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How Do You Spot a Genius?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The November/December Scientific American Mind, which debuted online today, examines the origins of genius, a concept that inspires both awe and confusion. Some equate genius with IQ or creativity; others see it as extraordinary accomplishment. As this issue reveals, genius seems to arise from a mosaic of forces that coalesce into a perfect storm of eminence. Innate ability, personality, circumstances and an unusual level of motivation all play a role. This issue identifies key elements behind the turbulence that leads to genius from the fields of psychology, education, art and neuroscience.

Exploring Dead Ends

People attach the label “genius” to such diverse characters as Leonardo DaVinci, Bobby Fischer and Toni Morrison. The varied achievements of such individuals beg the question: what defines a genius? People have long-equated genius with intelligence, but it is more aptly characterized by creative productivity. Such exceptional output depends on a combination of genetics, opportunity and effort. Nobody can be called out for outstanding contributions to a field without a lot of hard work, but progress is faster if you are born with the right skills. Personality also plays a role. If you are very open to new experiences and if you have psychopathic traits (yes, as in those shared by serial killers) such as being aggressive and emotionally tough, you are more likely to be considered a genius (see “The Science of Genius,” by Dean Keith Simonton).

Drawing of Bobby Fischer and chess board

Bobby Fischer. Courtesy of Abode of Chaos via Flickr.

To make the contributions for which they are known, all geniuses depend on the same general process, Simonton theorizes. It starts with an unrestrained search for ideas without foresight into their utility. This hunt takes a creator down many dead-end roads, causing him or her to backtrack and start over. This trial-and-error process eventually leads a solution that works. For anyone who has engaged in a project for which progress is hard to measure or that seems to stall or meander, this theory is heartening. When a problem or endeavor is difficult, we should probably not expect our research to proceed in a linear fashion. The many seemingly wasted hours exploring roads that lead nowhere may really be necessary to find an effective and innovative solution.

Trivial Pursuits

Of course, not everyone is equally equipped to come up with such solutions. True creativity and genius depends on an unfiltered view of the world, one that is unconstrained by preconceptions and more open to novelty. In particular, a less conceptual and more literal way of thinking, one more typical of people with autism, can open the mind up to seeing details that most people miss. People with a more open mindset see visual elements in ways that enable them to create strikingly realistic drawings. One boy gained impressive mechanical skills from a brain injury that gave him an unusual eye for the parts of things.

This theory of creativity as a bottom-up process—that is an ability to see the parts rather than just the whole—has inspired the radical idea of a creativity cap, a device placed on the head that can temporarily produce that type of thinking. The cap, in effect, circumvents mental blocks to our creativity, enabling the genius within. Using transcranial direct current stimulation, this device works not by enhancing part of the brain, but by temporarily turning part of it off. It silences the part of the brain that imposes schemas on the world and weaves observations into high-level concepts, providing a less filtered view of the world. In experiments, the technique has improved people’s visual memory and insight for solving problems (see “Boost Creativity With Electric Brain Stimulation,” by Allyn W. Snyder, Sophie ellwood and Richard P. Chi).

The Making of a Genius

Any effort to expand the pool of geniuses in our society, however, might need to rely less on an electrical cap than on an excellent education. Our schools devote scant resources on nurturing nascent genius, focused as they are on helping those students most likely to be left behind. School-based gifted education receives little state or federal funding. Only four states currently mandate services for gifted students and fully fund those mandates. The failure to develop the talents of our children deprives all of us of a stable of future innovators, creative thinkers, leaders and outstanding performers.

congressman and gifted middle school student, a girl

Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota shakes hands with a gifted middle school student. Courtesy of Rep. Keith Ellison via Flickr.

This failure has consequences. America ranked 31st of the 56 countries that participated in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) study, which assesses the academic skills and knowledge of 15-year-olds.

In this issue, three experts in education argue for a renewed commitment to excellence. First of all, we need to train teachers to spot giftedness, which may take a variety of forms and often needs to be accompanied by creativity, drive and passion. Offering a greater variety of enrichment activities to children will cause many more hidden talents to surface. And accelerated classes and psychological coaching are essential for nurturing talent as early and vigorously as possible (see “To Nurture Genius, Improve Gifted Education,” by Rena F. Subotnik, Paula Olszewski-Kubilius and Frank C. Worrell).

In this issue, please also look out for my Q & A with the insightful and entertaining behavioral economist Dan Ariely, who divulges the nature of evil genius (see “Unveiling the Real Evil Genius,” by Ingrid Wickelgren). Hint: It has to do less with plots to take over the universe than with a dubious knack for rationalizing small, but dangerous, ethical lapses. A podcast of this interview is forthcoming.

Ingrid Wickelgren About the Author: Ingrid Wickelgren is an editor at Scientific American Mind, but this is her personal blog at which, at random intervals, she shares the latest reports, hearsay and speculation on the mind, brain and behavior. Follow on Twitter @iwickelgren.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. rshoff 8:41 pm 10/18/2012

    Is genius something to be identified and nurtured, or is genius a trait that will separate the wheat from chaff. In other-words, genius is a retrospective view of what sets a person apart from his peers. Prospectively, genius doesn’t exist. Therefore, it cannot be nurtured.

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  2. 2. RSchmidt 11:27 pm 10/18/2012

    @rshoff, I don’t think anyone believes that genius is a subjective categorization of unique people. Newton, Einstein and DaVinci are not considered geniuses because they were different but because of the brilliance of their work. The article suggests that genius is a complex phenomenon that has elements of both nature and nurture. Regardless, I think every child should be nurtured as though they could be geniuses. Give them the opportunity to shine. We have seen the tremendous impact on humanity of a few brilliant individuals. What would the world be like if Einstein or Darwin hadn’t access to a proper education? Every time we neglect a child we squander a precious resource and waste a life.

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  3. 3. Chronophage 12:44 am 10/19/2012

    Why is genius a measure of accomplishment? It seems more likely that accomplishment only helps identify a genius. That’s like saying your mechanic is the only one who knows how to work on cars.

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  4. 4. Sacrieur 1:31 am 10/19/2012

    I find it curious the author compared some of the traits to autism. I am autistic, though fortune permits it mildly. This ability to see the pieces rather than the whole is something I take interest in, particularly since I’ve (at least in my own opinion) colorfully described the way I think as an abstraction of the world around me.

    It’s as though the Universe around me is a giant machine modeled in my head, dictated by gears and pulleys and all sorts of mechanical tidbits. In this manner, it is simple to look at a particular set of gears, so to speak, and see how they function. However, this is not to say most of my greatest problem solving achievements are not due to the grace of serendipity.

    But, those such as Sir Ken Jenkins would certainly disagree with the idea that a genius would be someone who scores and learns better than his peers. Perhaps this idea of a “genius” is one ancient psychological relic that should be laid to rest.

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  5. 5. pooka47401 11:07 am 10/19/2012

    I almost flunked my way from elementary school through high school, though I always passed each grade by the skin of my teeth. Florida has (or had) Senior Tests that high school Seniors had to take and make above a certain score to be allowed to attend a Florida University.
    I always thought that I was stupid. My Father was a Teacher and hisssed at me prior to the test, “THIS test is on your knowledge, not your IQ”. I scored in the upper 1% of Seniors in the State of Florida. My next door neighbor, who always made straight A’s, had to go out of State for college.
    It took me from 1967 to 2008 to complete my University degree because I still don’t learn in classes and I fail tests.
    Currently I am thinking about Probabilities and how they manifest in Physical Reality by using Affinities (kinda a Weight but not really). I wish that I had someone to talk to about it. That is what is most difficult when you don’t think like a majority of the population.(I used to have some Physics Grad students to talk to but they got real jobs and left town). I feel like an absent minded professor and appear to others like I am “crazy”.
    So I became a Psychologist, go figure. I work with the homeless and mentally ill.

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  6. 6. rshoff 1:42 pm 10/19/2012

    @rshmidt – the expression ‘wheat from the chaff’ in my comment does imply that genius takes not only uniqueness, but a measure of excellence. Where that excellence comes from must be from the genius within. Not from nurture. It must come from a combination of what we have within ourselves exposed to environmental shaping that is most likely happenstance. If genius were the norm the bell curve would adjust accordingly, making it again undefinable. If we tried to nurture, we would unintentionally indoctrinate any genius to view the world through the eyes of the norm. And to believe that genius is a god-like quality while the rest of us are serfs is erroneous. We are all pretty dumb beings, even the brightest amongst us. We are microbes swimming in soup. Nurturing genius, if we could, would not save the world, would not benefit us, and would not solve our problems. Genius is a retrospective state, a genius is a genius only in comparison to the human norm.

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  7. 7. rshoff 1:47 pm 10/19/2012

    “What would the world be like if Einstein or Darwin hadn’t access to a proper education?”

    They were driven to learn, it was not rolled out before them. Anyone can be driven to learn and the opportunities are vast. At least for billions of people. And billions of genius’ is not be a practical concept. Those that do not attain genius, simply are not. Those that don’t have access, don’t statistically change the formula.

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  8. 8. rshoff 1:50 pm 10/19/2012

    pooka47401 – The homeless and mentally ill need your help. I’d say you have become a tremendous success in a way that matters. THAT is genius.

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  9. 9. MutantBuzzard 4:15 pm 10/19/2012

    Know how to spot an idiot ? look in the mirror

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  10. 10. marclevesque 7:05 pm 10/19/2012

    “First of all, we need to train teachers to spot giftedness, which may take a variety of forms and often needs to be accompanied by creativity, drive and passion. Offering a greater variety of enrichment activities to children will cause many more hidden talents to surface”

    We also need teachers to stop encouraging, giving time, support, etc to some students and not to others. The clichés and heuristics used to decide who gets more resources are faulty. So much research shows that outcomes are mostly the result of years of channeling students, based on superficial heuristics, into categories like Performer or Under-performer.

    Moreover, do we have a valid and reliable way of spotting giftedness.

    “Our schools devote scant resources on nurturing nascent genius, focused as they are on helping those students most likely to be left behind”

    Does the conclusion follow the premise? Nevertheless, a great boost in nurturing nascent geniuses would be for nascent geniuses to grow up in an society where a category like “most likely to be left behind” is unthinkable or offensive.

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  11. 11. gerald_murray 10:16 pm 10/19/2012

    What worries me is that we’d have to rely on the public schools to recognize and nurture “genius”.

    Generally, schools are the last place that true creative genius is nurtured. The nature of the school system is to stifle creativity and independent thinking in order to socialize and assimilate students. Trying to mold someone into what society or the government considers a “genius” could very well retard any innovative and creative thinking that person could achieve.

    Probably it would be best to just give people equal access to educational tools and allow them to explore and “meander” as they see fit. The genius doesn’t innovate to be a genius, they innovate because that’s what they need to do to express their self.

    And what would really be in it for the government anyway to nurture any genius that doesn’t directly contribute to some sort of agenda. Unless your talent lies in math or science and you can be a good computer hacker or weapons developer for instance, I don’t think you are going to get much help or support from governmental institutions. Genius writers, painters, musicians need not apply (especially since their “freethinking” may actually go against social norms or expectations, after all, they do arrest people for expanding their minds with psychoactive substances).

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  12. 12. Justamo 5:37 am 10/20/2012

    Agree with Chronophage that genius comes before accomplishment. Moreover it is most certainly not defined by effort. On the contrary, a genius is someone who manages to achieve great things innately, apparently without effort.

    I was fortunate to attend Cambridge University, where amongst many bright young things and assiduous, capable folk were a scattering of that rarity, the genius.

    One quiet maths student in the year below me was noted for his diet of frozen peas (straight from the bag, unthawed), Twiglets and brandy, and very little else. He was geeky and solitary but otherwise normal when you met him. However, he never attended lectures, preferring to sit in his room and study, yet he invariably scored top marks in his year. He is now a famous astrophysicist.

    Another mop-headed, heavy-metal-loving engineering undergrad similarly eschewed most of the ‘education’ part of university, such as lectures, and yet glided throughout exams to star-studded results, able to explain any aspect of the course at any time – when he wasn’t engrossed in a video game.

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  13. 13. rshoff 11:16 am 10/22/2012

    I agree that genius comes before accomplishments. In fact, I don’t believe that genius = accomplishment. But my perceptive on the retrospective quality of genius is about measurement because the question asked by the article is how to identify one. We don’t have tools to measure genius. You can measure the shadow that genius casts (ie, accomplishment), but you cannot measure an innate characteristic that lies silent, often times misunderstood. Furthermore to nurture something that isn’t even identifiable is dangerous. 1 – We would continually misidentify and mislabel. 2 – We would inadvertently indoctrinate a person of unique cognitive processes to our mundane thought structure by the very nurturing program intended to set them free to learn, focus, and apply. Furthermore, a true genius doesn’t need our ‘help’, they need us to stay out of their way.

    So bottom line, help all kids, teach all kids, and when you run into a genius, get out of their way (intellectually speaking). Other than that, you are dealing with a troubled child that you would like to believe is a ‘genius’.

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  14. 14. gmecomber 9:19 pm 10/22/2012

    It does NOT “beg the question”! Sorry, a pet peeve of mine.

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  15. 15. annabanna 3:44 pm 10/23/2012

    It is hard to define what a genius is exactly. Thus, how can we know what is gifted? Einstein, himself, as a child wasn’t seen as gifted. The men and women that we look back on and give accolades to are seen as geniuses because they changed society’s views. These men and women changed society’s perceptions simply because society was ready for a new perceptive.

    Us, humans, we don’t know what is valuable until it has been proven valuable. What the future will hold dear might be the opposite of what us, modern people, value. In the end, genius is a value statement. Math, science, engineering, are valued today, and so people who are good at math and science are seen as geniuses. What the future might find valuable might be the opposite of today. Perhaps, in the future, story tellers, counselors, and nurturers will be valued, who knows?

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  16. 16. Anjilyn 5:15 am 07/8/2013

    Geniuses will come into play with or without the help of the education system. Most Geniuses are bored with the “school” that they go to everyday. They tend to schedule and construct their own curriculum, sometimes in addition to what the school has them do, sometimes in place of. So by concentrating all of our resources on only the geniuses, we are waisting our resources. I am not saying don’t nurture them, I am saying they don’t need too much extra help, opportunity sure, help, no. But, by making sure everyone is able to keep up in school, by making sure no one falls behind or is ignored, we produce a nation of educated people, some highly, some adequately, but all educated. By concentrating all our resources on only the geniuses, we produce a nation of ignoramuses with only one or two smart people who would then have to carry the load for everyone else. It’s not practical and it’s self destructive as a nation. The ability of the country to survive as a whole, is directly related to the level of education of it’s people. An educated general populace thrives in business, medicine, innovation, even in moral development. As a nation, we are only as smart as our least educated people. Like that phrase “Coaches” like to use so frequently. “A chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link.” Then you should make sure the weakest links are as well educated as you can possibly make them.

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  17. 17. TheOneTrueMaster 6:27 pm 11/30/2013

    This was a great article, however I do not agree with all of the points made. A more “literal” rather than conceptual way of thinking is an example of taking higher order cognisense to a more “environmentally ordered” way of processing information in my opinion, which is counterpositive to the way any level of genius would work. Also, while agree that unbounded curiosity is a crucial element in the development of genius, a different but equally important ingredient is not the implicit learnings of trial and error (even though they have their place), but being able to make inferences from A to C as opposed to most other people needing the A to B’s to C’s

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  18. 18. DrJivalPandit 4:27 pm 06/8/2014

    I live in London and collect micro art. The British artist known as ‘The Hands of Genius’ certainly has creative ability. He is unbelievably talented, very creative, but focused to the point of being obsessed beyond reason. This artist takes tablets to reduce his heart rate to 15 beats a minute then engraves between heart beats to produce art smaller than a red blood cell. What I’ve noticed about creative people who border on the genius, is that they are different to everyone else. Their character is different, their thinking, obviously, is unique, even the way they dress raises eyebrows. The UK ‘Hands of Genius’ artist goes to phenomenal lengths to produce his art. He takes potassium, magnesium and betablockers to lower his heart rate and has botox around his eyes to keep the muscles and nerves completely still – while wearing a stethoscope, then engraving between heart beats. He was in our news recently for engraving a phrase along the sharp edge of a razor blade.

    The author Ingrid Wickelgren is right in her assertion that a genius is unconstrained by preconceptions and more open to novelty. This is an excellent article.

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  19. 19. jennonpress 6:56 am 01/23/2015

    article is crap. genius is easy to explain. scientists think genius allows those to see connections that others dont and to simplify.

    you can tell a more intelligent person by listening to their reasoning. they draw conclusions from more information. connections between cells that store information allows that.

    how do they see connections where others dont.

    imagine a memory of a lighter and a hand gun playing back. the two objects seem different. with one more connection playing back a memory of the trigger of the gun being pulled and a flame popping out the end you have 2 lighters instead of a gun and a lighter.

    rats with more connections were better at mazes and einstein had more connections!

    how do they simplify?

    when you see more connections you have less pieces to the puzzle which makes the problem simpler.

    ie. scientists strangely think the cortex performs many functions.

    years ago they discovered the motor cortex then areas containing visual and auditory memories. silly fools should have then corrected their original discovery. they didnt discover the motor cortex, they discovered where memories of muscle movement were stored. boneheads!!!

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