"SHEDDING LIGHT ON CREATIVITY"
(Wednesday 8 May 1996)
Allan W Snyder
Institute of Advanced Studies
Australian National University
Mr President, distinguished guests, ladies and
gentlemen. It is an honor to be here this evening. And, because
I am so utterly neurotic about my health, it is a particular pleasure
to address this prestigious College of Physicians. I now have
a unique opportunity to make contact with the cream of the medical
I want to congratulate those of you who have
just achieved mastery of your medical specialityand have now been
admitted to the College of Physicians. I salute this truly great
achievement and respect your excellence and commitment to making
it a reality.
My message tonight is directed at you, the new
fellows: Dont stop now! Dont stop here! Let me urge
you to continue your journey of exploration. A passion for exploration
underpins the creative process. And being creative will deeply
enrich each of your lives.
Now, creativity is a multifaceted, highly complex
process which could never be given proper justice in this short
oration. Let me instead offer some reflections from my own life.
A life of exploration in the two completely different fields of
vision and mathematical physics.
I read several weeks ago in the journal Nature how a 19th century mindset had been broken.... and how, by the
act of breaking this mindset, a powerful clinical tool would now
be made available to ophthalmologists. This article seized my
attention, especially because it was about our work! So,
I began to ponder on the question of why it is so immensely difficult
to break mindset.
Now breaking mindset is admittedly an ultimate
expression of creativity. But, perhaps by understanding the obstacles
to breaking mindset we can better appreciate why so many talented
individuals like you are seduced away from the creative process.
I began tonight praising those of you who have
just achieved mastery in your medical speciality. And that praise
is sincere. But, nonetheless, it is a curious fact that we are
all blinded by our expertise. Those who have absolute mastery
of a field are the very ones who find it hardest to question the
foundations of the discipline.
We dont have to take examples from our
professions. Let me give you one that applies to all of us and
one which is a research interest of mine.
We are all experts at interpreting our visual
world. The imposition of meaning on to the visual percept is something
learned from birth. We are absolute masters at seeing what is
needed of this world.
But this very expertise exposes us to blatant
prejudice in the form of illusions and deceptions that are so
well known to psychologists. My particular research in this area
Dont you find it curious that none of
us can draw natural scenes, unless of course we have been taught
how to do so? Yet, certain brain deficient people can! And, these
very people find it difficult to make sense of our visual world.
Theyre not experts. And, how are we normal people taught
to draw? We block our expertise by subterfuge. We take away the
meaning of the object. For example, we look at something upside
down or look at only a little piece of it at a time. In this way
all of us can draw naturally.
So heres a paradox. Expertise seems to
be associated with unavoidable blindness, but blindness can be
overcome when there is no expertise. Now think about it.
Possibly this example is too subtle or too intrinsic.
You probably can think of much better ones. I am right now reminded
of the American revolution. British soldiers, with their brilliant
red coats marched into the suburbs of Boston in neat rows and
columns. But this worlds greatest army was then defeated
by the unconventional tactics of Indian inspired, sniper fire.
It was somehow impossible for the elite officers of the British
army to change their tactics from those that had proven so successful
previously. They were unable to make the leap away from their
Where does this lead us? I am not in anyway trying
to condemn expertise. Clearly, it is a masterful human strategy
for dealing rapidly, even automatically, with complexity as expert
medical diagnosis so aptly demonstrates. But, nonetheless it is
an intriguing paradox that expertise comes at the cost of blindness
and prejudice. Basically we become so habituated into fixed modes
of thinking that it is difficult to reexamine or question the
foundations for our beliefs.
How can we ever extricate ourselves from this
insidious trap? How can we ever be truly creative and break mindset?
More to the point, how can we extricate ourselves from the pejorative
aspects of expertise, while preserving its virtues?
Let me relate some of my experience. During my
research life I have oscillated between two very different disciplines,
always leaving one when I achieved some mastery. So perhaps I
was an expert, but not so much you should notice.
I began my career in vision. First, I studied
the eyes of insects. And now, let me ask you, what relevance could
this research possibly have to anything of practical importance?
But it did! Insects can read the direction of polarized light
from the sky. We discovered the special apparatus in their retinas
that enabled them to do so. That was greatly exciting on its own.
But, quite unexpectedly, this inspired a new type of optical fibre
for sensor and coherent communication systems. One national paper
even lead with the headlines, "Flies eyes open up research
Remember at the beginning of this oration, I
said that the journal Nature recently discussed how a powerful
clinical tool for ophthalmologists had resulted from breaking
a 19th century mindset? That too was due to insights we had first
gleaned from the study of insect eyes.
And what is the lesson in these breakthroughs
from studying insects? Creativity is facilitated by working
in completely different domains. Dont be afraid to switch
My second suggestion for breaking mindset is
to follow your own intuition, even though you may not be an expert
in the subject. If any of you doubt the value of intuition, perhaps
you will enjoy the story about the world famous professor of logic.
Here was a man who had utterly perfected decision making with
an infallible set of logical rules. Well, this same professor
was being torn apart emotionally about whether or not to marry
his girlfriend. When a compassionate colleague suggested that
the professor apply his own rules of decision making, after
all he was the worlds expert, he replied, "how could
you possibly demean this important issue - this is serious and
not a matter for logic!"
And the lesson here is that our unconscious
self may be more insightful than our conscious expert self.
Be daring and follow your intuition.
As for my own scientific experience with intuition,
lets cut to Heffers bookstore during my sabbatical in the
Physiological Department at Cambridge University. There I was
lying on the floor trying to read the most esoteric mathematics
required to explain nonlinear physics - a field I knew absolutely
nothing about. I vowed at that time that nothing could possibly
be so complex. So I gave up trying to read how others did it and
instead followed my own intuition. Instead of assimilating
knowledge of others, why not create it for ourselves? This was
a real challenge. But it worked! We invented an entirely new framework
for understanding the subject, and one that was simple. This of
course is satisfying for fundamental reasons. However, again I
ask you, what could this possibly have to do with anything practical?
But, it did! Our physical picture suggested the revolutionary
idea that light itself could manipulate light in futuristic photonic
systems. We humans have been trying to control light for a millennium.
Our proposal broke that mindset. We showed that light is a better
master of its own destiny. This story too has recently appeared
in the major dailies. And it was all made possible by following
our intuition and by creating knowledge for ourselves.
Now, while many of these things I have discussed
tonight are fascinating in their own right, how do they all tie
together? What is my take-home message? I want you to continue
the journey of exploration. I want you to do it with ever renewed
vigour, and I want you to do it by pouring something that is uniquely
you into the process. Because you, probably more than any other
group have much to offer humanity.
Be forewarned by the knowledge of the blindness
and prejudice that is inseparable with your new found expertise.
Re-examine....re-examine and challenge the rules and tenets of
your discipline. Wander freely between different worlds of expertise
and never, never be afraid to follow your own intuitions, no matter
how alien they may be to the fabric of your profession.
Thankyou and good luck on your chosen paths to
1. Hughes, A. Seeing cones in living eyes.
Nature 1996; 380: 393-94.
2. Snyder, A.W., Bossomaier, T.J., Hughes,
A. Optical image quality and the cone mosaic. Science 1986; 231:
3. Gregory, R.L. Eye and Brain. London. World
University Library, 1967, pp 188-229.
4. Snyder, A.W., Barlow, H.B. 1988 Human Vision:
Revealing the Artists Touch. Nature 1988; 331: 117-18.
5. Snyder, A.W. Thomas, M. Autistic child
artists give clues to cognition, 1996 Perception submitted.
6. Edwards, B. Drawing on the right side of
the brain, London. Harper Collins, 1993, p 52.
7. Snyder, A.W. in the Handbook of Sensory
Physiology, Vol. VII/6A. The physics of vision in compound eyes
(ed. Autrum, H.) Berlin. Springer 1979, pp 225-314.
8. Snyder, A.W., Ruhl, F. New single-polarisation
optical fibre. Electronics Letters 1983; 19: 185-6.
9. M. Camm. Flies eyes open up research in
optics, The Daily Telegraph, Sydney Australia, Saturday March
10. A rich literature supports this hypothesis,
e.g. see Hudson, L. Creativity in Oxford Companion of the Mind
(ed. Gregory, R.) Oxford, Oxford University Press 1987 p 171-2.
11. Snyder, A.W., Mitchell, D.J., Kivshar,
Y.S. Unification of linear and nonlinear wave optics. Modern Physics
Letters B 1995; 9: 1479-1506.
12. Thwaites, T. New Scientist. Will optical
fibres become obsolete? 1991, 12 Jan, No 1751.
13. J. Cribb. The Weekend Australian, April
15-16 (1995), cover story. Trailblazing team leads us into the
14. J. Robotham. Calling the future. The Sydney
Morning Herald, Tuesday 23 April (1995) pic.