Creating in Flow

The world of creativity—with a twist of rationality

The Many Guises of Genius

Smartness is as smartness does... or is it?

genius girl
Can anyone become a genius? What do geniuses do that makes them so special anyway? Three new books explore different facets of genius, and I'll share what makes each one worth reading.

3 Genius Books

1. Divine Fury: A History of Genius, by Darrin M. McMahon, is a 300-page tome, dozens of which are filled with images and notes. This absorbing history of ideas about genius includes genius's "intimate connection to the divine," as well as the social construction of genius. From the ancients to today, every possible aspect of this fascinating topic is explored.

Included is a section about Hitler, who thought himself a genius, and the corrupting power of genius. It's a book for scholars, certainly, but also for anyone wanting to get behind and beyond the way genius is discussed in popular media.

2. Genius Unmasked by Roberta B. Ness is a highly readable account of how more than a dozen major scientists did the genius-level work they did, followed in each case by a discussion of how they used particular cognitive tools. Ness is a physician-scientist and author, much awarded and honored and involved in research on innovation.

The cognitive toolbox Ness makes a good case for includes the following: finding the right question, observation, analogy, juggling induction and deduction, changing point of view, broadening perspective, dissecting the problem, reversal, recombination and rearrangement, the power of groups, and frame shifting.

If that quickie list makes it seem too hard to teach or learn how to be a good innovator, Ness explains in elegant detail precisely how each of the scientists she's written about used whichever of the tools he or she used.

I'll give the example of Maria Montessori, whose mental processes I haven't read about before. Italy's first woman physician in 1896(!), Montessori took an interest in retarded children. She observed, shifted frames to see things through a child's-eye-view, and made the connection that children (normal and non) could, by way of self-learning, develop with respect, their natural impulses unsuppressed, leading to much greater educational and developmental progress. By asking the right question—could retardation in part be a matter of the way in which children were taught?—she was able to design a whole new system of educating any and all children.

Other remarkable innovators analyzed in Genius Unmasked include Darwin, Einstein, Edison, Curie, and several more recent individuals who have advanced the fields of social psychology, medicine, computers, and environmental science. Highly recommended.

3. Spark: A Mother's Story of Nurturing Genius, by Kristine Barnett, is a memoir of raising her son Jake, a math and science prodigy who began university at nine. By the age of two, however, Jake had stopped speaking and was diagnosed as autistic. At three, his teacher doubted he'd ever read. It takes further evaluations before Jake is found to have Asperger's, with an IQ of 189.

Barnett weaves a compelling narrative that many parents might relate to, especially the parts about navigating the various systems so as to get a struggling child the best help possible. Barnett tells readers about her and her husband's countless internet searches, the overwhelming hours of therapy of various kinds that Jake needed, the role of boredom in her son's problems, as well as her own efforts to help other children while helping her own. As complicated and trauma-filled as her own life is, Barnett writes with neither sentimentality nor self-absorption. Really quite fascinating.

Find out more about Barnett's charitable community center for autistic and special-needs children and their families called Jacob's Place.

Copyright (c) 2013 by Susan K. Perry

Follow me on Twitter @bunnyape

Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and author. Her current focus is on the creative aspects of rationality and atheism.

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