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What makes a genius?

Exploring the differences between an average brain, and a gifted one.
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Alexandra Grigorescu, October 4, 2013 10:05:15 AM

Dear reader,

No, we’re not talking about Apple geniuses.

Rather, we’re talking about the sort of extraordinary intellect displayed by Jacob Barnett, who, at just 15 years old, is being recognized as one of the world’s most promising physicists, with an IQ higher than Einstein’s. He’s already enrolled in a master’s at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, and at age 9, while playing with shapes (yes, shapes), he generated mathematical models building on Einstein’s field of relativity that were later described as “ground-breaking”, according to CTV News. Kind of puts a damper on your epic childhood railway constructions, doesn’t it?

Related: Child prodigies we’re talking about 

So how do we actually quantify genius-hood? There’s no scientific definition of genius, but it’s typically attributed to people who display extraordinary intellect and originality, either as jack-of-all-trades or concentrated in one field. According to, there are two distinct types of creative geniuses: “conceptual innovators,” who are often child prodigies, and “experimental innovators” who learn by trial-and-error and are therefore rarely acknowledged until later in life. Although to the layman, nuclear physicist is about as brimming with smarts as it gets, there’s a whole gradient—ranging from intelligent to gifted to a proper genius—and figuring out where you might fall is much like a game of darts.

By all appearances, the most striking difference between, say, someone who excels at tests (thereby showcasing excellent reasoning and memory) and, say, someone who isolates a cure for Parkinson’s, is creativity. Even the MacArthur Fellowship, or Genius Grant, rewards those who “show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work.”

So, are you a genius? The most common and widely administered way to check is through one of several IQ tests, but they’re an imperfect way to gauge true giftedness, as they focus on certain aspects of intelligence such as brain processing speeds, memory, and spatial reasoning, while neglecting talents such as the arts. IQ scores measure a range of intelligence, from profound mental disability (1-24), to average intelligence (85-114) to profoundly gifted (180+). However, it’s not a perfect indicator of exceptional ability: a study of 8 child prodigies found that, despite having excelled in their particular fields before turning 10, not all had high IQs (one of the children scored a respectable 108).

In the 19th century, genius was thought to correlate to brain size—a logical enough assumption. But as our brain imaging techniques grow ever more advanced, we’re realizing that it’s not the size of the brain as a whole that amounts to genius, but rather the size of its individual parts and how they communicate. For a while, the frontal lobes were thought to be the seat of genius, but recently, researchers have turned their attention to the thickness of the brain’s grey matter. Because grey matter, or the brain’s cerebral cortex, is so widespread, it allows the brain to integrate incoming information from all areas of the brain.

Related: B.C. teen honored by Google for her flashlight invention

Wondering what Einstein’s brain looked like? The short answer is: wrinkled. The long answer is that his brain displayed extra folds in the grey matter, as well as especially intricate ones in the frontal lobes, which scientists posit allowed for greater connectivity between brain cells, and therefore larger mental leaps. Aside from being wrinkled, Sandra Witelson, a researcher at McMaster University, said of Einstein’s brain that “his anatomy is unique compared to every other photograph or drawing of a human brain that has ever been recorded.”

But as you’ve probably guessed, it’s not just the quality of the brain that counts, but how you use it. Demonstrating above average proficiency in spatial reasoning, logic, math and vocabulary, and a strong memory certainly contribute to being not only intelligent, but also successfully so. That’s where the power of nurture steps in. Recent research suggests that there is a particular gene that aids in our ability to organize things in a logical manner, but children who display a heightened aptitude for a particular field need to be encouraged in order to reach their full potential.

So can you actually create genius? Much was made of Malcolm Gladwell’s claim that 10,000 hours of practice was the magic number at which one could be said to have mastered a given field. It was a coup for overbearing “practice makes perfect” parents the world over. A few decades back, the so-called Mozart effect came into fashion, suggesting that listening to Mozart’s brilliant, complicated tunes would boost the brainpower of babies and children. In fact, it does temporarily improve the child’s ability to mentally manipulate shapes, but that doesn’t amount to an actual intelligence boost.

But being a genius might not be all it’s cracked up to be. Consider Van Gogh; brilliant artist who was driven to cut off his own ear during what was, in the jargon of the time, some kind of manic epileptic episode. And he’s not alone. A 2010 study that followed 700,000 16-year-olds into adult life found that those who excelled in their teenage years were four times as likely to develop bipolar disorder later on. Gifted writers, in particular, are nearly twice as likely to commit suicide or suffer from depression and anxiety, and all of the aforementioned 8 child prodigies scored high when tested for autistic traits. Even Jacob Barnett, the boy who one-upped Einstein, was diagnosed with Asperger’s at a young age and all but abandoned by traditional education. Without his mother’s determination and commitment to homeschooling him, he might’ve been unable to reach his full potential.

Richard Haier, a neuroscientist and professor emeritus at the University of California wondered what the world might look like if humans’ IQ was doubled. He claims we’d be healthier, live longer, and experience greater enjoyment in our lives. It’s a thought experiment that might come true in a few centuries, with news that Chinese scientists have collected DNA samples from 2,000 of the world’s brightest in an attempt to understand what causes human intelligence, and eventually, genetically screen babies in order to increase the population’s intelligence. Just think what we could accomplish with a society full of little Einsteins.

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Alexandra Grigorescu

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