The Science Behind: Genius

Imagine having your brain stolen. It happened once before. Einstein was his name. You know the guy with the mad hair and the brilliant mind. He died in 1955 from an aneurysm. And then Thomas Harvey came along.

He performed the autopsy. Usually the brain is removed for tests and then returned. But Harvey decided to keep Einstein’s in the name of science. He said it was his duty to find out what made the genius so genius.

So he soaked the brain in a handy jar of formaldehyde and kept it for 40 years. He sent bits of it off for tests the odd time and tried once to give it back to Einstein’s granddaughter. She declined the offer. It rests now in the pathology department at Princeton University.

Not everyone is Einstein and not everyone steals brains but we are fascinated by intelligence all the same, even when we don’t understand it.

The Centre for Talented Youth Ireland runs workshops and Summer schools for above-average students aged 6-16 and the DCU programme hosts 1,000 primary school students every week.

Director Colm O’Reilly says the participants have an extended vocabulary; they can read above their reading age, and they have a natural curiosity about the world around them. They need the stimulation that CTYI offers.

And then there’s Mensa – a high IQ society with members in over 100 countries. You have to score in the top 2% of an approved IQ test to gain membership.

I took the Mensa workout quiz to see if I’m in any way intelligent. It’s 30 questions in 30 minutes. I answered three. Got a headache. And got two wrong.

Maybe I aimed too high or maybe my brain is just wired differently to the smarter beings on this earth. That’s what scientists, and the likes of Thomas Harvey, have been trying to figure out for years.

They don’t know what creates intelligence. Some say it’s biological, others used to think it was size, and there are those non-science guys who speak of the soul.

Scientists have mapped brain patterns; they discovered that women have more white matter than grey matter – the grey processes information and the white connects it all. Some also suggest that fast brain growth in babies leads to autism and that smaller brains can result in ADHD.

Neuroscientists from Caltech; the University of Iowa, and the University of California tested 241 patients with brain injuries. They all took IQ tests and researchers mapped the brains’ injured areas and linked them with the IQ scores.

They discovered that general intelligence is determined by a network of regions across both sides of the brain. So it’s not just one piece that’s responsible for IQ, it’s a collective effort by all neurons and folds.

This work backs up a theory from 2007: parieto-frontal integration. This PFI thing says that intelligence depends on how well the brain can pull different bits of information together.

So intelligence is not controlled by one area. There is no one type of genius. O’Reilly says “everybody’s above average these days”. And he’s probably right.

Mary McDonnell

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