Is there a way to bring out the genius within all of us? 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 explores the connections in our brain that make us different and whether people like Einstein are born geniuses or develop from blank slates.
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: We’re learning ways to perturb the brain and I’m just wondering do you think someday that people will be sort of enhancing kind of “natural” creativity to get people to be more like what we think of as geniuses or is that just not possible?
Joy Hirsch: I love the idea of the vision that there’s a way to bring out the genius in all of us. And I wish that there was a way that in our educational system that we could develop ways to promote creativity. We do actually. We’re pretty good at it, but we could be better. That we could teach people to take risk in education. We could value more the person that takes the path that is not the common path. I think we as a society are pretty good at that, but we could be a lot better. And I think that that’s one of the values of studying or thinking about genius. It’s a way for us to think about, “Gee, let’s get better at this creative business. Let’s find that creative spirit in all of us. Let’s move forward faster.”
Carl Zimmer: I think sometimes people think about the brain as kind of a shortcut to all these sorts of problems, you know. If we could just understand the brain, then we can just go right in there and just fix things directly whereas it is easy to forget that, you know, education itself alters the brain.
Joy Hirsch: Exactly. 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 that 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 like 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.
Carl Zimmer: Well because it is true that when people talk about geniuses they are other. They’re almost freakish.
Joy Hirsch: Exactly.
Carl Zimmer: They’re like what is it like to be that person. I can’t even imagine. There’s a fetish to it.
Joy Hirsch: Exactly and I think that that attitude really deters people from taking the risk. I mean 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. And 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 that by incorporating the creative person into the mainstream, it might be a way to encourage more creativity.
Carl Zimmer: In a way, you know, you’ve been talking a lot about the things that neuroscientists can’t tell us about genius. We want easy answers and we think, "Oh, the easy answers are all in the brain." And you’re kind of warning us like, "Well, we neuroscientists, we don’t know all that much. The brain’s a complicated thing and it’s a social thing too." So I mean what do you think that neuroscientists can do to help us understand genius better? I mean what are the kinds of studies that you think would be like the best ones to do to make us understand genius as you think of it?
Joy Hirsch: I think that in general the study of individual differences is a really interesting direction to take. Differences in, say, there’s some people that have extraordinary memory and we can design experiments to look at the neurocircuitry that’s associated with memory strategies. And we learned something about what makes one person better at memorizing things than another. There are differences in how well we do mathematics and how well we can put things together. And understanding the rules for those differences is important. For example, one of the things that neuroscientists have taught us recently is that the parts of the brain are all so richly interconnected and the extent to which they are connected has a great deal to do with function.
Carl Zimmer: So we’re talking about, say, a patch of your cortex over here and another patch over here and there are like cables joining them together.
Joy Hirsch: Indeed. And how well those connections actually work is thought to contribute a great deal to our individual differences.
Carl Zimmer: Is it that some people have more connections than others? Or bigger connections or what are those underlying differences?
Joy Hirsch: Well it’s all of the above. In some cases the connections are actually more richly enervated. There are simply more of them. In other cases they go to slightly different places. In other cases they’re just stronger connections, which means there’s less noise in the brain. I mean all of those hypotheses are viable options. There’s evidence for all of them and they contribute to considerable differences between performances of one person and another.
Carl Zimmer: So if we start to get down to these real kind of biological components of creativity, of innovation, and of ultimately what we might call genius, I’m wondering can we start to kind of figure out like are geniuses just born or are they made? Can we figure out like what the differences are? You know, was Einstein just a blank slate when he was born and he just happened to have a really good math teacher in first grade. I mean what — how do those connections — what do we know about how those connections develop in children, in teenagers, in adults and how the genes play a role in all that.
Joy Hirsch: That really is the $64,000 question and it is the question that we would like to answer. How does the brain do it and how do we help the brain do it better? I think that your question really raises another really important point and that is how much bigger our questions are than our science and our methodology. We need a genius to figure this one out because we need to be able to answer those kinds of questions faster. We need to answer them better and we need to apply them to our lives.