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UNF researchers study da Vinci’s flying machines

guess holding a replica of da vinci's flying machineUNF researchers Dr. Dominik Güss, presidential professor for the Department of Psychology and UNF Distinguished Professor 2016, and Sarah Ahmed, psychology graduate student, along with Dietrich Dörner, professor emeritus at the University of Bamberg in Germany, have recently published their study entitled, “From da Vinci’s Flying Machines to a Theory of the Creative Process” in Perspectives in Psychological Science, a journal by the Association for Psychological Science.

The goal of the paper was threefold. First, to learn from the extraordinary creativity of Leonardo da Vinci and describe his creative process by analyzing his notes and drawings, specifically related to his flying machines. Second, to integrate these findings into a theory of the creative process describing nine steps. And third, to show that psychological processes that are common to everyone can be used to describe da Vinci’s extraordinary creative process.  

During the 1400s, da Vinci was speculated to be one of the only scholars to seriously pursue flight, studying birds, bats, air movements, and wind in great detail, to create a viable machine that could fly. While da Vinci created many flying machines, Güss and his team focused only on two of them, the Ornithopter and the Screw Air, in their paper. Although neither ornithopter nor screw air ultimately worked due to limitations of human muscle strength, they influenced the field of aviation and the development of airplanes and helicopters for centuries to come.

Güss' research into da Vinci's flying machines not only uncovers how da Vinci created the structures, but more importantly, why. The team discovered that in order to be creative, one has to have curiosity, passion, and vision. This curiosity originates from the interplay of the human needs for certainty which is to explain and understand the unknown, and the need for competence which is to solve problems and have impact on the environment. For da Vinci, the need for certainty became highly activated. He became obsessed with understanding a specific topic, and so discovery provided joy and helped satisfy his need for competence.

The research team also discovered that another part of the creative process is related to cognition. When da Vinci used abductive thinking, a process that relies on observations of phenomena and reflections about the possible explanations for these phenomena, the creative process in creating his flying machines became much more intricate. Instead of thinking, "A bird can fly. How can a human fly?" da Vinci asked, "How can birds fly and stay in the air? How do the wings break up the flow of air?"

The nine-step theory of the creative process described in the paper included:

  1. vision and curiosity;
  2. social recognition;
  3. asking questions;
  4. analogical thinking;
  5. trial and error;
  6. abductive reasoning;
  7. incubation and forgetting;
  8. overinclusive thinking, latent inhibition, and illumination; and
  9. schema elaboration.

The creative process is not easy, but there are ways to unlock new ways of thinking that allow creativity to flow. As the research team writes, "None of us are Leonardo da Vinci, but all of us are a little like him." The creative process described is based on general psychological mechanisms common to all humans. This creativity is at the heart of human intelligence, of the ability to invent, solve problems, and adapt to new situations.

To read the full paper, visit the SAGE Journals website.