Genius and the Cognitive Revolution

Published by: Gwyneth Wesley Rolph on 15th Jan 2017 | View all blogs by Gwyneth Wesley Rolph

Genius as a concept is notoriously difficult to define, and sometimes it seems that only sex and politics attract more replies whenever the subjects come up for discussion – and usually of an equally confused and/or opinionated nature.



The word itself originates from the pagan belief in a guardian or tutelary spirit said to watch over the individual from birth: their “genius”.  Later, the word started to be used to refer to a “characteristic disposition”.  The definition of the word that referred to a person’s talent or ability appeared around the seventeenth century.  It was not until the invention and widespread use of psychometric testing that the word started being used to refer to a person with a very high IQ [i].  Most dictionaries that carry this definition state 140 as the baseline level for a genius level IQ, but usually omit to say per which test or scale.


Most online discussions I have run across tend to conclude that genius is undefinable, but that “I know it when I see it!”  I hope I am not alone in finding this definition unsatisfactory.


In 1926 Catharine Cox Miles published her seminal work Genetic Studies of Genius: The Early Mental Traits of Three Hundred Geniuses [ii].  While the work was thorough and ground breaking for its time, the difficulty with only including famous geniuses is that it raises questions as to how representative her subjects actually were of geniuses in general.  There is a perception among the public that links genius to fame and fortune and vice versa.  I would argue that it is highly unlikely that even a fraction of the geniuses that have ever lived attained the levels of eminence of the subjects of the Cox study.  The unfortunate corollary to the public perception that genius=eminence is that when such status is not forthcoming, then the hapless individual couldn’t have been all that in the first place, else he must have self-sabotaged by having no social nous.  (I will leave aside for now arguments regarding motivation and finding personal fulfilment in other ways.)


One of the most disheartening articles I ever read on the subject of high intellectual ability was Rena F Subotnik’s paper A Developmental View of Giftedness: From Being to Doing [iii].  While the author makes some good points, I am disheartened at the theme running through the article that while a high IQ is sufficient for the gifted label for a young child, an adolescent or adult is expected to exhibit stellar public achievements in order to warrant the label.  On the other hand, while I am not keen on the way Linda K Silverman presents the argument from a female versus male perspective, her article I’m Not Gifted, I’m Just Busy at least articulates clearly the point that ability is inherent, while fame, recognition and eminence are social constructs [iv].


Let’s examine why eminence is insufficient as a measure of genius.  Does the cream really always rise to the top?  Rather than choose specific individuals’ stories (which usually only invites off-topic nit-picking), I will keep the examples hypothetical.


Imagine, if you will, an individual who has all the ability and drive to potentially equal the success of any of the subjects of the Cox study.  There are no fatal flaws in this person’s character that might otherwise derail success, and we will assume no weaknesses in social interaction that might cause him to be shunned.  (I say “him”, but I wish to make it clear I am not referring to a specific individual, and I need to pick a pronoun to avoid grammatical clumsiness.)  He goes about his day, doing his genius thing and being productive.  The only difference between him right now and anyone on Cox’s list is the fact that they are known about and he is not.  Is he a genius?  Well, you might say, it is surely only a matter of time.  If he is really a genius, there is still time for his work to be discovered and for him to be propelled to fame and fortune.


Now let’s imagine that this individual lived 200 years ago, and his life’s work was discovered locked in the drawer of an antique bureau.  Experts in his field are abuzz with excitement, and are shocked at the fact that his work was never recognised within his lifetime.  Is he still a genius?  Obviously, since it is clearly impossible for someone to “become” a genius after they are dead.  It is just the world took a long time to catch on.


Let’s take the scenario a step further.  Imagine that instead of the old bureau being found and unlocked and the documents falling into appreciative hands, the house clearers take the whole lot to landfill and the person’s work never sees the light of day again.  I remind you that this person has all the same cognitive capacities and personal characteristics of anyone on Cox’s list.  Is he still a genius?


We could roll back the scenario still further.  Imagine instead of our hypothetical individual being productive in a field where it was possible to write up his life’s work with nothing more sophisticated than a pen and paper, the most that he was ever able to produce were theories and proposals.  Much of his desired productive output remained unrealised because it required access to particular resources (such as specialised equipment) that was not made available to him.  Bear in mind that this individual is still every bit as capable of ground-breaking concepts as anyone on the Cox list.  Is he still a genius?


Our hypothetical example could even go beyond mere neglect and the individual’s extraordinary nature could have been actively fought and resisted, right from early childhood.  Jealous family members, jealous teachers and other school staff, opportunities denied and withheld right from the beginning before the person is even old enough to have formulated a self-concept to protect, the outcome is the same, and that is inappropriate exclusion.  I reiterate one more time that he otherwise still possesses all the same cognitive and character traits as anyone on Cox’s list.  Is he still a genius?  I suggest that it would be rather perverse at this stage to argue that he is not.


The point of these examples was, of course, to illustrate how being recognised as a genius involves so many other factors that may be well beyond the individual’s control.  This is why I suggest that we need a definition of genius that only considers traits within the individual, and does not consider extraneous variables such as public opinion, socio-economic status, or the current societal definitions of “success”.


There are always those who make claims along the lines of “genius will always find a way.”  I would simply put the question back to them: where is the proof of that?  The geniuses we know about are simply the ones that became famous.  But fame does not a genius make.  There are always going to be those whose seeming sole ability in life is in self-promotion.  And of course once one has a modicum of financial success in life, one can simply pay a publicist to do it all for them.


To attempt to narrow down where a proposed definition of genius should be looking, let us explore an interesting development in psychology research that came to be known as the Cognitive Revolution.


For most of the early part of the twentieth century, behaviourism dominated research in psychology.  Observing what an animal would do in response to a given stimulus was considered more “scientific” than trying to make inferences about motivation, thought processes, emotions, and so on.  Anything that could not be directly observed was simply filed by the psychologists of the day into a proverbial black box.  Very little was known about brain systems or cognitive processes; hence the “solution” was simply to disregard the internal workings of the mind.


That was all to change during the 1950s and 1960s, when a number of papers and books were published examining the information processing capacities of the mind, for example Miller’s paper on working memory capacity The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two [v], Chomsky’s criticism of Skinner’s book Verbal Behavior [vi], Neisser’s book Cognitive Psychology [vii], and the attention experiments of Cherry and Broadbent.  The invention of the computer provided a useful analogy: that of a system where information went in, was processed, and came out.  The information processing model provided the foundation for a paradigm shift in psychological research.


So how does all this help us define genius?  I believe that the way genius is commonly perceived is still stuck in its behaviourist era.  Using metrics such as wealth, prizes and accolades won, the amount of words of biographical data written about them, and so on, might be easy to measure but as I hope my argument has made clear, this approach is particularly prone to both false negatives and false positives.  What we need is a cognitive approach to defining genius – a metric that focuses on how geniuses perceive the world and how their mental functions operate.


Actually, we hardly need to start with a whole new field, but rather extend an existing one.  There is a long history of psychometric testing, measuring such cognitive processes as working memory, vocabulary, quantitative reasoning, logical inferences, and so on.  Because these tests are constructed to follow a normal distribution curve, there is an obvious difficulty in measuring in very high ranges, and most standardized tests stop measuring at around four standard deviations, where there is only about a one in 31,500 probability of finding a person with an IQ that high.  I suggest that somewhere approaching this level is where the genius-type cognitive style is likely to start.


Perhaps with developments in brain imaging and cognitive neuroscience, we may develop ways of measuring those cognitive processes more reliably and better understanding what underlies them.




[ii] Cox, C. M. "Genetic studies of genius: The early mental traits of three hundred geniuses". 2. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

[iii] Subotnik, R. F. (2003). A developmental view of giftedness: From being to doing. Roeper Review, 26, 14–15.

[iv] Silverman, L.K. (2005). I’m not gifted, I’m just busy: unrecognized giftedness in women. Retrieved from:

[vi] Chomsky, N. (1959). "Review of Verbal Behavior, by B.F. Skinner". Language. 35: 26–57.

[vii] Neisser, U (1967) Cognitive Psychology Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York.



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