Man as Filing cabinet

Genius
October 20, 1995

No one could accuse Hans Eysenck of being short of courage; this book is a valiant attempt to conquer that Everest of psychology - the creativity of genius. He is concerned to produce a "genuinely scientific united psychology", statistical measurement being dominant, focusing on intelligence and creativity. Much of his thinking on intelligence appears to be somewhat old fashioned, though. Considerable reference is made to the work of the Grand Old Men of psychology - Galton, Spearman, Hebb, and Cattell - not to mention the published work of the author himself. There are good historical pickings here. Genius is seen as largely inborn, following Galton's description of a "posthumous reputation" that emerges when "left to itself", although Eysenck does accept that the environment must provide the means for development and recognition, since, "an unrecognised genius is meaningless". These old theories are often used to dismiss newer work, and well-known researchers who describe environmental effects get short shrift. From a scientific point of view, this is biased reporting: one has to be as careful of "proofs" as of opinions.

Most surprisingly, there is no reference to the development of meta-cognition, the overview of one's own learning and thinking processes, as a feature of high-level mental activity. Eysenck writes of "our mistaken notion that mental processes can be made conscious and are capable of being studied introspectively"; it is the results of thinking we recollect, rather than the processes. The constant berating of Freud seems to come from a deeper place than objective scientific criticism. Eysenck finds the "almost unanimous" conclusions from vast accumulated data of "postulated" environmental influences to be unacceptable and "not in the best traditions of science", so sweeping aside all the evidence that might taint his arguments.

Yet in this area, which abounds in methodological problems, some of the evidence he does accept is scientifically dubious. Terman's Californian 45-year studies of "genius", for example, were done on privileged children without any comparison groups, although the most recent results show that optimal alterable conditions of childhood can add considerably to adult success. Eysenck does not refer to recent between-family longitudinal studies that have distinguished environmental influences. Much research has shown that early verbal stimulation is relatively more important for the development of intelligence than formal education, and could account for geniuses arising from apparently poor backgrounds.

To Eysenck, all geniuses are men and gender differences "are of course genetic", although he grudgingly recognises some of the considerable handicaps women have faced. An example could be Rosalind Franklin, who deciphered the bases for the discovery of DNA. Her results were adopted by the Nobel prizewinners Crick and Watson. This example of psychopathology provides evidence for the most valuable thesis of this book. Eysenck ties up some theories of genius and "madness" very neatly, in relating creative genius to psychopathology, measurable on the Eysenck Personality Inventory along the continuum of psychoticism (P), a "dispositional trait" on which males score twice as highly as females. Genius, he says, demands psychopathology: neuroticism, more the province of women, does not provide sufficient impetus, although functional psychoses are too much - Virginia Woolf's suicide put an end to her creativity - although he does recognise the paradox of effeminate creative men. Indeed, there seems to be evidence of a higher level of creativity among schizophrenics and their families. Eysenck suggests it is the widening of attention that enables both them and creative people to take in more information than most, but that the schizophrenic person can neither select the relevant information nor store it well enough in memory to use it efficiently.

Once again, Eysenck is dismissive of the work that does not fit into his thesis, such as that of Kessell, who pointed out the far greater number of stable geniuses. He selects from Felix Post's recent overview of creativity and psychopathology in world-famous men, by pointing to their high level of psychopathology, although diagnosed retrospectively and by psychiatrists. But Post really stressed that most of the men's successes lay in "exceptional industry, meticulousness, and perseverance".

The current shortage of geniuses, Eysenck says, is due to the rule of orthodoxy while "creativity is frowned upon". But scientific creativity nowadays is so often teamwork; empathy and cooperation mitigate against old fashioned geniuses. We are so keen to categorise our perceptions that perhaps these famous people act as mental filing cabinets. In that way the genius, dead or alive, becomes a concept, like Einstein. Maybe, as with Shakespeare or Freud, it does not matter to most people whether these men were entirely honest - we all know what we mean by Shakespearean or Freudian.

In this volume, Eysenck has brought together much of his lifetime's work, which is typically both stimulating and infuriating. But can we predict genius from probability statistics? We would have to select high-P, high-IQ, introverted, highly talented and creative Jewish boys who have lost a parent before the age of ten. And how to promote genius? Special tuition does not appear to have much effect. The best we can do is provide a broad education in which learning skills and knowledge are paramount, along with encouragement. We cannot order the grain of sand that makes the pearl.

Joan Freeman is a professor, faculty of social science and education, Middlesex University.

Genius: The Natural History of Creativity

Author - Hans Eysenck
ISBN - 0 521 48014 0 and 48508 8
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £37.50 and £17.95
Pages - 344

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