(Wednesday 8 May 1996)

Allan W Snyder

Institute of Advanced Studies
Australian National University
Canberra Australia

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 profession.

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: Don’t stop now! Don’t 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 don’t 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 concerns drawing.

Don’t 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. They’re 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 here’s 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 world’s 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 training.

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 in optics".

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. Don’t be afraid to switch fields!

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 world’s 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, let’s 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. 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 creativity.


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: 499-501.

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 12, 1983..

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 future.

14. J. Robotham. Calling the future. The Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday 23 April (1995) pic.