The Advantage Of Dual-Identities (A Case Study of Nabokov)

The Advantage Of Dual-Identities (A Case Study of Nabokov)

Wired Magazine

Jonah Lehrer, Contributing Editor

Vladimir Nabokov was a lepidopterist. No, really. While Proust wasn’t actually a neuroscientist—just an extremely intuitive novelist—Nabokov spent six years as a research fellow at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, obsessing over the details of the Polyommatus blues. Furthermore, his speculative hunch about the evolution of these blue butterfly turns out to have been exactly right. Here’s Carl Zimmer:

In a speculative moment in 1945, Nabokov came up with a sweeping hypothesis for the evolution of the butterflies he studied, a group known as the Polyommatus blues. He envisioned them coming to the New World from Asia over millions of years in a series of waves.

Few professional lepidopterists took these ideas seriously during Nabokov’s lifetime. But in the years since his death in 1977, his scientific reputation has grown. And over the past 10 years, a team of scientists has been applying gene-sequencing technology to his hypothesis about how Polyommatus blues evolved. On Tuesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, they reported that Nabokov was absolutely right.

“It’s really quite a marvel,” said Naomi Pierce of Harvard, a co-author of the paper…

…For Nabokov, the entire universe was just an elaborate puzzle waiting to be figured out. It didn’t matter if one was talking about a novel or the evolution of an insect or a chess problem: Nabokov knew that the way to solve the puzzle was to focus on the little things, to begin at the beginning and inductively work your way upwards. While Gould saw his dappling in science as a diffusion of his genius, Nabokov (convincingly) argued that his genius was actually a merger of these two distinct disciplines: “I think that in a work of art there is a kind of merging between the two things, between the precision of poetry and the excitement of pure science.”

It’s also important to note that the advantage of having a “dual-identity”—being both a novelist and a scientist, for instance—isn’t limited to Nabokov. According to a study led by Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, people who describe themselves as both Asian and American, or see themselves as a female engineer (and not just an engineer), consistently display higher levels of creativity. In the first experiment, the researchers gathered together a large group of Asian Americans and asked them to design a dish containing both Asian and American ingredients. In the second study, they asked female engineers to design a new mobile communication device.

In both cases, subjects who are better able to draw on their mixed backgrounds at the same time were more creative than those who could only draw on one of their backgrounds. They designed tastier dishes and came up with much better communication devices. Because their different social identities were associated with different problem-solving approaches, their minds remained more flexible, better able to experiment with multiple creative strategies.In contrast, Asian Americans who felt that they had to “turn off” their Asian background in an American setting – this is an example of “low identity integration” – or female engineers who believed that they had to be less feminine to be effective at work, had a harder time drawing on their wealth of background knowledge. Such research makes me particularly hopeful in light of this news on the surge of people who identify as “mixed-race”:

The crop of students moving through college right now includes the largest group of mixed-race people ever to come of age in the United States, and they are only the vanguard: the country is in the midst of a demographic shift driven by immigration and intermarriage.

One in seven new marriages is between spouses of different races or ethnicities, according to data from 2008 and 2009 that was analyzed by the Pew Research Center. Multiracial and multiethnic Americans (usually grouped together as “mixed race”) are one of the country’s fastest-growing demographic groups. And experts expect the racial results of the 2010 census, which will start to be released next month, to show the trend continuing or accelerating…

Read the entire article here.

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