French Polymath Henri Poincaré on How Creativity Works

How to spark the “sudden illumination” of creative genius

by Maria Popova, Brain Pickings, 18th August 2013

In his fantastic 1939 Technique for Producing Ideas, James Webb Young extolled “unconscious processing” — a period marked by “no effort of a direct nature” toward the objective of your creative pursuit — as the essential fourth step of his five-step outline of the creative process. The idea dates back to William James, who coined the concept of fringe consciousness. T. S. Eliot called this mystical yet vital part of creativity “idea incubation,” which Malcolm Cowley echoed in the second stage of his anatomy of the writing process. John Cleese similarly stressed the importance of time in creative work.

From French polymath and pioneering mathematician Henri Poincaré — whose famous words on invention inspired the survey that gave us a glimpse of how Einstein’s genius works — comes a fascinating testament to the powerful role of this unconscious incubation in the creative process. In a chapter titled “Mathematical Creation” from his 1904 tome The Foundations of Science: Science and Hypothesis, the Value of Science, Science and Method (public libraryfree download), Poincaré observes a process profoundly applicable not only to mathematics, but to just about any creative discipline:

I wanted to represent these functions by the quotient of two series; this idea was perfectly conscious and deliberate; the analogy with elliptic functions guided me. I asked myself what properties these series must have if they existed, and succeeded without difficulty in forming the series I have called the tafuchsian.

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