What makes a genius?

Most of us fall into the ‘lesser mortal’ bracket when it comes to intelligence. We may pass exams with ease, get snapped up by well-respected universities or colleges and shine in our careers, but all the time we know that we could never be classed as geniuses. Let’s be honest, most people think geniuses are in a different league, producing brilliant Eureka! moments or doggedly and methodically studying until they reach game-changing conclusions.


But wait: wasn’t it Bertrand Russell who said, ‘Genius will out – not always’?  Could it be that some of us are latent geniuses, geniuses who don’t know they’re geniuses. On the other hand, might it be the case that there are plenty of creative, talented, inspiring, extraordinarily accomplished people with awesome memories out there, who wouldn’t be classed geniuses, gifted though they are?


To get to the bottom of this puzzle, we must first look at the definition of genius. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as ‘exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability, or an exceptionally intelligent person or one with exceptional skill in a particular area of activity’.


We probably all know those people who seem to fall into the ‘genius’ category but who we wouldn’t regard as geniuses; that inspiring teacher from your youth who you’ll never forget, the person who can pick up a new language in weeks, the engineer who’s a whizz at effortlessly mending anything mechanical before you can say ‘screwdriver’…


If people like that aren’t classed as geniuses, there must be other forces at work to take someone from exceptional to genius.


The starting point must, of course, be intelligence; measured often in IQ tests. However, David Lubinski, psychologist and co-director of the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, says intelligence is only part of the story. He believes that high IQ is like owning a car with a big engine. ‘If there’s no gas in your car you’re not going to go anywhere. If road conditions are bad, you’re not going to go anywhere,’ he says. In the case of intelligence, you need good health, hard work and motivation to take advantage of inherent brainpower.


273157934(SS) Man with books on his head and holding magnifying glass


Dr Rex Jung for the Mind Institute and the University of New Mexico in Alburquerque, adds another crucial piece to the genius jigsaw puzzle: ‘Not all creative people are geniuses but in order to reach genius status, creativity is a necessary attribute.’


Indeed, think of anyone classed as a genius, and they will certainly have oodles of creativity, but there are a whole host of other traits and influences that have been suggested as genius ingredients, including; personality, circumstances, genetics, determination, opportunity and effort.


In The Science of Genius, the author, Dean Keith Simonton, suggests that people who are open to new experiences, who hunt for ideas, who are unrestrained by preconceptions and have an ability to see parts rather than just the whole, have more of the elements required to be a genius. He also believes that neuoroticism, over-thinking, worrying or psychopathic traits can play a part.


Dr Adam Perkins, a lecturer in Neurobiology of Personality at King’s College, London, agrees: ‘In a sense, worry is the mother of invention,’ he says. ‘Cheerful, happy-go-lucky people, by definition, do not brood about problems and so must be at a disadvantage when problem-solving compared to a more neurotic person.


‘We have a useful sanity check for our theory because it is easy to observe that many geniuses seem to have a brooding, unhappy tendency that hints they are fairly high on the neuroticism spectrum. For example, think of the life stories of Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Vincent Van Gogh, Kurt Cobain, etc.’


Perhaps the link between creativity and neuroticism was summed up most succinctly of all by John Lennon when he said: ‘Genius is pain.’


We lesser mortals would like to think that genius – painful or not – exists, but there are doubters, or at least those who question its status.


In a TED lecture in 2009, Elizabeth Gilbert, writer of the runaway success, Eat, Pray, Love, put forward the hypothesis that we should consider genius as the Greeks and Romans did, as a magical and divine entity, like a guardian angel, following individuals all their lives and ready to inhabit creative and intelligent minds. It is a huge error, she says, allowing somebody to believe that they are the font and essence of all divine unknowable mystery.  She recommends that people should accept creativity as being on loan and put in more effort when it doesn’t come.


Nigel Barber PhD, writing in Psychology Today, goes further, saying that the genius concept does not stand up, believing that some people are born with innate ability but that most achievements are 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. ‘Genius,’ he says, ‘may be a comforting fiction.’


There is certainly little compelling evidence in psychology for any such latent superiority and it doesn’t exist in any scientific sense because it is almost impossible to measure, but human beings like to categorise. So, perhaps the best we can do is to view genius as a romantic notion, elevating some above the ceiling that limits the rest of us, because that is where we like to put them. On the other hand, work hard, and you might just be able to call yourself a genius!



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