Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Mensa vs. Muse: Sparking, Sparkling Creative Juices

by Karen L. Mulder, guest blogger
Ever since the 1950s, neuroscientists have known that a high IQ does not guarantee a highly creative mind, even though it might grant the bearer entry to Mensa (the club for the brain-endowed). In the process, they’ve followed the biographies of various individuals that the culture identifies as geniuses. As it turns out, ‘genius’ may also entail more than ‘just’ an IQ over 140. 
While genius, intelligence, and creativity are obviously linked, the biographies reveal surprising missing links. The ‘first’ arts biographer Vasari observed that Michelangelo left three-fifths of his sculptures unfinished, not only because Pope Julius kept pestering him with that little Sistine project, but also because he felt hampered by his mental ideals. Viennese monk Gregor Mendel, merely the founder of genetics, failed his entrance exam to teach high school multiple times, achieving his lowest marks in biology. Darwin was probably dyslexic, and Einstein may have had dyscalculia, the inability to work with numbers (really?!). 
Painter Chuck Close almost got sent to a Vo-Tech because of learning disabilities, which included his patent inability to recognize faces, but ended up with a Yale MFA and a Fulbright, and went on to invent a phenomenal, unique form of portraiture…featuring faces. His passion eventually enabled him to survive a catastrophic spinal collapse in 1988, which paralyzed him from the neck down within a few hours.
High achievers like Close often talk about childhoods marked by frenzied bouts of creativity. For instance, as a toddler, author Joyce Carol Oates remembers ‘notating’ her sketches with nonsensical scrawls and scribbles that emulated adult handwriting. But even a pronounced creative bent as a youngster does not guarantee a life of creative achievement. Scientists noodle on about qualities like rarity, variety, and elaborative detail in the responses of highly creative people, but MRIs and CAT scans fall far short of clarity on the topic. Nurture, nature, neuroesthetic patterning—whatever it is that generates our initial, seemingly endless supply of childhood creativity is still completely up for grabs.
Enter Spark: How Creativity Works, which joins the conversation with excerpts from 36 interviews for public radio’s Studio 360, featuring recognizably creative luminaries. The show’s DJ, Kurt Andersen, introduces the book with his personal maxim that undertaking creative tasks from an amateur rather than expert stance often inspires greater energy, better problem-solving, and fresher results, encapsulated by Shunryo Suzuki’s Zen precept that “in the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind, there are few.” Andersen successfully applied his axiom to a string of journalistic jobs he had no credentials for, he says, ending up at NBC, Time, and the zingy pop culture magazine he co-founded, Spy. So, not surprisingly, Anderson accepted Executive Producer Julie Burstein’s challenge to moderate Studio 360 in 2000, with very little on-air experience, and has since conducted hundreds of presumably scintillating interviews by doing what he loves most: jawing with interesting acquaintances. (Love is the essence of the amateur, n’est-ce pas?).
Venturi and Scott-Brown in Las Vegas in the 60s
Spark is opportunistic rather than encyclopedic, and idiosyncratic rather than proscriptive in its conclusions. Andersen and Burstein selected memorable talks and organized them into related topics. Burstein introduces ‘sparks’ ignited by overcoming adversity (like Close), or by reclaiming beauty from ugliness (like artist Mel Chin, who reclaims toxic wastelands). Making connections to creative soulmates (like architect/theorists Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown), or embracing connections to family members or home bases (like Roseanne Cash, Johnny’s daughter, or India-born, Harvard-educated director Mira Nair) can make a difference, as can creativity spurred on by the drive to heal a chaotic world with a different way of seeing things (e.g., Terence Blanchard’s Grammy-winning jazz requiem for Katrina, and Joel Meyerowitz’s hauntingly beautiful photos of Ground Zero). And finally, as you would expect for a musician at Yo-Yo Ma’s level, or writers like Joyce Carol Oates or John Irving, there is also the sheer discipline of hard work, and the regularity of practice making perfect. Boo hiss! No, not that, please! (Tuck those arduous piano practices back into the early memories file, there there).
Joel Meyerowitz was one of the first on the scene after 9/11...capturing a strange, haunting beauty.
“Inspiration is for amateurs,” Chuck Close concludes; “the rest of us just show up and get to work.” "Show up show up show up," Isabel Allende insists, "and after a while, the muse shows up too." Still, if your muse needs a gentle prod, or you suspect that she gave up on you and took off for St. Croix, you might benefit from an injection of Spark to get her back home.

Just by virtue of doing this blog for all of you Gleaners, Karen Mulder’s muse recovered from an entanglement with actuarial tables. Don’t forget to check out related topics in Daedalus’ Forum (see link at upper right) on all things brainy.


  1. Emerson knew where to find a spark:
    "The scholar sits down to write, and all his years of meditation do not furnish him with one good thought or happy expression; but it is necessary to write a letter to a friend-- and, forthwith, troops of gentle thoughts invest themselves, on every hand, with chosen words."

    I trust that is why acquaintance with us Gleaners has beguiled your Muse from other concerns.

  2. Being a New Yorker, I have to say that I still cannot look upon the ruins of the WTC without feeling all the chaos and misery of that day. Beauty hasn't come for me yet.

  3. Mensa has a test online so you can discover your inner genius. They tell me I passed and could join the table, but the last question--the $100 or so entrance fee--was a complete stumper.