We romanticize genius. We look at the monster intellects of physicists and mathematicians, and the flowing grace of authors and artists, and we admire their abilities to read the world in ways that seem impossibly packed with nuance. Their contributions aren’t just extraordinary, we think, but evidence that the human potential truly carries no ceiling.

Science isn’t so sure. The language of smart, creative people being “geniuses” and possessing the capacity for “genius” has far less to do with some innate processes in the brain than it does with humans’ desire to recognize greatness. We like categories. We like to sort. But the unfortunate paradox is that brain scientists know far too little about the clump of gray tissue to quit studying it, but far too much to say with any confidence that genius exists.

Loosey-Goosey Genius

The term “genius” isn’t devoid of meaning. We know this because the word exists at all. In common usage, it can describe a brilliant stroke of insight, such as a Eureka! moment; it can describe a long, methodically studied body of work that ends in a game-changing conclusion; or it can describe the person who experiences either or both of these phenomena.

In scientific terms, however, the definition breaks down. Like love, happiness, and other ethereal emotions, genius doesn’t live in one region of the brain. A neuroscientist can’t pry open up your head and point to a small region in the prefrontal cortex and say, “Here’s where your genius should be.” So the first problem is definitional.

“There is no meaningful line between geniuses and non-geniuses in level of function in the world,” psychologist Dr. Wendy Johnson, of the University of Edinburgh, told Medical Daily. And to compound the problem, scientists’ lack of knowledge about how a person functions in the real world and how that person’s brain functions on a neurological level “just makes everything even loosier and goosier when you try to go there with it.”

We know, for instance, that Steve Jobs is a pioneer in the field of personal computers, and there’s an assumed level of safety in calling him a genius. But to Johnson’s point, the label of “genius” refers in this case only to Jobs’s creative contributions and his ways of thinking. He studied calligraphy to bring psychology to the world of business, establishing Apple’s brand as one of simplicity and elegance. But how those contributions and ways of thinking translated into physical structures in his brain, and how it relates to the brains of other people in other fields, remains a mystery.

Creativity, The Understudy

Even without this definition, scientists haven’t quit studying what separates the brilliant from the mundane, the creative from the uninspired, or the sharp from the dull. They just don’t use the verbiage found in everyday life. Instead, they rely on certain proxies, which help guide their inquiries toward some form of understanding even if the conclusions aren’t as robust.

Creativity is an easy scapegoat. Even people who are intellectually poor can be studied for their creative firepower, and the same goes for the brainiacs who couldn’t render a still life even if their still lives depended on it. Leading the charge is Dr. Nancy Andreasen, a neuroscientist from the University of Iowa who’s been studying genius, creativity, and the link the two concepts draw to mental illness, for almost half a century.

For Andreasen, creativity offers clues into what endows one person with the title of genius as opposed to someone else. She measures this based on the strength and size of the connections between various parts of the brain. When we smell freshly cut grass or feel the grit of a cat’s tongue, our brains do two things: First, it decodes the sensory data, to understand what it is. Then, it forwards that data to the regions that associate it with specific memories, whether they be episodic in nature (reminiscent of past events) or semantic (based in facts). Andreasen uses the act of writing as an example to explain how the process differs between people.

“These associated memories and meanings constitute a ‘verbal lexicon,’ which can be accessed for reading, speaking, listening, and writing. Each person’s lexicon is a bit different, even if the words themselves are the same, because each person has different associated memories and meanings,” she wrote in a recent issue of The Atlantic. Compared to your run-of-the-mill stock broker, she says, William Shakespeare would not only have had a stronger command of the lexicon in his temporal association cortices’, but those cortices would have been more highly connected to other areas of his brain.

“Based on all this,” she writes, “I surmised that observing which parts of the brain are most active during free association would give us clues about the neural basis of creativity.” So she set to work on measuring the output of highly creative people and control subjects using the technique of free association, which she called REST (random episodic silent thought). The goal was to locate the origin of subjects’ creativity. After analyzing the data, the conclusions were clear. “Sure enough,” she notes, “the association cortices were wildly active during REST.”

Hitting A Limit

Creativity may be easier to quantify than genius, but it still comes with its limitations, which Andreasen readily concedes. “Creativity, of course, cannot be distilled into a single mental process, and it cannot be captured in a snapshot — nor can people produce a creative insight or thought on demand,” she writes. Even the simplified proxy needs deconstructing.

And that’s important. To understand how genius works in the brain and how it operates in real-time requires scientists to crack open millions of people’s skulls and check for consistencies in neural behavior. Sci-fi methodology notwithstanding, the problem is as complex as the subject it attempts to study.

We have come to certain conclusions. We know, for instance, that London cab drivers have larger hippocampi than the average person. This is because the hippocampus is responsible for memory storage, and the main requirement of all wannabe London cab drivers is passing a test called “The Knowledge,” which demands they memorize maps of the city and recite desired routes turn-by-turn, street-by-street.

But having a strong memory doesn’t make someone a genius any more than it makes a bodybuilder a genius. Each feat takes practice, whether it’s to shuttle tourists over to Buckingham Palace or flex for a roomful of weaklings. We call Steve Jobs a genius presumably because he saw connections where others did not, and leveraged them to create an empire. Andreasen says this is a critical difference: the effect of making hidden connections. It underlies entire swaths of her research into why some lead lives of creative stardom, while others succumb to sickness.

“Of course, having too many ideas can be dangerous,” she writes. The biographer Walter Isaacson, for example, found in his extensive interviews with Steve Jobs’s friends and coworkers that the Apple co-founder often sucked people into his “reality distortion field,” a perilous zone in which the regular laws of the working world didn’t apply. He’d bark at people to start outlandish projects with impossibly short deadlines, and most of the time, his madness gave way to progress. But not always. As Isaacson explains, at Apple there was a lot of crying.

“Part of what comes with seeing connections no one else sees,” explains Andreasen, “is that not all of these connections actually exist.”

Worlds Apart

In reality, some words are better left to the public realm. Such is often the case with big, abstract ideas like friendship, love, loneliness, joy, and shame. We know them when we see them: two people holding hands and using affectionate body language, or someone crying by himself after a nasty spat with a partner. Science sometimes takes stab at understanding these social phenomena, and usually it gets close. But in bringing it into the lab, something seems to get lost in the translation.

With genius, as Dr. Johnson explains, part of the trouble is that it “takes many shapes and forms, and whatever separates the brains of people who would truly deserve that label under some 'real' criteria from the rest of ours would very likely not be any one consistent thing.” We won’t find genius in the brain because we know it — a singular, homogenous thing — doesn’t actually exist in any scientific sense.

Instead, we should think of genius more as a poetic notion. It’s a means by which we elevate those who are exceptional at what they do, whose monster intellects and flowing grace call upon us to demand more of ourselves and to disrespect the ceiling against which we tell ourselves we will forever bump.