Falling Apples and the Rise of Domain Knowledge

What is the most practical method for generating creativity? Despite our growing understanding of those neural processes, that question haunts every scientist, writer, artist, filmmaker, athlete, inventor, and any other person hoping to make something great.

Much has been written about the connection between creativity and what’s called the default network: the mental mechanisms associated with mind wandering and daydreaming. The default network is the soup de jour. This might be because there is something inherently alluring about the idea of epiphany, that bolt-out-of-the-blue inspiration seen as the mind fruit of spontaneous genius.

What doesn’t get as much airtime is the role of domain knowledge—that is, the breadth and depth of your familiarity with a given field, including the contents of your associative memory and the sum total of your practice regime.

One of the best-known epiphany stories occurred around 1666 when Sir Isaac Newton was allegedly conked on the head by a falling apple, thus triggering a revelation on the nature of gravity. Here’s some slightly lesser-known context: by 1666, Newton was a master of Euclidean geometry, algebra, and Cartesian coordinates. Oh, also he’d invented calculus, which he needed so he could measure planetary orbits. “In other words,” writes Nancy C. Andreasen in ‘Secrets of the Creative Brain,’ “Newton’s formulation of the concept of gravity took more than 20 years and included multiple components: preparation, incubation, inspiration…”

Newton might not have been the first person to be beaned in the skull by an apple. But it’s possible he was the first person whose entire career had prepared him to fully grasp the principles behind the falling fruit.

Similarly, Einstein’s famous thought experiments were more than idle fancies; they were grounded in his expertise in physics. There’s a reason Darwin’s breakthroughs came in biology and not, say, dance. It’s the same reason Carole King’s creative flights of fancy were able to bring us “You’ve Got a Friend” in 1971; she had been playing the piano since she was four, and writing songs for thirteen years.

There’s no way around it: for true creative achievement, you need to do your homework. You need to log your hours.

Lin Manuel-Miranda’s smash hit Hamilton is the talk of Broadway, but composing it required seven years of drafting, revising, and exhaustive research—not to mention a lifelong immersion in hip hop and musical theater.

Having an enormous library of information and expertise helps you build out the novel connections between ideas that we see as creativity. It doesn’t guarantee that great works will certainly follow, but for those of us who enjoy the experience of trying to bring something new into the world, it appears restocking your brain’s memory is a prerequisite.

So was Steve Jobs really a creative genius, the visionary techno-wizard of Palo Alto who, with a wave of his hand summoned from thin air the Mac, iPhone, iPod, and iPad? Or is it more likely he built a powerful associate brain in a field he was passionate about, surrounded himself with like-minded experts, and lived out Daniel Kahneman’s formula for success (hard work + luck)?

This rewrite on the classic headline may not move as many papers. A bolt from the blue is much catchier than a bolt that sprang from decades of careful groundwork. But in the end, it doesn’t diminish what Jobs, or any other master of their domain, has brought us.