The Question of Genius

Question: Are all brains created equal?


Sam Wang: The question of nature and nurture is; I wouldn’t call it settled, but I will put it like this, we are all born with the genetic inheritance and that genetic inheritance sets boundaries on what we might become. They guide us in the sense of establishing about one quarter of the variation of what we might become and that, when it comes to intelligence or personality, it’s some minority of what we could become.

And then, against that genetic background, then our genetics and environment, the experiences that we have and the nutrition that we get interact with one another and that been shapes us over the course of childhood and a lifetime.

So most of the variation turns out to be believed to be environmentally induced or, you know, based on experience and so some interplay between the two that makes us who we are.


Question: How do brains develop?


Sam Wang: One thing that’s interesting about child development is that so much of it… There’re so many changes that take place in children’s brains, not only from birth to the age of 6, ‘cause this when people think of brain change, but also even through childhood into adolescence. So one thing that probably does not help is passive experiences for the child.

In the classic example, this is the Mozart myth. The idea that playing Mozart or the classical music to a baby will make the child smarter. What seems to be important is active engagement. So, for instance, learning to play a musical instrument is associated with improved spatial reasoning. And that seems to be something that really helps a lot. Another thing that helps is talking to children. It’s been shown that there’s a positive relationship between the number of words the child hears per day and IQ scores.

And this is true even when you crook for social economic status. And so, just simply speaking to a child, playing with her, talking with her, that kind of cognitive stimulation seems to have a lasting positive effect on the child’s development. And that’s something that I think any parent can and should do.


Question: Is genius overhyped?


Sam Wang: Well, it certainly the case that some people who are called geniuses have the ability to link unconnected ideas and ways that other people can’t see. But one important factor that sort of, I would call that isn’t so romantic, is this idea that Gladwell talks about, which is just the hard work of having all that information on hand and developing expertise to thousands and thousands of hours of practice.

We talked earlier about Google making us dumber. Well, look, if Google removes the need for us to have all that knowledge on hand, then that removes from us the ability to have these facts in our heads on hand. And so, I think that this is one area where we can think about something that maybe gets lost a little bit, right? Geniuses are people who, in many cases, are people who have a lot of information directly at their beck and call and they think about it and they start putting it together. So, you know, one component of genius is sticking together things in unexpected ways.

But another component is having those things to stick together, right? And I think that there’s an element of truth to this idea of thousands of hours of practice, making a creative scientist or artist or writer or whatever it is that we may care to call a genius.


Question: What environments are most conducive to learning?


Sam Wang: So one thing I’ve experienced at Princeton is that public spaces where my colleagues and I are likely to cross paths are excellent places to share ideas and to have discussions that rise up spontaneously. And at our campus, the Genomics Institute is a newish building that has an atrium where we run across one another, we have lunch or coffee or what have you. And that seems to be a place where there’s a lot of ferment both socially and also intellectually. I repeatedly have meetings there. And so, I think one principle that comes up in modern design, for instance, in scientific buildings is creating spaces where people can cross paths.

And I think that’s an incredibly important aspect of creating of spaces where creativity is fostered. And it’s a real live version of Facebook or Google. And as much as people like to talk about those social networking sites, personal networking between live people, face-to-face, is still far more effective than any kind of online interaction.


Recorded April 24, 2009.



Sam Wang debates genius vs. hard work.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

What’s behind our appetite for self-destruction?

Is it "perverseness," the "death drive," or something else?

Photo by Brad Neathery on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

Each new year, people vow to put an end to self-destructive habits like smoking, overeating or overspending.

Keep reading Show less

Can the keto diet help treat depression? Here’s what the science says so far

A growing body of research shows promising signs that the keto diet might be able to improve mental health.

Photo: Public Domain
Mind & Brain
  • The keto diet is known to be an effective tool for weight loss, however its effects on mental health remain largely unclear.
  • Recent studies suggests that the keto diet might be an effective tool for treating depression, and clearing up so-called "brain fog," though scientists caution more research is necessary before it can be recommended as a treatment.
  • Any experiments with the keto diet are best done in conjunction with a doctor, considering some people face problems when transitioning to the low-carb diet.
Keep reading Show less

Douglas Rushkoff – It’s not the technology’s fault

It's up to us humans to re-humanize our world. An economy that prioritizes growth and profits over humanity has led to digital platforms that "strip the topsoil" of human behavior, whole industries, and the planet, giving less and less back. And only we can save us.

Think Again Podcasts
  • It's an all-hands-on-deck moment in the arc of civilization.
  • Everyone has a choice: Do you want to try to earn enough money to insulate yourself from the world you're creating— or do you want to make the world a place you don't have to insulate yourself from?
Keep reading Show less