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Giftedness and Genius: Crucial Differences (1996) [pdf] (gwern.net)
132 points by gwern on Feb 10, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 31 comments



Well argumented and nice reading.

about uniqueness and creativity:

If you model intellectual discovery in the civilization as a search problem, individuals are heuristic agents in a large scale ant colony process. If the agents have highly correlated internal biases, agents that arrive at the same point in the search space are more likely to follow the same paths. All discoveries that can be quickly reached using common biases are learned quickly and they are considered mundane and easy. If everyone in the colony would be exact replica of Carl Friedrich Gauss, the search would advance very fast at first, but eventually it would slow down (to some really high constant level) because CFG colony gets stuck in problems that are difficult to CFG.

In this model creativity is partly explained by having atypical or unique bias. Trait psychoticism might be extreme form of this. When a person has atypical point of view in 2-3 different ways at once, they gain the ability to see new paths forward almost constantly.


>In this model creativity is partly explained by having atypical or unique bias.

E.g. being a weirdo. This is why it's smart for cultures to tolerate 'weirdos' to a greater extent than is traditional, because they really do find unique solutions. (It's not a cost-free value, since weirdos can also be legitimately dangerous to a degree that outweighs their usefulness. No-one said it's easy.)


I agree except for the "greater extent than is traditional". Otherwise than the statement implies, there isn't one, single, traditional attitude towards weirdos that would be shared across different civilisations. Indeed, some cultures eg. held the mentally ill in certain reverence (native Americans, Russians and "yurodivy", etc.)


Excellent point! This is exactly why I think that more interdisciplinary groups should be formed, which would benefit problems that a given scientists is stuck at, e.g. how can a CS, EE, linguist, etc. who have no prior experience can help with cancer research. Their domain knowledge would be inadequate but they wouldn’t have the biases inherent in microbiologists.


My son has a tested IQ of 160, which is 4 standard deviations away from average intelligence. He's certainly gifted, but when you interact with him, you just know he's definitely not a genius by any means (maybe he just had a good day when he tested).

I contrast him to a few geniuses that I've met, who just seem to see the world at a different level. They are stunning in how intelligent they are, but more importantly how completely immersed in a particular topic they are. One such genius was a friend who was a programming guru. He was entirely self-taught and came up with things that were like magic to me. We would talk about ideas and the next day he worked one of the ideas all night and literally made software magic. Sadly, he committed suicide a few years ago, due to a lot of the internal demons he had in him. I'm really hoping to avoid a situation like this with my son, making sure he's emotionally balanced is my number one concern and focus.


Like your son, I’ve also been tested to have an IQ of 160. Like you, I certainly don’t feel like I’m a genius in any particular facet of life.

I’ve known a few people that I’m absolutely sure were geniuses (or near it), the big difference between them and myself (that I could tell at least) is that they picked one thing or area and just kept getting better and smarter in that specialty. I get so _bored_ with just one thing. I’m highly creative, as I feel they are, but I just like building things.

Software, wood working, cars, motorcycles, robotics. I’m nearly as handy with a wrench and a welder as I am with a keyboard and a compiler. I feel like everything I look at I break into sub-components and constantly run optimizations in my head. It’s twisted and I’m constantly annoyed by people’s general lack of attention to my perceived detail. My wife is a huge fan of my ability to tell her shoes doing things wrong as well.

Maybe the people I regard as way beyond my capacity have the same quantity of innate intelligence, they’ve just applied it all to one area whereas I’ve spread mine around like finger painting on a wall. I just couldn’t do it. I can get interested in literally anything, there’s just too much cool stuff to learn.


Same same, I'm similar in that I tested very high and have been unwilling to apply it to a single area, so I've always been a bit of a jack of all trades (phd in chemical engineering, genomics researcher, published poet, theater costume director, grant-funded artist, etc). What has played well to my strengths is finding an interdisciplinary field (in my case data science) that requires synthesizing knowledge from many different areas and working with a variety of domain experts. I'm also much more interested in practical application than in basic research, so I'll probably never make a great scientific discovery, but I'm confident I'm making a meaningful impact on the world.


"Genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains."


Thank you for your insight. It will definitely be interesting to see how my son grows up. Having a wide range of interests like yourself makes for a fascinating life and perspective on things, I’m sure!


I am not an expert but have taught a few kids in that IQ range and kept in touch with them. The oldest has recently graduated from college.

They can all learn school subjects with such ease that most schools fail to challenge them. A potential pitfall is the lack of practice for patience and perseverance in order to achieve. They just achieved many accolades with only a bit of effort. The ones that kept being challenged by intellectually interesting environment tend to do better.

Also, communications with average students could become quite boring for them. The interests and intellectual gaps tend to grow larger as they grow older. This may hinder their social development somewhat.

So I believe and also read that it might be better to put them in gifted classes (usually for 130+ IQ kids, which can still be too easy for your child) and possibly even skip a couple of grades [1] to allow them to socialize with intellectual peers.

Having interactions with average people is certainly useful but also socialization with their intellectual peers.

[1] With comments below and some more thought, it might be better to take gifted classes and skip at most just one grade, and if the classes are still too easy, focus his mental energy on extracurricular challenging and meaningful projects

Example of a worthwhile project I recently read about: A 14-year-old girl is building AI/software to help Alzheimer's patients recognize their loved ones:

https://www.fastcompany.com/40519094/a-14-year-old-made-an-a...


FWIW, I skipped a couple grades but that didn't help me socialize with intellectual peers, it just hindered me from socializing with regular peers. The kind of socialization you're talking about didn't happen until college.

Looking back now, what I'd do with such a kid is acknowledge what they're good at, then get them working on things they're not so good at. Nobody's good at everything, and the experience of getting frustrated and getting through it is valuable.


One of the things that I'm most grateful to my parents about is that they refused to skip me ahead any grades in school. That was on the table, and they turned it down. It wouldn't have done me any favors socially, and would have been a disaster for my athletic career. And if there's a place for learning hard work and perseverance, particularly for the intellectually gifted, sport is the place for it. IQ might make the cerebral aspects of the game easier, but it's no substitute for getting in the gym and working, taking the thousands of shots, practicing the footwork and other techniques until they are baked into muscle memory, and learning to push yourself further when you think your tank is empty.

Essentially my parents just worked out an arrangement with my teachers to let me do my work as quickly as I was able, and then not give me any shit about reading afterwards. The only issue was a particularly dense teacher that was perplexed why I showed no improvement on the standardized achievement tests... I'd maxed out the reading comprehension level on the test the previous year, so there was nowhere up to go...


I would not recommend skipping too many grades. It's easy for a kid to feel alienated when he's 2-3 years younger than everyone else. It's much better for the kid to be in gifted class where he can bound with kids who are around the same age range while being intellectual peers.

Another thing that helps is to send the kid a semester in a different country in a host family with a kid his age where he learns the language by going to classes with the kid there. It's a good challenge for the kid and helps him not to be so bored with the ease of everything.


I know a lot of people with IQs that are 4 standard deviations above the mean, and there's a lot of variety there. They're on a "different level" in a lot of different ways. It's not always obvious they're brilliant, and besides, some of them feel safer keeping it hidden. Their otherness often shows up in quiet ways that usually go unnoticed. Math prodigies (and programming gurus) are easy to spot, but other forms can be quite subtle. So your son may surprise you yet. (A father's opinion is crucial, so I hope your assessment of him doesn't come across as disappointment. You don't want him to be telling himself he's not really a genius, because he might start believing it. Tell him to let his freak flag fly!)


I wish I knew a lot of people 4 SD above the mean - as far as I know I don't know any. I do know a lot of people who think they are 4 SD above the mean.


I make sure to always highlight that working hard is better than being smart, and taking risks and failing is a great opportunity to learn. I tell him every day that I love him no matter what he does and I support him no matter what he decides to do. I really just want him to grow up to be a well adjusted kid that makes good life choices. I don’t what career path he chooses, etc.


IQ doesn't necessarily correlate with productive intelligence.

The British educational system used to have a concept called "mental agility", and that seems closest to what IQ really measures - a mechanical, essentially directionless, ability to manipulate existing abstractions.

That's not the same as the creative ability to generate useful new abstractions by finding core invariants and then extending them in unexpected ways. We don't have tests for that because we barely understand it as a skill.

Genius seems to combine high IQ with that kind of high creativity. Individuals with either are gifted, but you need both for those next-level breakthroughs.


In your subconsciousness you think that a genius has to be imbalanced somewhere in life. a dear cost to be paid, even. I wonder if that is really the case?


This is a documented fact actually. Many gifted children have asynchronous development and it’s usually the emotional side that suffers.


You sound like a wonderful parent!


The problem with the human brain is that it can be very good at one type of mental puzzle but useless at another that would seam to be highly related.

And as a consciousness(or whatever one want to call themselves) in the human brain it is very hard to know what one is actually good at and what one is not so good at.

This theory of mine comes from my own life where people continuously tell me that i am very smart that i am some sort of genius and all kinds of nice things. But personally i feel that life is a mess. Everything goes to shit, relationships go to hell before they even start, friends go away. In hindsight is see many reasons that caused these things to happen. But in the moment i cant see it.

Essentially the lesson to learn from this is a story about humility.


This is a very interesting thesis. Moreover, the idea of someone having an extreme amount of several orthogonal qualities (flipping heads five times in a row) is a very useful one, regardless of how closely it matches our use of the word "genius."

One implication is that there are probably multiple different types of genius, and that they're good at different things.

This changed the way I look at the world, and it's not every day (I wish) you read something you can say that of.


> he had an ability to generate, with respect to any given problem, a good many hypotheses, with little initial constraint by previous knowledge as to their plausibility or feasibility;

I think this agrees with something I read years ago: you can tell those who are really creative or not by the way they look at a bike: it they see a bike, they are regular. If they see a lot of components interconnected, then they have more creative ideas because they can see small parts that can be reorganized to creat new things.


Do you remember which paper/article ?


This list of requisite attributes for genius is fascinating:

> (1) ideational fluency, or the capacity to tap a flow of relevant ideas, themes, or images, and to play with them, also known as “brainstorming”; (2) what Eysenck (1995) has termed the individuals’ relevance horizon; that is, the range or variety of ele­ ments, ideas, and associations that seem relevant to the problem (creativity involves a wide relevance horizon);and (3) suspension of critical judgment.

The third point being particularly difficult to inculcate in oneself while remaining productive (ugh). It’s like maintaining a quantum superposition between rationality and intuitive understanding of a possible solution. I’d argue the majority of people dismiss ideas way to early or because of slight hinderinces. Perhaps it’s a lack of practice of determining the probability of failure of a novel idea/methodology based on knowledge from other areas. Rephrasing the first two points as Bayesian probabilities perhaps could point toward how one could increase the odds of finding useful outcomes when "suspending" critical thinking.


”one could increase the odds of finding useful outcomes when "suspending" critical thinking”

AKA The Balmer peak? http://observer.com/2012/04/bottoms-up-the-ballmer-peak-is-r...


Ha! Pretty clever, and it does hit upon a point I was trying to make that achieving the perfect balance of suspending critical thinking is hard! Too much or too little by a hair’s breadth and you end up with Windows ME.


I found the following passage fascinating:

"So later investigators began looking for behavioral correlates of serum urate level (SUL), and there are now dozens of studies on this topic (reviewed in Jensen & Sinha, 1993). They show that SUL is only slightly correlated with IQ, but is more highly correlated with achievement and productivity."

People suspect its because Uric Acid is similar in shape to caffeine which acts as a stimulant. I wonder if that's why people feel more energetic after eating meat.


Inosine is interesting. Banned for athletic competition (although that's not proof), and the few studies I found since Jensen continue to support the correlation although none of them are proper RCTs of its effect on cognition.

The downside is that it looks like it does increase your risk of gout/similar problems, so something of a tradeoff there...

I've been trying out low doses of inosine myself (just temporarily, I don't intend to replace the bottle when I runs out because of the gout/joints issue), and maybe there's an effect? It does seem to mess with my sleep the way other stimulants like modafinil do, at least.


One aspect that seemed omitted was the value of specialization/tunnel vision. The article says, "When one reads about famous creative geniuses one finds that, although they may occasionally have to force themselves to work, they cannot will themselves to be obsessed by the subject of their work," and gives some good examples, but attributes this to "cortical arousal" which I don't think can fully explain what's going on. I don't get the sense that Newton would get stuck in his cellar to compose music, nor would Wagner run upstairs to write a formula of physics.

At the risk of stroking my own ego, I would say that I am pretty high on the components described here ("ability", "productivity", and "creativity") but my breadth is extremely wide--I can get interested in just about anything--and my obsession shifts from day to day, preventing any sort of long-term foray into a specific area.

To the degree that different areas of intellect are non-synergistic, it makes sense that specialization should be a requirement for great achievement: a person with great capacity for genius who spends 25% of his time in each of four areas will easily be overshadowed by someone with only 50% of that capacity for genius, but 100% focus on a particular area.


I think the essay considers genius as something way too simpler. I'll give you just one example : there is a relationship between environment and development and this is clearly not examined nor cited. A genius might emerge but she needs support from her environment.




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