What Makes a Genius?

(Image credit: National Geographic)

The May 2017 issue of National Geographic features an in-depth look at What Makes a Genius. Author Claudia Kalb and photographer Paolo Woods bring us examples of genius, from Leonardo da Vinci to jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, with an overview of the scientific research into what makes those kinds of people different from the rest of us.

Throughout history bright minds have flocked to nexuses of creativity like Silicon Valley, where Wenzhao Lian, a researcher at Vicarious, an artificial intelligence company, teaches a robot how to recognize and manipulate objects. The company aims to develop programs that mimic the brain’s capacity for vision, language, and motor control. (Image credit: © Paulo Woods/National Geographic)

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. Social and cultural influences can provide that nourishment, creating clusters of genius at moments and places in history: Baghdad during Islam’s Golden Age, Kolkata during the Bengal Renaissance, Silicon Valley today.

Legendary Cyphers, a freestyle rap group, performs on Friday nights at Union Square Park in New York City. Collaboration fuels the event as artists take turns “spitting” lyrics. Like any creative undertaking, rapping requires practice. “If you do this enough, it’s like a muscle,” says Palladium Philoz, one of the group’s organizers. (Image credit: © Paulo Woods/National Geographic)

Jazz pianist Keith Jarrett improvises concerts that last for as long as two hours. "The only thing that works," he says, “is letting go.” (Image credit: © Paulo Woods/National Geographic)

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 that a combination of passion and perseverance—what she calls “grit”—drives people to achieve. Duckworth, herself a MacArthur Foundation “genius” and a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, says the concept of genius is too easily cloaked in layers of magic, as if great achievement erupts spontaneously with no hard work. 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. “When you really look at somebody who accomplishes something great,” she says, “it is not effortless.”

Some 10,000 pairs of identical and fraternal twins are part of geneticist Robert Plomin’s longitudinal study at King’s College London, providing clues about how genes and environment affect development. The genetics of intelligence are enormously complex. “Most geniuses,” says Plomin, “don’t come from genius parents.” (Image credit: © Paulo Woods/National Geographic)

Read the entire article at National Geographic. All images are from the May 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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