Are geniuses real? The neuroscience and myths of visionaries

Labeling thinkers like Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs as "other" may be stifling humanity's creative potential.

TIM SANDERS: There are myths of creativity and these myths are usually propagated by people that have romantic notions about heroes, romantic notions about eureka moments. And these myths of creativity keep people from collaborating and it causes them to be a lone wolf. And the research says it causes them to fail. So let me talk a little bit about those myths of creativity. In the world of sales and marketing, I battle against three myths. Myth number one, the lone inventor. This is very dangerous because there is no such thing as a lone inventor. As a matter of fact, there's a lot of historical research that has debunked Einstein. Specifically in terms of inventions, Henry Ford, not a lone inventor. Classic example, Thomas Edison. In the invention community, Thomas Edison is a brand. It stands for 14 people. Yes, there was a figurehead named Thomas Edison. His name is on 10,000 patents. He did not invent a single thing. He marshaled people together and knew how to spot innovations and put people together like, a creative soup, if you will. Here's a classic example, Steve Jobs, you ask the average person, say a millennial who uses a lot of Apple technology, "Who's one of the greatest inventors of our time?" They'll say Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs once said, "I never created anything. "All I did was notice patterns "and put people together to finish projects." So think about it. If he doesn't have Wozniak, there is no original Apple, right? If he doesn't have Ive, there is no iPod. If he doesn't have Tony Fiddel, there is no iPhone. And the list goes on and on.

Got a good friend of mine, David Berkus, who wrote a really wonderful book about the myths of genius. And he was telling me that it's a romantic notion. And I remember when I first read this research years ago, no lone inventor, it did kind of hurt my feelings. I'm a musician in my past. I thought I wrote a lot of songs but according to the research, I'd never wrote a song. I always collaborated with somebody, the song that actually made it to the record and made it on the radio had 15 to 50 hands on it. When I talked to David, I said, "When I read your research, it kind of hurt my feelings." And he goes, "It's a romantic notion because we want to be heroes." We want to be as empowered as Ayn Rand. We want to think that we're the Fountainhead. So this is how we tell the story. But until you believe that genius is a team sport, you will never give up control. And this is the problem for a lot of people in sales. They don't want to cede any level of control over their process to somebody outside of sales world because they don't value those voices enough. But the research is clear on this, Miller Heiman Institute researched the difference between good and great. They call it world-class organizations. They win, they sell 20% more than their nearest competitor. The only thing they have in common is they've broken this myth and they understand that every deal is about rapid problem solving and no one person can solve the problem on their own.

Quickly, the other two myths of creativity that must be dispelled is the eureka moment. There is no such thing as a big idea that changes the world. I know this is another one of those hurtful, but very true based on empirical research points. There are little ideas that combined with other little ideas that improve themselves into game-changing ideas. And I've experienced this personally by who I consider, one of the authorities on creativity, Ed Catmull, President of Pixar. I remember standing backstage a few years ago just gushing to him about John Lasseter. I'm like John Lasseter, his VP of creative. I'm like, "He's the bomb." This is the guy who wrote "Wall-E" the commercial. This is the guy that wrote the script for "Toy Story," telling the story from the toys' point of view. And I remember Catmull looked at me, cut me off and not to dismiss Lasseter. He said, "Toy Story was a problematic idea from the start. Make an entire full length feature film inside a computer. Do you understand how hard that is from a rendering time standpoint? Make the characters as human as human. They didn't even have facial controller technology at the time for this. And tell the story from the toys' point of view when we've never historically had a toy, have any narrative for us to draw on." And Catmull explained that nine months in, they shut the film down. After a meeting with Disney, they called it Black Friday. And then Catmull said something to me that shattered the myth of the eureka moment. Catmull said, "Toy Story, the movie you saw, was a thousand problems solved." And it was like, a bolt of lightning. I was like, I get it. When you do a million-dollar deal in an ad agency, it's not a big idea, it's a hundred problems solved. Eighty of them are inside your agency. As you move through every level of that sale, you get obstacles in front of you. And what this means is that, if we no longer depend on the big idea to fall out of the sky and change the world, we meet more, we think more, we research more. We settle with small pieces of progress that add up to momentum.

Finally, the third myth of genius or creativity that must be shattered if you want to be more collaborative is the myth of the expert. Now I believe in involving people in a dealstorm who we think are experts on the problem space. But if you notice, I don't want experts on the solution space, because most of the great solutions to vexing problems come from the edges of a domain. People that don't know what they don't know. So they're not limited by these false constraints that hold people back that are in the middle of this subject. So the way I like to think about it is, if you could talk to a fish, if you could, if the fish could respond, if it could, and you walked up to a fish in a fish bowl and you asked the fish, "How's the water?" The fish would look at you puzzled and ask you, "What's water?" And that's the problem with experts. People that are so steeped in a domain, they don't have the expansive perspective that allows them to recognize patterns and convergence because every invention, every solution is really about pattern or convergence recognition. And so it's really important for us to follow the following mantra in collaboration: Ideas can come from anywhere. As a matter of fact, in "Dealstorming" that is one of my four key ground rules. It's just as important as stay on agenda and don't distract the person next to you. Because the problem with the myth of expert is it leads to not invented here, dismissal of good ideas. So when you're in a dealstorm meeting and someone who's on the edge of the domain, I'll just give you an example. Someone out of finance that generally handles something as mundane as revenue recognition, they come to one of your meetings. because you have a problem related to how you recognize the revenue of this deal or whatever. And you're in the middle of this conversation about packaging and they come up with a really novel way to think about how it's built. You might look at that person and say "You don't know anything about billing sales. "You're just a revenue recognition analyst. "We know billing and sales." You're about to shut him down for the rest of the meeting. And what you don't understand is that he may have an educational background, he may have had previous jobs. He may have a significant other that is steeped in the billing expertise. And he's drawing upon all that. The minute you tell someone, "Only experts can weigh in with ideas," everyone who's not an expert stops contributing and to my experience, it breaks down collaboration.

HEATHER BERLIN: I think a really big part of what it means to be a genius is to have a great deal of creative or novel thinking. Making these novel associations between ideas, having a lot of pattern detection. So it's not just about collecting a bunch of data and knowing a lot of facts, but it's making these novel connections between ideas. And I think what we wanna look at is for example, what is the neural correlative of something like divergent thinking or thinking outside the box? Having novel associations between ideas and that's the kind of thing that we can begin to measure.

CARL ZIMMER: So how can you measure something like that?

BERLIN: So it's been actually quite a problem how to quantify this, not just genius, but let's say creativity. We're breaking it down. Particularly what I'm interested in is improvisation. So when people are being spontaneously creative and what we can--

ZIMMER: Why is that important to you? What does that get at?

BERLIN: So, I think that a lot of what's happening in the brain is happening outside of awareness. And when we have our sort of conscious brain, highly active it's kind of suppressing a lot of what's going on outside of awareness. And sometimes when people are being creative, they say it almost feels like things are coming from outside of them when they're in this sort of flow state. And we're starting to understand a little bit more about that state. And it seems to be that when people are being creative in the moment that the part of their brain that has to do with their sense of self, with self-awareness, self-consciousness is turned down. It's called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

ZIMMER: Where's that?

BERLIN: It's sort of like right here, it's part of the prefrontal cortex on the lateral side.

ZIMMER: So you can actually see that change, like the activity in there is changing?

BERLIN: The studies all seem to show that for example, when a jazz musician is improvising compared to when he does a memorized piece or even a rapper, when he's doing a freestyle rap compared to doing a memorized rap, there's a similar pattern of activation across the improvising rappers and the improvising jazz musicians. And they have a decreased activation in that dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which has to do with self-awareness, monitoring your ongoing behavior making sure it conforms with social norms, but they have also increased activation in a part of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex, which is sorta like right here, a little, if you go straight back a little bit, and that is turned up and that has to do with the internal generation of ideas, it's coming from within, it's stimulus independent. So if you think of the state, you're having this sort of free flow of unfiltered information coming from within, that's not being inhibited by that dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, you don't have to worry about, "How do people think about me?" And that free flow of information allows for the novel associations to be made. If you think about a similar pattern of brain activation happens during dreams or during daydreaming or types of meditation or hypnosis where you lose your sense of self and time and place and it allows the filter to come off. So that novel associations are okay. Dreams, don't all make sense, but that's where the creativity comes in. So that's why I'm interested in that state to see what happens in people when they're in that state. Because I think that's a big part of what is involved with 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. I mean, why do we think we need to go to the moon or to Mars? It's because we're human and we wanna know what's on the other side. And it's so ingrained in us that I think that genius is just an extreme version of that but it represents us as humans in a very fundamental way. And I think that we have to think about brains in the context of our society. One of the things about genius, I think, it's not just an individual or just a brain. It's about opportunity. It's about somebody who is given the pathway to actually make a contribution. Think of our musicians. Most of us would consider geniuses: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart. These are people that were put in positions that allowed them to be creative. The creative spirit comes with many things other than just a brain, I think it comes with opportunity, it comes with resources, it comes with attitude. Again, I liked the idea of not thinking of it as something that targets an individual and separates them, but something that joins us together as a quality that belongs to all of us.

ZIMMER: Because it is true that when people talk about geniuses they are other, they're almost freakish.

HIRSCH: Exactly, and I think that that attitude really deters people from taking the risk, but it's a double-edged sword. The genius term is often associated with the person that really changes the way we think. It could be something that didn't exist before that changes the course of our progress in some fundamental way. So that person, by his or her nature stands out and is different. And yet all of us are different in our creative sphere. And by incorporating the creative person into the mainstream, it might be a way to encourage more creativity.

  • Revolutionary ideas and culture-shifting inventions are often credited to specific individuals, but how often do these "geniuses" actually operate in creative silos?
  • Tim Sanders, former chief strategy officer at Yahoo, argues that there are three myths getting in the way of innovative ideas and productive collaborations: the myths of the expert, the eureka moment, and the "lone inventor."
  • More than an innate quality reserved for an elite group, neuroscientist Heather Berlin and neurobiologist Joy Hirsch explain how creativity looks in the brain, and how given opportunity, resources, and attitude, we can all be like Bach, Beethoven, and Steve Jobs.

COVID and "gain of function" research: should we create monsters to prevent them?

Gain-of-function mutation research may help predict the next pandemic — or, critics argue, cause one.

Credit: Guillermo Legaria via Getty Images

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

"I was intrigued," says Ron Fouchier, in his rich, Dutch-accented English, "in how little things could kill large animals and humans."

It's late evening in Rotterdam as darkness slowly drapes our Skype conversation.

This fascination led the silver-haired virologist to venture into controversial gain-of-function mutation research — work by scientists that adds abilities to pathogens, including experiments that focus on SARS and MERS, the coronavirus cousins of the COVID-19 agent.

If we are to avoid another influenza pandemic, we will need to understand the kinds of flu viruses that could cause it. Gain-of-function mutation research can help us with that, says Fouchier, by telling us what kind of mutations might allow a virus to jump across species or evolve into more virulent strains. It could help us prepare and, in doing so, save lives.

Many of his scientific peers, however, disagree; they say his experiments are not worth the risks they pose to society.

A virus and a firestorm

The Dutch virologist, based at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, caused a firestorm of controversy about a decade ago, when he and Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that they had successfully mutated H5N1, a strain of bird flu, to pass through the air between ferrets, in two separate experiments. Ferrets are considered the best flu models because their respiratory systems react to the flu much like humans.

The mutations that gave the virus its ability to be airborne transmissible are gain-of-function (GOF) mutations. GOF research is when scientists purposefully cause mutations that give viruses new abilities in an attempt to better understand the pathogen. In Fouchier's experiments, they wanted to see if it could be made airborne transmissible so that they could catch potentially dangerous strains early and develop new treatments and vaccines ahead of time.

The problem is: their mutated H5N1 could also cause a pandemic if it ever left the lab. In Science magazine, Fouchier himself called it "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make."

Just three special traits

Recreated 1918 influenza virionsCredit: Cynthia Goldsmith / CDC / Dr. Terrence Tumpey / Public domain via Wikipedia

For H5N1, Fouchier identified five mutations that could cause three special traits needed to trigger an avian flu to become airborne in mammals. Those traits are (1) the ability to attach to cells of the throat and nose, (2) the ability to survive the colder temperatures found in those places, and (3) the ability to survive in adverse environments.

A minimum of three mutations may be all that's needed for a virus in the wild to make the leap through the air in mammals. If it does, it could spread. Fast.

Fouchier calculates the odds of this happening to be fairly low, for any given virus. Each mutation has the potential to cripple the virus on its own. They need to be perfectly aligned for the flu to jump. But these mutations can — and do — happen.

"In 2013, a new virus popped up in China," says Fouchier. "H7N9."

H7N9 is another kind of avian flu, like H5N1. The CDC considers it the most likely flu strain to cause a pandemic. In the human outbreaks that occurred between 2013 and 2015, it killed a staggering 39% of known cases; if H7N9 were to have all five of the gain-of-function mutations Fouchier had identified in his work with H5N1, it could make COVID-19 look like a kitten in comparison.

H7N9 had three of those mutations in 2013.

Gain-of-function mutation: creating our fears to (possibly) prevent them

Flu viruses are basically eight pieces of RNA wrapped up in a ball. To create the gain-of-function mutations, the research used a DNA template for each piece, called a plasmid. Making a single mutation in the plasmid is easy, Fouchier says, and it's commonly done in genetics labs.

If you insert all eight plasmids into a mammalian cell, they hijack the cell's machinery to create flu virus RNA.

"Now you can start to assemble a new virus particle in that cell," Fouchier says.

One infected cell is enough to grow many new virus particles — from one to a thousand to a million; viruses are replication machines. And because they mutate so readily during their replication, the new viruses have to be checked to make sure it only has the mutations the lab caused.

The virus then goes into the ferrets, passing through them to generate new viruses until, on the 10th generation, it infected ferrets through the air. By analyzing the virus's genes in each generation, they can figure out what exact five mutations lead to H5N1 bird flu being airborne between ferrets.

And, potentially, people.

"This work should never have been done"

The potential for the modified H5N1 strain to cause a human pandemic if it ever slipped out of containment has sparked sharp criticism and no shortage of controversy. Rutgers molecular biologist Richard Ebright summed up the far end of the opposition when he told Science that the research "should never have been done."

"When I first heard about the experiments that make highly pathogenic avian influenza transmissible," says Philip Dormitzer, vice president and chief scientific officer of viral vaccines at Pfizer, "I was interested in the science but concerned about the risks of both the viruses themselves and of the consequences of the reaction to the experiments."

In 2014, in response to researchers' fears and some lab incidents, the federal government imposed a moratorium on all GOF research, freezing the work.

Some scientists believe gain-of-function mutation experiments could be extremely valuable in understanding the potential risks we face from wild influenza strains, but only if they are done right. Dormitzer says that a careful and thoughtful examination of the issue could lead to processes that make gain-of-function mutation research with viruses safer.

But in the meantime, the moratorium stifled some research into influenzas — and coronaviruses.

The National Academy of Science whipped up some new guidelines, and in December of 2017, the call went out: GOF studies could apply to be funded again. A panel formed by Health and Human Services (HHS) would review applications and make the decision of which studies to fund.

As of right now, only Kawaoka and Fouchier's studies have been approved, getting the green light last winter. They are resuming where they left off.

Pandora's locks: how to contain gain-of-function flu

Here's the thing: the work is indeed potentially dangerous. But there are layers upon layers of safety measures at both Fouchier's and Kawaoka's labs.

"You really need to think about it like an onion," says Rebecca Moritz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Moritz is the select agent responsible for Kawaoka's lab. Her job is to ensure that all safety standards are met and that protocols are created and drilled; basically, she's there to prevent viruses from escaping. And this virus has some extra-special considerations.

The specific H5N1 strain Kawaoka's lab uses is on a list called the Federal Select Agent Program. Pathogens on this list need to meet special safety considerations. The GOF experiments have even more stringent guidelines because the research is deemed "dual-use research of concern."

There was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

"Dual-use research of concern is legitimate research that could potentially be used for nefarious purposes," Moritz says. At one time, there was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

While the insights they found would help scientists, they could also be used to create bioweapons. The papers had to pass through a review by the U.S. National Science Board for Biosecurity, but they were eventually published.

Intentional biowarfare and terrorism aside, the gain-of-function mutation flu must be contained even from accidents. At Wisconsin, that begins with the building itself. The labs are specially designed to be able to contain pathogens (BSL-3 agricultural, for you Inside Baseball types).

They are essentially an airtight cement bunker, negatively pressurized so that air will only flow into the lab in case of any breach — keeping the viruses pushed in. And all air in and out of the lap passes through multiple HEPA filters.

Inside the lab, researchers wear special protective equipment, including respirators. Anyone coming or going into the lab must go through an intricate dance involving stripping and putting on various articles of clothing and passing through showers and decontamination.

And the most dangerous parts of the experiment are performed inside primary containment. For example, a biocontainment cabinet, which acts like an extra high-security box, inside the already highly-secure lab (kind of like the radiation glove box Homer Simpson is working in during the opening credits).

"Many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely." — REBECCA MORITZ

The Federal Select Agent program can come and inspect you at any time with no warning, Moritz says. At the bare minimum, the whole thing gets shaken down every three years.

There are numerous potential dangers — a vial of virus gets dropped; a needle prick; a ferret bite — but Moritz is confident that the safety measures and guidelines will prevent any catastrophe.

"The institution and many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely," Moritz says.

No human harm has come of the work yet, but the potential for it is real.

"Nature will continue to do this"

They were dead on the beaches.

In the spring of 2014, another type of bird flu, H10N7, swept through the harbor seal population of northern Europe. Starting in Sweden, the virus moved south and west, across Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. It is estimated that 10% of the entire seal population was killed.

The virus's evolution could be tracked through time and space, Fouchier says, as it progressed down the coast. Natural selection pushed through gain-of-function mutations in the seals, similarly to how H5N1 evolved to better jump between ferrets in his lab — his lab which, at the time, was shuttered.

"We did our work in the lab," Fouchier says, with a high level of safety and security. "But the same thing was happening on the beach here in the Netherlands. And so you can tell me to stop doing this research, but nature will continue to do this day in, day out."

Critics argue that the knowledge gained from the experiments is either non-existent or not worth the risk; Fouchier argues that GOF experiments are the only way to learn crucial information on what makes a flu virus a pandemic candidate.

"If these three traits could be caused by hundreds of combinations of five mutations, then that increases the risk of these things happening in nature immensely," Fouchier says.

"With something as crucial as flu, we need to investigate everything that we can," Fouchier says, hoping to find "a new Achilles' heel of the flu that we can use to stop the impact of it."

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