Almost 20 years ago, I read an article in NewsWeek that made a significant impression on me. Because of today’s guest, I thought it would make a perfect resource.
It was a feature entitled The Puzzle Of Genius, written by Sharon Begley in the June 28, 1993 issue of Newsweek. I mention this because I will be quoting it frequently.
The essence of the article is this question: What is genius?
Is it intelligence? Knowledge? Education?
There are a lot of intelligent, knowledgeable, well-educated people in the world. Some of them may even be brilliant. But brilliance is not the same as genius.
Genius is diverse. There are philosophical geniuses, math geniuses, and physics geniuses. There are artistic geniuses, musical geniuses and literary geniuses.
And let’s not even get into so-called ‘idiot savants’; people with severe mental handicaps who nonetheless have seemingly impossible mental or artistic talents. Must we also call that a form of genius?
So, what is genius?
If we can’t define precisely what genius is, how then can we recognize it?
Genius is paradigm-shifting. Genius is seeing how the parts of a puzzle fit together, when other people didn’t even see the puzzle!
Genius is the perfect confluence of knowledge, intellect, curiosity, and experience, leavened by creativity, open-mindedness, and a willingness to explore the allegedly impossible. It’s also influenced by intangible things like talent or insight, and a little serendipity doesn’t hurt.
In his 1988 book “Scientific Genius,” Psychologist Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California/Davis suggests that geniuses are geniuses because they form more novel combinations than the merely talented. He says that “… In a loose sense, genius and chance become synonymous.”
Simonton calls this “the permutation of mental elements”–images, phrases, snippets of memory, abstract concepts, sounds, rhymes.
Intelligence fills the brain with more of these elements, giving the highly intelligent person a greater chance of forming novel combinations of ideas, images or symbols.
So … Can we create genius? Is it genetic? Environmental?
Biologically, the difference between being potentially average, brilliant or genius may be related to how the brain is physically wired. Also, environment can have some effect on brain development and future wiring. But there’s obviously more to it than that, or every over-stimulated baby would grow up to be a genius.
Personally, I think it’s education that helps tip native talent or or intelligence into genius. But not just education in the usual sense.
I’m talking about education in every sense. Everything we see, hear, and read. Every random idea, comment and happenstance.
Scientific genius is often marked by interests in unrelated fields, making novel combinations more likely. Gutenberg combined the mechanisms for producing playing cards, pressing wine and punching coins to create movable type. The computer punch card has roots in automated looms, which may trace THEIR roots back to music boxes and organs.
The common thread here and in many other cases is diversity of experience. Not only the willingness and ability to take ideas from one area of expertise and make improbable connections to other disciplines or industries. Also the diversity of experience to enable those connections.
Thus the importance of effective schools, free museums and zoos, a Liberal Arts general education, and the lifelong seeking of new knowledge and experience outside your comfort zone.