Breakaway Minds

Howard Gruber Interviewed by Howard Gardner

from Psychology Today, July 1981

Howard Gruber is that rarity among psychologists, a researcher trained in rigorous experimental methods who studies the creative lives of individuals in their full complexity. Making the task even more unusual, Gruber chooses his "subjects" from the ranks of the most remarkable individuals--scientists of the first order. He spent ten years working on his highly acclaimed study Darwin on Man: A Psychological Study of Scientific Creativity, of which a second edition has lust been issued by the University of Chicago Press. And he has spent well over a decade collecting materials for the intellectual biography of his mentor and friend, lean Piaget, the eminent Swiss developmental psychologist, who died last year.

Gruber is now professor of psychology at Rutgers, where he directs the Institute for Cognitive Studies. With his colleagues and graduate students, he is trying to understand the processes that underlie and constitute breakthroughs in scientific and artistic work. Gruber himself has developed a number of methods and a specialized vocabulary for carrying on this work. Terms he uses include "network of enterprises-the multiple, ongoing interests that thread through the intellectual life of a creative individual; "bracketing;"-the technique creative people use to handle part of a problem they cannot yet solve; and "images of wide scope"--metaphors that hold the key to a creative breakthrough. The result is a working model showing that such breakthroughs emerge from a complex and lengthy process, not a eureka-like flash of illumination

Gruber came to his specialty--case studies of scientists--relatively late. Trained as an experimental psychologist at Brooklyn College and Cornell University in the 1940s, he has conducted research on visual-space perception, the perception of causality, and even Piagetian object-permanence in young kittens. He has taught at Cornell, the University of Colorado, and the New School for Social Research.

Though Gruber spends his research time probing the thoughts of great minds, his own network of enterprises has included a number of activist causes. A lifelong; socialist, during the war in Vietnam he was a founder and chairman of Psychologists for Social Action, an antiwar and antiracist organization. During the same period, he devoted considerable time to examining with draft resisters the developmental stages that led to their resistance.

Gruber believes that most of the component processes he has uncovered in the minds of highly creative scientists can also be found at work in other minds: in the average researcher, in the freshmen whom he introduces to psychology, and in young children who are discovering their world. Recently Psychology Today asked contributing editor Howard Gardner to visit Gruber for a discussion of the common denominators in creativity. What follows are portions of their talk.

Howard Gardner: Your approach to the study of creativity is quite different from that of other researchers. Will you explain how?
Howard Gruber: Some researchers, influenced by Freud or by personality theory, have looked for the personal characteristics of creative people, qualities like nonconformity or sublimated sexuality. That's important and interesting, but it does not explain the development of a person's special scholarly or artistic or scientific contribution, which is what I'm looking for. A few researchers have been interested in the cognitive aspects of creativity, as I am, but almost without exception they have looked for a particular cognitive trait-tolerance of ambiguity, for example, or "divergent thinking"--and then tried to find that trait in individuals deemed creative-for example, successful architects.
Gardner: And your method?
Gruber; I start with an individual whose creativity is beyond dispute--a Charles Darwin or a lean Piaget. And then I try to map, as carefully as I can, what was going on in that person's mind over a period in which creative breakthroughs were occurring. Unlike the historian or biographer, I--and psychologists like me try to build a model to figure out the underlying changes in thought and to uncover the path followed in solving problems.
Gardner: Can you give me an example?
Gruber: In my book on Darwin, my inquiry was aimed at mapping the changes in Darwin’s thought during the 18 months that began when he returned to London from the Beagle voyage. It was a period of intense theoretical work, done very privately and recorded in his marvelous Transmutation Notebooks. In scientific circles, young Darwin was then a celebrity and much sought after, yet he found the quiet time to think the momentous thoughts that produced the theory of evolution.
Gardner: Could you explain more specifically how you work? How, for example, did you use Darwin's notebooks?
Gruber: The notebooks are a grab bag, with much of the writing in Darwin's own idiosyncratic terminology, abbreviations, and private language. I proceeded like an explorer in a new territory, reading the notebooks through, over and over again, figuring out what he was focusing on, what his cryptic notes meant, trying to recreate his thought processes from one day to the next. I tried to freeze the current of his thinking at crucial points. One discovery I made was how long it takes to think through a new idea.
Gardner: Did anyone think otherwise?
Gruber: Of course they did, and still do. One of the best-known books about creativity is Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation. The title alone gives the picture: the act. Koestler claims that the essential event in developing new ideas is "bisociation"--the sudden coming together of two things that had never been combined. He never, by the way, says why it's only two. Another example of instantaneous new ideas is the sudden reorganizations that are the favorites of Gestalt theory. The process is quite different, but the speed element is the same.
Gardner: Can you take us through some of the steps in Darwin's thought during the period you studied? For example, did Darwin have a theory of evolution when he began his notebooks?
Gruber: Oh yes. quite a strange one from a modem point of view. In early 1837, Darwin came to believe that there were separate elementary forms, called monads, which sprang into life spontaneously. A monad--Lamarck also used the term--was a hypothetical elementary living form. Once created, monads began to evolve in the manner of an irregularly branching tree, with species proliferating upon each branch. But Darwin soon ran into a problem how did certain species become extinct?
Gardner: Did he have an answer?
Gruber: Only an unsatisfactory one. He drew a parallel between an individual and a species: perhaps a species' life span depended on the monad from which it sprang; then, when the monad's time was up, life would be over for the various species that it had evolved into. Presumably, there would be a mass "death" of species in the geological record.
Gardner: I assume the record didn't show that.
Gruber: No, it didn't. But lack of evidence wasn’t the only problem. Darwin had lust finished five years of mental struggle against so-called catastrophist theories of earth history. He no longer believed the Biblical story of the flood, and he was skeptical that any permanent phenomena came about by sudden disasters on a global scale.
Gardner: So the monad theory collapsed of its own weight?
Gruber: Yes, giving rise to his "becoming" theory. Later in 1837, Darwin had the notion that certain older species might just give rise to newer ones. That was important, because the fossil record in fact showed that old species sometimes survived and sometimes did not. But he still needed a way of deciding which species would survive and which would give way to offspring.
Gardner: He needed the mechanism of selection.
Gruber: Correct. And probably the most important clue to the solution of that mystery came to Darwin when in September of 1838 he happened to be reading-"for amusement," he said-Malthus's essay on population. Given the struggle for existence that Malthus described, it struck Darwin that favorable variations of a species would tend to be preserved and unfavorable ones destroyed. And the result of that would be the emergence of a new species. But another few months went by before Darwin arrived at the principle of natural selection. So you can at least glimpse something of the lengthy, complex pondering that led to Darwin’s great theory. It didn't happen in a magical moment.
Gardner: You are not the only psychologist to think in terms of slow growth processes of the mind.
Gruber: No, of course not, and that's what is exciting about my finding. Piaget, working with children, found that the growth of their ideas is a process spread over years. Now that we are learning about adult creative work in this new way, we can compare two radically different developmental processes that have some important points in common. Each will illuminate the other.
Gardner: Your method for studying creativity is the case study, an intensive examination of the workings of a single mind. It's hard to make empirically valid generalizations with an n of only one.
Gruber: I like quantitative research, but only when it's the right thing to do. If your task is to understand structure-for example, the emergence of a highly organized theory--measuring isolated variables may lead you down blind alleys. The most important element in developing the theory of evolution turned out to be an image--the irregularly branching tree of nature. That was the first diagram Darwin drew in connection with the theory. And he revised it over and over again. In a highly evolved form, that diagram is the only one in the Origin of Species. I've tried to collect all the tree diagrams Darwin made over the years. Each one is a little different and makes some special point. If I had been focusing on only one variable-for example, his references to a special topic like hybridization--l would have been unable to see the evolving structure of his argument.
Gardner: Are these Darwinian trees well known?
Gruber: No. Of course, everyone knows the one in the Origin. But most of the others are buried in the manuscript collection. My friend Martin Rudwick has written that his colleagues in the history of science, like most psychologists, tend to be too verbal-they aren't interested in the visual language of science. The neglect of Darwin's trees is a good case in point. I call this kind of visualization an "image of wide scope."
Gardner: Are such images common in creative breakthroughs?
Gruber: They are probably essential. When Einstein was 16, he imagined himself riding a beam of light. This empathetic image of the observer traveling with the thing observed was carried over into his mature theory of relativity,
Gardner: Do only creative people have such images?
Gruber: I imagine everyone has them. The difference is that creative people make new ones and then use them persistently in their work. Images of wide scope are not only tools of expression. The same image may enter into a number of different metaphorical explanations. Take the image of a compressed gas in a closed container. It can be used in understanding all sorts of explosive situations: volcanoes, social revolution, or sexual expression. If we are trying to understand Freud's thinking, for example, we would want to see lust how and where he uses this volcano imagery.
Gardner: You've not just immersed yourself in the long-term studies of Darwin and Piaget but have also reviewed the lives of many other creative people in the sciences and the arts. What characteristics distinguish highly creative people?
Gruber: Well, the one thing you can be sure of is that each one is different. What attracts us to each is the special thing he or she accomplished. Why, then, should we expect them to be alike? We might say that Piaget grew increasingly abstract, while Darwin, having reached his maximum degree of abstractness early in life, remained at that level of abstraction from then on or even grew somewhat more concrete toward the end. Not only did they work in very different ways, their developmental curves were different.
Gardner: Does that mean creative individuals have nothing in common?
Gruber: No, no. There are certainly some general characteristics. For one thing, to be creative you need to know a lot and cultivate special skills. Darwin studied barnacles for eight years and came to know more about them than anyone else. Leonardo drew a thousand hands.
Gardner: They sound very determined.
Gruber: Yes. The most stable generalization about the creative life is that you work hard probably for a long time; 0f course, in working you transform yourself, and what would be hard for others becomes easy for you, Freeman Dyson, the physicist, describes how as an adolescent he discovered the calculus and spent the whole summer working like a madman, solving every problem in a big calculus textbook. After that, the calculus seemed to be almost instinctive.
Gardner: You make this hard work sound like fun.
Gruber: Yes, that's another characteristic. For the creative person, the greatest fun is the work. I think you have to take notice when Darwin says he read Malthus "for amusement."
Gardner; So creative people combine a zest for work with a capacity for play. They're not just workaholics.
Gruber: George Santayana once said that a fanatic is a person who redoubles his efforts when he loses sight of his objective. The people we are talking about do not lose sight of their objectives. Ergo, they are not fanatical workaholics.
Gardner: Psychoanalysts writing about creativity stress the role of unconscious motives. But your remarks imply a conscious "sense of purpose."
Gruber: Yes, the people I've studied all tend to be strong, robust, energetic. They have an overall sense of purpose, a feeling of where they are and where they want to go. That goal-directedness guides the choice of a whole set of enterprises and dictates which enterprise to focus on at a given time. Creative people have a network of enterprises. They become the sort of people who can easily handle seemingly different but intimately related activities. They become highly skilled jugglers. Of course, it's not all entirely conscious, but a great deal of it is.
Gardner: Can you give me an example of "enterprise juggling"?
Gruber: Take Bertrand Russell. Over a very long life he pursued one set of interests in mathematical philosophy and another set of interests in world politics, especially pacifism and, later, nuclear disarmament. They were not specific projects with end points, but ongoing, permanent enterprises. And he managed to orchestrate them quite skillfully. Toward the end of World War I, he was imprisoned by the British government for his antiwar writings. He wrote a number of philosophical articles in jail, as well as the Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy. That's juggling!
Gardner: Does every creative person have a network of enterprises as wide as Russell's or the other giants you have studied?
Gruber: We are lust beginning to get a feel for that subject. I don't suppose that all creative networks are so wide. They probably differ in many ways-in their width and complexity, their interconnectedness, the duration of the projects, and so on. So far, the people we've looked at have rather complex and enduring sets of purposes.
Gardner: Do they have a technique for putting one enterprise "on hold" while dealing with another?
Gruber: I think so. Creative people have a sense of problem bracketing. That is, they know that when an issue is fundamental but cannot be settled, they must put it aside--bracket it--at least for a while, and concentrate on the work that can be done.
Gardner: Is such bracketing a useful habit for everyone?
Gruber: It's useful, yes, but it might be risky to make a habit of it. You may bracket something carelessly, something that would turn out to be the heart of the matter and something you could have handled had you not put it on hold. But scientists are working near the borders of what we know, so for them bracketing often has a special urgency. In Newton’s case, when he postulated the existence of gravity he had to assume that bodies could act on other bodies at. a distance, a strange idea that he didn't like any more than anyone else did. He suspected the cause would have something to do with the inner structure of matter, but it was too early to find out--not enough was known at the time about the structure of matter. So, in effect, he bracketed the problem.
Darwin had a similar difficulty in developing the theory of evolution. He had to make assumptions about heredity, but there was no theory of genetics that was of very much use at the time--Mendel's work wasn't known until later.
Gardner: One psychologist, Phillip Johnson-Laird, has suggested that scientists need a "destruction machine" to eliminate from their consideration problems on which they might get hung up for years and still not solve.
Gruber: Darwin didn't do that; exactly. instead of destroying the genetics problem, he bracketed it over and over, and then he'd have another whack at it. The practice of glancing occasionally at these treacherous topics reminds me of a medieval map whose unexplored areas are marked with the enticing phrase "unknown seas," or, "here be dragons."
Gardner: They weren't enticing to medieval sailors!
Gruber: That suggests another very important aspect of creative people. When most of us encounter a problem or difficulty, we have a tendency to shut our eyes, to mark it as "unknown." The creative people I've studied favor a course of daring, of challenging the world. Though Darwin is often depicted as a cautious and sickly man, it took great physical courage to travel for five years on the Beagle. And it took great intellectual courage to publish a theory that was certain to bring down the wrath of his family and friends, not to say the religious establishment of England.
Gardner: That touches upon a somewhat sensitive issue. Can you have creative people in societies that impose severe sanctions against breaking away? Some Japanese, for example, have been obsessed with the question of why so few of their scientists win Nobel Prizes. One explanation is that the Japanese put so much value on not getting out of line with the group that a single individual is wary about showing too much initiative. So while you have great technological progress in Japan through the work of teams, you don't get the solitary Faustian figure of Western science.
Gruber: There are really two parts to that question. One is about the solitary Faustian figure. I don't think there are many of them. For example, even when Einstein was deeply immersed in the most abstract topics, he had people he could talk to--and some of them he talked to a lot. The second question is whether too much conformity is possible in a society. I don't know much about Japan, but no society is all that monolithic, even when it wants to be. It's possible that in Japan, the conformity pressure you're talking about combines with a view of nature that is different from the Western perspective. Suppose you have a view of man as a participant in nature rather than a master of it, the usual Western notion. For the intellectual tasks we've had up to now, that may not be a very fruitful approach. But I leave open the possibility that a gentler attitude toward nature may turn out to be more illuminating and more fruitful in meeting our future needs.
Gardner: I'm surprised to hear you question the idea that creative people tend to be isolated.
Gruber: That idea is usually exaggerated. Darwin and Piaget were both extremely skillful in collaborating with others. Newton may be the most extreme case of scientific isolation that we know. And even he had important, fruitful scientific relationships with his peers.
Gardner: How do creative people interact with their peers, then? They don't just work within established peer groups, do they?
Gruber: That's a good point. Creative people must use their skills to devise environments that foster their work. They must invent new peer groups appropriate to their projects. Being creative means striking out in new directions and not accepting ready-made relationships, which takes stamina and a willingness to be alone for a while.
Gardner: There's a clear element of courage, then, in being creative?
Gruber: Yes, and not only to say the new and possibly dangerous things that need saying but also the courage to refashion one's personal world.
Gardner: How does that courage develop?
Gruber: Sometimes it doesn't come until late in life, when a person's work matures to the point where an individual and unique voice is required. Sometimes it emerges early. When Bertrand Russell was 15, he began to write about his religious doubts, which gave him much pain. He recorded his thoughts in a very private notebook. In fact, he took the trouble to invent a secret notation consisting of Greek letters and a phonetic spelling of English. He did not have the courage to tell his family that he no longer believed in the existence of an immortal soul. But he did have the courage to think thoughts that were most painful to him. And when he was a grown man 50 years later, he had the courage to defend these views publicly, which cost him his job at the City College of New York.
Gardner: Courage, hard work, juggling open-ended enterprises. In spite of what you've said about play, it sounds overwhelming.
Gruber: Taking a step into the unknown is serious business, but exhilarating, too. Over and over again, I discover that creative people love their work and would not dream of doing anything else. They have very high levels of aspiration, and it excites them to feel that they are doing great things. It's a high for them, like sex.
Gardner; That's a hard link to follow. But I want to put one mote question to you. Would you name two or three artists or scientists whose thinking you would like to explore from the standpoint of its creativity?
Gruber: I'm interested in the interpenetration of different levels of experience and in the relations among different modalities of thought. That makes me want to look at people who worked in more than one medium or whose modalities of thought were particularly interesting. The artist-poet William Blake is one example. The inventor-theoretician Thomas Edison is another. His conceptual framework is still to be unearthed, but it will surely be fascinating.
Gardner: Is there any final point you want to make?
Gruber: Yes. We know far too little about how people work together. There are some beautiful collaborations. Marx and Engels, Russell and Whitehead, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, Picasso and Braque, Inhelder and Piaget, Marie and Pierre Curie. The way that people retain their individuality while combining their efforts and talents in something that transcends them both--understanding; that is vital to the survival of humanity.
Gardner: Why do you say this?
Gruber: Inventing the capacity we now have to destroy our environment and ourselves through all sorts of pollution, but especially through thermonuclear war--took years of patient collaborative work among many creative people. This process of self-destruction is moving very rapidly now. We need the most creative and many-sided effort the world has ever known to invent and implement new solutions. This is not a task for lonely genius. The solution must be a new way of thinking and acting. This is a social invention and making it must therefore be a social process.