Human Intelligence

What is the relationship between the brain and genius?
Answered by Susan Sherwood, Robert Lamb and 1 other
  • Susan Sherwood

    Susan Sherwood

  • Robert Lamb

    Robert Lamb

  • Discovery Channel

    Discovery Channel

  1. The debate about how to recognize a genius raises many questions, including: "how can you quantify genius?" If we give someone an intelligence test, will that provide enough information to decide whether or not the person is a genius? The answer is yes, if you accept the condition that genius can be identified by standard IQ tests, which generally measure logic, reasoning, mathematics, vocabulary, spatial reasoning, memory and brain processing speed. But where does that leave geniuses in fields such as music, art and literature? Mozart was a musical genius, a prodigy from a very early age, but few would argue he conducted much else of his life in a logical and intelligent manner.

    Another marker of genius is behavior in life. If we can determine which actions raise people to a genius level, perhaps we can separate them from the mere "very smart" folks a cut beneath. One factor common to genius is output. A genius typically produces an enormous amount of material over a long period, creating prolifically at a young age, and simply doesn't quit. A few outstanding pieces of work, or a very productive young adulthood, then, may indicate high intelligence but not necessarily genius.

    Another identifiable aspect of genius is the uniqueness of the work. A creation of genius does not merely extend existing work in the same field; it develops an entirely new path for others to follow.
    The desire for prestige or power is not what drives geniuses; they are drawn irresistibly toward their work. It would be inconceivable to them not to pursue their passion. Notoriety from the rest of the world might be welcomed or despised, but it exists primarily because of society's interests, not the genius's.

    If those characteristics define genius, how do we distinguish the "very smart?" A highly intelligent person may have some of the same traits as a genius, but not all. For instance, productivity will not be as high. It may not start at a young age, or it may not continue throughout life. There may be a steady stream of good work, but not in huge quantities. The production of very smart people may be impressive, but it probably won't be groundbreaking -- building on existing ideas rather than forging new territory.

    The motivation of a very smart person is also likely to be different. It could be money, status or genuine interest in a subject. What's missing is the notion that the work is essential to life, as valuable as breathing. Disengaging is inconceivable to a genius.

    More answers from Susan Sherwood »

  2. Robert Lamb Senior Writer, HowStuffWorks

    When it comes to smarts, does brain size really matter? Nineteenth-century paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope certainly thought so. After decades of ruthless feuding with his arch nemesis, fellow paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh, Cope died and donated his brain to science. His reasoning? He wanted Marsh to follow suit so that their brains could be compared and a true intellectual victor declared.

    Marsh didn't take up the challenge, which is just as well because we know today that brain size isn’t everything. Famed genius Albert Einstein, for instance, boasted a rather normal-sized brain. Certain parts of it, however, were larger than normal -- namely the inferior parietal region tied to number crunching. It's also true that cerebral cortex and parietal lobe size tend to correspond well with IQ. The more gray matter there, the brighter the intellect.

    But "genius" is a slippery term, and, beyond IQ tests, scientists continue to struggle with just how to quantify human intelligence. You can't merely weigh it or measure it and assign it a corresponding number to represent just how ingenious the person is. The complexity of the neural architecture itself plays a huge role, allowing the creative portions of the brain to work with its more analytical corners. Einstein's parietal lobe, for instance, was nearly missing a key fissure -- an absence that may have improved communication between different brain regions. 

    So yes, there's a definite relationship between the brain and this thing we call genius. After all, the brain inside your skull is like a complex equation -- and you're the answer to that equation. In some cases, the variables line up in such a way to produce an answer that stands apart from all the others.

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  3. Genius. It's a word that's used often, particularly in the sciences, but also in such places as the arts. The world has plenty of smart people who do amazing things. But doctors and researchers disagree on exactly what makes a person a genius. Even within the field of psychometrics, which studies and measures intelligence, experts haven't come to a consensus about what it means to be a genius. Some experts name a particular IQ score, such as 140 or higher, that vaults a person into the rarefied air of genius. Researchers who disagree with the 140-point cutoff argue that people often display intelligence that can't be measured on a standardized IQ test: Can you test the work of a genius writer or painter? Another attempt at defining genius is that geniuses are exceptionally smart people who make a measurable and unique contribution to their field of expertise or the world at large.

    What about going directly to the source? Does the human brain itself offer any clues about what makes people geniuses instead of people who are merely smarter than the average bear? Scientists have proven that the size of certain parts of the brain, such as the cerebral cortex and the parietal lobe in particular, is a better indication of higher intelligence than the size of the entire brain. However, studying the brain is laden with challenges and scientists are still trying to discern how intelligence and genius can be quantified and studied. While many theories exist as to what makes a person intelligent, alongside numerous standardized IQ tests and psychometric assessments for evaluation of a person's language memory and other skills, many scientists believe that such things can't really determine if someone is a "genius." Many believe that the essential difference between being really smart and being a genius is having abundant creativity -- the ability to produce something previously unthought-of.


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