What makes an Ein­stein?

It is not the brain. A com­plex en­sem­ble of moral, emo­tional and in­tel­lec­tual re­sources of the cre­ative in­di­vid­ual makes a ge­nius


Ge­nius is due to the in­ter­play of var­i­ous fac­tors, like genes, en­vi­ron­ment, and so­cial con­di­tions

NOT MANY know that Thomas Har­vey, the doc­tor who did the au­topsy on Ein­stein’s dead body, se­cretly pinched the great sci­en­tist’s brain, and kept it pick­led in his house for 40 years hop­ing that some­day sci­ence might tease out the se­cret of what makes a ge­nius. No brain ex­pert him­self, he had the gray mat­ter chopped into 240 pieces, oc­ca­sion­ally mail­ing a few to cu­ri­ous sci­en­tists. Be­fore his death in 2007, Har­vey even tried re­turn­ing it to Ein­stein’s grand­daugh­ter, who ap­par­ently re­fused to ac­cept it. His heirs even­tu­ally do­nated what­ever was left of the brain to sci­ence.

Any­how, for all the drama sur­round­ing the wellmean­ing heist, it turns out that there is noth­ing ex­cep­tional about Ein­stein’s brain af­ter all. A few stud­ies did claim some­thing spe­cial about his brain, but they were even­tu­ally dis­missed as guilty of what psy­chol­o­gists call con­fir­ma­tion bias—a kind of lazy think­ing that makes us look for some­thing that we al­ready think is true.

Be that as it may, the sober­ing les­son from Ein­stein’s brain saga hasn’t dimmed boffins’ fetish for un­cov­er­ing the pre­sumed se­cret of ge­nius. Early this month, French sci­en­tists scanned the cra­nium of the 17th cen­tury French philoso­pher René Descartes (of the “I think, there­fore I am” fame) and fab­ri­cated a like­ness of his miss­ing brain. Again, on the face of it, they found noth­ing spec­tac­u­larly dif­fer­ent. How­ever, re­searchers be­lieve a more so­phis­ti­cated ex­ca­va­tion might re­veal sub­tle dif­fer­ences that might ex­plain his ex­tra­or­di­nary mind.

This ob­ses­sion with the idea of ge­nius raises a cou­ple of prickly ques­tions. The first has to do with the def­i­ni­tion: what is ge­nius and who de­serves to be called one? The word ac­quired its modern mean­ing af­ter the Re­nais­sance when “ge­nius” was at­trib­uted to some­one who cre­ated some­thing orig­i­nal and bril­liant. In the 19th cen­tury, psy­chol­o­gists gave it another con­no­ta­tion: some­one with an IQ of more than 140.

It’s no sur­prise that the two modern def­i­ni­tions have lit­tle over­lap. In other words, you may have an IQ much lower than 140 and yet be a ge­nius like Ein­stein or Tagore. Con­versely, an IQ above 140 doesn’t au­to­mat­i­cally make you a ge­nius. Clearly, ex­cep­tional achieve­ment seems a much more use­ful and cred­i­ble cri­te­rion to de­fine a ge­nius. But the is­sue is far from set­tled. For in­stance, does it ap­ply to id­iot sa­vants who pos­sess ex­tra­or­di­nary abil­i­ties like do­ing com­plex cal­cu­la­tions? In­deed, can we ex­tend the ep­i­thet, which many do, to philoso­phers, writers, artists, mu­si­cians, mil­i­tary strate­gists, so­cial sci­en­tists and even crim­i­nals?

The sec­ond ques­tion is about the ori­gin of ge­nius. It’s yet another vari­a­tion on the all-too-fa­mil­iar na­ture-ver­sus-nur­ture de­bate—some be­lieve it is in­born, while oth­ers claim it is ac­quired. The truth, as al­ways, lies some where in be­tween. Ge­nius seems to be an out­come of the mys­te­ri­ous in­ter­play of var­i­ous fac­tors, in­clud­ing genes, en­vi­ron­ment, and so­cial and ma­te­rial con­di­tions.

For in­stance, the much-bandied about as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween mad­ness and ge­nius may be true in some cases, but surely it can’t be pro­posed as a gen­eral rule. Like­wise, an in­jury to the pari­etal lobe—a part of the brain in­volved in ab­stract think­ing—may trig­ger an ex­tra­or­di­nary math­e­mat­i­cal abil­ity in some, but, again, it should be seen no more than a happy ac­ci­dent. In fact, many psy­chol­o­gists now re­ject the idea that cre­ativ­ity is lo­cated in a par­tic­u­lar part of the brain. They be­lieve any cre­ative process in­volves the whole brain, with the cre­ative in­di­vid­ual in­vok­ing a com­plex en­sem­ble of moral, in­tel­lec­tual and emo­tional re­sources.

For all the in­tel­lec­tual spec­u­la­tion on the na­ture of cre­ative ge­nius, the idea it­self re­mains con­tro­ver­sial, not to men­tion ex­clu­sively western with dan­ger­ously racist over­tones—none of the stud­ies have cared to ac­count for cre­ative ge­nius in other cul­tures. Only a more nu­anced and deeper anal­y­sis might of­fer a cross-cul­tural per­spec­tive on the sub­ject. Mean­while, we might do well to heed Descartes’ wise words: “It is not enough to have a good mind. The main thing is to use it well.”


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