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.”
TARIQUE AZIZ / CSE