berlin and Porter wouldn’t have appealed to the youth of 1963, just as the ingenious insolence of Dylan and Lennon wouldn’t have worked on Broadway in the late 1930s. Sometimes we need a revolution, and sometimes we need a marginal improvement.

Galenson goes on to note that we shouldn’t be surprised that rock stars don’t age well, since rock n’ roll is a brash and youthful art form, which encourages conceptual innovation:

It is interesting that the sharp drop in the creativity of aging rock songwriters has often been noted in particular cases, including notably those of Dylan, Lennon, and McCartney. Many explanations have been offered for these dramatic declines. Yet these explanations have invariably been specific to the individual artists in question. In contrast, this study has offered a general explanation. The loss of creativity with age suffered by Dylan, Lennon, McCartney, and so many of their successors as they have aged is not a phenomenon caused by factors unique to these individuals, or even to rock music. Instead, these artists appear to be prime examples of the loss of conceptual creativity with age, one of the most powerful and pervasive patterns in human creativity.

I’d argue that pop music no longer rewards such radical breakthroughs. Instead, the rock marketplace now values experimental innovators, or people who carefully build on what came before. So maybe Wilco and Arcade Fire and Eminem will keep on creating great albums until they’re old and gray.

I wonder if a similar dynamic is at work in science. As I noted in the WSJ article, different scientific fields seem to exhibit different creative curves, with young scientists excelling in physics and older scientists excelling in biology. It’s easy to conclude that such variation reflects intrinsic intellectual differences between the fields. But what if physics is just like rock music, and will one day transition to a time in which experimental innovators get all the credit? And maybe biology will one day learn to embrace its Dylans and Picassos? The point is that creativity only exists in plural – there are many different ways to invent something new – and must always be understood in its cultural context.

Comments

  1. #1 James Estrada
    February 22, 2010

    I think its important to speculate that true creative genius in any field has to be cultivated. It does not just arise and does not just go away. So perhaps there are many possible geniuses who are not given the opportunity to achieve their potential. Maybe the shift has to occur there. The exaggerated attention placed on those who have exhibited such traits in their youth, while valid (it does not go away, often gets better), is detrimental to the cultivation of young minds. This goes the same way in the arts, with record labels as it does with science and grant funding. Why take a risk on an unknown when an established “genius” will not disappoint? It’s loss aversion and it’s (unfortunately to some) the common sensical decision to make.

  2. #2 C H Paquette
    February 22, 2010

    Picasso said… “Everyone wants to understand art. Why not understand the song of a bird?” This was a mocking response to those who tried to make literal sense of his paintings.

    Don’t underestimate the value to Picasso of being surrounded by, and closely interacting with, other artistic geniuses such as Braque, Gris, Miro, and others including poets, writers, and musicians during his most productive years in Paris. These artists fed of each other’s talents, they blatantly copied one another’s work. Picasso’s epiphanies were hardly pulled from thin air. Genius can never flourish in a vacuum.

  3. #3 Cedar
    February 22, 2010

    Einstein is a huge exception in the history of science. For most other figures, if you look closely enough at the innovation, it becomes clear that it wasn’t immediate or the result of a single solitary young genius. Even Einstein, who wrote those seminal papers while apparently a solitary and lowly patent clerk, was studying patents having to do with light transmission, in an office with others who actually knew a lot of physics.
    I would submit that one might be able to find an example or two of “conceptual innovators” in science (mostly in physics), but really, the vast amount of evidence points to innovation in science (even in physics) occurring through gradual and collaborative mechanisms.

  4. #4 UFO JIM
    February 23, 2010

    UFO JIM…
    Some Genius is from high mental ability…
    Some Genius is from contact with a “spirit”…
    Some Genius is from… “Aliens”.

  5. #5 plainwater
    February 23, 2010

    The other thing about Picasso is that he lied his head off during interviews. What was Cubism if not an extended, hermetic type of research? And when Cubism finally became outmoded, Picasso had to find new ways to create art, which he did with varying success until the end of his life.

  6. #6 Alain
    February 23, 2010

    Which leaves me wondering how the heck will anybody be able to really predict that Mr Dirty Harry would become a genius of a film maker later in life.

  7. #7 Scott
    February 23, 2010

    Regarding conceptual/experimental innovation, I think an important piece of the puzzle is the current state of the research (or art). All fields of research are in constant flux, but some time periods experience more pronounced gains in concept or technology, but rarely both. I think it’s pretty clear that concept and technology form a feed-forward network driving growth. New scientific paradigms propel technology, and the resulting instruments allow researchers to better characterize and improve the current paradigm. Sometimes, technology will beget new paradigms (the promise of the Large Hadron Collider, for example). Concept will lay dormant without technology, and vice versa. Sometimes a field will need that bright, dazzling new idea to spur new growth and sometimes a field needs to refine and hone its ideas. The cultivation of both types of genius is imperative.

  8. #8 Jason R
    February 23, 2010

    Jonah,

    You may find this interesting. It is a talk that was given during the Beyond Belief Conference at the Salk Institute by Robert Winter (Presidential Chair in Music and Interactive Arts at UCLA). The talk is about 40 minutes long but he talks about Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and how it was created.

    http://thesciencenetwork.org/programs/beyond-belief-enlightenment-2-0/robert-winter

  9. #9 DR
    February 23, 2010

    How much of a breakthrough did Dylan represent? He is an acknowledged adherent of Woody Guthrie and the 1930′s populist troubadour tradition. Paul McCartney has stated in an interview that when he first met John Lennon in their youth, Lennon’s favorite song was “Little White Lies” by Walter Donaldson (1930) and that McCartney himself was a fan not only of Buddy Holly, et al., but also of the Great American Songbook. BTW, is Sergeant Pepper a conceptual breakthrough or an experimental one?

    It seems to me that creativity is synthetic, that it always involves a transit between what is known and what is imagined, that its nature is never purely conceptual or purely experimental, that every concept ultimately springs from experience, that every meaningful experiment has some concept behind it.

  10. #10 NDP
    February 23, 2010

    In pop music; yes, maybe some of the creativity is spurred by external reward. But how much of it. . . *really* comes from the need for recognition? How much of it comes from a curious person looking at a unique problem in a unique way, and simply deriving the innate pleasure that a human being derives from solving a problem?

    I’ll agree, that the issue of, to whom we (society) gives grants (ie. access to labs, equipment, books, resources, other minds), and to whom we (say; the Recording Industry) gives access to studios and equipment, etc. is going to absolutely have bearing on how successful a creative person is, at solving some difficult problems. Tools are always useful, when you’re solving a problem that involves “standing on the shoulders of giants” so to speak. But when one is approaching something completely novel – motivation and drive comes at least as much from inside as from outside.

  11. #11 Kevin Vogelsang
    February 23, 2010

    Much of this seems illusory as presented.

    I’d like to see a study of people that do truly great work early in their lifetimes. Do they continue as such?

    It could be a question of motivation.

    It could also be a question of luck/timeliness.

    We must think of people in terms of populations. There are many great thinkers. Only a few have the right ideas in the right context.
    Their thoughts were big because they had the right mindset when it was needed. But once a mind has created it’s revolution, it’s not such a revolutionary mind any longer.

  12. #12 OftenWrongTed
    February 23, 2010

    In later life, Pablo Picasso said: ” I have less and less time, and yet I have more and more to say, and what I have to say is increasingly, something about what goes on in the movement of my thought. I’ve reached the moment, you see, when the movement of my thought interests me more than the thought itself.”

    “Picasso In His Own Words.” ISBN: 0002551527

  13. #13 Brandon Hidaka
    February 23, 2010

    Thank you for that link to Gladwell’s article. I feel so validated: I was worrying over what my major revolutionary break-through would be, but now I am confident that I am late bloomer. I find that my greatest accomplishments come from hard work, rather than innate genius. I hope the NIH is willing to be my patron in the meantime!

  14. #14 Isabel
    February 24, 2010

    “So perhaps there are many possible geniuses who are not given the opportunity to achieve their potential.”

    Why do I keep asking myself
    If there’s someone somewhere waiting to be heard
    One of all the talented people born
    Brokenhearted, having each his own problems

    – Dixon Acosta

  15. #15 Ian Kemmish
    February 24, 2010

    An alternative, and quite popular, explanation for the cycles in the popular music industry you cite, is that hunger spurs creativity. The artists of the 1960′s became wealthy a lot more rapidly than those others, and therefore had no need to continue to evolve anything novel once they were successful. Indeed, had they done so they might well have lost income. Fans tend to be pretty conservative people!

    And of course there’s are obvious musical counterexamples if you venture outside the popular music industry. Beethoven for one managed to sustain a pretty continuous revolution over his entire career.

  16. #16 Anthony Sebastian
    February 24, 2010

    What about instinctual curiosity as a promoting factor in creativity, especially conceptual creativity? Sometimes to satisfy one’s curiosity one must generate potential paths to the land of satisfaction, conceptual explorations, mediated by hordes of invading hypotheses or imaginary scenarios emanating from the non-conscious mind, that vast undiscovered country where all but the tip of the thought-machine resides unseen. Perhaps whatever influences the vitality of curiosity in that underground conceptualizer determines the life histories of creativity among individuals.

  17. #17 RVW
    February 25, 2010

    Could Darwin be considered something of a Picasso for the field of Biology? Perhaps there have already been conceptual innovators in the field.

  18. #18 Jon H
    February 26, 2010

    “The patient craftsmanship of Berlin and Porter wouldn’t have appealed to the youth of 1963″

    I dunno. It’s a different medium, but Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings was pretty popular in the 60s, eventually getting mentioned by Led Zeppelin lyrics, etc. And that was very definitely a case of patient craftsmanship.

  19. #19 Diane Moser
    February 26, 2010

    In reference to aging rockers-you’re forgetting that marketing and just plain making a living performing and recording music are at work here.Once a musician has made “a hit” fans tend to want to hear that hit, over and over, and concert promoters want the same. New, exciting, innovative are not necessarily rewarded-monetarily. However, listen to some of the jazz greats/legends who are still with us-and you will hear remarkable and innovative music that comes from years of practicing, and taping into creativity. The same goes for contemporary classical composers, who are continuing to break-through molds or ideas of the status quo.

  20. #20 Jerry M.
    February 28, 2010

    Epiphanies pulled out of thin air!!!!!! Are you kidding me!!!!!
    Wasn’t it Einstein who said : I stand on the shoulders of Giants
    and genius is 98% persperation and 2% inspiration. Meaning that most ideas and concepts of what we commonly call geniuses are mostly expanded from earlier works and ideas followed up with more and more work. Yes, they had the insight to see the value of the early work before them, and yes they we’re able to synthesize seeming dis separate ideas together. But the idea that the epiphany just came down out of thin air is just popularist, laymans mis perception as to what REAL genius is all about. A culture that supports and accepts alot of information exchange freely, and allows and encourges free thinking, encourages genius.And can’t a genius be both creative and experimental???? I think the average person only focuses on what the genius has done in recent memory or what the media focuses on, rather, they miss all the countless thousands of hours of long hard work or practice that led up until that recognition of their achievements.
    It’s often cited how Mozart wrote his first symphony at 6, but what most are missing is the fact is all the thousands of hours of music practice his taskmaster father had him doing before that. It’s almost insultive to say that a genius pulls his epiphanies out of thin air!!!
    I’m SURE Albert Einstein would agree!!!!

  21. #21 Gary E
    February 28, 2010

    Not the best rock examples either.
    Dylan had a sixth decade renaissance producing three of the best albums of his career – Time Out Of Mind, Love & Theft, and Modern Times. So did McCartney, though to a lesser extent (Chaos and Confusion, Memory Almost Full, and The Fireman 3). Lennon, of course, never made it to old age.

    “Watch out you rock’n'rollers/pretty soon you’re gonna get older” – David Bowie

  22. #22 Bryce
    March 23, 2010

    “Sometimes we need a revolution, and sometimes we need a marginal improvement.” Brilliant writing; awesome post, as per usual. Thanks!

  23. #23 UFO JIM
    March 25, 2010

    UFO JIM…
    Some Genius is from high mental ability…
    Some Genius is from contact with a “spirit”…
    Some Genius is from…”Aliens”.

  24. #24 Dana Vaudrain
    November 19, 2011

    I’ve been following the blog for some time and had encouraged me not even comment. Without doubt, the article says is absolutely true, although some people may think differently.