This is how the brains of geniuses like Einstein or Mozart work

Every century has had its geniuses, those people who are capable of modifying the world in which they live through their creations, theories or discoveries.

All brains are composed of the same thing: a kilo of mass between fat, water, proteins, carbohydrates and salts. How is it possible that some of us pass through life without pain or glory, while others are capable of creating masterpieces and discovering amazing theories? Scientists have been asking the same question for centuries.

When we think of geniuses, names like Newton, Einstein, Beethoven or Mozart come to mind, among dozens of others. According to the Spanish Royal Academy of Sciences, a genius is a person with “extraordinary mental capacity to create or invent new and admirable things“. For his part, Craig Wright, doctor of musicology and professor at Yale University, tells the BBC that “human genius is linked to high creativity. It is what Mozart, Shakespeare or Einstein seem to be; individuals with great creative capacities that change the direction of humanity for centuries“.

There seems to be a consensus on the definition of genius, but the mystery surrounding these excellent figures is still there. On April 18, 1955, when Einstein died, his body was cremated, but his brain was not. The autopsied pathologist Thomas Harvey took it home. There, he took several photos and then cut the brain into more than 200 slices to send to several American neuropathologists. He wanted to unveil the secret behind the mind that had developed the Theory of Relativity.

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Nothing conclusive

Although the scientists did find some unique features in the genius's brain, it was not enough to determine a conclusion. Dean Keith Simonton, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California at Davis, states that “no one has a ‘typical‘ brain and for the studies to be valid would require a large sample of genius brains compared to a large sample of normal brains”.

Finding nothing different in the brains of deceased geniuses that would differentiate them from a “normal” person's brain, the scientists focused on investigating how different brain areas are activated when generating ideas. Wright “links human genius to high creative ability,” and this is linked to another study by Roger Beaty, an expert in cognitive neuroscience at Harvard University.

The neuroscientist and his team, using MRI scans of highly creative people in the general population, found specific neural networks that are activated in the generation of ideas. Specifically, this creative thinking happens within three networks. “The first would be the default neural network, used to create ideas. The second would be the executive control network, in charge of evaluating the ideas generated, whether they are good or not and whether they meet the requirements of what one is trying to solve. The third network is in charge of alternating between the first two,” Beaty explains in his interview with the BBC.

Geniuses experience what is known as a “eureka moment”.

It seems that highly creative people have better communication between these three networks than typical people, “being more efficient in the generation and evaluation of ideas,” explains the researcher. In addition, geniuses experience what is known as a “eureka moment”, when they find the solution to a problem abruptly.

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Far from what scientists first believed, these “eureka moments” do not occur when these geniuses are most concentrated, but “when they least thought about the solution, when they least expected it; walking through a park, the coast or writing down what they remembered from their dreams the next morning,” Wright says.

However, Wright laments that he doesn't have more firsthand information on how geniuses thought. “Shakespeare and Mozart never told us, but we do know more about how Einstein saw the world. In his autobiography he talked about how he thought, how he played with mental images over and over again until he came up with his theories,” he adds.

Finally, as to whether “a genius is born or made,” scientists say that “not all geniuses have exceptional IQs, and not all people with high IQs make achievements that qualify them as geniuses.” Although there are no ironclad conclusions, everyone seems to agree that a genius can be trained. “The most important thing is to maintain motivation and avoid disillusionment. Work on getting individuals to express their full capabilities and not pigeonhole them into a specific field,” Wright says.