Two Is the Magic Number
A new science of creativity.
Mirror neurons are just one brick in the broad and widening foundation of "social neuroscience." The University of Chicago's John Cacioppo, who coined the term with his colleague Gary Berntsen, has helped pioneer research that shows how social connection shapes everything from depression and anxiety to high blood pressure, obesity, and heart disease.
Drawing on evolutionary psychology, cognitive experiments, and brain scans, Cacioppo and his colleagues make a persuasive case that what we consider the "self" is in its essence social. "It sounds like an oxymoron," Cacioppo says. "But it's not. In fact, the idea that the center of our psychological universe, and even our physiological experience, is 'me'—this just fundamentally misrepresents us as a species."
It's not an accident that this new work is ascendant at a time when the Western world no longer identifies itself in opposition to collectivism, and where the Internet and social media have offered an obvious metaphor for webs of connections. "We're ready for a Copernican revolution in psychology," Cacioppo says. If it comes, the era of the self will yield to something that may be much more interesting.
The Myth of the Lone Genius
If relationships shape us so fundamentally, how—in the study of creativity—could they also be so obscure? Why are we preoccupied with the lone genius, with great men (and, more now than in the past, great women)? Evolutionary psychologists might point to how our ancestors focused on the alpha male of a pack or the headman of a tribe. But there are contemporary explanations.
For one thing, male-female acts have often kept one partner behind the curtain. The eminent psychoanalyst and social theorist Erik Erikson acknowledged that his wife of 66 years, Joan Erikson, worked with him so closely that it was hard to tell where her work left off and his began. But he drew the salary; his name went on the cover of Young Man Luther. He is among history's most famous social scientists; she doesn't even have a Wikipedia entry.
Gender relations, though, are only one cause for hidden partners. The quiet, careful member of a pair may naturally be diminished in comparison with the brash, dramatic one. Braque and Picasso created Cubism together, but the mercurial Spaniard emerged as the star of the movement while history shunted the quiet Frenchman to the side.
The custom of hidden partners is often industry standard: Tenure committees insist on judging individual work, even though collaborations are core to academic culture. CEOs have become like synecdoches for their companies, though their effectiveness depends on partners and teams. (Could Steve Jobs have reinvented Apple without his design guru Jonathan Ive?)
To illustrate the consistently hidden partner with an obvious example:Book editors don't put their names on covers. Their reputation largely depends on authors—who can be notoriously ungrateful and committed to the idea of their solitary genius. Jack Kerouac's On the Road sat on slush piles all around Manhattan until Malcolm Cowley, then an editor at Viking, undertook the laborious effort (literary, political, emotional) of shaping it for publication. But afterward, Kerouac and the Beats portrayed Cowley as a villain who muddied the famous unbroken typescript, which they claimed was powered by Benzedrine and holy light.
Even when a creative partnership is inescapable, principals may resist acknowledging its influence. Maxwell Perkins, the great editor who discovered and shaped the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, also made magic with Thomas Wolfe. Their collaboration made Wolfe's sprawling manuscripts into the epic novels Look Homeward Angeland Of Time and the River.
At first, Wolfe praised his partner, comparing his role in Of Time and the River to "a man who is trying to hang onto the fin of a plunging whale." Maxwell's tenacity, Wolfe said, gave him his "final release." The irony is that just such exuberant acknowledgments helped fuel a major critic's charge, in the Saturday Review, that the author's "incompleteness" could be seen in "the most flagrant evidence" that "one indispensable part of the artist has existed not in Mr. Wolfe but in Maxwell Perkins."
Wolfe was apoplectic at the criticism, but he accepted the premise. He raged at the idea that he couldn't "perform these functions as an artist for myself."As Fitzgerald declared, the test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two opposing ideas without cracking up. Apparently Thomas Wolfe could not grasp the paradox that he was both a complete artist and a dependent partner. Perkins, meanwhile, insistently diminished his role. "Editors aren't much," he wrote, "and can't be. They can only help a writer realize himself." This statement way underplays his role, but would be odd even if accurate. Only help a writer realize himself? That's like saying the legs only support the torso.
The other reason the lone genius myth persists is that "collaboration" gets defined so narrowly, as though the only relationships that matter are between peers of roughly equal power. In fact, it is often the most independent virtuosos who need relationships the most. Take golf, for example. By PGA tour rules, professional golfers play the links without coaches or managers. So the role of psychologist, strategist, and counselor falls to the caddie. Tiger Woods, now infamous for his promiscuity, has stuck for nearly 11 years with caddy Steve Williams. Their bond is so tight that Williams not only supports his boss but taunts him—and even misleads him. At the 2000 PGA Championship, on the fairway of the 71st hole, Woods needed a birdie to catch the leader. Williams calculated 95 yards to the flag—but he told Woods 90. "Tiger's distance control was a problem," Williams explained to Golf magazine. "So I would adjust yardages and not tell him." Woods ended up hitting the ball inside two feet from the cup and went on to win. Williams has said that he gave Woods incorrect yardages for the better part of five years.
If you don't know golf intimately, you'd never consider the caddie relationship. Same goes for many fields. With surgeons, who thinks of the indispensable nurse? Few outside the film industry pay attention to the director of photography, but insiders know that Wes Anderson's aesthetic is shaped in large part by Robert Yeoman. The architect Frank Gehry leans heavily on his deputy, Craig Webb.
Joshua Wolf Shenk, a Slate correspondent, is the author of Lincoln's Melancholy and a contributor to the Atlantic and other magazines. Follow him on Twitterand like his Creative Pairs group on Facebook.
Photographs of: Paul McCartney and John Lennon by Mirrorpix/Courtesy Everett Collection; Emily Dickinson from the Yale University Manuscripts & Archives Digital Images Database/public domain; Susan Huntington Gilbert courtesy emilydickinsonmuseum.org/public domain; Tiger Woods and Steve Williams by Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images.