How the Genius Thinks

How the Genius Thinks May 31, 2012

From Michael Michalko:

How do geniuses come up with ideas? What is common to the thinking style that produced “Mona Lisa,” as well as the one that spawned the theory of relativity? What characterizes the thinking strategies of the Einsteins, Edisons, daVincis, Darwins, Picassos, Michelangelos, Galileos, Freuds, and Mozarts of history? What can we learn from them?

For years, scholars and researchers have tried to study genius by giving its vital statistics, as if piles of data somehow illuminated genius. In his 1904 study of genius, Havelock Ellis noted that most geniuses are fathered by men older than 30; had mothers younger than 25 and were usually sickly as children. Other scholars reported that many were celibate (Descartes), others were fatherless (Dickens) or motherless (Darwin). In the end, the piles of data illuminated nothing.

Academics also tried to measure the links between intelligence and genius. But intelligence is not enough. Marilyn vos Savant, whose IQ of 228 is the highest ever recorded, has not exactly contributed much to science or art. She is, instead, a question-and-answer columnist for Parade magazine. Run-of-the-mill physicists have IQs much higher than Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman, who many acknowledge to be the last great American genius (his IQ was a merely respectable 122).

Genius is not about scoring 1600 on the SATs, mastering fourteen languages at the age of seven, finishing Mensa exercises in record time, having an extraordinarily high I.Q., or even about being smart. After considerable debate initiated by J. P. Guilford, a leading psychologist who called for a scientific focus on creativity in the sixties, psychologists reached the conclusion that creativity is not the same as intelligence. An individual can be far more creative than he or she is intelligent, or far more intelligent than creative….

1. They look at problems in many different ways.

2. They make their thoughts visible.

3. Geniuses produce.

4. They make novel combinations.

5. They force relationships of things.

6. They think in opposites.

7. They think metaphorically.

8. They prepare themselves for chance.


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  • Adam

    Is the assumption here that it’s BETTER to be a genius?

  • “‘How did you discover the law of gravitation?’ somebody once asked Newton. ‘By thinking about it all the time,’ was the answer.” (from “Great Lives, Great Deeds”)

  • John W Frye

    I think that creative genius also engages (at times enjoys) tension rather than trying to eliminate tension.

  • TJJ

    Research in issues of raw intelligence shows an interesting thing. Intelligence is a continuum. Extremes at both ends are usually considered mentally/developmentally disabled (savants etc). At both extremes there are often other accompanying disabilities (physical, physical, developmentally, emotional). Many savants can do interesting mental things but not truly unique and useful breakthrough things.

    The defining difference for a “genius” is in the definition of course, but usually revolves around quality 3. They are persons of high intelligence who also make unique and novel and profound and valuable discoveries or breakthroughs or talent in the understanding or creation (art/literature) of things or a particular “thing”.

    I will never forget an autistic man I once knew who could tell you and answer of any math problem no matter how big within seconds. He was a mathematical savant, but he lived in a residential home.for mentally and physically disabled because he could not care for himself or communicate effectively with other people.

  • One problem we have in America is that we spend an inordinate amount of time developing Athletic genius and not much time developing any other forms of genius/creativity. And now we are developing a culture that seems to care about celebrity above all else – fame/infamy for its own sake.

    How do we expect to have a society that regularly produces creative and productive people if we don’t actually make an effort to find and develop talent?

    How many theologians are actively mentoring young theologians (not just training scholars)?

  • BradK

    Two qualities not yet mentioned that most geniuses seem to possess are high energy (mental, physical, or both) and a great memory. Both of these contribute to all eight of the observations above.

  • What is genius? Much of the definition seems relative. If ten people are prepared for chance (#8), but chance comes only to one, is only that one of the ten a genius? Or, were nine really not as well prepared, or not geniuses? If someone has an incredible discovery or invention, but only she knows about it, is she a genius, or is a genius only when the work is publicized? Is ingenuity intrinsic in the work or in the public opinion of its usefulness? One may be an incredible genius, but the results are too early for public recognition of the value. The valuation may wait for 100 years to pass until other knowledge can catch up, and the person may be killed today for challenging the status quo. Is ingenuity interpreted in the context of its surroundings? What is considered ingenious today may be next year’s high school science fair project.

  • DRT

    This article comes close. But one has to realize that genius is not singular, it is plural.

  • Percival

    Number 9 is missing I think – intense focus.

  • CDL

    Another mark of a genius, in my mind, is the ability to take multiple contradictory ideas that others have been content to try and “balance,” and to find the larger truth that unites them.