Chapter 6: The Nature of Genius

Roxanne Coss gains yet another male admirer in Chapter Six in the form of Victor Fyodorov, one of the three Russians who are isolated by the other hostages’ unfamiliarity with their language. Through Gen’s conversation with Fyodorov, we learn that Russian’s distinctly unromantic nature has prevented opera from becoming popular in Russia until recently, but now the art form is considered scared in the country. Fyodorov claims that the Russian opera signers are “very great,” but none can match the genius of Roxanne Coss. While it is clear that Coss is an exceptional opera singer, I had never before thought of her as a genius, so Fyodorov’s phrasing struck me as odd. What qualifies someone as a genius? Is there some form of standard definition, or is the designation completely subjective? Through my research, I found that there have been many perspectives on genius, but each generally includes elements of intelligence, eminence, and creativity.

While few people can be described as being geniuses today, the word originally was used in Ancient Rome to refer to a guardian spirit that was unique to each person, representing not only an individual’s intelligence, but also their personality and rationality. For the Romans, the genius was a tutelary spirit of divine nature that protected a person from birth until death (Bromwich 143). Over time, the word came to be more associated with specialized talent that was unique to a select few in each generation. This can be at least partially attributed to the eighteenth century French philosopher Denis Diderot, who first used the word “genius” as a noun to describe a gifted individual (Dieckmann 160). According to Dean Keith Simonton’s Origins of Genius, the nature of genius was a popular topic of research among early twentieth century psychologists, but nearly all of them focused solely on genius as a description of intelligence. Because Alfred Binet had just released his Binet-Simon test, a precursor to the intelligence quotient test we use today, there was now a way to quantify intelligence, which suggested that there could be an explicit definition of genius. Psychologists at Stanford and Columbia began declaring people “geniuses” if they surpassed a certain score on the exam, equivalent to about a 130 or 140 on an IQ test, with no regard to their contributions to academia, the arts, or any other field (Simonton 3). However, it soon became clear that this definition of genius as intelligence was problematic, as Nobel Prize winners such as William Schockley could not be considered geniuses because they did not achieve a score on a single exam, but were globally recognized for their contributions to mankind (Simonton 4). Contemporary researchers have begun to diverge from the idea that genius is related only to intelligence and focus on genius as a description with many parts.

In Origins of Genius, Simonton argues against a definition of genius that is solely based on the score on an exam, instead advocating for the inclusion of eminence and creativity as factors in the classification, a framework that I used for my research. The first person to advance the idea of genius as eminence was the English anthropologist Francis Galton, who defined the term as “the reputation of a leader of opinion, of an originator, of a man to whom the world deliberately acknowledges itself largely indebted” (37). Galton theorized that one could achieve genius through a “concrete triple event” of ability, zeal, and the capacity to do hard work, all of which would lead people to produce brilliant and original works that would bring them eminence (42). When we use the word “genius” today, we usually use Galton’s definition, referring to those who have made the largest impact on our society like Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, and Marie Curie. Other scholars share Galton’s view that genius is not merely a quality someone is born with, but rather requires some degree of original application, which brings in the creative aspect of genius.

The ability to think about topics creatively is often cited as a defining factor of genius, but what does it mean to be creative? According to psychiatrist and neurologist Nancy Andreason, a creative genius must produce works that are both original and functional, which can be manifested in many ways. Andreason stresses that while creativity must have an application, the utility must be widely defined to include works of art that provide insight into the human condition (17). There are two major views of creativity: that it is a quality that every person possesses on a continuum much like intelligence, or that it is a unique “gift” granted to a select few individuals, the geniuses. Andreason argues that both views can be correct, calling the former “ordinary creativity” and the latter “extraordinary creativity” (26-27). Based on extensive interviews with people who she considers to be highly extraordinarily creative and writings we have from eminent genius throughout history, Andreason theorizes that creative geniuses think in ways that differ greatly from the process of ordinary creative people. Many geniuses describe going into a kind of dissociative state when they are working that allows their brains to disorganize and organize thoughts rapidly, sometimes producing a sudden insight that has never been considered before (Andreason 74). As the eminent American playwright Neil Simon describes it, “I slip into a state that is apart from reality. I don’t write consciously – it is as if the muse sits on my shoulder” (Andreason 76). In her book Genius Unmasked, Roberta E. Ness explores the creative processes of the most influential geniuses throughout history and draws a similar conclusion to that of Andreason, arguing that genius “consist(s) of predictable patterns of imaginative thinking” (3) Ness identifies fourteen distinct mental tools and characteristics that geniuses use to develop their creative products and explains how various geniuses made use of the fourteen in varying degrees. For example, Einstein utilized at least thirteen of the fourteen tools according to Ness’s analysis, but he primarily relied on his ability to break from the frames of reference that previous researchers had developed for his field of study as well as his talent for creating sophisticated mental models that allowed him to understand such abstract concepts as the nature of light and atoms (Ness 50-51). While we typically think of genius as mere intelligence, it seems that without the thought processes involved in extraordinary creativity many of the breakthroughs that lead geniuses to eminence wouldn’t occur.

After doing all of this research on the nature of genius, I was still undecided about whether Roxanne Coss could be considered a genius. Using Andreason’s perspective of genius as creativity, I think Coss could be considered a creative genius because her singing clearly evokes powerful emotion on a level that is not achieved by others in her field based on the way the other characters respond to her. Every character seems to believe she has some innate “gift” that makes her singing transcendent, but I wonder to what degree opera singing is a natural gift or a learned skill. This might be something I want to look into in further research. I also found a chapter in Andreason’s book about the relationship between mental illness and genius to be very interesting, so I would like to explore this topic further if I choose to write about genius for my research paper.

Works Cited

Andreasen, Nancy C. The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius. New York: Dana Press, 2005. Print.

Bromwich, David. “Reflections on the Word Genius.” New Literary History 17.1 (1985): 141–164. JSTOR. Web. 7 Oct. 2015.

Galton, Sir Francis. Hereditary Genius. Macmillan and Company, 1869. Print.

Ness, Roberta B. Genius Unmasked. New York: Oxford University Press. 2013. Print.

Simonton, Dean Keith. Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.

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3 thoughts on “Chapter 6: The Nature of Genius

  1. sariegel says:

    I find this question of what defines genius to be extremely interesting. I generally would agree with Dean Keith Simonton’s argument that genius cannot be determined solely on exam scores. Firstly, I really don’t think standardized exams, including popular IQ tests, are necessarily an effective way to determine intelligence. This is especially true if you agree that genius is also based on creativity, which I would consider the other side to the intelligence coin. The IQ test, as I understand it, generally scores how well one is able to identify patterns. While this is one definition of intelligence, if one thinks creatively, then one could be highly intelligent but not score highly on a test developed by other people.

    Because talent and application for the good of humanity, and to reach eminence, are required by our current definition of genius, it comes as no surprise that genius is a rarity. This, and that the origins of “genius” are rooted in an idea that it is inherent to each individual, makes me wonder whether there is a genetic or biological marker for genius. You may discover something about this if you do explore the connection between mental health and genius. I look forward to hearing about it if you do travel down that path of research. One thing you could look into is autism and the occurrence of prodigies. There is one specific type of autism (maybe Asperger’s) that often corresponds to a manifestation of extreme talent and application befitting a genius. These people are often considered virtuosos in one particular field.

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  2. katelynzander says:

    I agree genius is not something that should be based on the tests of a score. A creative person works differently than someone with an analytical mind. It is hard to really find the truest definition of genius. Is a genius someone who has knowledge of all things or is it someone with profound knowledge of one topic/field. You mentioned further research on correlation between mental illnesses and geniuses. I believe that searching deeper on how mental illnesses or social disorders have been known to be closely related to a genius.
    We had mentioned in class that when you know someone who is very intelligent they seem unable to communicate within social environments and come off as awkward. There must be studies done to show how a highly intelligent person reacts to social situations or if someone with a high level of intelligence is more prone to develop social disorders such as anxiety. Does using too much of one part of our brain cause it to take away from other areas? It has been said that Einstein was unable to walk until he was four years old and also that he failed the entrance examination to college. This makes me question how superior intelligence can affect other developmental areas of the brain. It seems that being Einstein’s brain was working over drive in one area that his motor skills were unable to develop at a normal rate as other children. While Einstein has had much research done there must be others who have been diagnosed as genius with similar developmental concerns.

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  3. Michael Pedersen says:

    Very interesting topic. The word “genius” is really a loaded term at this point as you’ve proved through your research. The definition is consistently changing to account for geniuses not recognized by the current definition but are still geniuses in the public’s eyes.
    As you mentioned how Francis Galton considered ability, zeal, and capacity as three main requirements to be recognized as a genius I would like to make the case for environment as well. Environment can perpetuate the necessary conditions that Galton and Simonton propose as prerequisites for being considered a “genius.” Much my own research in my chapter six post about memories the brain uses the external world to structure memories and, as a result, influences subsequent thought.
    Research on geniuses and other rare conditions have always been difficult to work with statistically due to lack of data in which to draw conclusions. This realization makes it difficult to give any credibility to the Binet-Simon test for intelligence testing and the Stanford Columbia testing for geniuses. This fact also means that the definition of what a genius is and the biological causes of genius are not well know causing the word to be redefined considerably. Another line of inquiry would be to explore the biological side of what defines genius.
    The interconnectedness between genius and creativity is interesting and, in hindsight, expected. Much of the innovation seen globally today is due to the interdisciplinary insights people have as shown by Andreason’s theories.
    All in all, I found your research and post very interesting and hope you consider doing more research into this topic in later posts.

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