We live in an age when the creative genius of one individual can easily be lost in the crowd. Although some clever souls may labor alone to produce a masterpiece, that is less and less the case in a complex world where many must work together toward a common goal.
It may take scores of scientists and technicians on several continents, using huge instruments that cost billions of bucks, to carry out a single experiment in high energy physics. The days when one person, working on a single computer, could produce software that could change the world, are disappearing fast, if they are not already gone.
More often than not, these days, creativity seems to be a collective process. It's increasingly rare for a Nobel Prize to be awarded now to a single recipient for either science or medicine.
But, creativity is a very individualized process. It most often springs forth from the genetic background and personal experiences of one person who sees something no one has seen before, and somehow brings that vision to fruition.
Scientists say creativity stems partly from genetics — some are more disposed toward it than others — and partly from environment. A creative person is likely to be intelligent and more receptive to new ideas, and that inclination will likely be expressed early in life. True to image, a very creative person may also seem a bit odd.
Researchers at Vanderbilt University concluded a couple of years ago that creative persons are likely to live somewhere between normalcy and schizophrenia. They may be socially awkward, adept at finding new uses for old tools, but they are not sick. The researchers even gave the condition a name: schizo-type.
But, that's on an individual level. Can personal creativity survive large-scale collaboration? Is it possible for a bunch of highly creative people, working together on a single project, to produce a product that is more creative than the sum of its parts?
Sometimes, but it isn't easy, according to psychologist Dean Simonton of the University of California, Davis, who has studied creativity across a wide spectrum, ranging from Einstein's physics to the movie industry. Everyone knows Einstein was a scientific genius, but his work is revered as much for its creativity as it is for its insights into the fundamental workings of the forces that power the universe.
Einstein had a little help from his friends, but the driving force behind his revolutionary insights was just one man, working alone, creating concepts that were so extraordinary, that few then, and even now, really understood what he was talking about.
That's the way creativity is supposed to work. One person changing the world through a personal vision. And that's pretty much the way Simonton and other researchers had looked at the matter, until one day a few years ago, when a student in one of Simonton's classes asked him a question.
"What about the movies?" the student asked. "Isn't that a form of creativity?"
Simonton had already produced one book, and numerous technical articles, on creativity, but that question changed the course of his research.
"Psychologists study individuals," he said in an interview. "The focus is on individual creativity. And the problem with film is it's a collaborative effort — it's a group form of creativity."