Can you find "genius" in the brain? In this interview with The New York Times columnist Carl Zimmer as part of Big Think's partnership with 92Y's Seven Days of Genius series, neuroscientist Joy Hirsch explains her thoughts on genius being a physical continuation of humanity's pioneering spirit.
This is the latest installment in an exclusive, week-long video series of today’s brightest minds exploring the theory of genius. Exclusive videos will be posted daily on youtube.com/bigthink throughout 92nd Street Y’s second annual 7 Days of Genius Festival: Venture into the Extraordinary, running March 1 to March 8, 2015.
Carl Zimmer: It’s always interesting to talk to a neuroscientist about genius. I mean we use the word genius all the time. We can call Picasso a genius or Einstein a genius or your five-year- old a genius if he’s particularly good at his arithmetic. But for a neuroscientist, you know, you must be thinking about this in terms of the brain and what’s going on in the brain of a genius. So I’m curious like for you what does the word genius mean?
Joy Hirsch: Genius calls to mind the questions of individual differences. As a neuroscientist, we always think of the brain as being the source of our characteristics, our personality, our talents. And genius is on the scale of talents, that relationship between the neurocircuitry of the brain and how the brain is organized it works. And how we actually behave and what talents we have is really the essence of neuroscience.
Carl Zimmer: So it’s kind of about the diversity of the wiring you’re saying? I mean that you have different kinds of wiring that lead to different levels of talent in different areas?
Joy Hirsch: Well it’s an interesting question. We really don’t know what it is about our brains that makes your brain different than my brain. The truth of the matter is most of our brains are pretty similar and the subtle differences in anatomy and structure of the brain oftentimes result in very big differences in who we are, how we think, and what our talents are. So it gets very complicated very fast. And the best answer is we really don’t know.
Carl Zimmer: But do we have any hunches maybe? Like I mean could it be — well I’m just thinking like could it be a question say of, you know, a thicker layer of neurons here or a stronger connection between two regions there. I mean do we have a sense of what might be underlying like these sort of extreme cases? Like what we should be even looking for?
Joy Hirsch: It’s clear that there’s not a simple answer to that question that the brain with the thick cortical layer isn’t necessarily the brain that is the most talented brain. And I think that it’s worth going back and thinking about a little bit what is genius because it means different things to different people and perhaps even in different times in our life.
Carl Zimmer: Sure.
Joy Hirsch: When I think of genius I think of the creative person, the person who changes the way we think. The person that has an impact oftentimes that lasts long after the person has passed on. And that creative seed is something that’s very difficult for a neuroscientist to understand. It’s not like there’s one little part of the brain that makes us creative. It’s something about how the whole brain works together.
Carl Zimmer: Right. It is tricky and I mean geniuses are sort of by definition rare and, you know, when you’re working as a scientist you don’t like rare. I mean you like to be able to look at a whole bunch of people, a whole bunch of brains and look for things in common. So I mean people have tried to look at Albert Einstein’s brain to figure out what his genius is. I mean what do you think of that kind of work?
Joy Hirsch: Well actually I think it’s a little misguided to tell you the truth. That looking at the anatomy of a brain is very difficult to understand much of the function. But I think that we don’t have to think of genius as being something that is rare. I think we can imagine that there’s a little genius in all of us — all of us.
Carl Zimmer: Really?
Joy Hirsch: Yes. We’re all creative. You, for example, you’re one of the most creative science writers that there is.
Carl Zimmer: Well but I’m not going to like — thank you but I’m not going to like solve Fermat’s Last Theorem, you know. I’m not going to paint Guernica. There are lots of things that I’m definitely not going to do and I’m definitely not going to be called a genius.
Joy Hirsch: Well I’m not so sure that the quality of genius isn’t necessarily a continuum. A continuum of creativity, a continuum of Yankee ingenuity. I think all of us as humans are sort of endowed with the need to make things better, to invent things, to go beyond the borders. We’re all pioneers. We’re all fascinated with a frontier. Why do we think we need to go to the moon or to Mars? It’s because we’re human and we want to know what’s on the other side. And it’s so ingrained in us that I think that genius — genius is just an extreme version of that, but it represents us as humans in a very fundamental way.
Carl Zimmer: So in a way it might be actually more interesting to compare all of us as a species to other species and look at how our brains are working or how they’re different and the things that we can do with our brains compared to chimpanzees or gorillas or crows or what have you.
Joy Hirsch: Yeah actually I think that that’s a very logical extension of what I’ve just said — that it’s very unique among species on the planet to be as creative as we are. It’s really the essence I think of who we are as humans.