NEW YORK – There’s still a lot of mystery as to why and when people have their biggest, most important creative insights. Some new research suggests that within individual careers, the muse’s visits — although somewhat unpredictable — are not completely random.
The one part that does appear random is age, said Dashun Wang, a professor of management and organization at Northwestern University. A few years ago, he and colleagues analyzed records of the career achievements of more than 2,800 physicists, dipping back into the 19th century. The extremes get attention — it’s hard not to marvel at what Albert Einstein achieved by the tender age of 26 — but looking at a large sample of scientists’ life works, he said, creative peaks were just as likely to occur in the middle or later parts of a career. He published those results in Science in 2016.
Recently, Wang and colleagues announced results of a new study, published in Nature, demonstrating a nonrandom pattern as well: Creators tend to go through “hot streaks.”
So while people might produce their greatest achievement at any stage in a career, their next four or five greatest achievements tend to cluster together. He found that among a sample of more than 30,000 scientists, artists and film directors, about 90 percent experience such a clustering, lasting about four years for the scientists and five for the artists and the directors. About a quarter of the subjects had two or three hot streaks.
The notion of hot streaks is a contentious one. Scientists and statisticians have pointed to an element of magical thinking behind the way they are popularly portrayed, especially in sports. In his 2014 book “The Improbability Principle,” statistician David Hand explains that hot streaks do occur, but they require no physical or magical explanation. The laws of probability alone say that they should crop up in some careers if enough people are shooting enough baskets or hitting enough golf balls. Hand writes that people tend to assume something had to cause the hot streaks — a fallacy he calls the illusory correlation effect.
He writes that if you ask people to write a list of random numbers, or predict coin tosses, people will produce something a lot less clustered than actual random sequences. It’s somehow counterintuitive that patterns crop up by chance — whether in coin tosses or basketball shots.
To investigate the notion of a “hot hand” in basketball, researchers back in the 1980s examined large numbers of professional and college games and found that hot streaks occurred no more than chance would predict — which is still enough to get fans excited thanks to that illusory correlation effect. Another paper concluded something similar was behind hot streaks in baseball. Hand quotes that paper’s lead author summing up the conclusion: “The proportion of batters who exhibited nonrandom behavior was reasonably close to that predicted by a random model.”
Clusters of creative achievements, on the other hand, happen much more frequently than they would under a random model, Wang said. Unlike hot streaks in sports, these creative clusters don’t require any magical or mysterious explanation. One big achievement could easily foster others by giving a person both confidence and recognition. A scientist might get more grant funding; a starving artist, the chance to pay the rent. You can’t buy creative achievements, but they are harder to make with an empty refrigerator.
There may be almost as many explanations as there are cases. Vincent van Gogh had an explosive hot streak in 1888, producing more than 200 paintings, including “Van Gogh’s Chair,” “Starry Night” and “Still Life: Vase With Sunflowers.” It was also the year that he moved from Paris to the south of France, where he was reportedly enchanted by the landscape.
Einstein had a similar blaze of glory in 1905, when he not only published his revolutionary theory of special relativity, but also published the first of a series of papers on the photoelectric effect — an idea that laid the foundation for quantum mechanics and earned him a Nobel Prize. And he wrote a groundbreaking paper on Brownian motion — a phenomenon that offers evidence for the now accepted picture of heat as a manifestation of the motion of molecules. It was a time when the physics community had found a number of puzzles whose solutions would change the world.
Wang also considered the fact that because much of science is collaborative, finding the right colleagues could explain how a career can temporarily catch fire. Einstein’s hot streak coincided with his brief marriage to fellow physicist and collaborator Mileva Maric, and while there’s no evidence he stole anything from her, there’s plenty that his mind was stimulated by their constant exchange of ideas.
Part of the nature of a hot streak is that it cools. Einstein had the same brain working for many years but never had another year quite like 1905. Sometimes, said Wang, a scientist will discover something and move way up to the front of the pack, making more discoveries in that uncharted territory. But the consequence of being influential is that in couple of years, the pack will catch up. And at some point the muse will visit someone else and ignite another hot streak.
Science writer Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.