What I Learned From Trying to Live like a Genius
It’s 6 o’clock in the morning, and my balls are the temperature and color of a blue raspberry snow cone.
I’m sitting on a deck chair on my open-air back porch, which overlooks an alley and half a dozen houses. It’s November in Chicago and the weather is a nippy 24 degrees. On any other day, I wouldn’t even consider walking outside without a down jacket and mittens, or at the very least pants. But today, I’m wearing shoes. Just shoes.
I cross my legs in case a neighbor happens to glance out the window. The wind is slicing into my frightened, exposed flesh. I’ve only been sitting out here for 20 minutes, but hypothermia feels like a very real possibility.
I try to distract myself with my notebook and pen. I’m not just some masochistic nudist wondering how quickly genital frostbite sets in. I’m here with a mission. I’m trying to find out if acting like Benjamin Franklin can make me think like Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin was unquestionably a genius, not just as a politician and diplomat — he helped draft the Declaration of Independence — but as an inventor, writer, and deep thinker. He gave the world lightning rods, bifocal lenses, and political cartoons. He founded the University of Pennsylvania, established our country’s first post office and lending library, and still had time to be, as Time magazine called him, a “babe magnet.”
He also thought he was at his most productive when naked and cold. Franklin would begin a typical working day by sitting in his chamber, next to an open first-floor window “without any clothes whatever,” he wrote to a friend in 1768, “half an hour or an hour, according to the season, either reading or writing.” Who knows what ideas came to him during those morning “air baths,” as he exposed his shriveled, frosty man bits to the world?
Franklin wasn’t the only brilliant mind with some bizarre work habits. Composer Igor Stravinsky stood on his head for fifteen minutes each morning to “clear his brain.” Charles Dickens wrote with a compass so he could be sure he was always facing north. Inventor Nikola Tesla would curl his toes one hundred times on each foot as a way of stimulating his brain cells. Hunchback of Notre-Dame novelist Victor Hugo started his workday by eating two raw eggs, Rocky Balboa-style. David Bowie survived during the mid-1970s on a diet of cocaine, milk, and hot peppers. Einstein refused to wear socks. Are geniuses just more prone to quirky habits, or did their quirks fuel their genius? And if it’s the latter, can you train your brain to think like them?
It’s possible, says Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D., the director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Imagination Institute and author of Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind. “The key is to put yourself in a space that shifts your thinking,” he says. He points to 2012 research from the Netherlands, which found that any abnormal or jarring life experience, good or bad, can inspire creativity. “Unusual experiences are good for the brain,” Kaufman says. “Geniuses only seem quirky to others because they don’t have trouble risking madness.”
So I wondered: What if I followed in the footsteps of geniuses, forcing myself out of my usual routines? Might I become the next Ben Franklin? I decided to find out.
1. Cold and Naked
Franklin’s air baths never caught on with his fellow Founding Fathers, despite his insistence that the practice was “not in the least painful, but on the contrary, agreeable.” But across the Atlantic, in Vienna, Austria, composer Ludwig van Beethoven had adopted a strangely similar custom. While composing, he would take breaks to dunk his head in ice-cold water or pour an entire pitcher over his head, while humming loudly to himself. He often had to find new places to live, as the water would leak through the floorboards into the home of a downstairs neighbor.
I did feel more inspired and productive, probably because I knew the sooner I got something done, the sooner I could get back inside and put some clothes on. I felt more mentally agile when it was chilly — anything below freezing and my notebook was filled with expletive-laden gibberish. But at around 45 degrees, uncomfortable but not ridiculous, my head felt clearer and more alert than at any other point during the day.
Researchers disagree. A Cornell University study was pro-warmth, finding that workers at a Florida insurance company made 44 percent more mistakes when the office thermostat was set lower than usual. First of all, nobody in Florida is a reliable narrator when it comes to temperature. And secondly, “chilly” was defined as 68 degrees. Oh lord, get those people some cashmere blankets!
Researchers at the University of Virginia and University of Houston found the opposite. Subjects performing simple tasks in rooms with warm temperatures “had depleted cognitive resources,” says Vanessa Patrick, the study’s co-author. “But cool temperatures facilitated a more open, abstract and risk-seeking mindset.”
Decreased comfort, whether your comfort zone is chilly or balmy, can “create a sense of urgency, or push the brain and body into survival mode,” says Yohan John, Ph.D. a neuroscientist at Boston University. “If creativity involves fresh perspectives and thought processes, then any sort of environmental change has the potential to trigger it.” It’s possible that the “short sharp shock” of a burst of unpleasantly cold water can hit the reset button on our brains, he says.
2. Staying in Bed
In an interview with the Paris Review in 1957, Truman Capote called himself “a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down.” The French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes spent his mornings working from bed, and James Joyce would lie on his stomach in bed and compose books with a large blue pencil. Other big minds who got some of their best ideas under the covers include Voltaire, Marcel Proust, Winston Churchill, Jack London, Vladimir Nabokov, and Brian Wilson. “Just try it in bed sometime,” Mark Twain insisted of his bed-writing habits to the New York Times in 1902.
I climbed into bed dressed in a suit and tie, so I wouldn’t forget that I was there to work. Instead, I felt like the main attraction at a wake. It was difficult to concentrate at first, and I took what might be considered an excessive number of naps. But when I was awake, the ideas came fast and furious, likely because I was so well rested.
Makes sense. Bernd Brunner, the author of The Art of Lying Down: A Guide to Horizontal Living, claims lying down allows your body to use less energy, so it can be “better focused on intellectual pursuits.”
A 2005 study in Australia found that being horizontal helped participants solve word puzzles 10 percent faster than those who stood. Darren Lipnicki, Ph.D., one of the researchers, explains: On your back, “the heart beats slower, and less noradrenaline is released in the brain.” And noradrenaline, a neurotransmitter, can impair different types of cognitive processes, like creative thinking. He notes that an anagram solution often “suddenly pops into the mind like the ‘ah-ha’ moment of creative breakthroughs.” So: “Being able to solve anagrams faster when lying down suggests that creative thinking might also be facilitated in this posture.” Voila!
3. Sleep Deprivation
Franz Kafka rarely slept while writing books like Metamorphosis, about a guy who turns into a cockroach, after not being able to fall asleep. Thomas Edison and Leonardo da Vinci slept only during 20-minute naps throughout the day, just enough to feel kind of rested but not really. Inventor Nikola Tesla slept only two hours every night and had a nervous breakdown by age 25. But then he invented radio and electric motors, so maybe it was worth it.
Forty-eight hours of sleeping in 20-minute spurts didn’t make me more alert and creative, just more unhinged and emotional. I cried at everything — dropping my kid off at school, kind emails from colleagues, Google commercials — with the kind of epic weeping usually reserved for a parent’s funeral. I also got into a hysterical screaming match with my wife about who was supposed to empty the dishwasher.
Iffy. “Your creativity wouldn’t benefit from trying to sleep deprive yourself,” says Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D., a Harvard psychologist and author of The Committee of Sleep: How Artists, Scientists, and Athletes Use Their Dreams for Creative Problem Solving. “Quite the contrary.” Getting less than an optimal amount of sleep — seven to nine hours a night — could mean scoring lower on several measures of cognitive function including creativity, she says.
But even if you’re not normally awake at 4 a.m., there may be some benefit to an insomniac’s schedule. Mareike Wieth, Ph.D., a professor of psychological science at Albion College, studied how people solve riddles during “non-optimal” times and found that people are better at thinking creatively, as opposed to analytically, when they’d rather be in bed. Why? Because they are easily distracted and can’t focus on just one problem. “Seemingly unrelated thoughts enter your mind,” she says. “And that can lead to outside-the-box thinking and creativity.”
4. Way Too Much Coffee
French writers had voracious appetites for coffee. Both Honoré de Balzac (The Human Comedy) and Voltaire (Candide) drank between forty and fifty cups every day. After enough coffee, Balzac once wrote, “Ideas begin to move like the battalions of the Grand Army on the battlefield.” Beethoven insisted on counting out his own coffee beans; he required no less than 60 beans per cup, according to a biographer.
William DePaolo, Ph.D., a molecular microbiology and immunology professor at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, warned me that a caffeine overdose could lead to symptoms that are “frighteningly similar to those of a psychiatric disorder,” including rambling thoughts and hallucinations. Just five cups are enough to cause a psychotic reaction, according to a 2011 Australian study.
After twelve 8-ounce cups in just under two hours — my usual is one or two — my heart sounded like a very pissed-off Tito Puente and I lost the ability to blink. But no hallucinations. I also didn’t feel particularly inspired. I typed a little faster, but not because the ideas were coming faster. I also pooped like I’d taken a handful of laxatives (coffee stimulates the distal colon).
Unlikely, says Stephen Braun, the author of Buzz: The Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine. “The brain adapts relatively quickly to the stimulation,” he says. “Once tolerance sets in, you won’t be squeezing much extra creative juice from your brain.”
There is the theory, however, that coffee shops can promote creativity. University of Illinois researchers found that the level of ambient noise in a coffee shop — the sweet spot is right around 70 decibels — triggers our minds to think more creatively.
5. Wearing the Same Clothes
In his later years, Albert Einstein wore mostly the same outfit, a grey suit, and no socks. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs had his black turtlenecks and jeans. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg owns “maybe about 20” (in his words) identical grey T-shirts, Segway inventor Dean Kamen prefers an all-denim look, and country legend Johnny Cash got the nickname “Man in Black” because, you know.
I didn’t have high hopes for this one, but after a week of wearing the same lumpy old college sweatshirt and my favorite threadbare shorts, I noticed a big difference in my mental clarity. Maybe because it didn’t feel like work anymore. When you’re dressed like a slob, it’s hard to feel like you’re on the clock. I was suddenly able to multitask, and creative challenges that once took hours could now be accomplished in minutes. “I’m like a supercomputer,” I told my wife, who responded, “Yeah, well you smell like a train hobo.”
Makes sense. “People have a finite amount of mental energy,” says Daniel Levitin, Ph.D., a cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist, and author of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. “If you spend your brainpower making many tiny decisions such as what to wear or eat before deciding on something more important, your neural resources will have been depleted, and your judgment impaired.” Einstein and Jobs “didn’t want to waste valuable energy making inconsequential decisions about their clothes.”
Neurons, which transmit signals to and from the brain, are living cells with metabolisms needing glucose to operate. Your neural network relies on you to prioritize decisions. “Eliminating inconsequential decisions, such as wardrobe choices, helps retains resources for bigger decisions,” he says.
English physicist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton, who helped define the laws of gravity and planetary motion, never had an orgasm with another human being. This self-imposed celibacy also fueled the genius of Friedrich Nietzsche, Lewis Carroll, Immanuel Kant, and Michelangelo. Nikola Tesla once claimed, “I do not think you can name many great inventions that have been made by married men.” He preferred the company of pigeons, who he (allegedly) never tried to fuck.
Not having sex with my wife for a week did make me more focused, but I was mostly focused on whether masturbation was still allowed. Author Thomas Wolfe used to masturbate before every writing session — it gave him a “good male feeling,” he wrote. But then I remembered Pablo Picasso, who was a legendary horndog, with mistresses on top of mistresses. So shouldn’t I be having more sex rather than less?
Mixed. Nan Wise, Ph.D., a sex therapist and psychotherapist, thinks celibacy could possibly increase a person’s creativity but only “if that’s what they believe or expect. It could also diminish somebody’s creative energy if they’re feeling frustrated.” It’s more likely that orgasms act to stimulate creative thinking. “Creativity is so often a question of getting out of a ‘normal’ state of mind,” says Carol Queen, Ph.D., a sexologist and director for the Center for Sex and Culture.
A 2009 study from the University of Amsterdam suggests that it’s love, not sex, that offers the most inspiration for creativity. Analytical thinking may be another story, however: A 2001 survey found that only 65 percent of MIT graduates had ever experienced sex. They might benefit from some creative thinking: A 2005 study from the University of Newcastle found that professional artists and poets had between four and 10 sexual partners, while the poor schmucks who didn’t even have a blog averaged three lovers, at most.
7. Being Left-Handed
Lefties are common in creative fields, from Leonardo da Vinci and Mark Twain to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Paul McCartney. Tech giants like Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are all southpaws, as are business moguls like Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller. Oh, and don’t forget Barack Obama, Babe Ruth, Aristotle, and atomic scientist Marie Curie. The only famous left-hander not considered a genius is Ned Flanders from The Simpsons, and he’s fictional.
Although I’m naturally right-handed, Maria Konnikova, a psychologist and author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, convinced me that teaching myself to use my left hand wasn’t the worst idea. “You force your brain to develop new pathways, and that sort of learning will often promote new ways of thinking,” she said. So I gave it a shot, and it did not go well. Over three days as a leftie, I broke several coffee cups, wrote longhand letters that looked like the Unabomber having a seizure, and nearly dropped a friend’s baby.
Plausible. A number of recent studies have found that southpaws are slightly more advanced in both “divergent” thinking and math abilities. The theory is that left-handers have a more developed right brain, the hemisphere that specializes in creativity and intuition. But not everybody thinks the two things are related. Michael Corballis, a New Zealand professor of cognitive neuroscience and author of The Wandering Mind: What the Brain Does When You’re Not Looking, says it’s true that “the right hemisphere is more specialized for spatial awareness and mental imagery, but I know of no evidence that using the left hand fosters this.”
As for whether you can or should teach yourself to be ambidextrous, Corballis is dubious. He points out that during the 19th century, Boy Scouts were encouraged to shake hands with their left hand, to help activate the right brain, “but nothing substantial came of the movement and it quickly petered out.”
He never won a Nobel Prize, but Scarlet Letter author Nathaniel Hawthorne was known to eat, according to his sister, a “pint bowl of thick chocolate” as a regular evening meal, and Twin Peaks filmmaker David Lynch enjoyed a chocolate milkshake from Bob’s Big Boy for lunch every day for seven years. “It’s a thick shake,” he told the New York Times in 1990. “In a silver goblet. I would get a rush from all this sugar, and I would get so many ideas!”
A 2011 University of Reading study found that cognitive brain functions were enhanced just a few hours after people ate 35 grams of dark chocolate. I upped the dosage to 1275 grams, or fifteen bars of dark chocolate, in a six-hour window. (It would take about 85 bars to kill someone.) I felt… well, stoned, mostly. And acutely aware of my extremities.
Hard to say. There’s no shortage of research suggesting that chocolate has a positive impact on cognitive function, either by improving brain blood flow and oxygen levels or because of the high flavanol content which acts as a type of antioxidant. The only problem is, quite a few of these studies were funded by candy companies like Nestlé, Mars, and Hershey’s. As Vox discovered in a 2017 report, 98 percent of chocolate studies commissioned by Mars had positive results. Which isn’t to say that the research is wrong, just maybe a bit too eager to reach positive conclusions.
The cognitive benefits aren’t limited to humans, says Franz Messerli, a cardiologist at New York’s Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital who has studied the cognitive effects of chocolate, but also rats. “The long-term administration of a cocoa polyphenolic extract improved their cognitive performances,” he says. “There was also a study in 2012 showing that snail memory could be bettered by cocoa extract.” We’re not sure if smarter rats and snails that never forget are what the world needs, but okay.
The most convincing endorsement comes from physicist Eric Cornell, who won a Nobel Prize in 2001 for co-creating a new ultracold state of matter called Bose-Einstein condensate. “I attribute essentially all my success to the very large amount of chocolate that I consume,” he told Reuters (likely being tongue-in-cheek). “Personally I feel that milk chocolate makes you stupid… If you want a physics Nobel Prize, it pretty much has got to be dark chocolate.”
Ulysses S. Grant won the Civil War while almost constantly hammered on a private stash of whiskey. Orson Welles was known for his “gargantuan consumption” of booze, according to his biographer. Painter Jackson Pollock was “drunk almost every day and night” of his life, claimed one art critic. Ernest Hemingway drank so much that fellow author George Plimpton once claimed you could “see the bulge of