Cross-Pollinate Your Mind

Cross-Pollinate Your Mind

Cross-Pollinate Your Mind

Adopting a polymathic path to ignite creativity.

The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition. —Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein is widely known for his prolific achievements in physics. But few people know he attributes his creative breakthroughs in the sciences to his passion for music. While not regarded as a polymath of the same stature as the epitome of the Renaissance Man, Leonardo Da Vinci, Einstein's musical avocation may be credited for his ground-breaking scientific innovations.

Beyond Einstein, many of the most revolutionary thinkers in the sciences, humanities, and arts had multiple hobbies. Within the sciences, significant correlations exist between scientific eminence and adult avocations, with painting and drawing being most strongly related to Nobel Prize winners and National Academy members.

Did a polymathic path encourage these highly revered intellectuals to see beyond what they already knew to create novel and useful ideas?

A Look at Polymathy

From Leonardo Da Vinci to Benjamin Franklin, prolific polymaths have dazzled and delighted us with their diverse talents and sensational skillsets. Polymaths have moved the world with their remarkable innovations.

Generally defined as wide-ranging knowledge, polymathy is undergoing its own renaissance. The subject has wide-ranging appeal across disciplines as it is being studied within the fields of psychology, physiology, mathematics, management, and education.

In 2018, Michael Araki analyzed the existing literature on polymathy and concluded that despite a diversity of viewpoints regarding a formal conceptualization, most researchers indicate that polymathy contains three core elements:

1. Breadth: The possession of wide-ranging knowledge in very distinct areas.

2. Depth: Vertical accumulation of knowledge in specific areas.

3. Integration: Ability to connect and synthesize disparate theoretical networks of information.

Why is polymathy significant at this time in history?

The ability to innovate is more important than ever as creativity is being hailed as the skill of the future. Humans who have the ability to generate original ideas will be at a noteworthy advantage in a world rapidly moving toward automation. Making connections between disparate pieces of information may be a key to developing novel and useful ideas—the definition of creativity.

To go beyond what we already know and produce original products or ideas is no simple feat. Being able to diverge from the herd and step into uncertainty is a necessary component to propel us into new ways of looking at the world. A willingness to step into uncertainty is at the core of innovation but beyond that, what else may help move us into a sphere of thought that encourages creativity?

Debate exists about whether creativity is domain-general or domain-specific and whether a singular and deep focus in one area is a a necessary component of creativity, but some experts indicate that a broad and diverse approach to learning is the spark to ignite creative thinking.

Why might a polymathic approach to life encourage creativity?

According to professor Robert Root-Bernstein,

What characterizes the most creative individuals is an ability to discover connections between apparently unrelated domains of activity—the artist in the scientist, the sculptor in the mathematician, the musician in the programmer."

This polymathic approach to study was fairly common in the past, but the zeitgeist of our modern time has been specialization, whether in academic or athletic pursuits. Perhaps we need to reconsider our over-specialization to encourage our ability to innovate.

Neuroscience of Creativity

The human brain has approximately 86 billion neurons—with one collection of neurons sensing information from the environment and the other group reacting to the external information. Within the brains of most animals, there is one path between the sensing and acting

In humans, however, there are many pathways. Bundles of tangled networks connect the sensing neurons to the reacting neurons. These highly complicated linkages seem to be responsible for the formulation of spontaneous thoughts, according to research in the field of neuroscience.

The human brain appears to take familiar information and re-assemble it in new ways—giving rise to imagination and creation. The more knowledge we have from varied fields of study, the more likely wide-ranging pieces of information will combine to help us develop original ideas.

Parenting for Polymathy

Being a generalist may be a particularly advantageous attribute in our future world, so encouraging children to adopt a polymathic path may be beneficial. However, children are often encouraged to do the opposite—specialize—at earlier and earlier ages, whether in academics or athletics.

This specialization push often breeds short-term successes as parents see significant improvements if their kids focus in one domain. But, whether in athletics or academics, specialization can lead to burnout and possibly inhibit creative output. Athletically, specialization in childhood may also lead to physical injury.

David Epstein’s trailblazing book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, pushes against the current specialization trend. The over-arching message from Epstein is that we should follow our children's lead. Be a guide on the side, providing the environment that will allow your children to thrive in whatever area interests them. Parents should be the facilitators, not the dictators, of their children’s learning and development.

Let children pivot if they show interest in something new according to Epstein. Research in the area of motivation indicates that self-direction is a key to developing the intrinsic motivation that is at the heart of creative processes.

Final Thoughts

Jack of All Trades, Master of None

Many of us internalized this adage as children and determined we should pick a singular focus for the future and stick to it. Veering from the path was seen as a failure. Research is suggesting that this conscientious conviction could impede our creativity. Deep learning across multiple areas of study may be the key to unlocking originality.

The polymathic prototype, Leonardo Da Vinci, invented contraptions, art, and ideas that were revolutionary for the 15th and 16th centuries. His wise words also transcend the passage of time and may be the key to our own future innovation. He said, "To develop a complete mind: Study the science of art; Study the art of science. Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else."

This article originally appeared on Psychology Today.

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