Visual Thinking: The Path to Genius?

Over the course of human history great minds of every age have made a mark on this world — transforming how we think, live and behave. However, what was it that separated them from everyone else? Did it come down to a set of indispensable qualities that they possessed? Or was it a set of habits and behaviors that they cultivated on a daily basis? Or maybe it simply came down to their levels of intelligence?

The answer could very well come down to a combination of factors. However, I would like to argue that they all had one common element in mind: their ability to think creatively and visually about the circumstances confronting their lives.

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The Link Between Genius and Intelligence

Albert Einstein, Leonardo daVinci, Charles Darwin, Galileo Galilei, Sigmund Freud and Mozart are all considered geniuses in their own right. They accomplished incredible things that most people only dream about and struggle to even comprehend.

What was it that separated these geniuses from everyone else? It certainly wasn’t intelligence.

Academics throughout history have tried to measure the supposed link between intelligence and genius. And as yet, no link has ever been found. In fact, Richard Feynman, an American Physicist who won the Nobel Prize for his work on quantum electrodynamics, had a respectable IQ of only 122. This paled in comparison to the highest IQ ever measured of 228 on Marilyn vos Savant who is an American magazine columnist, author, lecturer and playwright.

It was of course once thought that high levels of intelligence predicted one’s capacity for creative thought. However, today, this is not the case. In fact, an individual can be considered to be far more creative than intelligent, and vice-versa.

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The Genius of Asking Questions

I’ve made mention before how asking the right kinds of questions will significantly transform the way you think and approach problems. However, there’s more to genius than simply asking a question and getting an answer.

The average person will experience a problem and then reflect back on past experience to determine what to do about it in the present moment. They will then ask a set of questions based on their understanding of what worked or didn’t work for them in the past. There’s nothing wrong with this form of questioning. It certainly has a place in visual thinking. However, to think like a genius you must approach the situation somewhat differently.

A genius will experience a problem and immediately ask questions that expand their understanding of the circumstances from a variety of angles and perspectives — not necessarily based on past experience. This likewise allows them to view a problem from a number of unique vantage points that the average person simply would not have.

Please have read of Visual Thinking Question Categories Part 1 and Part 2 for more information.

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The Genius of Visual Thinking

If you take time to look through the pages of history, you will find that geniuses the world-over developed their visual and spatial abilities — giving them the flexibility to display information in different ways. In fact, Albert Einstein believed that the words and numbers — as they are written or spoken — did not play a significant role in his thinking process.

Furthermore, if you direct your attention to the list of geniuses previously mentioned within this post, you will find that all of them used methods of visual thinking to generate solutions to the problems they faced.

Other Activities of Genius

Michael Michalko the author of Creative Thinkering, Thinkertoys and Cracking Creativity, has spent many years researching the key factors that separate geniuses from everyone else. His findings support the fact that geniuses tend to ask better questions — helping them expand their perspective and understanding of a problem. Moreover, he mentions that all geniuses make it a habit to visualize their thoughts in some way.

In addition to these discoveries, Michalko points out that geniuses also frequently indulge in the following activities:

High Levels of Productivity

Geniuses are incredibly productive, producing a copious amount of work in very short periods of time. However, not all of this work is considered genius. Instead, it seems as though the more work one produces the more likely the chances of producing a work of genius.

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When thinking visually, you are unlikely to always solve your problems the first time around. You may need to keep thinking, keep producing, and keep trying new things before an adequate solution is found. The great thing about visual thinking, is that there’s a plethora of techniques and strategies that you have at your disposal. One of them will eventually get you the answers you are searching for.

Geniuses Make Novel Combinations

Geniuses are constantly making novel combinations. They are always looking for ways to combine and recombine things and ideas in new ways. What’s surprising is that the things they are combining are not new or revolutionary at all — they simply haven’t been combined this way before.

When thinking visually, you are constantly combining and recombining things in unique ways. You are looking at the same world as everyone else, but seeing something very different by using pictures to fuse together surprising combinations of thoughts, things and ideas.

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Geniuses Force Relationships

Geniuses tend to force relationships between dissimilar objects in order to create something new and original. For example, Michael Michalko points out that Nikola Tesla forced a connection between the setting sun and a motor, which made the AC motor possible by having the motor’s magnetic field rotate inside the motor just as the sun (from our perspective) rotates.

One of the incredible benefits of visual thinking is that it actually challenges you to make connections between seemingly unrelated things in order to find solutions to the problems you are trying to work through.

Geniuses Think Metaphorically

Geniuses often use metaphors to help them think through problems and reach new insights and ideas. For instance, Michael Michalko points out that Alexander Graham Bell observed the comparison between the inner workings of the ear and the movement of a stout piece of membrane to move steel, and as a result conceived the telephone. In another example, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, after developing an analogy between a toy funnel and the motion of a paper man and sound vibrations.

Metaphors and analogies are absolutely critical to the process of visual thinking. In fact, at least 20 percent of the visual thinking techniques we will discuss in future posts are built upon metaphors and analogies. They are undeniably as important to visual thinking as the use of metaphors is to genius.

For more of Michael Michalko’s insights, I highly recommend you read his article about How Geniuses Think.

So, is visual thinking the path to genius?

Having now read through this article, I’m curious to know if you believe that visual thinking is the path to genius. The evidence is certainly there, however, I guess we will never really know until we start breaking each visual thinking element down in a practical and actionable way. Therefore, let’s leave this question open for discussion, and see what progress we can make in coming months.


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