Brain illustration: Getty Images

What do geniuses have in common? Is the mind of an artistic genius the same as a scientific genius? Can you (or I) learn to be a genius?

These are some of the questions that drive the decadeslong research of Dean Keith Simonton. 

A distinguished professor emeritus of psychology at University of California, Davis, Simonton has written extensively on the subject of identifying creative genius, sifting through theories, data and lore to pinpoint the common features of the gifted mind. His work seeks to explain how the creative genius produces a seminal work, and he argues that “while such breakthroughs often seem to appear in a flash, the underlying mechanisms are likely to be much more orderly.”

In April, Simonton came to the Moody Center to talk about his research. Building upon the work of psychologist Donald Campbell, Simonton developed a theory that explains the process of highly creative thought.

It was Campbell who named the theory blind variation and selective retention (BVSR), but Simonton spent 25 years testing and expanding the central premise — that the creator repeatedly engages in a trial-and-error
process before the breakthrough moment.

The theory highlights two specific ways of thinking: superfluity and backtracking. Superfluity simply means generating a variety of ideas without concern about their eventual usefulness. Backtracking, then, refers to the process of returning to an earlier idea or approach after an unsuccessful creative attempt.  

According to Simonton, the significance of BVSR is the ability to attribute specific personality traits, modes of thinking and developmental experiences to the creative genius. His research suggests that an openness to new ideas and participation in a range of interests is necessary to produce the variety of ideas required for superfluity. Looking forward, Simonton’s research asks if these characteristics can be cultivated or translated into predictive models of genius.