What is a genius?

“Talent hits a target that no one else can reach;
the genius hits a target that no one else can see.”
Arthur Schopenhauer

Innate and acquired knowledge

No one has the time and the means to unravel the history of science. We are forced to take for granted most of the knowledge used on a daily basis. Most of? Where to draw the line? Isn’t it always arbitrary? Is seniority and consensus about knowledge a guarantee of certainty? Could quantum mechanics have established itself in the face of such certainties? Even Einstein set himself a limit with “God doesn’t play dice.” Should we not then accept all new ideas, and when they seem far-fetched and struggle to demonstrate themselves, give them a fairly low rating rather than reject them? Open-mindedness would then be a decreasing scale of skepticism and not that any conviction is good to take.

An abstract mathematical edifice rises

The way we build our personal foundation of knowledge is crucial in defining engineering. It is very easy to understand this with a hierarchical conception of knowledge. Take math: the student must start by having the alphabet of mathematical language —numbers. Plus such an important list of icons: geometric figures. The first organization is set theory. Then the functions establish the relationships between these entities. The mathematical edifice rises at the same time as the school years.

This brief description takes the hierarchy into motion. Neural networks must be prepared to swallow these conceptual levels. They are all naturally programmed for simple numbers, rarely for complex mathematical objects. Learning becomes more and more imperative as one climbs the conceptual hierarchy. A lot of brains are lost along the way. If the previous level of knowledge is incomplete, the next one will be made of fragile notions learned by rote but not understood.

Genius loves problem suggestions, not solutions

This is where genius separates herself from others. The genius doesn’t need learning. She self-organizes her conceptual hierarchy in the field where her genius is practiced. New knowledge is data that she attaches to the existing structure and not a pre-installed structure. Her personal structure remains perfectly integrated.

To understand the difference, one must accept the principle of relative independence of conceptual levels. That one is organized in the best possible way does not imply that the underlying levels are. It is possible to learn the curriculum of a school year without the previous ones having been properly integrated. The mental representation is a “by rote” installed on top of processes incapable of achieving it alone.

Mental meta-abstraction

The multiplicity of levels of abstraction aggravates the gaps. Some minds have perfect level coordination from the beginning —a solid mental “meta-abstraction,” while many others have less adjusted levels, each bearing the imprint of teachers and imperfectly understood events. Outdoor tattoos, myths and neuroses settle. Coherence is fragile. The mind finds it difficult to increase its complexity. Learning becomes slower and more difficult.

It is always possible to improve our personal meta-abstraction. Consciousness has this extraordinary faculty of retro-controlling the whole edifice. It improves the coordination of unconscious levels without direct access to them. This is how we improve an often repeated gesture, by back-controlling the result using visual data. However, the operation is facilitated by the reduced number of stages between primary motor neurons and conscious space. Reprogramming the entire height on which our superior concepts perch is much more difficult. The connections are numerous. It is an identity structure—it tends to preserve itself rather than revolutionize itself.

Genius: innate and forgotten

We can now understand what makes the innate character of genius: its neural structural is organized with agility to process the regularities of incoming signals. On these stable syntheses, the levels of complexity are added spontaneously. These networks do not need to learn the complex solution; they find it spontaneously. A particularly salient advantage: if official education has a bad branch, the genius avoids it. She knows why it’s a mistake. She creates her own path, while the student receives it without being able to put it back on the ground.

Highly intelligent minds do not become geniuses. Why? You can easily guess: they have learned too much about their knowledge. It is for this same reason that good mnemons are not necessarily creative. They learned everything, retained complex solutions. Impossible to imagine another. Any presentation of similar data immediately brings out the known, imposing and imposed solution. Creativity and genius require… a little forgetfulness.


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