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Have you ever met someone and thought, "Wow. He/she is Human 2.0"? There are some individuals who aren't just a little smarter than other people, they are playing in a whole different arena. My first experience with a person like this was a class I took from professor Moshe Lazar at USC. He spoke a dozen languages and had incredible insight on topics ranging from comparative theology and linguistics to mathematics and physics. Moshe was also an inspirational educator, the kind of guy who made you want to rush to the library after class. I think he may be partly responsible for my Wikipedia addiction :-) A few years ago I ran into another educator, Meheroo Jussawalla, who reminded me a great deal of Dr. Lazar. When Meheroo, who is 85, first walked into my lecture on managing distributed software teams, I didn't expect her to start asking me about IPv6 adoption in Japan. I had the opportunity to chat with her briefly after my talk. She gave me what I can only describe as a brain buzz.

During my time at USC I had the pleasure of taking a master class from musical genius Branford Marsalis. It was a truly humbling and inspirational experience. My favorite part was his answer to the inquiry, "Where do you look for inspiration?" Answer: These days, mostly ancient Chinese music. He proceeded to show us how he was integrating riffs from ancient Chinese songs into his jazz work, and it sounded fantastic. Branford simply breaths music.

I often wonder what combination of genetics and environmental factors conflate to create such an individual. How much of it is random? How much of it is hard work? How much of it is good genes?

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Comment by Kevin Vaccarello on March 17, 2009 at 6:48pm
Perhaps we can explore the relationship of data, information, knowledge, genius, wisdom as a continuum, nested hierarchy or process of emergence?

It seems to me that meaning is created as a result of the relationship of new stimuli with an experiential background. Experiences as retained, recalled, associated, etc. in our memory prompts the creation of meaning. Nothing means anything in and of itself.

Neuroplasticity suggests that the brain is constantly remapping itself, due to the barrage of electro-chemical stimuli, in order to attempt to simulate external reality internally. A dendrite connects many neurons to form a more clustered "meaning set". The more diverse experiences, the more neurons, the more expansive the dendrite(s), the more connections can be made, hence the more opportunity for unique combinations of experiences to create unique meaning (i.e. creativity, genius). Like an artist, the more media s/he has access to, the more possible creations.

Intelligence seems to be deeply related to pattern recognition. There appears to be particular patterns that more closely approximate reality, however, and whether or not one recognizes or experiences those patterns will determine their level of success within particular systems or contexts. In that regard, intelligence seems to be context dependent. The most intelligent (the "genius") will be able to respond to any situation in any context, deduce what is optimal for the whole and act accordingly. Other than that, a genius seems to just be one who has sponged and connected lots of seemingly disparate facets of reality and uniquely conveyed them.
Comment by Daniel Leuck on March 17, 2009 at 2:39pm
Kostya: Its funny you should mention Bach. I was thinking about the treatment of this subject (the nature of genius) in one of my favorite books, Gödel, Escher, Bach. GEB explores the nature of Bach's genius, and finds commonality with that of mathematician Kurt Gödel and mathematically-inspired artist M. C. Escher. I was introduced to the book by my friend Brent Ridenour. I loved reading GEB because it described a relationship between math and music that I knew existed, but could never articulate or explore in detail.

Kurt: I wholeheartedly agree. There are definitely genius cabinet makers. Many of them live in Kyoto :-)
Comment by Kurt Olsen on March 17, 2009 at 1:26pm
The internet has shown me that 'genius' is not as rare as most people would think. And I suspect there are areas of genius that will never be 'directly' rewarded - who out there are genius moms, or dads? People that just 'get' how to raise their child? Or how about a genius cabinet maker - I'm sure they're out there.....
Comment by Konstantin A Lukin on March 16, 2009 at 11:51pm
yes, I agree. music has been and surely is the inspiration for many cultures. In this day and age, Bach is personally one of my favorites. There is this movie I saw recently, called 'Touch the Sound', which goes into detail on sound perception, was quite interesting.
Comment by Stuart Malin on March 16, 2009 at 6:36pm
Daniel: yes, we have seem two conversation streams going, one regarding the nature of genius, one regarding the nature of humans as being of nature.

What some human beings are capable of is astounding. Not "just" geniuses of the profound sort, but also the ordinary, everyday geniuses that are among us. Fascinating creatures, we humans :-)
Comment by Daniel Leuck on March 16, 2009 at 6:05pm
Nate: I agree. Malcolm Gladwell poses provocative questions and is generally a good read.

Kostya: I enjoy both the sound of the ocean and the music of Branford Marsalis for very different reasons. Each has their time and place. I'm sure you enjoyed the music of the Quechua during your time in Puno and La Paz, no? Its the right music for that place.

Stuart: You are spot on. While we are just as "natural" as the next species, we are the only species with the ability to manipulate the environment on a global scale faster than natural systems can adapt.
Comment by Konstantin A Lukin on March 15, 2009 at 7:57pm
I am just trying to point out that nature of genius does not necessarily fit into our expectations, most of the time, and possibly, sometimes is the complete opposite, hence often taken for granted and overlooked. People who do display extraordinary characteristics often see this world in a different way, hence the genius nature of their approach.. But surely nature as such has been the source of inspiration for many, undoubtedly which we are a part of, but somehow those who know how to stay in touch with original sources of creation or destruction tend to exhibit extraordinary qualities, the source of which seems to be the subject of this conversation..
Comment by Stuart Malin on March 15, 2009 at 5:25pm
To me, the "problem" of human beings is that we are vastly more "successful" than any other entity before us (that we know of; and that said, we may only be successful for the span of a flash of geological or cosmological time). We too are "of nature" but... because of our "success" we are vastly more impactful than any creature before us, and our impact is fast compared to our understanding of evolutionary adaptation mechanisms. All creatures consume resources to the point of depletion, and produce toxins to the degree of population annihilation, unless the population is curtailed. Alas, we humans have expanded our bounds to cover the entire biosphere, and we have found ways to avoid population reduction. However, this may only be a temporary phenomena before it self corrects. After all, we may be our own self-correction, as we seem hellbent on consuming the resources needed to maintain our "civilized/industrial" way of life, and of toxifying the environment to the point that the Web of Life that supports us collapses. Then mighty humans will be humbled. We are not the first creatures to so drastically alter the atmosphere that most of life is "wiped out." Several billion years ago, anaerobic life produced a deadly toxic gas that slowly filled the atmosphere, destroying nearly all life at that time. That toxic gas was oxygen, and adaptation continued, and produced a new flowering of diverse species. In some way, we humans are doing the same to the earth. It seems a pity from our anthropomorphic we-are-so-important perspective. But a billion years after we are gone, life will exist, and signs of our being will be miniscule. So, the question isn't are we or aren't we of nature, but are we willing to consciously chose a future knowing that there are consequences to our behaviors. Alas, for many, the answer is: it doesn't matter, because this degradation is all a sign of the end-times, and the ultimate battle of good-and-evil will be waged. How odd that adaptation has selected for a belief system that is terminal. Food for thought. Peace out.
Comment by Nate Sanders on March 15, 2009 at 4:56pm

I don't ever buy "nature" arguments, simply because we're part of nature, as well. We interfere with nature, but so do many other creatures in nature.
Comment by Konstantin A Lukin on March 15, 2009 at 4:55pm
There are surely amazing people out there, like artists and musicians, but sometimes I wonder if there is truly a need for such individuals.. Why listen to man made music when one can enjoy sounds of environment, like birds, ocean, wind, which constantly keep changing? Why look at boxed paintings when one can observe the beauty of ever-changing natural landscapes? Sometimes I find it a bit ironic how we strive to create new things at the expense of those already created by mother nature..
Maybe the nature of genius is hidden in learning how to truly see and listen to the surrounding environment, in a way that minimizes interference with natural phenomena?


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