What is genius?

Inspired by the links between symmetry and the brain and coral reefs as a basis for the patterns

Why are some minds able to change paradigms? Can science tell us how exceptional minds come to be?

Writer: Ebani Dhawan
Editor: Isabelle Yuen
Artist: Vivienne Leech

If you type in ‘How to become a genius’ into Google, about 261,000,000 results are spat out in under half a second. Links to memory exercises, reading lists and even cardiovascular exercises emerge with the goal of bringing you closer to becoming a genius. We live in a time in which all traits and terms are exaggerated. Just look at the standard size at Starbucks – tall! Our obsession with the individual who has achieved the impossible has led to the inflation of the term ‘genius’, which is now being used to describe any outstanding production.

But, what is a genius anyway? And why are we so obsessed with it?

‘Genius’ is an 18th century concept, a post-Enlightenment version of sainthood. However, philosophers have long been pondering the origins of genius. The Greeks believed that the creation of such an extraordinary mind was due to an excess of black bile, one of the four bodily humours defined by Hippocrates; while Thomas Edison, a renowned genius, was most famously known to have proclaimed that “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration”. But, the search always proves futile. No one has ever discovered one single source of genius, and such a thing is unlikely to be identified.

So, what is it that sets the genius apart? I see ‘genius’ as the epitome of being human. Of course, we all want to attain the status of a genius. Currently, scientists and philosophers are attempting to bring us closer to understanding genius and its almighty power by unravelling its complex and tangled enablers – qualities that allow a person to become a genius and in due course, significantly impact the world.

Genius is synonymous with intelligence, often used to measure someone’s genius. Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman, who made studying the gifted his life’s work, devised the ubiquitous Intelligent Quotient (IQ) test. He thought that one’s IQ was a key indicator of genius. In the 1920s, he sent out the test to California’s elementary schools and identified around 1,500 kids with exceptional IQs. This group, known as ‘Termites’, were subjects of one of the most famous psychological studies in history. Terman followed his Termites throughout their lifetime, noting down their success and anything that was ‘genius-like’. However, by the time his Termites reached adulthood, Terman was left with no Nobel Prize winners in his pool of Termites. Having an IQ that is the ‘crème de la crème of society’ is no guarantee of genius. In fact, two elementary students, Luis Alvarez and William Shockley, who didn’t make it into Terman’s esteemed group, grew up to win Nobel Prizes in Physics. “We have seen”, Terman disappointedly concluded, “that achievement and intelligence are far from perfectly correlated.”

If it isn’t intelligence, then what is it?

A strand of genius that Terman, or anybody for that matter, couldn’t measure was creativity. Creativity is a process, as proposed by the American psychologist, Donald MacKinnon, which involves the following: concentration, withdrawal from the problem, the ‘a-ha’ moment, and the application of the insight one has experienced. It is this ‘a-ha’ moment that sparks the fire of genius. It is in this moment that the genius has been able to find the connection between two ideas that no one has even thought of.

As Schopenhauer, a German philosopher once said, “talent hits a target that no one else can hit, but genius hits a target that no one else can see.” This was how da Vinci approached the world. His combinative thinking gave him the exceptional ability to interconnect between seemingly unrelated fields, recognising similarities in living forms that were connected to different aspects of the modern world. This is why his art is so realistic; it mirrors the authenticity of nature, for instance, ensuring that the rocks on his canvas had the right number of sedimentary layers.

Da Vinci’s ability to make connections between seemingly disparate concepts may be due to richer communication links between different areas of the brain. Jazz improvisation is a perfect example of how neural networks interact during the creative process. Charles Limb, an auditory surgeon at University of California San Francisco, asked six pianists to play a memorised piece of music and then to improvise solos. He found that the brain activity between these two tasks was fundamentally different. The brain’s internal network, associated with self-expression, showed increased activity, while its outer network, linked to focused attention and also self-censoring, quieted down. “It’s almost as if the brain turned off its own ability to criticize itself,” he says.

In my opinion, the contemporary genius is the creative rebel who utilises their extraordinary faculty to remain significant throughout time, through their achievements. It may not encompass all that makes a genius; it is almost impossible to define and precisely characterise ‘genius’. The quest to unravel the origins of genius may never reach an endpoint, but that is not an issue.

‘Genius’ defines the undefinable, since being easily definable is the very antithesis of what it means to be a genius.

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