What Makes ‘Geniuses’?

Genius is a talent for producing something for which no determinate rule can be given, not a predisposition consisting of a skill for something that can be learned by following some rule or other.
Immanuel Kant

Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see. With people with only modest ability, modesty is mere honesty; but with those who possess great talent, it is hypocrisy.
Arthur Schopenhauer as quoted in The Little Book of Bathroom Philosophy : Daily Wisdom from the Greatest Thinkers (2004) by Gregory Bergman, p. 137

When Nature has work to be done, she creates a genius to do it. — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Method of Nature

A genius is a person who displays exceptional superior intellectual ability, creativity, or originality, typically to a degree that is associated with the achievement of new advances in a domain of knowledge.

A scholar in many subjects or a scholar in a single subject may be referred to as a genius. There is no scientifically precise definition of genius, and the question of whether the notion itself has any real meaning has long been a subject of debate, although psychologists are converging on a definition that emphasizes creativity and eminent achievement.

In ancient Rome, the genius (plural in Latin genii) was the guiding spirit or tutelary (providing protective supervision; watching over or safeguarding:”tutelary gods”) deity of a person, family (gens), or place (genius loci). The noun is related to the Latin verb genui, genitus, “to bring into being, create, produce”, as well as to the Greek word for birth. Because the achievements of exceptional individuals seemed to indicate the presence of a particularly powerful genius, by the time of Augustus, the word began to acquire its secondary meaning of “inspiration, talent”. The term genius acquired its modern sense in the eighteenth century, and is a conflation of two Latin terms: genius, as above, and ingenium, a related noun referring to our innate dispositions, talents, and inborn nature. Beginning to blend the concepts of the divine and the talented, the Encyclopédie article on genius (génie) describes such a person as “he whose soul is more expansive and struck by the feelings of all others; interested by all that is in nature never to receive an idea unless it evokes a feeling; everything excites him and on which nothing is lost.” Source

Genius is the aptitude for seeing invisible things, for stirring intangible things, for painting things that have no features.
Joseph Joubert, The Notebooks of Joseph Joubert (1983) as translated by Paul Auster

Image: Albert Einstein

Genius have always fascinated researchers and the common folks. The ability of their brain to perform superhuman calculation and out-of-the-box thinking is something that we all desire. We are constantly seeking the secrets of their immerse intelligent so that one day, we could use this secrets to make us genius.
But geniuses are a very very rare bred and even fewer of them are willing to give up their brain for scientific research. However, the neuroscientist dream came true when Albert Einstein died in 1955 and permission were given by his sons to extract his brain for scientific research.

Image: Dr. Thomas Harvey holding a jar containing what’s left of Albert Einstein Brain. Show the top View of Albert Einstein Brain. The front of the brain is at the top. The high resolution images have enable researcher to map out the pattern of surface folds on Albert Einstein Brain.

Just hours after Albert Einstein’s death, Dr. Thomas Harvey extracted his brain and sliced it into 240 pieces. The 240 pieces were then distributed to various university around the world for further analysis. However the technology back in 1955 was limited and neuroscientist couldn’t discover anything that’s special about Albert Einsteins’ brain.
But recently, thanks to a huge effort by the University of Princeton, they managed to retrieve back 180 of 240 pieces of Albert Einstein’s brain.
14 never before seen photos of his brain before dissection were retrieved in the process too. Couple with modern imaging technology, neuroscientist were able to create a detailed map of Albert Einstein’s brain. They compared the mapping with 80 over adult brain and discover several difference in brain structures that were unique to Albert Einstein.

Firstly, Einstein’s brain was smaller but definitely different.

Most believed that smart people have larger brain. But for Albert Einstein’s brain, it was surprising smaller and weighed 9% lighter than average. Despite a smaller size, Albert Einstein had different pattern of surface folding on his brain. Some region had fewer folding while some had more foldings. Neuroscientist speculate that regions with lesser folding would meant that electrical signals in that regions can move at a greater speed as they don’t have to travel around the foldings. Whereas for region with more folding, neuroscientist speculate that this help to pack more brain cells into the region and hence allowing more complicated and higher level of thoughts.

To be specific,  it was the prefrontal, somatosensory, primary motor, parietal and temporal and occipital cortices that had the greatest difference in sizes and folding pattern as compared to a normal person. The researchers also noted that these were the regions that are critical to a person visual and space visualization as well as mathematical skills. And morphical difference in these region is very highly the reasons for Albert Einstein incredible cognitive abilities.

Figure shows the region where morphical difference were observed. REDPrefrontal lobe. GREENPrimary Motor. BLUE Somatosensory AMBERParietal Lobe               YELLOW GREEN Occipital Lobe. MAGENTA– Temporal Lobe 

Secondly, Albert Einstein have a very different Sylvian Fissure.

Image: Lateral sulcus or Sylvian fissure of human brain
  • Anatomy – The lateral sulcus or Sylvian fissure divides both the frontal lobe and parietal lobe above from the temporal lobe below. It is in both hemispheres of the brain but is longer in the left hemisphere in most people. The lateral sulcus is one of the earliest-developing sulci of the human brain. It first appears around the fourteenth gestational week. The lateral sulcus has a number of side branches. Two of the most prominent and most regularly found are the ascending (also called vertical) ramus and the horizontal ramus of the lateral fissure, which subdivide the inferior frontal gyrus. The lateral sulcus also contains the transverse temporal gyri, which are part of the primary and below the surface auditory cortex. [Wikipedia]


In normal human being, the fissure were long and deep and divide the parietal lobe (shaded in green; figure showing the region where morphical difference were observed) into two different lobe. But for Albert Einstein, the fissure terminate prematurely and that have made Albert Einstein’s parietal lobe 15% (1 cm) wider than average. The parietal lobe is known to be responsible for helping individuals to visualize and distort space. For example, trying to imagine the size of 150 olympic pools.

Imageleft parietal lobe (red) and corpus callosum, diencephalon, brainstem, cerebellum.
Imageleft occipital lobe(red)

Thirdly, his left and right brain is very well connected

The last of the morphological differences was found by reseachers from East China University. They found that the size of his Corpus Callosum was thicker than average. Corpus Callosum is just a bundle of nerve that connect your left and right brain. Thicker Corpus Callosum meant the two side of Albert Einstein were able to communicate with greater ease. This would help specialized data from one side of the date to be enhanced by another side of the brain and with great ease. Furthermore, the corpus callosum were also found to be highly wired to regions of his brain that handles visual spatial and mathematical skills.


Imagecorpus callosum. Images are from Anatomography maintained by Life Science Databases(LSDB)


Lastly, Albert Einstein’s Brain Cells Were Well-looked after.

Image: Glial cell shown to be wrapping around a neurons. Glial takes good care of our brain cells and keep them at their peak.

Albert Einstein’s brain was sliced into 240 pieces and further sliced to produce detailed microscopic slides. However, neuroscientist back in 1955 couldn’t find anything significant due to the lack of technology.  But after 4 years, a researcher from University of California named Dr. Marian Diamond found that Albert’s Einstein have an extraordinary concentration of Glial Cells. And in part of the brains that controls visual spatial and mathematical skills, the concentration of Glial Cell were even higher than average.
It’s well known that Glial Cells are like a housekeeper. They are very important to brain cells and in fact, for every one brain cells, there are 9 Glial Cells on average.

Glial cells have many functions in our brain. It includes blocking toxic chemicals from your blood, remove cellular waste generated by the neurons, wrap around nerves and acts as insulations and more importantly, help brain cells repair cellular damages. And having more of such glial cells in Albert Einsteins’ brain meant that his brain cells were much well cared for compared to normal people. This could have helped his brain cells to fires off electrical signals easily and communicate with greater efficiency.

Figure Dr. Thomas Harvey Holding up a slides containing a single slices of Albert Einstein Brain. Dr. Diamond and her teams used slides like these to analyse Albert Einstein Glial Cells.

In conclusion, Albert Einstein were definitely different from the rest of us. When it was first extracted in 1955, analytical technique were too rudimentary to dig out any secrets. But with modern imaging technology and new research materials, neuroscientist were able to pinpoint 4 instances where Albert Einstein’s Brain was different from the norm.


was the pattern of surface folds,


was the lack of Sylvian Fissures,


was a thicker Corpus Callosum and


higher than average concentration of Glial Cells.

This research is truly remarkable because it involves retrieving 180 out 240 pieces of Albert Einsteins’ brain. No easy feat considering that Albert Einsteins’ brain was scattered for close to 5 decades before being brought together by University of Princeton. And the findings were equally remarkable, it proved that our thoughts and thinking are very much physical and physical changes to your brain can drastically either improve or degrade your cognitive abilities. Although we can’t directly draft these physical changes onto us, yet, and make us as smart as Albert Einstein but at least now we know why smart people are smart.

Adapted from various articles of
Science magazine ‘Scientific American’ and the website by the name ‘ScientificBrains’ and various Wikipedia articles.


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