When Alexander Fleming noticed that a blue mold was killing off the bacteria culture in his petri dish, he could have just tossed the latter into the autoclave like any of his colleagues might have done. Instead, Fleming won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of penicillin, the antibacterial agent derived from the mold Penicillium notatum. Many people have gone for a walk in the woods and returned with annoying burrs attached to their clothing, but only George de Mestral decided to investigate further with a microscope, and thereby discover the basis for Velcro.
Cognitive disinhibition proves no less beneficial in the arts than in the sciences. Artistic geniuses will often report how the germ for a major creative project came from hearing a tiny piece of casual conversation or seeing a unique but otherwise trivial event during a daily walk. For example, Henry James reported in his preface to The Spoils of Poynton that the germ of the story came from an allusion made by a woman sitting beside him at Christmas Eve dinner.
But cognitive disinhibition has a dark side: It is positively associated with psychopathology. For example, schizophrenics find themselves bombarded with hallucinations and delusions that they would be much better off filtering out.2 So why don’t the two groups become the same group? According to Harvard University psychologist Shelly Carson, the creative geniuses enjoy the asset of superior general intelligence. This intelligence introduces the necessary cognitive control that enables the person to separate the wheat from the chaff. Bizarre fantasies are divorced from realistic possibilities.