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How Can We Tell a Genius From a Really Smart Person?

Members of Mensa, a club for people with high IQ, think that the difference is exceptional creativity

A few years ago, Claire Cameron, Nautilus’s Social Media & News Editor asked five present or former members of Mensa, an international high-IQ society, founded in 1946. To qualify as members, they had to score above the 98th percentile on an IQ test or another standardized one. Her conversation with Richard Hunter, a retired finance director at a drinks distributor; journalist Jack Williams; Bikram Rana, a director at a business consulting firm; LaRae Bakerink, a business consultant; and clinical hypnotist John Sheehan brings into sharp relief the difference between high intelligence and genius — a fact that the high-IQ scorers were happy to admit. Some snippets from the conversation (participants are identified by their initials):

RH: You can have a very high IQ and be a complete idiot.

BR: No! How different could I be from the 97th percentile? I think hard work is what really separates you from others. I don’t think you can be a genius without achievement. You know people at the very top work doubly as hard as 90 percent of people in the same profession.

LB: … I have a really good memory and really excellent organizational ability, but I don’t consider those things genius. I see genius as creativity.

Claire Cameron, “How Is a Genius Different From a Really Smart Person?” at Nautilus (October 20, 2014)

It became apparent from the discussion that the Mensa members, past and present, saw their high IQ in terms of organizational ability, memory, logical ability, and productivity. They seemed to understand that the creativity of, say, Ramanujan or Jane Austen cannot be understood simply in terms of high IQ. In fact, they see Mensa as a “social club” where intelligent introverts won’t be centered out.

Jane Austen, 1810

Mensa US has about 50,000 members but that’s only a tiny proportion of Americans who would score above the 98th percentile, which may in part be due to the tendency to introversion. But then Mensa members may have more reasons than most for introversion. As Jack Williams points out, “You’re more likely to find someone who is interested in black holes than you are reality TV.”

Richard Hunter offered that genius isn’t even easy to measure: “I think some types of genius can be measured and some other types of genius can only be assessed by other people’s judgment. If you are mathematical genius, you can measure that, but if you are an artistic genius, you can’t measure that.”

So, when we talk about genius, we mean something quite different from a high IQ and it’s something we only recognize by its outcome — when we recognize it at all. Jane Austen, one of the greatest English novelists, was hardly recognized in her lifetime. In part that’s because she was a woman. But also, she mirrored her society with such brilliant accuracy that she herself was bound to become invisible anyway. There were women in her day who were very visible indeed but they did not write like Austen.

Ramanujan, like many geniuses, said disconcerting things like “An equation means nothing to me unless it expresses a thought of God.” And, also like many geniuses, he had a tenuous hold on everyday realities, which — left to itself — can end badly:

Srinivasa Ramanujan was the strangest man in all of mathematics, probably in the entire history of science. He has been compared to a bursting supernova, illuminating the darkest, most profound corners of mathematics, before being tragically struck down by tuberculosis at the age of 33… Working in total isolation from the main currents of his field, he was able to rederive 100 years’ worth of Western mathematics on his own. The tragedy of his life is that much of his work was wasted rediscovering known mathematics.

Michio Kaku, In Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the Tenth Dimension (1994), 172.

Genius is not evident in the brain. University of Washington psychology prof Earl Hunt, who studied intelligence, told Yahoo News,“I don’t think, biologically, they are very different, or that there is a ‘genius brain’ component to giftedness.” Albert Einstein’s much-studied brain did not unlock any great secrets of genius.

Perhaps the difficulty understanding genius, as opposed to conventional smartness, is precisely that we can’t understand what it would be like to create fundamentally new fields or ideas like relativity or the modern novel. The quality is probably not physical in the sense of being a special arrangement of the brain. It may not be quantifiable either. Various sources try to estimate the IQs of, say, Einstein or other untested geniuses. But these sources are assuming what they wish to prove. Perhaps we would have to be geniuses ourselves to understand. But even then, there is no guarantee. Geniuses often do not understand each other either.

You may also wish to read: Ever wish you had total recall? Ask people who do… Recall of every detail of one’s past works out better for some people than for others. Just why some people can recall almost everything that happened to them is a mystery in neuroscience, in part because they are few in number.


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How Can We Tell a Genius From a Really Smart Person?