Albert Einstein was a genius. So were Leonardo DaVinci, Bobby Fischer, Nikola Tesla, Marie Curie, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Madame Da Stael. That is inarguable. You can probably think of dozens more. Then consider the question: Why are these individuals considered geniuses? By what measure are we making this determination? Certainly each of these individuals has contributed something to our society, whether it’s artistically, scientifically, or culturally. But what makes a genius? Are the brains of these individuals drastically different from non-geniuses, or “normal” people?
Connections: The Long and the Short
In a normal brain, there’s a relative equal split between the long and short connections within our cerebral cortex. Short connections are correlated with our aptitude pertaining to something that interests us, while long connections pertain to our capacity for things outside of these interests. In the brain of a genius, the split between long and short connections usually leans heavily toward one or the other. For example, Beethoven probably had a great deal of short cortical connections, pertaining to his musical ability. Someone like Blaise Pascal most likely had a larger amount of long connections in his cortex since he was highly accomplished in everything from mathematics to prose to theological philosophy.
The Thalamus: Our filter
The dopamine receptors in our thalamus determine, essentially, what gets through. Our brains process thoughts faster than we are able to sort through them. The thalamus and the dopamine receptors are fundamentally the place that all of these thoughts bottleneck. Ones that are valuable are allowed to proceed, where others are stifled and, most likely, not ever going to reach conscious thought. In a genius brain, there tend to be less of these dopamine receptors. Thus, the neck of the bottle tends to be wider, letting more thoughts come through. Consider the potential of creativity and problem-solving a person could have if more thoughts and solutions were allowed to emerge.
Gray Matter Matters
Gray matter refers to the darker tissue of the brain and spinal cord. It is made up of dendrites, branching out, literally waiting to receive information from axons. When studying the brains of those who achieved high IQ scores – in this case, over 130 – greater volumes of gray matter were discovered. In addition, the white matter of the brain, where the axons live, was also more abundant. The larger quantity of nerve cells in the gray and white matter means that communication happens more quickly and effectively. Recently published pictures of the brain of Albert Einstein had not only a thicker and greater amount of gray matter, but also more intricate folds throughout the gray matter, suggesting that this may also be a factor in identifying the genius brain.
While there certainly may be physical or tangible characteristics in the brains of geniuses that differentiate them from non-geniuses, there is also much to be said for a genius’s approach to thought in general. Consider how you approach a particular problem. Perhaps you start with a flood of ideas. Then, most likely, you start eliminating these ideas. One won’t work because you don’t have enough money. Another won’t work because you tried it before and failed. Yet another can’t possibly work because no one will be on board with it. So, slowly but surely, you impede each of your ideas and come up with one or two that might work. The genius brain works differently. Ideas are not eliminated based on efficacy or practicality. Everything is considered. Thoughts are not immediately disqualified. A genius often tries many different avenues to arrive at a desired result, rather than simply deciding which ones will work and which ones won’t.
The term “genius” has long been a way of classifying someone who was particularly innovative or adept, but neuroscientists are still a long way from discovering what sets their brains apart from non-geniuses. What seems to be abundantly apparent in this quest for what makes a genius is that there is no one identifying factor. Differences in the physical structure of the brain and the accompanying thought processes are only part of the mysterious puzzle.