Thinking Again About The Production of Genius

I am a fan of Oliver Sacks, and will read just about anything he has written - though, interestingly enough, I find myself so far unable to make my way through Migraine. Perhaps this has something to do with the cover illustration of a mosaic aura, which twice induced an aura (scintillating fortification) and subsequent migraine in me. If you are not a migraine sufferer, you might find this slide show of migraine art interesting, for it does depict the migraineur's experience at the onset of aura. Migraineurs, be warned: viewing the paintings in the slideshow could possibly be triggering for a migraine. Regular botox injections (every three months) have more or less eliminated my auras, if not my migraines though, alas, it appears that viewing the slideshow was still able to induce the headache if not the aura that precedes it.

Well, I find I have thoroughly digressed myself right in the very first sentence of this post, for what I meant to write about is another Oliver Sacks book entirely, and then not even exactly about the book.

A few weeks ago while visiting a friend in DC I happily spent some time in Politics & Prose, a very fine bookstore. Do visit when you are in DC. There I picked up a copy of sweet little book by Sacks, "Oaxaca Journal", which is essentially a fancied up version of a journal he kept during a ten day ferning expedition with the New York chapter of the American Fern Society. Ask your friends to read your journal from your ten day ferning expedition and you will likely be met with large yawns, but Oliver Sacks gets a book contract. It was a fast read, a lot of fun and, as usual with Sacks, I was entertained, educated, and was constantly astounded at the depth and breadth of the man's learning.

But here's the part of the book I want to share with you, for the purposes of this blog, because it got me thinking about a blog post I wrote years ago on the production of genius.

At one point during their trip, Sacks and his companions visit of Don Isaac Vásquez,

...a master weaver whose carpets and blankets, and use of natural dyes, have become famous outside Mexico. He lives and works with his extended family...The children will be trained in weaving and dyeing from an early age. They will be surrounded by it, imbibe it, consciously or unconsciously, every minute of their lives. Their skills, their identities, will be shaped from the start, and not just by the family tradition but by the whole village, the local traditon, in which they grow up.

This is how you make a master weaver. Or one way, anyway. My point, however, is that the magnificent carpets and blankets of the Vásquez family are the production of years of specific training and expectation that people will grow up to participate in and be good at various aspects of the whole process involved in generating these goods.

So, how do you make a master scientist or engineer, then? Years ago, when I first started blogging, a commenter (okay, he was my brother) opined that "greatness is streaky, rare, and fairly unpredictable". This, I thought, was bullshit. I referred my readers to Linda Nochlin:

...the Great Artist is conceived of as one who has genius; genius, in turn, is thought to be an atemporal and mysterious power somehow embedded in the person of the Great Artist...It is no accident that the whole crucial question of the conditions generally productive of great art has so rarely been investigated, or that attempts to investigate such general problems have, until fairly recently, been dismissed as unscholarly, too broad, or the province of some other discipline like sociology. (from "Why Are There No Great Women Artists?" in Woman in Sexist Society ed. V. Gornick & B. K. Moran 1971)

And then I said

The way that [my brother] describes the appearance of "greatness" in science - streaky, rare, unpredictable - would seem to agree with this notion of genius as atemporal, a mysterious power that we cannot control or generate. It is this pernicious belief that, carried to its extreme, leads individuals like Lawrence Summers to shake his head sadly and proclaim that women are just mathematically inferior to men.

I contend that we do, indeed, have the ability to identify, nurture, and develop promising young individuals into great contributors in science and engineering. Out of this general program of development and nurturing will appear some truly outstanding individuals. We've been doing this for decades already. Unfortunately, we've only been doing it mostly for white men, mostly for middle- to upper-class individuals. The results, however, have been spectacular for the members of that tiny elite. U. S. science and engineering programs have yielded amazing individuals and amazing results.

[My brother] claims that we are "as likely to get a few really great guys as a few really great gals over a span of a decade or so. Greatness is just that unpredictable." Sadly, this is not the case. Greatness, at least as defined in the U. S. scientific establishment, has been so darn predictable for decades that it's disgusting. Look at the annual elections to the National Academy of Sciences or National Academy of Engineering. White men, white men, white men, all mentored and promoted and rewarded by each other in a cozy, clubby, old-boys network. I'm telling you, the system works, they have figured out how to take the raw talent and produce skilled researchers. It's just that they only do it for the ones who look most like themselves.

We could do better, if we wanted to. I know there's a lot of noise being made about how to more effectively market careers in science and engineering to members of underrepresented groups but I really don't think marketing is solution. There has to be in place an entire culture of expectation that everyone really can do these types of things, and do them well, and moreover, everyone is expected to. Marketing may be a part of that culture but marketing alone will not get the job done as long as large segments of our population continue to believe that white skin and dangly appendages make the brain magically more mathematically gifted.

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I gave up on art in part because of the impression I had talent but no genius.
Despite coming to a similar conclusion about my abilities in science, I refuse to give up on it. Doing 'good' science (in the sense of contributing to the enterprise of scientific progress) doesn't require the rare lightening strike of profound genius.
But it does require some confluence of skill, practice, and a sufficiently conducive environment- including being part of a society that can actually recognize your contributions.

(aside to jc- I love that song)

This post is so excellent I want to frame it.

Lately I've been paying attention to the childhoods of great minds throughout history. Both Mozart and Beethoven grew up in musically accomplished households, and were pushed to excel at music and composing from an early age. Jane Austin, from what I've read on Wikipedia, appears to have grown up in a literary-focused family, and was also encouraged to write by her father. I read in a biography on Marie Curie that she was also encouraged, even pushed, to learn physics and math by her scientist father. Richard Feynman, while his father wasn't a physicist, was nevertheless encouraged in his study of physics and engineering, and was allowed to take apart electronics for fun as a child. (Richard's sister also went on to be a physicist, but wasn't encouraged so much by her father as by Richard, according to his accounts.)

This topic also brings up the idea of how early children should pick a specialization. In the UK, Italy, and Germany I think students pick a specialization much earlier than in the US, around middle school there as opposed to early to midway through undergrad here. I'm not too sure, but it would be interesting to look at and compare age of specializing to outcomes.

Gotta comment on the aura art.

I get migraines, but I've never experienced a visual aura. When I've got a migraine developing, I experience something that I don't know how to describe - other than the fact that it's the precursor to a migraine. I've never noticed anything visual about it.

But looking at that slideshow? Bang - Set off the pre-migraine sensation. Frankly, I find it extremely frightening and upsetting that looking at pictures was able to do that.

My understanding of migraines is that they are the neurogenic triggering of ischemic preconditioning. They comprise the brain switching itself into an emergency âsurvival modeâ. When that happens in the visual cortex, the ability to see is extinguished as the front of spreading depression (called because neural activity is depressed and that depression propagates in a wave that can be observed) passes through those nerves that support vision. The research that first connected this was by someone who suffered from migraines with visual aura and was able to calculate that the disturbance propagated at ~3 mm/min as his visual field was affected.

What triggers ischemic preconditioning is low NO usually brought on by superoxide due to hypoxia, but superoxide from any kind of inflammation can cause it too. I suspect a high NO level would work as a preventative of migraine to some extent.

I have never had a migraine. What I find very interesting about those pictures is the gradients and their discontinuities and what that probably indicates about the data processing being done in the brain regions that are being influenced.

I don't buy this "genius" bullshit, either. What it takes to be genuinely creative is (1) a fuckton of practice--ten years of all-day effort at a minimum, (2) being prolific--trying a fuckton of different shit, and (3) persistence--not giving up in the face of repeated failure. The "spark of genius" doesn't exist.

Some brilliantly distilled truth here, including the comments. The only other thing I can think of about nurturing talent is that it probably helps to get the nurturing in early, so (in a handwaving way) the skill can become ingrained and natural like a native language. (That's not to say adults can't become great at something new - it just takes more time.)

CCP, sadly, and more often than you might suspect, tragically, the "spark of genius" does indeed exist. It can be a huge obstacle to success. Many innate geniuses are drawn to their area of natural talent, and they achieve the first levels of capability without effort. This does not serve them in good stead when they hit the point where they actually have to start working to get better, especially if their work is already at a level considered to be that of a competent professional.

Freshman orientation is about to begin at UC Berkeley, Stanford, Yale, etc., and there's going to be a wasteland of trauma come October when the collective "smartest kid in the class" suddenly discovers they're in the bottom percentile. For the first time. Ever. And they have no clue how to cope. It's a real problem that is frequently dismissed.

The corollary is there is nothing more aggravating than a lazy natural talent. I've worked with plenty, and now without hesitation if the choice is between a motivated person of average skill and a lazy genius, I'll pick the motivated person every single time. The outcome is always better.

Just a quick note to Mark to say I'm sorry about the migraine inducement! That's really awful (even as it is interesting to me in a geeky fascination-with-how-the-brain-works sort of way...).

usagi, you are correct, that very often a motivated person of average skill will be more productive than a lazy genius. That mostly depends on what type of task is required. How many motivated people of average skill would it take to replicate the work of Picasso? Or Mozart? Or Feynman?

You are absolutely right that many people going to schools like UC Berkeley, Stanford, Yale, etc will be surprised to find themselves in the lower half. People with genuine genius level creativity never do. The individual with genuine genius level creativity may not excell at the metrics the majority use to catagorize everyone, but that is the exact point of genius level creativity.

Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.
Arthur Schopenhauer

The degree of difficulty isnât in getting the right answer, it is in asking the right question. Unfortunately the way that science is done success at answering the right question depends on other people understanding that it is the right question before it is answered. When motivated average people canât do that, then even a motivated genius canât be successful.

"I don't buy this "genius" bullshit, either. What it takes to be genuinely creative is (1) a fuckton of practice--ten years of all-day effort at a minimum, (2) being prolific--trying a fuckton of different shit, and (3) persistence--not giving up in the face of repeated failure. The "spark of genius" doesn't exist."

But a person who has a spark of genius and knows it even though by definition others will not realize it, (genius and talent/intelligence not being the same thing), will be motivated to do 1,2 and 3.


The idea of "innate genius" has a nasty flip side. If genius is effortless...having to work at something is prima facie evidence that you don't have it.

(And if you don't have it, you shouldn't bother to try. You'll never be good enough. Yes, I fell for this one as an undergrad, and nearly quit science because of it.)

However, in a perverse way, the parade of "genius" old white dudes gives me hope. If genius really mattered so darn much, there would be a huge competitive advantage to any organization willing to find it in less traditional bodies. The old boys' club would be driven out of business. In some domains, particularly in sports, that's already happened. But science isn't there yet. It seems to make do with the people it gets - people who are willing to work hard, develop their skills, and make stuff happen, but aren't necessarily geniuses. People like me, in other words...except they're old white dudes, but this can be dealt with.

By Sunflower (not verified) on 17 Aug 2009 #permalink

I remember asking my mother once, when I was a kid, in a very worried tone, why there were no famous female musicians. We'd been studying the whole Bach/Handel/Mozart lot at school and I remember asking my mum "Are woman just not good at music then?"

She answered, "Lots of little girls probably wanted to write music, just nobody listened to them."

Best answer for a confused and worried little girl ever. :D

It made such a difference in science when I leant about Marie Curie, and Rosalind Franklin as well. it just showed me that is *was* possible, for woman to do these things, they just previously hadn't been allowed to.

"If genius is effortless...having to work at something is prima facie evidence that you don't have it."

You don't need to work at the genius part, it's not the same thing as acquiring skills or knowledge.

Either you have it or you don't. Sorry;)

Isabel, what do you mean by genius? Many people would use the word genius to describe, say, Mozart, who worked very hard at music. So he was clearly not what you mean by genius. Do you use the word "genius" to refer to this abstract effortless success? This is not what Zuska was writing about, I think.

What I mean by genius is a degree of ability that cannot be attained by hard work. These are typified by what are called âsavantâ abilities and are not uncommon in people on the autism spectrum. In the case of Mozart, yes, he did work hard, but for virtually all people, attaining the level of skill in music that Mozart had is impossible no matter how much or how hard they work.

For example, some people can âplay by earâ. That is they can hear a piece of music and then play it. That is not something that I can do, and I think that no matter how much I worked, or how hard I tried I would never be able to do it. I have a friend that can play by ear, but considers herself to be not that great a musician (because she doesnât practice). She has a friend who canât play by ear but is a âbetterâ musician (i.e. has greater technical skill at playing music) because he does practice a lot.

I think that âplaying by earâ is an innate ability. You need to learn how to play an instrument to be able to play by ear, but playing by ear is not something that can be learned or taught.

I think that scientific creativity is also an innate ability that people have to different degrees. You need to learn how to do science in order to be highly creative at doing it, just as you need to learn how to make music to be highly creative at making music. Just as some people can play music by ear, some people can do science by ear. Some people cannot do science by ear. If you can't do science by ear, then it is difficult to recognize that ability in someone else. You might be only able to recognize "science" by the finished products, articles in peer review journals. That would be like only recognizing musicians by concert ticket sales. If concert halls wouldnât book acts by certain performers, that doesnât make them non-musicians.

"Do you use the word "genius" to refer to this abstract effortless success?"

No, and I am actually pointing out that this whole idea of effortlessness is a false and misleading way to look at it. As is simply looking at it as talent or skill. I was looking at it as the spark that drives all the work, despite failure, criticism, etc.

What is genius? I think it is innate, an ability to see beyond, to make connections, insights others may be incapable of, but it needs something to work with.

It strikes me that that is such a non-specific description as to be almost useless. Like "math ability". What, exactly, is that, and how would you measure it? There is no such critter as "math ability" despite what the folks who pretend to talk about it and faux measure it would have you believe.

What is the ability to "see beyond"? To "make connections"? How do you know someone has it? What conditions produce it? More to the point, what conditions work to stamp out any possible spark of it in children by the time they've reached their teens?

Also: most people who do really great work in science are not geniuses, not in the colloquial sense of what we think of when we think someone is a genius. They are people who've had access to good schools and books, encouragement, training, mentoring, facilities, collaborators, equipment. They exhibit persistence, and have had a measure of luck. We could produce more of them, of more diverse skin tones and ethnic backgrounds, if we would so choose to.


I'm saying both elements are needed, innate and environmental. I don't think you can make a genius, nor do I think they are born to exhibit genius effortlessly.

Equal opportunity would of course create a wider range of geniuses.

But I still think highly talented and highly intelligent people do not equal geniuses, that it takes something more. And of course none of that would go anywhere w/o luck (especially good timing) and opportunity. The old Shakespeare's sister argument....

Late on this thread, but that initial digression made me laugh ruefully. My partner is a (fortunately occasional) migraine sufferer and also could not read that book, which I thought - having read some Sacks before - would be both an interesting and entertaining present.

Well, I found it fascinating, so it certainly wasn't a waste. But I had to restrain myself from saying "Wow! Do you really see things that look like THAT?" and showing the pictures. Reading the descriptions aloud turned out to be safe.