What We Talk About When We Talk About Genius

In a famous scene from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s drama Faust two new lovers, Gretchen and Faust, sit together in a garden. “Tell me the truth . . .” Gretchen says. “As best I can!” Faust replies. Gretchen, a pure-hearted virgin, needs to know if her man can be trusted. “Do you believe in God?” she asks. The consummate academic, Faust responds with long-winded sophistry and rhetorical aplomb; he is more or less trying to get laid without lying. The reader remembers, however, that Faust has promised his soul to the devil Mephistopheles in exchange for the fulfillment of his own wishes. Gretchen will suffer greatly from her seduction: her mother and brother are killed and she will find herself in prison, separated from her sanity, having drowned her illegitimate child. “My darling, who can say I believe in God?”[1] Faust’s cynical credo begins. With this initial negation, Faust cannot help but reveal the truth about himself: his soul is with the devil already. The Germans have a word for a question like this: Gretchenfrage (“Gretchen question”). Like spies behind enemy lines, Gretchenfragen can surprise their way to where the secrets are kept inside you, in the darkness, unexposed.

Last year, a Nobel laureate visited the science writing workshop that I attend. There was a buzz around the room before he arrived. I was standing in on a conversation, treading water with a few words here and there as we waited. Then the young man who organized the event, a friendly colleague with a German name, engaged me. “Have you ever met a genius before?” he asked. Suddenly my guts got all tangled, my chest fell open like a trap door. After scanning for names of every eminent person I could remember coming across—the Nobel laureate, an Academy Award-winner, even a Macarthur “Genius” grantee—all I could answer was “No.”

What do we talk about when we talk about genius? Although the dictionary offers multiple definitions, the word seems impossible to define. Nevertheless, countless quotable people have weighed in on the idea. Psychometricians, who measure the mind using standardized intelligence tests, have even given it a number. Ironically, however, an IQ score of over 200 is said to mean “immeasurable genius.”[2] The longest-running longitudinal study in the world is Genetic Studies of Genius. In 1921, at Stanford University, Lewis Terman began tracking high-IQ children. After most of his subjects became ordinary citizens, Terman concluded that “intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated.”[3] The word “genius” no longer appears in the name of the study, now known as the Terman Study for the Gifted. Yet in the arts and sciences alike scholars devote whole careers to study of genius.

After the death of Albert Einstein, the man whose name is practically synonymous with the word, his brain was preserved for examination. Although it was neither larger nor heavier than average, there were extraordinarily intricate patterns on its parietal lobes and prefrontal cortex. Some scientists have suggested that these patterns may have allowed for Einstein’s visuospatial and mathematical aptitudes as well as for his famous capacity for thought experiments.[4] Einstein envisioned new laws of the universe and articulated them in his revolutionary theories. To the general public, however, Einstein remains the face of genius — static-electric white hair, tongue sticking out. (In my college dorm room I had a black-and-white poster picturing him on a bicycle, smiling, looking positively enlightened.) Einstein himself, in a letter to his biographer Carl Seelig, Einstein maintained that he was “only passionately curious.”[5] This would seem to hint at a conundrum somewhat similar to the so-called “omnipotence problems” in theology: is a genius truly a genius if even he does not recognize his own genius? Such extreme subjectivity would seem like a logical disproof. If Einstein swears he was no Einstein, who are we to say?

In a recent Nature op-ed, Dean Keith Simonton, the foremost academic expert on the subject, writes that genius is now extinct. The major continents on the scientific map have all been discovered and their foundations, for the most part, have settled over time. There is nothing new under the sun, nothing left to explore. Simonton says that Einstein was the last genius, the kind of intrepid creature that can author four revolutionary papers and launch a new physics in a single year by himself.[6] On the other hand, one of the most influential works of literary theory—”The Death of the Author” (1967)—claims that there never was a thing called genius, scientifically or historically, that genius is a grandiose capitalistic illusion.[7] “There is never anything more than the man who writes,” the text reads, “just as I is no more than the man who says I.” The man who writes named Roland Barthes contrasts our notion of authorship with the idea of the medium, admired for storytelling ability but never elevated above the work itself. The Odyssey, for example, was an oral tradition that has become a permanent text; however, Homer, historically speaking, is an imaginary attribution. Nevertheless, the literary critic Harold Bloom, who has championed literary genius throughout his career, celebrates Homer and others in the book Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds (2003).[8] Scholars still debate the identity of Shakespeare as though it would inform his plays, which after all were conceived to be experienced by a live audience and not analyzed to death. We are obsessed with biographies of legends perhaps because, as Harvard literature professor Marjorie Garber has written, we seek “a certain kind of emulative high, an intoxication of the superlative.” “It’s not that there is no such thing as genius,” she summarizes in an Atlantic article titled “The Genius Problem,” “but, rather, that genius is an assessment or an accolade often retrospectively applied to an individual or an idea—not an identifiable essence.”[9] Perhaps genius is ineffable, then.

My father, a lifelong lover of literature, used to complain that the word genius is overused. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with him long after dinner naming our favorite writers. I must have been home from college because that was when I could rattle off the immortal qualities of the canonical heavy-hitters like the back of a baseball card. I can still see my father’s expression when I talked about Kafka: eyes turned to the floor, head shaking slowly, as if utterly at a loss. The torture of being in between worlds, that alienated feeling of foreignness, the meaningless maze of modern life. “He was something,” my father said.

Surprisingly, the book that led me to consider all of this is ostensibly about something else. It is called Borges and Memory: Encounters with the Human Brain (MIT Press), written by Rodrigo Quian Quiroga, a neuroscientist in Argentina who investigates the way our brains form memories. In 2005, Quian Quiroga and his team discovered certain neurons that fire only in association with general concepts.[10] These neurons were popularly referred to by the name of Jennifer Aniston, whose likeness the researchers used in experiments. Regardless of the photograph, subjects could always name the actress —Jennifer Aniston in profile is still Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Aniston with bangs is still Jennifer Aniston, and Jennifer Aniston is always Jennifer Aniston. “Jennifer Aniston neurons” were storing key information of her identity; the variable specifics of her appearance seemed irrelevant. Therefore, the researchers concluded that the formation of long-term memories depends on abstract synthesis rather than precise detail. This process ensures that complex visual percepts are reduced to useful representations, like conceptual buoys helping us to chart our course through an overwhelming water-world of information.

“Like many others,” Quian Quiroga writes in the introduction to his book, “I discovered Borges as a teenager.”[11] While re-reading “Funes the Memorious”—the famous story about a man who remembers absolutely everything—Quian Quiroga found that Borges “had the perfect words to express the results of his own research.”[12] Borges’ fictional character—the protagonist Ireneo Funes—functions for Quian Quiroga as a sort of extreme counterexample: What if there were no fading away, no forgetting? Funes, we find, is a “perpetual prisoner,” “the solitary and lucid spectator of a multiform, instantaneous and almost intolerably precise world” that the narrator imagines must be “vertiginous.” In the most stirring moment, culminating the description of Funes’ superhuman mental abilities, Borges writes: “I don’t know how many stars he could see in the sky.”[13] The simple line terrifies me like the verge of absolute infinity. For Funes, reality is cumulative rather than continuous; the past would besiege us with its inescapable presence. He would be simultaneously aware of every bit of information. (In other words, we would be surrounded by innumerable Jennifer Anistons, one for each time we experienced her image.) This fantasy is both an absurdity and a tragedy. Upon rereading the story, I found myself shaking my head. Jorge Luis Borges is a genius.

Like most boys, I suspect, my first genius was my father. I love books because he read them out loud to me. I have always wanted to imitate him. I played what he played, I studied what he studied. For me, this is the secret behind genius. Although genius can appear in many forms, mine has always been connected to fatherhood. Consider the etymological origin of the word: gen, signifying to produce, is an ancestral root that is prevalent throughout our so-called Indo-European phylum of languages. In Latin, the verb gigno/genui/genitus meant to beget and the noun gens meant a clan descended from a common male ancestor, whom the ancient Romans worshipped.[14] This was the spirit of every family; from birth, each individual was under a fatherly protection. The word for this became genius. Houses, doors, gates, and streets were all overseen by their own geniuses. Its usage proliferated from there, and the rest is history.[15] Great men are often eulogized as “fathers”—Freud is the father of psychoanalysis, Oppenheimer is a father of the atomic bomb, Jefferson is one of the Founding Fathers of America.

Rodrigo Quian Quiroga found a guiding spirit in Jorges Luis Borges, a father of Argentine letters in Borges and Memory. The genius writer helped the scientist to communicate his discoveries. Scholars in Argentina have been relating the work of Borges to the sciences during conferences since the 1970s, penning papers that seem almost like intellectual paternity tests. Connection to a genius source could legitimize a theory or an argument, although the temptation of such interdisciplinary connections can lead scholars to build an interpretive bridge too far.[16] Borges himself recognized his own extremely personal genius. “I knew I would go blind,” he once said in an interview, “because my father, my paternal grandmother, my great-grandfather, they had all gone blind.”[17] We read in him a spirit of eternal imagination. What would his mind have become without this degenerative inheritance?

Franz Kafka, that genius of my father, claimed to remember only one incident from his childhood. One night, after he was supposed to be asleep, little Franz kept complaining for a glass of water. His father locked him out on the balcony. “For years thereafter,” Kafka wrote in a now famous letter to his father, Hermann, “I kept being haunted by fantasies of the giant of a man, my father, the ultimate judge, coming to get me in the middle of the night.” He was thirty-six. Does this memory not reveal the nature of Kafka? His cries were rejected. He was punished, left out in the cold. “As far as he was concerned,” Kafka continued, “I was an absolute Nothing.”[18]  Like it or not, his father constrained his life and work in a definitive way. We cannot escape this kind of legacy. Genius is in our intellectual genes, which, after all, are copied from those of our forebears.

My father says that he has always loved to read and write and that his father—my grandfather—despised him for this. Literature was for homosexuals; so was any affection. My grandfather dealt in these derogatories and dismissals. When my father gave his father one of his own stories, my grandfather said one summary sentence: “Well, it had a lot of words.” He was a well-respected, successful doctor who cared for his patients. Every year he would take his family to the farm in Canada for the summer. My father hated the place. There are black-and-white photographs of him, a child standing in mud holding the reins of a horse ten times his size, squinting out the sun. His escape was a barn on the property and the books he hid there. I like to imagine him sitting against a wall with no ladder, fortified by hay, to which my grandfather was allergic. The truth is that genius is always present, even in its absence.

At some point, when my childhood was over, in encountering the world at large, I decided that my father was not a genius. He is not Einstein, he is not Homer, he is not Shakespeare, he is one of those legends I was formally studying. I think this is normal as well; my qualifications for genius shifted, excluding him. There is more than a little bit of rebellion in this, the desire to escape toward independence. When I heard my Gretchenfrage, however, I was surprised to feel terror, doubt, and insecurity. I could not recall any genius in that moment. There was this vacuum, the disappearance of an unmistakable monument, like a skyscraper gone from the horizon. It is natural to search the past for what produced us, to form an image of the genius that is safely abstracted away from disorienting change. The more exact truth—the fact that my father is not a genius to the world, the moments when he appears to be the opposite, the arbitrary, contingent, and ultimately self-important nature of these distinctions—must be ignored for the sake of navigation. Otherwise we run the risk of becoming like an anti-Funes, not one who remembers everything but one who forgets the most important thing. Genius is atavism at its finest, a reversion to our ancestral past, the need to sculpt our own legacy simply by trying to understand it. We can never meet genius; because genius is our greatest memory.


[1] Translated by Stuart Atkins.

[2] From a few generic websites (i.e. ehow.com).

[3]  Terman, Lewis Madison; M. H. Oden (1947). Genetic Studies of Genius …: The gifted child grows up; twenty-five years’ follow-up of a superior group (4 ed.). Stanford University Press. p. 352. Retrieved 2011-06-02.

[4] Falk, D., et al. The cerebral cortex of Albert Einstein: a description and preliminary analysis of unpublished photographs. Brain (2012), doi: 10.1093/brain/aws295

[5] from The Expanded Quotable Einstein, http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s6908.html

[6] Simonton, Dean Keith. After Einstein: Scientific genius is extinct. Nature 493, 602 (31 January 2013), doi:10.1038/493602a

[7] Full text can be found at http://www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf

[8] Published by Grand Central Publishing.

[9] Garber, Marjorie. Our Genius Problem. The Atlantic (December 2002), http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/12/our-genius-problem/308435/

[10] Quian Quiroga, Rodrigo, et al. Invariant visual representation by single neurons in the human brain. Nature 435, 1102-1107 (23 June 2005), doi:10.1038/nature03687

[11] He loves in Borges “the mathematical precision with which he describes what defies every logic, […] the way he starts from seemingly irrefutable premises —often reinforced by obscure or even blatantly apocryphal quotations—to lead us inexorably to unreal worlds as though we were hallucinating or dreaming, living in a fantastic realism where everything is possible and ideas rule above all else.”

[12] Quian Quiroga, p. 4.

[13] Borges, Jorge Luis. Labyrinths (trans. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby). New Directions: 1962.

[14] Harper, Douglas. Online Etymology Dictionary, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=genius

[15] Mainly from Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genius_(mythology)

[16] This is the case with Jonah Lehrer and Proust Was a Neuroscientist. Proust was not a neuroscientist, and Lehrer would be officially discredited later for similar overreaches. There are, in fact, some examples of great literary figures who also contributed to the groundwork of the sciences, such as Goethe and Nabokov.

[17] Shenker, Israel. Borges, a Blind Writer With Insight. The New York Times (6 April 1971), http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/08/31/reviews/borges-insight.html

[18] Translated by Hannah Stokes and Richard Stokes, http://www.almaclassics.com/excerpts/dearestfather.pdf

About the author

Ben Ehrlich

Ben Ehrlich's new book "The Dreams of Santiago Ramón y Cajal" will be published by Oxford University Press in 2016. Ben is a 2015 Salzburg Global Seminar fellow in Neuroscience and Art.

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    • My understanding was that the “grandmother cell” was theoretical. I had this information in an earlier draft but did not include it in the final. Maybe I should have. I guess I felt that its relevance was historical and therefore not necessary for this essay.

      Thank you for directing me to David Shenk’s book, which looks terrific, and your podcast over at Nature. I look forward to listening.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • That was great, Ben. I was mulling over similar ideas myself. Reading your take on it (and your writing) was delightful.
    I also just attending a conference about communicating science to the public and it gave me an opportunity to work on some thoughts about what we talk about when we say “scientist.” There is a similar idea that exists in popular culture and that even scientists embrace: the notion that there is some essence that makes a person destined to be a scientist, or some quality at least that is shared by all. But I don’t think this is true. Certainly ‘scientist’ is easier to define than ‘genius’, but there is still some ambiguity.

  • I also just attending a conference about communicating science to the public and it gave me an opportunity to work on some thoughts about what we talk about when we say “scientist.” There is a similar idea that exists in popular culture and that even scientists embrace: the notion that there is some essence that makes a person destined to be a scientist, or some quality at least that is shared by all. But I don’t think this is true. Certainly ‘scientist’ is easier to define than ‘genius’, but there is still some

  • I also just attending a conference about communicating science to the public and it gave me an opportunity to work on some thoughts about what we talk about when we say “scientist.” There is a similar idea that exists in popular culture and that even scientists embrace: the notion that there is some essence that makes a person destined to be a scientist, or some quality at least that is shared by all. But I don’t think this is true. Certainly ‘scientist’ is easier to define than ‘genius’, but there is

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