Sparks of Genius

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2000-01-01
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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Exercise your imagination and set off sparks of genius. In this mind-expanding book, Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein describe the "thinking tools" of extraordinary people, from Albert Einstein and Jane Goodall to Amadeus Mozart and Virginia Woolf, and show how you can practice the same imaginative skills to be your most inventive, at any time in your life. With its lavish illustrations and novel exploration of tools as diverse as playing, observing, recognizing patterns, imaging, modeling, and more, Sparks of Genius is a groundbreaking guidebook for everyone interested in creative thinking, lifelong learning, and interdisciplinary education.

Author Biography

Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein have been studying and consulting on creativity for more than a decade. Robert Root-Bernstein is a professor of physiology at Michigan State University and the winner of a MacArthur Fellowship. Michele Root-Bernstein, an awardwinning historian, has written about and taught history and creative writing.

Table of Contents

Rethinking Thinking
Schooling the Imagination
Recognizing Patterns
Forming Patterns
Body Thinking
Dimensional Thinking
Synthesizing Education
Notes 331(13)
Bibliography 344(21)
Minds-On Resources 365(9)
Illustration Credits 374(4)
Index 378


Chapter 1 Rethinking Thinking Everyone thinks. But not everyone thinks equally well. For real intellectual feasts we depend on master chefs who have learned to mix and blend and savor an entire range of mental ingredients. It's not that what they do in the kitchen is any different from what we do, they just do it better. We like to suppose master chefs were born that way, yet even the most promising individuals spend years in training. It follows that we, too, can learn the tools of the trade and thereby improve our own mental cooking. This process, however, requires us to rethink what gourmet intellection is all about. And rethinking shifts our educational focus from what to think to how to think in the most productive ways possible.Our tour of mental cookery begins in the kitchen of the mind, where ideas are marinated, stewed, braised, beaten, baked, and whipped into shape. Just as real chefs surprise us by throwing in a pinch of this and a handful of something else, the kitchens of the creative imagination are full of unexpected practices. Great ideas arise in the strangest ways and are blended from the oddest ingredients. What goes into the recipes often bears no resemblance to the finished dish. Sometimes the master mental chef can't even explain how she knows that her dish will be tasty. She just has a gut feeling that this imagined mixture of ingredients will yield a delicious surprise.Gut feelings don't make obvious sense. Consider, for example, the experience of young Barbara McClintock, who would later earn a Nobel Prize in genetics. One day in 1930 she stood with a group of scientists in the cornfields around Cornell University, pondering the results of a genetics experiment. The researchers had expected that half of the corn would produce sterile pollen, but less than a third of it actually had. The difference was significant, and McClintock was so disturbed that she left the cornfield and climbed the hill to her laboratory, where she could sit alone and think.Half an hour later, she "jumped up and ran down to the field. At the top of the field (everyone else was down at the bottom) I shouted, 'Eureka, I have it! I have the answer! I know what this 30 percent sterility is.' " Her colleagues naturally said, "Prove it." Then she found she had no idea how to explain her insight. Many decades later, McClintock said, "When you suddenly see the problem, something happens that you have the answer - before you are able to put it into words. It is all done subconsciously. This has happened many times to me, and I know when to take it seriously. I'm so absolutely sure. I don't talk about it, I don't have to tell anybody about it, I'm just sure this is it."This feeling of knowing without being able to say how one knows is common. The French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal is famous for his aphorism "The heart has its reasons that reason cannot know." The great nineteenth-century mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss admitted that intuition often led him to ideas he could not immediately prove. "I have had my results for a long time; but I do not yet know how I am to arrive at them." Claude Bernard, the founder of modern physiology, wrote that everything purposeful in scientific thinking began with feeling. "Feeling alone," he wrote, "guides the mind." Painter Pablo Picasso confessed to a friend, "I don't know in advance what I am going to put on canvas any more than I decide beforehand what colors I am going to use. . . . Each time I undertake to paint a picture I have a sensation of leaping into space. I never know whether I shall fall on my feet. It is only later that I begin to estimate more exactly the effect of my work." Composer Igor Stravinsky also found that imaginative activity began with some inexplicable appetite, some "intuitive grasp of an unknown entity already possessed but not yet intelligible." The Latin American novelist Isabel Allende has described a similarly vague

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