This essay employs the concept ‘high cognitive complexity’ to advance our understanding of the scientists who make major discoveries. Those with high cognitive complexity have the capacity to understand the world in more complex ways than those with less cognitive complexity. For reasons described below, scientists having high levels of cognitive complexity tend to internalize multiple fields of science and have greater capacity to observe and understand the connectivity among phenomena in multiple fields of science. They tend to bring ideas from one field of knowledge into another field. High cognitive complexity is the capacity to observe and understand in novel ways the relationships among complex phenomena, the capacity to see relationships among disparate fields of knowledge. And it is that capacity which greatly increases the potential for making a major discovery.
I have found that the minds of great discoverers tend to evolve in an unplanned, chaotic, somewhat random process involving a considerable amount of chance, luck and contingency. Cognitive complexity cannot be imparted in the classroom or curriculum by pedagogical technique. No matter how much we invest in training the young scientist to be excellent, this essay suggests that in the final analysis, it is idiosyncratic characteristics operating at the individual level which are decisive in determining who will make the major discovery. On the other hand, the individual who internalizes all the factors consistent with high degrees of innovativeness is unlikely to be very innovative without the opportunity to be in the structural and cultural environments where the scientist’s potential can be realized. In the final analysis, those responsible for recruiting scientists would be well advised to give high consideration to individuals with high cognitive complexity.