The Neuroscience of Genius And Increasing Intelligence

By on July 24, 2014

Neuroscience of intelligenceIntelligence is an incredibly vague and difficult thing to define. We all know we want to be more ‘intelligent’ and often we associate this with a higher IQ. In reality though, IQ is a very poor description of intelligence at best and completely useless at worst.

The problem is that intelligence is generally regarded now as not just ‘one’ attribute, but rather a blanket term that describes a number of different cognitive abilities.

Even the definition of genius is relatively abstract and non-specific:

“Genius: A person who is exceptionally intelligent or creative, either generally or in some particular respect”

Well that narrows it down then…

The Modular View of Intelligence

Problem is that you can have a fantastic working memory, but have a very poor verbal fluency. Likewise you could be highly creative and inventive, but also be very slow witted and poor at maths. Or you could be a brilliant tactician, orator and manipulator but awful at learning new things. This modular view of intelligence is consistent with Howard Gardner’s theory of ‘multiple intelligences’. Then there’s the difference between ‘knowledge’ (crystalised intelligence) and reasoning (fluid intelligence). If you knew everything in the world, that wouldn’t necessarily give you a high IQ – in fact it wouldn’t affect your IQ much at all even though it would make you more practically intelligent in some senses.

And there may even be some negative correlations between different types of intelligence. For instance being highly creative may well be antithetical to being highly focussed and ‘grounded’ – hence the ‘nutty professor’ stereotype. Science is even starting to suggest a biological basis for this – it may be that the ‘unhinged’ geniuses actually have fewer dopamine receptors (D2 receptors) in the thalamus (1). It also appears that reductions in the language centres of the brain can sometimes lead to increases in other portions of the brain relating to spatial reasoning and maths (which was the case for Einstein who had enlarged and oddly shaped  inferior parietal lobes giving him superior spatial intuition). This could be why many ‘late speakers’ and dyslexics will go on to become engineers and mathematicians.

As an aside, this is a big issue to consider when thinking about nootropics. Using supplements and medications to make you ‘smarter’ might be flawed in principle. It could be that improving on one of your ‘intelligences’ actually results in another being negatively affected, meaning that you’d need to ‘pick and choose’ the traits you want to enhance in the short or long term. Such as by suppressing the activity in the language centres of the brain (via magnetic pulses) in order to achieve ‘savant’ style maths ability. Here is the fascinating study where they did just that…


This way of thinking about the brain presents a ‘modular’ view of intelligence – suggesting that it is the result of particular areas of the brain doing a particularly good job of particular tasks.

Einstein’s Amazing Spatial Intelligence

If you prize a particular type of intelligence more than others, then you might call someone a genius who excels in just one: demonstrating the very subjective nature of the word.

As stated, Einstein had particularly large inferior parietal lobes and they were also oddly shaped. Ours have a big cleavage caused by a branch of ‘Sylvian fissure’ – the gap that separates the cerebral hemispheres. Einstein actually had a fissure that veered upwards and didn’t divide the parietal lobes at all. Einstein’s inferior parietal lobes were also symmetrical in size – whereas most of us have a smaller one on the left side (due to large language centres on this side). Einstein described coming up with his theories by imagining himself travelling in beams of light, or by thinking of time as an extra dimension – these are abstract and intuitive spatial concepts.

While Einstein’s ability to consider abstract physical and mathematical concepts is pretty much unparalleled, he did not develop the ability to speak until he was three and apparently always struggled with words. Again this supports the ‘modular’ concept of intelligence, and suggests that spatial and mathematical reasoning are two of the specific skills that we prize highly as a society and consider to be signs of ‘genius’.

And the best predictor for intelligence in any particular area appears to be a large amount of regional grey matter – grey matter being the important brain stuff that represents our neurons (where all the important connections are formed when we learn or come up with ideas). This is more important than the weight or size of the brain in general or in specific areas. This study shows the correlation between IQ and cortical grey matter – the area involved in general ‘reasoning’ and logic which is another type of intelligence that we ‘value’. Brain size is somewhat predictive of IQ, but probably only inasmuch as it correlates with increased grey matter in key areas.

Global Brain Connectivity

Then again though, we still all know people who we consider generally to be very clever or ‘geniuses’ and we all know people who we think of as not particularly clever or even downright dumb (a few friends spring to mind). Presumably we think of those who are highly intelligent as being the ones who excel in multiple mental capacities and vice versa.

It’s likely then that intelligence as we often think of it, might have more to do with the way that the brain connects those various different areas and builds complex networks between them. Cross talk between different areas of the brain appears to even be the basis for consciousness (1).

Einstein’s real ability probably came from his skill for making connections between those ideas in order to express them as equations and in writing. This would require for him to be able to link ideas from different parts of the brain and to see connections that others might miss. He’d have had to intuit his ideas using his spatial awareness, but then reason with them in his cortex and put them into words using language centres. In fact, there’s a good chance that Einstein did have superior brain connectivity too, seeing as he had a thicker ‘corpus callosum’ than average (see!). The corpus callosum is a bundle of nerves that joins the left and right hemispheres, and as Einstein’s was thicker, he could probably carry more ideas and nerve impulses around to different parts of the brain.

In keeping with this idea, studies indeed show that greater ‘global connectivity’ throughout the brain is also indicative of greater intelligence (here’s a study on that). And in fact, it has been suggested that the basis of creativity might even be routed in our ability to make ‘unique’ connections between ideas and stimuli. Too much of this though could also apparently lead to schizophrenia. Here’s a study on ‘filtering’ in the thalamus prior to information getting to the cortex, and how this might contribute to creativity.

Neurotransmitters and Increasing Intelligence

bioneer-brainSo different types of intelligence are the result of more grey matter – more neuronal connections – in specific regions of the brain that are associated with ‘brainier’ stuff. At the same time, in order to make good use of these insights though, we also need to have better connectivity throughout the brain wiring all those bits together.

Really then the main correlating factor here is grey matter. The more neuronal connections you form throughout the brain, the smarter you’ll be – though the location of those connections will dictate just how that intelligence expresses itself.

But if intelligence is really that nuanced and complicated, why is it that some people just appear to be smarter ‘overall’? The chances are that it’s to do with how easily they are able to form new connections, to communicate between synapses and to generally learn new ideas. It probably actually comes down to brain plasticity – the ability of the brain to change shape and size in response to training and learning. The good news is that brain areas can be trained to become larger – and for instance becoming a taxi driver can actually increase the size of brain areas in the hippocampi related to navigation (1). Practice thinking abstractly and you might just achieve a fraction of Einstein’s genius. There are many brain training activities you can engage in, but the best will be real-life skills that are applicable to the skill set you want to develop.

But some people are going to find it easier to acquire these new skills than others. The people who find it easier, are likely to be the ‘smart people’. This is the genetic component, combined with the way your brain developed in the womb. Then there’s the areas of the brain you trained most frequently in childhood based on your interests and upbringing – crucial because that’s when the brain is at it’s most plastic.

(You could think of this as being very similar to building muscle and strength. Some people are stronger than others, though the precise nature of that strength comes down to which muscles are most powerful (for me it’s the pecs). Our upbringing and activities and diet then also contribute to certain muscles growing more, as does our genetic tendency towards muscle growth dictated by things like testosterone. Ultimately we have the option to train specific muscles to grow, or to train the entire body for increased strength, but some people will still find it easier than others to gain mass. Like bodybuilding though, there are ways that you can give yourself more of a fighting chance, even without the genetic advance…)

In a way, you can say that intelligence ultimately equates to adaptability…

In all likelihood, this plasticity in the brain is going to be somewhat dictated by the neurochemistry – the neurotransmitters that we have in abundance. Neurotransmitters such as glutamate and acetylcholine have been shown to help increase long-term-potentiation (the strengthening of connections between the neurons) – study here – while serotonin can increase neurogenesis (the birth of new cells); study here. This is one mechanism through which exercise can help boost your brain power.

This is where nootropics – supplements that alter neurotransmitters – could come in handy by putting the brain in more of a ‘learning state’ while we use specific training in order to help the brain to grow even more. Transcranial direct current stimulation (electrical stimulation of neurons) could also help to develop connections, as neurons that fire at the same time will generally tend to ‘wire together’ with that connection strengthening each time they subsequently fire at the same time. Here’s a TED talk discussing that particularly transhuman concept.

Conclusions – How You Can Become a Genius (Maybe)

So there you have it! We can’t claim to know everything there is to know about intelligence, but we do know an awful lot now. It appears that one of the biggest predictors of all is large amounts of grey matter in specific areas of the brain, and the way that grey matter connects different brain regions. We can increase grey matter through learning, but our biochemistry, childhood and genetics may well make some brains more malleable than others.

The take home message though is that every brain is different and every brain has its own unique skill set. Less connectivity may even aid your focus. So develop yourself to the best of your abilities and play the hand (or brain) you were dealt!

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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