Brainiac. Virtuoso. Polyhistor. Savant. Egghead. Prodigy. Sage. Bookworm. Natural. All of these are colloquial terms for genius, albeit the last definition of genius. Historically, genius is regarded as the guiding force, the tutelary spirit, the angel (or devil) on the shoulder. Let’s forgo the supernatural history and explore the mind-numbing diversity of today’s genius.
A brief consultation with the word-chronicling masters at Merriam Webster bring us their fifth and our operative definition of genius:
5. plural usually geniuses
a : a single strongly marked capacity or aptitude <had a genius for getting along with boys — Mary Ross>
b : extraordinary intellectual power especially as manifested in creative activity
c : a person endowed with transcendent mental superiority; especially : a person with a very high IQ
Considered by most in society, the 5c definition is merely outdated. In times gone by, genius was measured solely by intelligence quotient (IQ).
To qualify as genius to Leta Hollingworth, pioneer of education for exceptional children, and the most staunch advocates of the IQ test, subjects had to score over 180. To the academic community, who saw genius in their arenas, and Lewis Terman, who popularized the IQ testing in schools, the score of 140 heralded the title.
Over the first few decades of the IQ test, significant changes were made to accommodate for evidence the test was skewed against certain ethnic groups, cultures and women. Simply, answers considered wrong for the sake of the test were correct when placed into the social context of the test subject.
Based on the fallibility of the test, and the growing number of test subjects from whom averages could be drawn, the numbers changed. Genius is recognized at the thresholds of 136 (98.770 percentile) and 162 (99.994 percentile).
Mensa celebrates those with very high IQ scores. The society only accepts those with scores above the 98th percentile (130.82) of the Stanford-Binet scale.
This level of intelligence is considered universal genius.
The one thing the IQ test failed to recognize was not all people can be exemplary on a fully rounded scale. Where a person could be brilliant in mathematics, the same could fail miserably at chemistry. The 5a definition covers those who are adroit in one of the standard intelligence-measuring fields, but are average or lacking in others.
One of the most recognized geniuses of the modern age is Steven Hawking. The physicist and cosmologist is brilliant in his field, yet required an oral examination to get his baccalaureate from Oxford due to less than stellar grades.
This group is where savants reside. Typically, a savant is outstanding in one field or specialty, but handicapped in other areas. Pop culture was broadly introduced to savant tendencies in the Dustin Hoffman movie Rain Man, which featured an autistic man with extraordinary mathematical skills despite the mental and social retardation associated with autism.
In the subjective fields, such as literature and art, genius is recognized under the 5b definition. While the argument has never been settled as to whether universal genius is needed to be a musical or artistic genius, it could not hurt. Sampling the average IQ of recognized and celebrated fiction writers and artists would bring a number in the low 150s. Compare this with the estimated 160 IQ assigned to Albert Einstein.
The ability to create has been recognized as genius for centuries. It includes the liberal arts in their totality:
- Art (sculpture, painting, etc.)
- Performing Arts (acting, dancing, etc.)
Virtuoso and grand masters are all considered genius within their respective fields. Some of the most talented in the arts span large genre gamuts with skill, for example, in singing and writing or sculpture and acting.
Geniuses show their abilities early. They exhibit a great understanding of the world around them, a wisdom beyond their years. While this intuition may be centered on certain interests, they pursue and build upon it with enthusiastic energy. Their creative thinking offers the ability to solve problems without the jaded views of the impossible adults garner with age.
Many philosophers offer the theory genius can be stifled by the ignorance or misunderstanding which surrounds them in society and family. Bertrand Russell believed genius could be crushed by an unsympathetic environment during youth. Adults misunderstand a prodigy when they see it because they cannot grasp the concepts wielded by the child.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) all show the brains of geniuses in different light. MRI show more development in the physical parts of the prefrontal cortex and the superior parietal lobe (complex thinking and sensory perception, respectively). This gives rise to the nickname Egghead.
PET and MEG scans reveal the electrical impulses, which are thoughts traveling across the surface of the brain, move faster in smarter people. While this supports the theory smart people think faster, it also proves they are not using their brain more, only more efficiently.
There is a direct link between genius and mental illness. Science continues to struggle with the direct correlation between the activity of the genius brain and the chemical and physical brain malfunctions which result in a wide array of mental illnesses.
And then there are the geniuses we create. He just may just be a little of all of the above.
Have you come in contact with a genius? Were you ever tested on the Stanford-Binet or Cattet scales for IQ? Who is your favorite created genius? Do you believe we all have genius ability on at least one level?
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© Red Dwyer 2012
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