What is the difference between "intelligence" and "genius"?  Creativity, of course!

There was an article recently in Scientific American that discussed creativity and the signs in children that were precursors to creative achievement in adulthood. The authors cite some work done by Michigan State University researchers Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, a collaboration of physiologist and theater instructor, who presented their findings at an annual meeting of the APA this past March. Since I research creativity as well as intelligence, I found the points brought up in the article quite intriguing, yet not surprising.

One of the best observations stated in the article regarding achievement was this:
"... most highly creative people are polymaths- they enjoy and excel at a range of challenging activities. For instance, in a survey of scientists at all levels of achievement, the [researchers] found that only about one sixth report engaging in a secondary activity of an artistic or creative nature, such as painting or writing non-scientific prose. In contrast, nearly all Nobel Prize winners in science have at least one other creative activity that they pursue seriously. Creative breadth, the [researchers] argue, is an important but understudied component of genius."
Everyone is fascinated by famous geniuses like Albert Einstein. They speculate as to what made him so unique and brilliant, but no one has been able to identify exactly what "it" is. If you mention "intelligence research", the average person assumes you are speaking of that top 1 or 2%, the IQs over 145, the little kids you see on TV passing out during Spelling Bees, because they are freaking out from the pressure of having to spell antidisestablishmentarianism on a stage before hundreds of on-lookers.

But the reality is, most intelligence researchers don't focus on the top 1 or 2%, they look at the general population, of which the average score is 100, and generally focus their attention on the lower to middle portion of the distribution.

There may be a multitude of reasons why most researchers focus their study on the lower end of the distribution; one I can see is because the correlations between individual abilities measured on IQ tests and the actual overall ability level of the person taking the test are the strongest at that portion of the distribution- those IQ scores of 110 and below.

The point I just made I have made before (which you will recognize if you read any of my pieces on intelligence), so nothing new there. However, what I found especially promising about the work done by the Root-Bernsteins, is that instead of merely trying to analyze IQ scores, they actually looked at the attributes of successful, intelligent, creative people, and figured out what it was they had going for them that other highly intelligent people did not- essentially, what the difference was between "intelligent" and "genius".

(the paper abstracts from the symposium describing their methods can be read here)

Now, some hard-core statistician-types may balk at their methods, screaming, "Case studies are not valid measures of intelligence!" and to a certain degree, they have a point. Yes, they initially looked at case studies of successful individuals, but then they surveyed scientists across multiple fields and found that the highest achievers in their domain (as indicated by earning the Nobel Prize) were skilled in multiple domains, at least one of these considered to be "creative", such as music, art, or non-scientific writing.

We would probably consider most scientists to be intelligent. But are they all geniuses? Do geniuses have the highest IQ scores? Richard Feynman is undeniably considered to be a genius. While his IQ score was *only* around 120-125, he was also an artist and a gifted communicator. Was he less intelligent than someone with an IQ score of 150?

What we are doing here is challenging the very definition of "intelligence". What is it really? An IQ score? Computational ability? Being able to talk your way out of a speeding ticket? Knowing how to handle crisis effectively? Arguing a convincing case before a jury? Well, maybe all of the above.

Many moons ago, Dr Robert Sternberg, now the Dean of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University in Boston, brought this very argument to the psychology community. And, to be honest, it was not exactly welcomed with open arms. He believed that intelligence is comprised of three facets, only one of which is measured on a typical IQ test, including the SAT and the GRE. That is only the first part, analytical ability. The second component is creativity, and the third component is practical ability, or being able to use your analytical skills and your creativity in order to effectively solve novel problems. He called this the Triarchic Theory of Intelligence.

Fast-forwarding to the present, Dr Rex Jung, from the Mind Institute and the University of New Mexico in Alburquerque, published a paper earlier this year showing biochemical support for the Threshold Theory of Creativity (a necessary but sufficient level of intelligence is needed for successful creative achievement). In a nutshell, he found that intelligence (as most people measure it today) is not enough to set a person apart and rise them to the level of genius. Creativity is that essential component that not all intelligent people possess, but geniuses require. Not all creative people are geniuses (thus the Threshold Theory), but in order to reach genius status, creativity is a necessary attribute.

Someone could have an IQ of 170, yet get lost inside of a paper bag, and not have the ability to hold a conversation with anyone other than a dog. That is not my definition of genius. We want to know what made geniuses like Einstein and Feynman so far ahead of their intelligent scientist peers, and the answer to that is creativity.

I am hoping that as more studies come out stating the importance of multi-disciplinary thinking and collaboration across domains for reaching the highest levels of achievements,  that eventually the science community will fully embrace creativity research and see its validity in the study of successful intelligence. As a society, we already recognize the importance of creativity in innovation and in the arts, so let's take it a step further.

Give creativity the "street cred" it deserves as the defining feature that separates mere intelligence from utter genius.