All rights reserved. On the lower level the fused livers of 19th-century conjoined twins Chang and Eng float in a glass vessel. Look closely at the display, and you can see smudge marks left by museumgoers pressing their foreheads against the glass. A magnifying glass positioned over one of the slides reveals a piece of tissue about the size of a stamp, its graceful branches and curves resembling an aerial view of an estuary.
Other displays in the museum show disease and disfigurement—the results of something gone wrong. Throughout history rare individuals have stood out for their meteoric contributions to a field. Lady Murasaki for her literary inventiveness. Michelangelo for his masterful touch.
Marie Curie for her scientific acuity. With no tools at his disposal other than the force of his own thoughts, he predicted in his general theory of relativity that massive accelerating objects—like black holes orbiting each other—would create ripples in the fabric of space-time. It took one hundred years, enormous computational power, and massively sophisticated technology to definitively prove him right, with the physical detection of such gravitational waves less than two years ago.
Einstein revolutionized our understanding of the very laws of the universe. But our understanding of how a mind like his works remains stubbornly earthbound. What set his brainpower, his thought processes, apart from those of his merely brilliant peers? What makes a genius? Philosophers have long been pondering the origins of genius.
None of them discovered a single source of genius, and such a thing is unlikely to be found. Genius is too elusive, too subjective, too wedded to the verdict of history to be easily identified. And it requires the ultimate expression of too many traits to be simplified into the highest point on one human scale. Instead we can try to understand it by unraveling the complex and tangled qualities—intelligence, creativity, perseverance, and simple good fortune, to name a few—that entwine to create a person capable of changing the world.
Intelligence has often been considered the default yardstick of genius—a measurable quality generating tremendous accomplishment. Lewis Terman, the Stanford University psychologist who helped pioneer the IQ test, believed a test that captured intelligence would also reveal genius.
The group included members of the National Academy of Sciences, politicians, doctors, professors, and musicians. Forty years after the study began, the researchers documented the thousands of academic reports and books they published, as well as the number of patents granted and short stories written about But monumental intelligence on its own is no guarantee of monumental achievement, as Terman and his collaborators would discover. Several dozen flunked out of college at first.
But creativity and its processes can be explained, to a certain extent, by creative people themselves. Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the Imagination Institute in Philadelphia, has been bringing together individuals who stand out as trailblazers in their fields—people like psychologist Steven Pinker and comedian Anne Libera of the Second City—to talk about how their ideas and insights are kindled.
These discussions have revealed that the aha moment, the flash of clarity that arises at unexpected times—in a dream, in the shower, on a walk—often emerges after a period of contemplation.
Information comes in consciously, but the problem is processed unconsciously, the resulting solution leaping out when the mind least expects it. Studies of the brain offer hints at how these aha moments might happen.
The creative process, says Rex Jung, a neuroscientist at the University of New Mexico, relies on the dynamic interplay of neural networks operating in concert and drawing from different parts of the brain at once—both the right and left hemispheres and especially regions in the prefrontal cortex.
One of these networks fosters our ability to meet external demands—activities we must act on, like going to work and paying our taxes—and resides largely in outer areas of the brain. Jazz improvisation provides a compelling example of how neural networks interact during the creative process. Charles Limb, a hearing specialist and auditory surgeon at UC San Francisco, designed an iron-free keyboard small enough to be played inside the confines of an MRI scanner. Six jazz pianists were asked to play a scale and a piece of memorized music and then to improvise solos as they listened to the sounds of a jazz quartet.
The internal network, associated with self-expression, showed increased activity, while the outer network, linked to focused attention and also self-censoring, quieted down. This may help explain the astounding performances of jazz pianist Keith Jarrett. Jarrett, who improvises concerts that last for as long as two hours, finds it difficult—impossible, actually—to explain how his music takes shape.
But when he sits down in front of audiences, he purposefully pushes notes out of his mind, moving his hands to keys he had no intention of playing. His creative artistry, nurtured by decades of listening, learning, and practicing melodies, emerges when he is least in control. One sign of creativity is being able to make connections between seemingly disparate concepts. Richer communication between areas of the brain may help make those intuitive leaps possible.
Andrew Newberg, director of research at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals, is using diffusion tensor imaging, an MRI contrast technique, to map neural pathways in the brains of creative people. Newberg aims to compare the connectivity in the brains of these high achievers against that of a group of controls to see if there is a difference in how effectively the various regions of their brains interact.
His ultimate goal is to scan as many as 25 in each category and then pool the data so he can look for similarities within each group as well as differences that may appear across vocations. The red blotch on each image is the corpus callosum, a centrally located bundle of more than million nerve fibers that joins the two hemispheres of the brain and facilitates connectivity between them.
This is just one piece. Even as neuroscientists try to understand how the brain fosters the development of paradigm-shifting thought processes, other researchers are wrestling with the question of when and from what this capacity develops. Are geniuses born or made? To prove it, he mapped the lineages of an array of European leaders in disparate fields—from Mozart and Haydn to Byron, Chaucer, Titus, and Napoleon.
Geniuses were rare, Galton concluded, numbering roughly one in a million. Watch Wiltshire draw an entire city from memory. Advances in genetic research now make it possible to examine human traits at the molecular level.
Over the past several decades, scientists have been searching for genes that contribute to intelligence, behavior, and even unique qualities like perfect pitch. In the case of intelligence, this research triggers ethical concerns about how it might be used; it is also exceedingly complex, as thousands of genes may be involved—each one with a very small effect. What about other kinds of abilities? Is there something innate in having an ear for music? Numerous accomplished musicians, including Mozart and Ella Fitzgerald, are believed to have had perfect pitch, which may have played a role in their extraordinary careers.
Genetic potential alone does not predict actual accomplishment. It also takes nurture to grow a genius. A hungry mind can also find the intellectual stimulation it needs at home—as in suburban Adelaide, Australia, in the case of Terence Tao, widely considered one of the greatest minds currently working in mathematics. Tao showed a remarkable grasp of language and numbers early in life, but his parents created the environment in which he could flourish.
Billy and his wife, Grace, also sought out advanced learning opportunities for their son as he began his formal education, and he was fortunate to meet educators who helped foster and stretch his mind. Tao enrolled in high school classes when he was seven years old, scored on the math section of the SAT at age eight, went to university full-time when he was 13, and became a professor at UCLA at Lone geniuses are exceedingly rare.
Dean Keith Simonton scoured biographical dictionaries for. He found that members of each. Natural gifts and a nurturing environment can still fall short of producing a genius, without motivation and tenacity propelling one forward. These personality traits, which pushed Darwin to spend two decades perfecting Origin of Species and Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan to produce thousands of formulas, inspire the work of psychologist Angela Duckworth.
She believes there are differences when it comes to individual talent, but no matter how brilliant a person, fortitude and discipline are critical to success. Nor does it happen on the first try. Big hits emerge after many attempts. Lack of support can stunt prospects for potential geniuses; they never get the chance to be productive. Throughout history women have been denied formal education, deterred from advancing professionally, and under-recognized for their achievements.
Half the women in the Terman study ended up as homemakers. Sometimes, by sheer good fortune, promise and opportunity collide. If there were ever an individual who personified the concept of genius in every aspect, from its ingredients to its far-reaching impact, it would be Leonardo da Vinci.
The breadth of his abilities—his artistic insights, his expertise in human anatomy, his prescient engineering—is unparalleled. He persisted no matter the challenge. Two years ago he published preliminary genetic analyses of a Neanderthal skeleton. It is an ambitious plan, but team members are optimistically laying the groundwork. Art historians and geneticists, including specialists at the institute of genomics pioneer J.
Craig Venter, are experimenting with techniques to obtain DNA from fragile Renaissance-era paintings and paper. The quest to unravel the origins of genius may never reach an end point. Like the universe, its mysteries will continue to challenge us, even as we reach for the stars. For some, that is as it should be. Read Caption. What Makes a Genius? Some minds are so exceptional they change the world. By Claudia Kalb. Photographs by Paolo Woods. This story appears in the May issue of National Geographic magazine.
A century after Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves—ripples in the fabric of space-time— in his general theory of relativity, scientists like Kazuhiro Yamamoto on bicycle plan to use the first underground gravitational wave telescope, KAGRA, in Hida, Japan, to explore what he deduced but could not detect.
Unexpected flashes of insight still require some thought. Prodigious productivity is a defining characteristic of genius. Charcoal sketches cover the walls of a once concealed room beneath the Medici Chapel in Florence, where Michelangelo hid for three months in after defying his patrons.
The drawings include a sketch of a seated figure right who appears on a tomb in the chapel above. The genetics of intelligence are enormously complex.