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Big Ideas

The Social Networks of Emily Dickinson, Paul Gauguin, and Charlotte Bronte

Does the notion of the lone genius really hold true? Recent research shows that even famously reclusive creatives relied on collaborative networks.

I recently read a fascinating article* by Professor Katherine Giuffre, of Colorado College, that asks the question: Do social networks contribute to creativity? Previous research is pretty compelling: social networks and collaboration contribute to greater creativity. But as Giuffre points out, no one has compared creative and non-creative periods during the lifetime of a single person.

As Giuffre puts it:

Over the course of a person’s lifetime, there are some moments of creativity and other periods where that same person is not as creative. If we then trace the pattern of social relations over the course of a lifetime, comparing periods of much creative production with periods of no or very little creative production, we have a way of examining the correlation between a person’s social relations and his or her creative output. (p. 824)

Emily Dickinson, Paul Gauguin, and Charlotte Bronte were legendary loners, famous for seeking out solitude, far from the cafes and parlors of the big cities. So why were these three creators chosen? Basically, if you could show that even these famous loners benefited from collaboration, you could put the nail in the coffin of the “lone genius” hypothesis:

Given the contention that creativity is the product not of lonely recluses locked away in their garrets, but of individuals enmeshed in social structures, the most compelling cases to examine will be those of precisely the loneliest of recluses because they are the cases most unfavorable to the hypothesis.

So here’s what she did with these three famous creators: She compared their level of correspondence during creative and non-creative periods. For all three of these famous recluses, their letters provide an unusually accurate representation of their social networks, because they all lived and worked primarily alone and rarely had face-to-face creative encounters. Past research suggests that creativity would increase when (1) a person’s social network is dense, but not so dense that everyone thinks the same; (2) a person has easy access to a diverse range of other people; (3) a person is linked into many different types of groups. And here’s what she found. During periods of high creativity, the density of their social network is about .475, higher than during uncreative periods – meaning that the creator’s social network draws together and interacts more frequently. In other words, more collaboration is associated with greater creativity. She concludes:

It was not when the artists were alone…that they were most creative, but when they were attached to others in a more moderate way and when those others were close to each other, although, again, not so close as to form one cohesive group. (p. 836)

When Giuffre actually read the content of the letters, she found ample confirmation of creative interaction: “The artists actively solicited support and critical feedback for their endeavors from others in their networks” (p. 838). The bottom line: These famous loners were not as isolated as the myths would have it. Communication, collaboration, and social networks contribute to creativity. — *Giuffre, Katherine. (2010). Half the right people: Network density and creativity. Culture Unbound, 2: 819-846.

Comments (11)
  • Nicolas Nelson

    Do you think that the uncreative times are essential, they need to be less social in order to brew on new ideas – like a winter of hibernation. Then spring and summer where that creativity is realized. But I doubt they can always be social and creative. The creative process needs to ebb and flow. 

  • Dweiss

    Great point, and thanks for summarizing Prof. Guiffre’s article.

    I would add, though, that the quantity and quality of the time they spent alone may have contributed significantly to their creativity as well. Solitude may be the fuel for highly creative, highly connected times.

  • Ann Stanley

    Very interesting. Being an introvert I know the importance of solitude for creativity and being prone to depression I know the dangers of solitude! I also believe that depression is the opposite of creativity. I think to be creative we need both solitude and society and the level of introversion and extraversion determines the proportions of each.

  • Paul Lamble

    Were these individuals more creative because they increased their correspondence (their social networking)? Or did they increased their correspondence because they had grown more creative and needed a way to manage it? It sounds as though, if they sought support and feedback, that the creativity preceded the interaction.

  • Hearlearndo

    Does creativity really follow an ebb and flow model? I see creativity as being on the brink of discovery. When you’ve discovered something new you’re high in creativity and when your creativity appears dormant your on the brink of discovery…just a thought. 

  • Rodo

    I think the article is jumping to conclusions. 

    Collaboration can also have a degenerative effect on creativity. It really depends on how the interactions come about.It’s not a question of whether being solitary or social brings creative. More of an issue of which habits, whether in solitude or extroversion, helps creative thinking.I actually think the primary component of creativity is the existence of Competition.

  • Neuralnet

    I think for artists, being uncreative makes you really depressed, since you feel you are losing your ‘gift’. I think both the antisocial times and the uncreative times are tied together by depression – as to what came first, hard to say.

  • Ann Stanley

    I don’t think I’m an artist but this is very true for me. It’s deeper for me than just a belief that I’m losing a gift – it’s almost physiological. Creativity fires me up and makes me more sociable AND more in need of solitude (to create). Depression dampens me down and then neither society nor solitude is comfortable.

  • Ali Toure : The only Social Network where you are win-win

  • Gullibear

    Hi Keith,

    Thank you for this very interesting piece and bringing this study to us.
    I’ve created a story about this question and tried to add new elements which I found useful to explain those phenomenon.

    Hope you’ll find it interesting :

  • cash for used car

    Today, computer networks are the core of modern communication. All modern aspects of the public switched telephone network (PSTN) are computer-controlled, and telephony increasingly runs over
    the Internet Protocol, although not necessarily the public Internet.

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