Monday 22 December 2014

Isaac Newton as an archetypal Creative Triad Genius

I realized recently that I lacked specific knowledge of the psychology of perhaps the greatest ever scientific genius: Isaac Newton; so I have been reading Richard S Westfall's biography Never at rest.

Having developed the Creative Triad as a simple framework for explaining genius -

- I was curious to see how Newton's mind and life fitted with this model. The answer is: extremely closely.


The Creative Triad is:

1. Innate ability

2. Inner-motivation

3. Intuitive thinking

Genius is made possible when all these flow together - a person is internally-motivated to pursue that for which he has a natural ability; and does so in an 'intuitive' way that mobilizes his deepest self, all his mental powers.

Newton's intellectual ability, his intelligence, was very obviously stratospheric; so what I was most interested by was to discover his personality. HJ Eysenck established that the high level creative personality type was approximated by the trait of High Psychoticism, which I have attempted to elucidate in recent years


Newton's biography reveals that he was an extreme example of the Psychoticism trait. Psychoticism is important to genius because it describes someone who is uninterested and uninfluenced by the normal human concerns - which are essentially 'other people' Most humans are social animals, who see life through social spectacles, and who are motivated by the desire for friends, sex, status and so on. But not Newton. He simply wanted to be allowed to get on with his work.

As a child and young man of science he would spend nearly all of his time alone, when in company he would be silent, he had essentially no friends, formed no relationships with women, and made very little effort to fit-in - indeed as a boy his relationships with other boys tended to be antagonistic and at times rather sadistic (Newton was not likeable).

Newton was taught Latin at school; and nothing else. In terms of mathematics and science he was an autodidact. Whatever he did, he did because he wanted to do it; and he did it at close to 100 percent effort. Thus in a year or less he went from knowing no mathematics to mastering the subject and being among the best in the world; and then immediately went to to make some of the greatest ever mathematical discoveries.

(Newton's own explanation of his achievement emphasized the distinctive creative personality - he was asked how he made his discoveries and gave such answers as "By thinking on it continually" and "I keep the subject constantly before me".)


Then he all-but dropped mathematics, and moved on to one area of physics after another - making major discoveries, and moving-on. This reminds me of the 'schoolboy crazes' or obsessions, typical of some highly intelligent young men.

Stories of Newton's consuming focus abound - he would think solidly for hour upon hour - sometimes standing lost in abstraction half way down the stairs; forget to eat, forget to sleep; forget that he had visitors. For years he seldom left his college, almost never left Cambridge.

In all of human history there can have been very few (and perhaps nobody of Newtons astonishing intelligence) who gave such intense and sustained concentration to whatever problem they were working on.

And while Newton's academic performance was good, it was not amazing, and was somewhat erratic. It seems he performed badly in his BA examination - which was a disputation, needing to go on to a second round of questions (rather than passing straight away), which was regarded as somewhat disgraceful.


His methods were highly intuitive, reasoning from a relatively small base of axioms and principles, building out from them, making predictions and testing his ideas against general observations. This can be contrasted with the method typical of highly intelligent and conscientious uncreative people - who read widely, learn many facts, and apply other-people's solutions to problems. 

But Newton, the autodidact, worked things through for himself; thought things through using only those facts and principles he trusted. From this; creativity follows quite naturally and without being deliberately sought.

It is clear that Newton's solitary, wilful and autonomous personality; his un-empathic, un-conscientious, anti-social and eccentric ways - in sum his high Psychoticism traits - were as necessary a part of his supreme genius as was ultra-high intelligence.